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Aberdeen youth academy director thinks setbacks put Ryan Duncan and Jack Milne on first-team path as much as successes

Aberdeen players Ryan Duncan, right, and Jack Milne.
Aberdeen players Ryan Duncan, right, and Jack Milne.

Aberdeen’s academy director Gavin Levey thinks youngsters Ryan Duncan and Jack Milne can thrive in the Dons’ first team – due to the struggles they had to overcome during their earlier development.

Winger Duncan, 18, has made six appearances under Jim Goodwin this season – netting his first senior goal in the 5-0 Premiership rout of Livingston on August 27.

Squad-regular Milne, 19, could get his chance to show what he can do in the top-flight imminently, with fellow centre-half Liam Scales now suspended for the meeting with Kilmarnock next weekend.

Despite their young age, Duncan and Milne are physically imposing and clearly talented footballers, but Levey is convinced the down moments they have suffered over the years are as key to their first-team ascent as the ups.

He explained: “These lads, I’ve got full belief in them and hope the experiences they’ve had through the academy are going to provide them with the chance to kick on.

“I’ve got no doubt in my mind those two players can go and make an impact in the first team.

“It’s great when young kids in the academy can see there’s a visible pathway and see players like Ryan scoring goals for the first team, because it gives them that added incentive to go on and be someone like Ryan or Jack Milne, who’s getting his chance now hopefully.

“Jack signed his professional contract the second year. He didn’t get offered it the first year-round.

“Jack had a few injuries to get through, because around the under-15s or 16s he took a massive growth spurt and had to get used to his body again.

Aberdeen’s Ryan Duncan celebrates his goal as he makes it 5-0 against Livingston.

“Ryan, when he was very young, had to develop more resilience and confidence and have that self-belief.”

Ex-Don Fraser shows value of adversity

It is common to hear a youth development story about a player who has perhaps not been the out-and-out star of their age group, or suffered knock-backs during their early teens, before they go on to be the one who makes it at first-team level.

Levey pointed to how another Aberdeen-developed Ryan – Ryan Fraser – also turned obstacles at youth level into stepping stones.

Now a 23-cap Scotland international and established English Premier League player, Cove-raised Fraser broke into the Aberdeen first-team from the academy to become a regular in 2012, in his case showing how a player’s abilities can explode if they spend years trying to match more fancied youth team peers.

Levey said: “They all have ups and downs.

“Look at Ryan Fraser – sometimes these guys aren’t at the very top of their age group. It’s the ones who are coming behind and pushing.

Ryan Fraser, right, after setting up one of Scotland’s goals against Ukraine on Wednesday.

“They can see what the top players are getting (in terms of performances and praise) and they keep pushing themselves more.

“Sometimes it’s the ones who have had a couple of setbacks (who make it to the first team) – like the ones here.”

Duncan family are ‘die-hard Dons fans’

Levey revealed Ryan Duncan’s family are dyed-in-the-wool Dons fans who would have revelled in seeing their son netting at Pittodrie last month.

He admits their passion may add a few extra ounces of pressure onto the now-first-team wideman’s shoulders, but he said: “Ryan’s family, Marie and Andy – his mum and dad, are absolute die-hard Dons fans – his dad in particular.

“To see Ryan play for the Dons at U10s was a huge deal for Andy.

“I spoke to him the day Ryan made his debut (v Rangers in 2020/21), but I can’t imagine what it was like to see Ryan score for Aberdeen and what the household would be like.

“They’re out on a farm in Keig (Aberdeenshire), and it will have been special for them.”

‘They’ve still got to be prepared for little bumps along the way’

Levey thinks another defender Evan Towler – currently on loan at Cove Rangers – could be the next academy star to make his Aberdeen first-team breakthrough, with the 17-year-old having shown, like Duncan and Milne, the same ability to adapt when finding himself out of his comfort zone.

Towler played in the U16s Scottish Cup final at 13, for Elgin City in League Two last term, and is now a Championship player before he is old enough to drink.

However, despite crossing of the first-team threshold, the Reds’ academy boss knows there could yet be further “bumps” to come for Duncan, who benefitted from a loan spell at Peterhead last term.

And it is the same for Milne, who was a midfielder while on loan at Highland League Brechin City before being recalled and undergoing a positional change.

Dean Campbell, who has made 75 first-team appearances, shows the path from making a first-team impact to being an Aberdeen regular can look straight – but there can be hidden twists and turns.

On the midfielder who is currently on loan in England, Levey said: “They’ve still got to be prepared for little bumps along the way.

“I look at Deano, Dean Campbell – there was a big flag of Dean’s face in the Red Shed at one point.

Hibernian's Josh Campbell tries to catch up with Aberdeen's Dean Campbell
Hibernian’s Josh Campbell tries to catch up with Aberdeen’s Dean Campbell last season.

“Now he’s down there at Stevenage, who are top-four in League Two.

“He’s having to try a different route to get to where he wants to be.”

Youth academy values still pushing McKenna and Ramsay

Regardless of where they end up – whether it’s as Aberdeen first-team regulars, like Connor Barron, or dropping down a level, or being catapulted into the footballing stratosphere – Levey and his staff want the youngsters who pass through Aberdeen’s academy to be “as good as they can be”.

Right-back Calvin Ramsay, who moved to Premier League Liverpool in a deal worth up to £8 million during the summer, and Scotland international centre-back Scott McKenna, who has helped Nottingham Forest return to the English top-flight since moving there in 2020, represent the latter category – and Levey’s bond with them endures.

He said: “It’s nice when you can keep a relationship with these players you’ve seen for a long time.

“Scott’s doing well, even just the amount of games he’s playing – it’s frightening.

Scott McKenna of Nottingham Forest and Carlos Vinícius of Fulham.

“It’s so important we have these role models who are humble and have had these values instilled by their family and from the academy experience. They don’t think they’ve made it, and they’re always striving to be better.

“Calvin’s back in training down the road, and many people are excited to see him get his chance, whenever that may be.

“You don’t sign a five-year contract at Liverpool to be rushed. They clearly see a lot of development room in him with the massive potential that he has.”