Hamilton Accies are constantly being tipped for relegation due to their budget and squad restraints and yet managing to avoid the drop. That said, avoiding relegation might not be the most miraculous achievement of the Accies despite their tight bank account. That honour goes to their impressive track record of producing young players.
James McCarthy, James McArthur and now Lewis Ferguson are some of the most impressive footballers to be produced at New Douglas Park. Just how are this monetarily limited club able to continue to push such well-developed young lads through the machine? Today we are looking to investigate.
Just last month the current crop of players in the Accies youth set up defeated Swiss side FC Basel on penalties in the Uefa Youth League. They’ll now be facing Danish side FC Midtylland in the second round – an experience that is sure to help these players along in their development to be the next McCarthy or Ferguson.
“Home-grown players are a positive for us and it’s a long-term commitment” said Hamilton’s head of youth development George Cairns earlier this year when speaking to the Daily Record.
Figures from CIES Football Observatory had shown Accies had given more game time to home-grown players than any other Premiership club – This during Lewis Ferguson’s breakthrough season.
“It’s fantastic, it’s great news once again. Every year we seem to do well with promoting our youth players through the system, and as head of youth it’s just fantastic. All you want to see is your players playing in the first team.”
This season, again according to CIES, Hamilton have given around 10% more of their game time to “club-trained players” than Aberdeen. Yet, the fact Accies academy graduate Lewis Ferguson has played 1,152 minutes for the Dons this season – missing just four games due to injury and playing every minute he’s been available for since the double header against Burnley – shows just how important Accies are to other sides.
Had Ferguson started his career at Pittodrie, it’s unlikely he’d have matched the 925 premiership minutes he managed in his debut season at just 18 years old. In comparison, during the season they were 18, Scott Wright played 125 minutes for Aberdeen, Scott McKenna had played 144 and Bruce Anderson was yet to make his debut.
In fact, Ferguson may never have made the breakthrough at a club above Hamilton, at least in league standings and stature. Rangers released him as an early-teen, but Hamilton saw the potential.
Of course during the time period Derek Mcinnes has managed Aberdeen, Hamilton have had a bit of a luxury, if you can call it that, of not being at the top end of the table. They’ve been in less high pressure must win situations where you can take a chance and play young players. Accies also of course don’t have the deepest squad, so sometimes they’ve had little other choice.
If this commitment to playing younger talent is a choice or not however, is irrelevant. The fact is whether they’d do it if they had more money to play with or not, this is how Hamilton operates and it’s very clearly to the benefit of the players and clubs that inevitably end up sweeping the best talents up.
Arguments can be made as to if this a successful model for the club. Yes, they have little choice due to funding restraints but the club could certainly bring in more cheap alternatives and loan players, instead of giving their own youngsters as many minutes, should they chose.
The club would have been disappointed to get what they deemed a low amount in the tribunal over Lewis Ferguson’s free transfer to Aberdeen this summer. With the way Barry Ferguson’s nephew has begun his Pittodrie career, they’ll be even more frustrated.
Of course, it’s likely Accies will be due a cut of any future transfer Ferguson makes and with the way he’s playing and some of the prices banded around for Ferguson’s team mate Scott McKenna in the summer, Accies could be due for some reward by their standards.
Hamilton made quite a bit more off of James McCarthy and James McArthur in consecutive summers almost a decade back when they sold them to Wigan Athletic. According to Transfermarkt, the SPFL club may have netted around three million pounds combined over the long run for the pair, with McCarthy moving in 2009, and his teammate the following year.
Between the two, they’ve made 449 Premier League appearances, some shared at Wigan, with McCarthy moving on to Everton and McArthur to Crystal Palace. McArthur made 32 caps for Scotland before retiring from international duty last month and James McCarthy has 41 Republic of Ireland appearances. These stats show just the calibre of players Accies has managed to manufacture.
Of course Accies have plenty more success stories that don’t quite reach the dizzy heights of those two. Ziggy Gordon has returned to the club after moves, initially to Partick Thistle and then to try his luck in Poland. Ali Crawford was linked to Hibernian this summer, ended up on trial with Hearts and finally signed with Doncaster Rovers – Who he is currently playing for regularly in League One.
