21 November ~The appointment in June of former Southampton manager Mark Wotte as Scotland's first national performance director was accompanied by healthy fanfare. Craig Levein described it as "a pivotal day for the future of the game in this country". Wotte assured the Daily Telegraph that he was "convinced" he could get Scotland not just to a World Cup but to the actual final, citing the example of his Dutch compatriots, who reached the final last year, eight years after failing to qualify for the tournament. "It will not take two years. But maybe in five, seven or eight years, I don't know."
You can't blame them for hoping. Scottish football is in a bad way, both internationally and domestically. The odd signs of life – both halves of the Old Firm making it to European finals and the defeats of France in the Euro 2008 qualifiers – have been blips on the support machine. The SPL has dropped to 17th in UEFA's league coefficient, which grants it the same number of European places as the Kazakh and Macedonian top flights. Scotland haven't made it to a major tournament since 1998.
Thankfully there's a plan – a £60 million development plan, masterminded by Wotte and based on the recommendations made by former first minister Henry McLeish in his report on the state of the game. It centres around the creation of seven elite regional academies that will train up to 500 of Scotland's best young footballers every day, based on the notion that top-class athletes must train for 10,000 hours between the ages of ten and 20. Seven esteemed coaches – including erstwhile Sunderland boss Ricky Sbragia – will lead the training schools. Wotte hopes the schools will provide "six or seven" members of the national side by 2020.
The aim is admirable, but whether seven schools, or £60m, will be enough is debatable. Wotte has pointed to the examples of James Forrest, arguably Celtic's best player this season, and Barry Bannan, now a Villa regular, as evidence of the raw talent available. But the challenge is not to create a few excellent footballers, as these academies might well. The aim is to create a culture of excellence.
For that to happen, Scotland needs investment across the board – in coaches, pitches, equipment and much more. The SFA has admitted that, in the times of (relative) plenty, youth development was an afterthought. That partly explains why there are only 200 3G pitches in the country, compared to 2,000 in the Netherlands.
The example of the Dutch turnaround since 2002 might suit Wotte's position, but the Netherlands already had a strong infrastructure in place when its national team floundered. Scotland still needs to build foundations. "We just have to be patient and sometimes that is difficult in football," said Wotte at last week's programme launch. Quite how patient is another matter. Vincent Forrester