Overcoming injuries and set-backs and the transition to part-time: Sam Wardrop Interview

By Keiran Fleming

Assistant editor Keiran Fleming sat down with Dumbarton full back Sam Wardrop to chat about his career both on and off the pitch.

Sam Wardrop has been through a lot during his young footballing career. The 23-year-old has captained a Celtic youth side to a Scottish cup win, had a career altering injury and been part of a squad during a financial takeover.

The right back sees his time in the Celtic youth setup as a hugely important and influential part of his career:

“It’s special to be part of a club like that and you probably don’t realise how lucky you are until afterwards. You think wow the opportunities you got. Everything that was given to you in terms of training, travelling the world, an education, an education in football. It’s only when you look back you think that was an unbelievable experience.”

“Obviously when you’re there as well you do feel like you’re part of something special because it’s one of the biggest clubs in Scotland and globally it’s a big club.”

Wardrop was making his way through the ranks when Brendan Rodgers took over at the club. He told Keiran that there were a huge number of first team members who had a positive influence on him:

“I think as a youngster you kind of look up to pretty much every first team player, I’m coaching some young boys now and they always look up to the first team, I looked up to them all the way through. You don’t stop looking up to them because that’s where you’re trying to go, that’s what you’re trying to become.

“The ones that stick out in my mind are the likes of Scott Brown and Kieran Tierney. Those two in terms of their work ethic and attitude. I worked hard and I was dedicated but the intensity and the energy they brought everyday was just ridiculous. I always asked myself ‘how do they turn up every day to training like that? How can you be that motivated and have that attitude every day?’ but they did.”

“Obviously I played alongside KT but when he became part of the first team those were the two you looked up to.”

All though he never broke into the first team Sam definitely sees his youth career at the hoops as a successful one:

“I had a good time there. In the youth teams we played a lot of European football in the youth champions league, which mirrored the first team stuff which was amazing. You traveled out in a chartered flight with the first team, you played the equivalent of the Barcelona youth team and then you went along to the first game to watch.”

“We did well in these competitions, held our own and obviously the youth cup as well. I think I played in like three or fourth youth cup finals, we always had strong squads at Celtic. Every player was good, we won a lot of things and a lot of them have done really well.

“Good memories in terms of the youth cup finals. We got to play at Hampden which is good.”

After he turned 18, Sam set himself the goal of playing senior football. Little did he know that he would cross paths with Dumbarton, the club he went on loan to, multiple times throughout his career:

“You always have the dream to play for Celtic’s first team. Then you get to 18 and you start to think right if I don’t start playing first team football now I’m going to be 19, 20 I still might not have played any first team football.”

“If you stay at the club and just continue to play youth football then two or three years can bypass you. You can be 20, 21 and not get one single first team appearance under your belt and then your contract finishes and you’re like ‘who wants to sign me?’ The other clubs are like well you’ve not played any first team games so how can we sign you which is completely fair.

“So I was about 18 (when I) decided right let’s go on loan and I went to Dumbarton. I loved it. That was my first taste of first team football. The first team changing room environment was totally different to youth football and I learned a lot from that. It served me well in terms of my experience and it just grew me as a player and a person.”

Whilst at Dumbarton Sam fulfilled a dream that many up and coming footballing talents have. He managed to score his first ever senior goal:

“It’s definitely an amazing feeling. It was the winner as well in that game and it was against Inverness who were a tough opponent. That was incredible, I’ve watched it a lot of times.

“I think scoring a goal is just a special feeling. I don’t get to do it often so that was definitely one of my really good memories from being at Dumbarton.”

After what was deemed to be a really successful loan spell Sam returned to his parent club to be told that he was free to leave. He spent almost 10 years at the club but it was time for a new challenge:

“When I came back it was basically right am I going to get another contract here, no, alright where can I go? I had agents looking after me who were looking for clubs, looking for options and it was in the Summer that Dundee United was going to be a possibility.

“In terms of where I was at, at that moment, they were probably the best. I was looking to go to the Championship at a minimum and they were one of the best teams in the Championship so it was perfect for where I was at that time.

