Scot Gemmill is tasked with producing the next generation of Scotland internationalists. The Scottish FA’s new Under-21 coach ruthlessly left out many high-profile players when announcing his first squad yesterday, but there is method in the apparent madness.
Gemmill is entirely focused on the future. His surname will be forever synonymous with a gallus past after father Archie’s exploits at the 1978 World Cup. Gemmill Jnr is looking only ahead, though. He believes his new role is to develop players for the full national team whilst also succeeding with the Under-21s.
By casting aside a host of established players at that age level, he has created opportunities for many protégés from his Under-17 squad. Those too old for the next campaign have been overlooked. Gemmill was promoted in place of Ricky Sbragia earlier this month and decided to take with him some of those with whom he reached the European Under-17 Championship semi-finals in Malta in 2014.
It is a risky strategy, but perhaps one worth persevering with. His 18-man squad contains 12 names uncapped at under-21 level for next month’s qualifiers in Iceland in Macedonia. Hearts players Sam Nicholson, John Souttar and Billy King are amongst those left out, as is Hibs striker Jason Cummings. In their places are 19-year-olds like Aidan Nesbitt of Celtic, Craig Wighton of Dundee, Chelsea’s Ruben Sammut and Reading’s Jake Sheppard.
Since Scotland are fifth in their qualifying group and cannot qualify for next summer’s finals in Poland, Gemmill argues it is the right time to experiment. Players too old for the next campaign have been discarded because the coach is convinced early exposure to under-21 football will enhance the development of the newly-recruited teenagers.
“When I was asked to take charge of the games it seemed completely logical to look towards the new campaign and therefore consider players who could play in those qualifiers,” he explained. “At youth level you are always restricted to the new age group. The players who couldn’t play again were no longer under consideration looking towards the new campaign and I wanted to maximise every game in between now and then.
“Ricky Sbragia spoke to the players left out because he had worked closely with them. It’s not rocket science, they are sensible boys and will understand how youth team football works. The same would have happened at under-17 and under-19 level and, as soon as you are too old, you are too old. It’s as simple as that.
“We need to see if these younger ones can play yet at under-21 level. It does not matter how experienced you are working with young players, whether it is for the national youth team or first-team level with their clubs. Until you actually put them in, you don’t know how they are going to react.
“We are confident that these players are deserving of their opportunity and will take that opportunity. Maybe one or two won’t and we may have to look at other options. There are plenty of players who are not in the squad and who you might expect to be involved. The door is not closed.
“There will be players disappointed hat they are not in and looking forward to being involved in the future. We are leaving no stone unturned and we want to have the best team in place by the time the qualification campaign starts [for the 2019 European Under-21 Championship].”
Gemmill used the word “trust” repeatedly in conversation and clearly believes in those he has promoted. He watched them beat Germany and Switzerland in the Under-17 finals two years ago before a 5-0 destruction by the Netherlands in the semi-finals. Most have since represented Scotland at under-19 level. Now the challenge is to step up a grade.
“Some of these boys have already shown that they can play best v best against good teams and get good results,” he said. “They have shown the right attitude on and off the pitch. When it comes to trust, it is there as most of them have played at the younger age group. The ball is in their court to see how far they can go.”
The identikit role models are players like Celtic’s Kieran Tierney and RB Leipzig’s Oliver Burke. Less than a year ago, they were playing at Market’s Field in Limerick under Gemmill with Scotland Under-19s. Both have since progressed at rapid pace into Gordon Strachan’s senior squad.
“I actually just said to somebody maybe I should be claiming we helped them get there, but the truth is they helped us,” smiled Gemmill. “At the time, we were lucky to have two outstanding young players in the team. They did excellently in the games [in Limerick] but they were only in the Under-19s briefly. The fact they now play in the full squad must be a huge motivation to the young players that it can happen if they do the correct things.”
Not all of Sbragia’s squad have been shed. There are still places for Liam Henderson of Celtic, Swansea City’s Oliver McBurnie, plus the Hearts defenders Jordan McGhee and Liam Smith. With 18 Under-21 caps, McGhee is by some distance the most experienced member of Gemmill’s new group. He is currently on loan at Middlesbrough from Hearts and is a regular in their under-23 side.
“Jordan has got a lot of caps, he’s moved down to England and is playing for his new club. Really, it’s about Jordan continuing to show his level,” explained Gemmill. “He played well in the games I saw recently and I’m looking forward to working with him. I haven’t worked with him previously. I need to quickly get to know Jordan.
“It’s the same for him as all the others – working towards the new campaign, showing you are one of the best players in the country. That’s the challenge for all the players, to keep proving themselves and stay in the squad. I’m definitely not concerned that he isn’t playing first-team football. It’s about measuring the level of the players on a case-by-case basis.
“The real bottom line that you can’t get away from is that, when you’re selecting the national team, is there anybody better? The level of the other players is continually changing so we need to keep reassessing to make sure we’re working with the best players.”
Scotland Under-21 squad to face Iceland and Macedonia: Goalkeepers: Ryan Fulton (Liverpool, on loan to Chesterfield); Mark Hurst (St Johnstone, on loan to East Fife). Defenders: Kyle Cameron (Newcastle United, on loan to Newport County); Alex Iacovitti (Nottingham Forest, on loan to Mansfield Town); Zak Jules (Reading); Jordan McGhee (Heart of Midlothian, on loan to Middlesbrough); Jake Sheppard (Reading); Liam Smith (Heart of Midlothian, on loan to Raith Rovers). Midfielders: Chris Cadden (Motherwell); Greg Docherty (Hamilton Academical); Liam Henderson (Celtic); James Jones (Crewe Alexandra); Aidan Nesbitt (Celtic, on loan to Greenock Morton); Ruben Sammut (Chelsea); Craig Storie (Aberdeen). Forwards: Ryan Hardie (Rangers, on loan to St Mirren); Oliver McBurnie (Swansea City); Craig Wighton (Dundee).