Aberdeen legend Neil Simpson thinks the club’s two-pronged approach to getting young players ready for senior football is the best way to create a conveyor belt of homegrown talent.
Now the Dons’ pathways manager, Simpson – who went on to become a Gothenburg Great after graduating from the Pittodrie youth academy himself in the 1980s – is helping the youngsters who emerge from the Under-18s bridge the gap to Stephen Glass’ first team.
Aberdeen don’t think U20s or reserve team football is the right approach to bring on those players, who are usually between the ages of 18 and 20, and instead favour a two-part approach.
They’ve judged it better for the young players’ development for them to experience loan spells with teams further down the senior pyramid, while training during the week with Glass and the Aberdeen senior squad as much as possible.
Simpson explained: “What we felt was that there was a gap in the development programme for the young players.
“They are playing against the same opposition from eight years of age all the way up to 19/20 when they’re playing academy football/ development football/ reserves – whatever you want to call it – and we thought it was far better for them to get more game ready and first-team ready by going out in a competitive environment and then just being involved at first-team level (in training at Cormack Park) regardless of the different stages there is.
“It allows them to play with and against adults in a pressure environment, and playing in stadiums.
“These boys are just used to playing in training grounds, so going to play with a crowd and get the smell of real, adult football is an important part of the young players’ development now.
“It’s something we’ve been searching for for a number of years and we feel that this is the right path for the young players.”
Simpson thinks loans in the lower leagues, Highland League or elsewhere are a way of hammering home to U18s graduates what it is that ‘makes a professional footballer’ – something they don’t learn in reserve games.
He added: “It’s not the same (as playing for the Aberdeen first team) because you’re playing at a lower level, but you’re still getting a similar sort of feel in that there’s a crowd.
“It’s playing against adults, playing against experienced players, playing against different types of player, rather than playing against somebody your own age all the time.”
Connor Barron makes step up, with other youngsters also recalled
During the first half of the campaign, Aberdeen have kept a close eye on those players who have been out on loan at various clubs in the Championship, League One, League Two and Highland League – and elsewhere – with Simpson saying the Dons have staff doing a full report on virtually every game their youngsters are involved in.
Now we’re into the winter transfer window, several loanees have been recalled.
Midfielder Connor Barron, 19, has been promoted to the senior squad proper, having spent the first part of the season impressing at League Two frontrunners Kelty Hearts.
— Connor Barron (@connorbarron8_) January 4, 2022
How do Aberdeen judge when and if a young player is ready to be brought into the first-team squad?
Simpson said: “These boys are being exposed on occasion to train with the first team, so you know right away, if Connor Barron is dominating training against first team players, he’s more than ready to come back into the fold.
“You judge it.
“He’s always been a good player, but he’s been outstanding at Kelty in that division (League Two), he’s been excellent at training with the first team, and he more than deserves an opportunity to be part of the first-team squad.”
Meanwhile, attacker Kevin Hanratty, 18, was recalled from Highland League Formartine United before being sent on loan to Elgin City one division higher.
Simpson hopes games against the likes of Kelty, who he rates as Championship quality, will be a new level of challenge for Hanratty.
Tyler Mykyta, 18, also returned from a strong spell at Formartine, with Jack MacIver, also 18, recalled from Huntly. Simpson says Reds boss Stephen Glass was “keen to get a glimpse of these boys and see how they get on around the first team.”
He added: “At times, you see young boys thrive in that period, so there’s no timescale on them coming back into the fold. We’ve got that option to put them out on loan again, but there’s nothing set in stone.”
Jack Milne, 18, is also back from Brechin City, something which was prompted by a positional change.
Simpson explained: “We feel we want to start developing him as a centre-back – he’s 6ft 4in. So we’ve taken him back into the fold just to train with the first team and learn him some of the basic concepts of being a centre-half.
“The option will then be to put him back out on loan again or, depending how the manager likes Jack (keep him with the first team).”
Mark Gallagher, 20, has been brought back after an injury-hampered time with Forfar, although goalkeeper Tom Ritchie (18, Huntly) and Mason Hancock (18, Stirling Albion) look like they’ll stay out on loan in the second half of the season to continue their development.
Two 17-year-olds, Ryan Duncan and Evan Towler, are among the other Reds prospects who will also be out on loan in the second half of the campaign, at Peterhead and Elgin respectively, despite still being eligible at U18s level.
Simpson says the pair have proven themselves “too good” for their age group and “they need the challenge now”.
‘Ramsay was ready at 16/17, but other boys need staged approach to reach senior level’
Simpson insists there is no one-size-fits-all approach to developing talent, and – while some Aberdeen youngsters have shown they don’t need to go out on loan before playing for the first team – it has proven an important step to get others ready for the physical and mental challenges of professional football.
Using current first-team right-back Calvin Ramsay and left-back Jack MacKenzie as contrasting examples, he said: “Everybody’s different. You’ve got the likes of Calvin Ramsay, who at 16/17 is ready to go into the first team, and then other boys who need a staged approach in their pathway.
“Jack MacKenzie’s another one who was out on loan at Forfar and was 21 before he made an impact.
“Scott McKenna (Scotland international defender now at Nottingham Forest) I suppose was the same. We touched on it a few years ago with Scott, but some his loans were successful and some weren’t.
“Again, these challenges are important for young players. But it isn’t just smooth, nice and easy – that isn’t football, there’s going to be setbacks and bumps along the way.
“We think having to impress a manager, whatever level it is, is important. If you do get dropped, it’s that working your way back in and working out what’s required to get back into it are real aspects of the modern football world.”
Even reaching the first-team squad is no guarantee a player is done with the development phase.
Striker Michael Ruth, 20, has played for the first team twice, but is currently on loan at League One Falkirk, having been at Championship Arbroath for a spell last term.
Full-back Kieran Ngwenya, 19, is at Kelty Hearts this season, having previously been loaned to Cove Rangers and with two first-team appearances under his belt.
Simpson again emphasised it is about each youngster’s needs, saying: “It’s just weighing up each situation with the manager, asking: ‘will Michael play, or is better he gets loads of games?’
“It was the same with Kieran at the start of the season with Jack MacKenzie in a similar position, weighing up what was best for him. For Kieran, instead of being with the first team and maybe not playing, it’s go and play 20 or 30 games – although he’s been unfortunate with Covid and injuries, but, again, that’s having to deal with these setbacks.
“As I’ve said, each player is individual and has their own DNA. With every position, it’s: ‘where’s the strengths in the first team? Where’s the opportunities for young boys to go and make a mark?’”
Even midfielder Dean Campbell, 20, has been linked with a loan move in the second half of the campaign, despite having made 73 appearances for the senior side.
Aberdeen to review development strategy at end of the season
Aberdeen plan to analyse at the end of the season whether the strategy of combining loan moves with first-team squad exposure is the best approach for their U18s graduates, says Simpson, but the Dons icon thinks the experience of playing in senior matches – and “seeing their name in the paper” – can only benefit them.
Of course, what remains to be seen is how many of the current crop go on to become fully-fledged Aberdeen first-team stars.
“We just don’t know,” Simpson said.
“I know Man City have got 35 players out on loan, because I’ve spoken to their guy. They’re not all going to play in their first team, but they’ll find a level.
“I think that’s the same with our boys. Not all will play for the first team, that’s just the mathematics.
“But through this experience they’ll find their own level, and we’ll just wait and see.
“It’s an excellent role for myself, but you’re just wanting to help the players.
“As I said, some will gravitate to the top and some will find their own level, as long as you’re fair and helping them be the best they can be, that’s all you can do.”
Nigel Pepper… Tommy Wright… Chris Forrester…
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