“That was after speaking to Brendan Rodgers and stuff, having a discussion before I left. I went in and asked him ‘Where do you see me playing? What level?” and he was saying ‘Listen you still need to  go get that experience at a club like that (Dundee United)’. So it was perfect. In the Summer of 2018 I signed for two years”

After being signed in the Summer by Csaba Lazlo the newcomer would see the manager who brought him in be sacked two months later:

“Straight away when I came in you kind of got the sense that the fans were frustrated with the team, with the manager already before our football had even started. There was already a bad taste from the previous season because you expected to get promoted. It was clear it was going to be tough.

“Also coming from Celtic where everything is planned to perfection, everythings in place, it’s a smooth operation. I felt as though it wasn’t a smooth operation when I went in and I think there was no cohesion. Things obviously got better when Tony (Ashgar) came in. He kind of steadied the ship and started to put the right people in the right places.”

New manager Robbie Neislon was announced in October and not long after Sam Wardrop was told by his new gaffer that he was no longer wanted at the club:

“Robbie Neilson came in and there was a better feeling about the place because you think a new manager, fresh start. He came in and, I think it was at the first game, he pulled me and Matty Smith in and said ‘look I need to respect the senior players and give them an opportunity’ which was rubbish because we were all first team players. Already I was like I’ll take for what it’s worth. It was the first game against (Partick) Thistle, we won that game, me and Matty were in the stand.

“We thought fair enough, maybe he is going to give the guys who are older a bit of respect. I fully anticipated, I fully expected to be given an opportunity and I didn’t really get any opportunity. It was around Christmas and New Year he pulled me into his office and said ‘I’d like you to leave’ pretty much and that was it.”

“It wasn’t the way I expected my career to go at Dundee United, it was probably the worst start I could’ve had but it was just about to get a little bit worse. It was a bit turbulent, it wasn’t how I expected it to go.

“I think it was poor man management skills. I came from Celtic, where I wasn’t part of the first team squad, but the first team manager, Brendan Rodgers, still would chat to you and man manage you properly. Coming from that to this at 20, you’re still a young player, not played many first team games, you’ve got a long time ahead of you. You’d expect to be managed properly.

“So when that came it was a tough one, you don’t really know how to deal with it, you’ve not played for long enough to know how to deal with those sort of things. The good thing was there were good players in the team who were also getting similar treatment but also would say ‘listen this happens at football clubs’ they would just help you. I’m very thankful for there being good teammates in the team at the time.”

At only 20 Sam would face another huge challenge: a major knee injury. The injury would see the fullback out of action for exactly a year:

“See because I had such a turbulent time up until that Injury, I was pretty down, I was pretty depressed but when I got the injury I had to focus again. I had to focus on how can I recover from this and be just as strong as I was before, just as good as I was before? Don’t get me wrong I was devastated when I got the injury but it kind of aligned my vision, my focus. I had this goal in mind, I could just channel all my energy into something which was getting myself back into the best possible condition I could.”

“Although there were ups and downs it was a really frustrating time, the injury. I ended up getting a second operation, just a small tidy up, times like that you’re just so frustrated. They take a section of the tendon, the knee tendon out which can cause tendonitis which is brutal. But I had a focus, I had a goal, I had a time in mind for when I wanted to get back playing.

“I wanted to prove to myself, as much to anyone who was following my career, that I could play at a high level.”

Although many of us may have considered the injury to be a potentially career altering one, Sam saw this as an experience he can learn something from:

“In terms of how it changed me in football I feel like now, no matter what, if anything happens I can overcome it. I overcame the injury, I overcame the treatment I had from the manager, the experience I had in the first few months. I feel like those are really hard things to get over as a footballer. So I feel like now I’ve become pretty strong mentally.”

“Just generally though I know you can get over and get through anything with a bit of resilience, it’s tough but I came out the other side stronger. I’ve learned more than I would’ve if I just played every week, I’d be in a different position but I’ve learned a lot. I look at it, not as a negative, but I look back over the last couple of years as something I’ve taken a lot of lessons from.”