Michael Devlin who captained the side has recovered from a horror injury to impress supporters at his new club Aberdeen. Devlin won man of the match for his performance in the recent League Cup Semi Final against Rangers and has just been called up for his second Scotland squad – with many anticipating he’ll make his debut.
So Accies have certainly made their mark across Scotland, as well as elsewhere across the world.
I can even use a story I was told personally to illustrate why so many young players thrive at New Douglas Park. During the summer I was involved at a media event where I got speaking to a local photographer. She told me her young nephew had signed up at Accies after trials with multiple clubs, including both Celtic and Rangers. She spoke very highly of the set-up, telling me about how they’ve made her nephew feel more comfortable, like he’s there to have fun and not like he’s under pressure – which he felt at other clubs training sessions.
It’s these little things you hear about how they’re so important in youth coaching on a consistent basis, yet they seem so rarely to be stuck to.
Going back to the Daily Record’s quotes from George Cairns, the Accies head of youth development said:
“But it’s a team effort from everybody at the stadium, from the owner of the club, to the manager and right through to the Academy. We’re all the one unit, looking to try and get as many players through to our first-team as possible.”
“Even if they don’t fit in, they don’t do so well or they’re unhappy or whatever, we like to think we can find them other places as well, and that’s why you’ll have players who have been in our Academy playing in other systems, other first teams. It’s just a platform to try and keep kids involved in football.”
It’s this commitment to treating children in their set-up as people and not as potential money making assets that could be earning good favour for this academy. Not only do kids feel valued and like they want to be there, but their parents actively want their kids to attend.
“The most important thing is that, as well as football, we try to make them better people. Our question is ‘what can we do to make them better people?’”
For Accies, it seems the fine attention to detail, and not being lost in the system is paying dividends.
In 2014, Accies owner Ronnie MacDonald spoke about the clubs youth set-up and its success with the Herald:
“Continuity is everything for us,” says MacDonald. “We want to give Scottish kids a chance. We have a modest budget, but the one thing we don’t skimp on at Accies is scouting and coaching and facilities. We try to give these talented kids everything they need, the best they can get.”
MacDonald goes on to talk about how they will never pressure kids into signing for them. They want to have players there who are happy to be in that red and white shirt, and it’s no loss to them if a player signs elsewhere. A modest starting salary is also in place to keep these young players grounded and likely hungry for more.
At the time of the interview Alex Neil was still in charge at New Douglas Park. Macdonald talked about how he’d always had the position earmarked for Neil, and having him work with the younger squads showed a clear target of having coach and players progress together:
“I had Alex Neil marked down as a manager five years ago. We put him in charge of the under-17s, with a view to him down the line becoming our manager once Billy Reid tired of it all.”
“We say to Alex, ‘look, we want you to play kids, to give them a chance in the team. And if it doesn’t work out, it’s not your fault, it’s ours.’ That’s the way we go. People say, ‘you can’t play kids.’ Well, we do, and if we end up at the bottom of division three for doing so, so be it. Our philosophy is, we want to rear and play our own.”
We spoke to Ben McNicol who can be described as an Accies super fan. You Can find him @ben_hafc18 on Twitter and read his blog here – https://bensmagazine.wordpress.com/
Ben told us:
“The club is a fantastic place to develop. Playing in the reserves at young ages. And now some European action as well. If you’re good enough you will play.”
“I think they are successful is because they all get a chance at any early age are playing in reserves at young age and then first team. We get some motivation from the big sales we get.”
“Somethings that need to improve is trying to hold onto the players and if we are forced to sell we deserve a lot more money. For example, Lewis Ferguson and Michael Devlin”
“If you want to move on the club won’t stand in your way and want the best for you and not them. It does increase their reputation. But I feel we should try fight for more money sometimes.”
At the end of the day, Hamilton Accies are a club that many regard to be overachieving that are not and will not attempt to live out-with its means. This can mean looking to save money by not spending fees on a certain calibre of player, or letting their own go when an offer of good value comes in. However, this commitment to the development of youngsters is not just a money saving measure, but it seems a passion and desire of those inside the football club – One other clubs should admire and at least in some ways, look to replicate, because it’s actually already helping them out.