His first game back from injury would be exactly 365 days after he did his ACL with a club that he was beginning to get to know very well, Dumbarton:

“When I first did my ACL I was actually due to go on loan there (Dumbarton). I was going to go on loan and look for a club in Summer. I was meant to go to Dumbarton but the week before I did my knee. It was almost like a year later the same thing was happening.”

“I know Dumbarton, I know the club, I know a lot of the players. It was 100% I was going to go back there.”

After another successful spell with the Sons, the right back decided it was time to make the move to the League 1 side a permanent one:

“The main difference is you’re not training full-time. Up until I signed for Dumbarton I was used to training every single day that was just what you did. Even on loan you trained full-time because you went back to your parent club and you still got looked after.

“You train twice a week and play on a Saturday, there’s less contact time, you train less which means you have to do more yourself, well I like to do more myself just to stay fit. It’s probably more responsibility, more independence to take care of yourself because you’re still playing against full-time teams.

“We’ve got (Partick) Thistle and Falkirk in our league so you need to make sure you’re fit and ready for these games. I’ve been full-time for so long, so I know what you need to do to be match fit and I like training myself.”

Whilst playing football has been a huge part of his life, Sam has always looked to the future after football and strived to further his education:

“I’ve been doing a Uni course for six years at the Open Uni part-time. I’ve been doing that since I left school which has always given me a focus in the afternoons because you have long days as a footballer. You finish maybe early afternoon so I like to have something to fill my time with.”

Not only is he studying Law in his spare but the 23-year-old is also looking to utilise those skills he has learnt so far in his career to help others through personal training and coaching:

“When I came back from Dumbarton on loan last January I was unsure. Because I hadn’t played much football for the last two years I wasn’t sure if I would play for another full-time club so I thought I would do the PT course because I know that would allow me to make money as soon as I finish it.”

“When the Summer came it was a funny one. I was just sitting in my room studying one day and I thought to myself why don’t get my mates to do a work out on zoom just as a laugh and also because we were bored. Literally from that point I’ve grown a small business which I love and I’ve realised my passion for coaching people.

“I managed to do a wee bit of personal training in person when we were allowed to. I’ve just grown it over the last year, I’m loving it. It’s a fluid process, you obviously have a goal in mind, but you don’t know what path it will take or who you’ll meet, different things can happen along the way.

“The most recent thing I’ve started is having a focus on football players. Just a support mechanism for football players because I do think sometimes, I experienced it, there’s real lack of support. A neutral support system that’s out with the club, obviously the club will support you but at the end of the day they’re a business. There’s going to be times where they just offload you and don’t really have much regard for your wellbeing.

“Right now it’s just a private facebook group for anyone that plays football who needs a bit of support just to chat. Maybe just some training tips, just some nutrition tips, just anything they need help with. I’ve really enjoyed that because I’ve got a lot of experience from playing at Celtic, at Dundee United, at Dumbarton that I like to share.”

Sam told Keiran that he still has big plans and expectations for his football career in the future:

“I’ve never had any doubt in my football ability, I do believe I can play in the Scottish Premiership but just through what’s happened I’ve not got to that level. Right now I’m happy at a club where I know I’m going to play, I get on well with the manager and  the players. You just don’t know with football, you don’t know where you’re going to be in a year.”

NE98 would like to thank Sam Wardrop for taking to speak to us and wish him and Dumbarton all the best for the future.

He only has eyes for Montrose: Graham Webster Q&A

By Colin Byiers

Playing for the team you support is a dream many of us have had, but very few can actually say they have done it. Graham Webster is one of the few people who can say they have done it.

The Montrose man shares openly about the story of his career so far as we chatted about his days as Dundee player and nearly 10 years at Links Park.

Starting with your days at Dundee, how older were you when you signed for the club?

I was 16 and had been plucked out of Sunday League football. I was with Carnoustie and had been with them for about 8 years then signed for a Dundee Sunday League team called West End Rovers, and that’s where I was scouted from. I played U’17’s and then went full time when I went into the U’19’s.

What was their coaches like?

John Holt was my coach when I was in the U’17’s and he was really great with me, pushed me forward. He was the one who gave me a full-time contract when I went into the U’19’s. Barry Smith was the U’19’s coach, and he’s been a good coach for me over the years. He gave me the opportunity to play first team football at Dundee when he was manager, but both guided me in the right direction early on.

The standard from Sunday League was much better and I had to adapt because you are training every day, and the standard they set you need to be good enough to play, all be it, a club in the Championship. It was a shock to begin with, but the more you train, the more it became easier to adapt.

Dundee went into administration for the second time during the 2010/11 season, meaning 9 players were released. This did, however, give youth players like yourself an opportunity to play in the first team.

It was a really sad time. I grew up as a Dundee fan, so had been through it the first time when all the Italian players were there. The players that were released, you ended up being good friends with them as the squad was really close, even though I was still a youth player at the time. I remember sitting in the away dressing room at Dens, thinking “what’s happening?”, because you see the administrators walking into the home dressing room and then players leaving with there stuff in bin bags. We weren’t sure what was happening with us, the youth team, either. It wasn’t until a local businessman pumped a bit of money into the club to help pay our wages, so we were lucky. It was sad times, but we got through it. Barry (Smith) took over, and that was a good thing for me because he knew what I could do, and he’s seen me play youth football for the past 2 or 3 years. Barry was great, not just with me, but with the whole squad. He was a really good manager, and he was thrown in at the deep end and he wasn’t used to having such a big job. Dundee is quite a big club and he was adapting as well.

You got your debut in April 2011. Do you remember much about it?

I grew up a Dundee fan, my dad and my family are all huge Dundee supporters, so it’s the old clique “it’s a dream come true” when it did happen. I didn’t get much sleep the night before. I always remember going out onto the pitch and thinking “what am I doing here?” I was 18 and it was a huge moment for me. I played centre midfield and was “safety Sam” around the pitch, just passing the ball sideways and backwards, just making sure I didn’t give the ball away! I came off after 80 minutes with cramp. I was struggling. Leighton McIntosh scored, who I came through the youth ranks with, and I remember celebrating with him. It was a special moment for me. I have a framed photo of myself on that day and I will always look back on that on a wonderful moment in my career.

The following season, you went on loan to Peterhead in the January window following a long injury lay-off.

Barry had said to me that I needed to get games, and experience and that’s what I had done. It didn’t really work out at Peterhead. The style of play when you go from the Championship to the lower leagues is so different. It’s so competitive, so much faster every minute of the game. I wasn’t expecting that. I expected to almost stroll it. I was expecting to be able to put my foot on the ball and spray a few passes about and be able to shoot from anywhere really. It didn’t happen like that, and I didn’t establish myself at Peterhead. I don’t think I was ready for that. The boys were great with me up there and I can look back on it now and see it was good for me to do it. It was valuable experience which has helped me now being at Montrose.

Dundee was promoted to the SPL following Rangers demotion to the bottom tier. Things didn’t go well for though for the club and Barry Smith lost his job.

I was hard one for him, yes it was great having Dundee back in the SPL again, but it was too much too soon for everyone. Barry didn’t have enough time to build his squad and on the finance side of things, we weren’t anywhere near the other clubs. When he lost his job, a lot of people were upset, because Barry had been at Dundee for a number of years, so people like the dinner ladies, people on the office were all quite sad about it, including the players and myself. Barry left with his head held high because he had done all he could, and I think the sacking was harsh considering where we had come from. We played Kilmarnock away on the opening day where we drew 0-0 and spirts were high, and we thought we would be ok. Things didn’t go well, and we were up against some really good players in the SPL. It was tough. I thought we did well, but it was just a case of delaying the inevitable.

Former Rangers player John Brown took charge. How were things after he took over?

He came from coaching the youth team at Rangers, so you would have thought he would try and feed through the young players at Dundee, but he never really took me on or any of the younger lads. Like Leighton, who was doing well and scoring goals and Celtic and Rangers were after him, and he never took him on for some reason. It was just a weird atmosphere. Nothing really happened, I played for the U’20’s, never got a chance under Bomber and things fizzled out. I didn’t have the best relationship with him. When I was told I wasn’t getting a new contract, he didn’t have the balls to say it himself, it was his assistant manager who told me. Ray Farningham was the assistant, and I don’t think even he wanted to be there because he was so loyal to Barry. I was sad to go, but I knew it was coming. I don’t have much to say about John Brown to be honest with you.

How difficult was it to leave the club you supported?

I went home, I looked my mum and dad in the eyes and my dad just knew. He knew the day was coming too. It was a sad day, but I am always grateful for the times at Dundee. I learned so much there and I’m still friends with people who are still there. I’m good friends with Cammy Kerr and I still look out for their results, and I’ll watch them when they are on the TV. There is no bitterness there, I just wish it had worked out better for me.

You joined Montrose in League 2. What was the expectation going into that season?

For a club like Montrose back then, mid table or sneaking into the play-offs was where we were at. I don’t think the club was forward thinking back then. It was a case of settling for 6th or 7th. We just wanted to stay away from the bottom, because you don’t want to be known as the club that finishes bottom of the Scottish League. The expectations were so low, things are completely different now, which was helped with the new directors that have come in. The budget wasn’t that big, and we relied on a lot of loan players. Finishing 6th that season was probably our level back then.

On a personal note, playing 35 games in a season was good for me, knowing that I was going to play ever Saturday and be involved with the team. It was vital for me as a player as I was still a young lad making my way in the game. It was massive to play a full season with no injuries or anything like that.

Montrose finished bottom in your second season and faced Brora Rangers in a play-off. How catastrophic would it have been for the club had they got relegated?

That would have been it for Montrose. I didn’t see anyway back for them. They would have gone into the Highland League based on the geographics, and can you imagine the financial loses. The club wasn’t doing well at the time financially and I honestly think it would have curtains for them. We knew that as players going it the game, it was massive for us. We had a few chances in the first leg and probably should have beaten them but we lost 1-0 up there. The pressure going into the second game was a whole new level. The hopes of a whole town are on your back. I’m just thankful we made it in the end. After that, there was a whole new outlook from the club. Us as players, the fans, the staff, we all thought we can’t go through that again and it galvanised the club. From then on, we were only looking up the way. There was a change in directors in the background and the gaffer now had this vision of what we would be achieving, and I certainly think he as have done that. I was the kick up the ass we needed as players, and we certainly didn’t want to go through that again.

2 years later, Montrose achieved a promotion play-off spot in 2016/17. Was that perhaps a year to early in terms of where you wanted to be?

I think we overachieved that year. A lot of the guys who played in that Peterhead play-off are still at the club, but we massively overachieved. That season, Peterhead had a really strong squad, and they had a lot of really good players. It was too much for us too soon, but the experienced proved good for us for the future.

In the following season, you pipped Peterhead to the League 2 championship. It was quite nip and tuck all season.

For me personally, it was a bad season because I wasn’t playing and wasn’t scoring, but I was still jubilant when we done it. On the day we won the title, I was I the stand with 5 other people and I was devastated not to be involved, but I knew I needed to cheer the boys on and support them. Shane Sutherland scored, and you start to think that it’s not going to happen because Peterhead were also winning their game. At half time, I could sense the nerves around the stadium. I went downstairs to listen to the gaffer’s team talk, and he was urging them on to do it. Jamie (Redman) scored the goal and we in a sense saw it out. It was so nerve racking! I think we deserved to win the league that year and it’s great memories that year to.

From leaving Dundee, to almost getting relegated out of the league, to winning a championship, how was the journey as a whole?

I had been at Montrose for 4 or 5 years by then and I had grown a real love for the club, the fans, the staff and everyone involved, and looking back, I have come a long way from being told I wasn’t good enough to be at Dundee to then having a winner’s medal. Not a lot of people can say to their grandchildren that they have a winner’s medal in their cabinet. I am very proud of mine and it’s something to look back on and be proud of.

Winning the league and getting promoted saw you now in League 1. Was survival the target?

Before the season started, the gaffer said, “stay up and we’ll consolidate for next season.” Publicly, that was what he said, but secretly we thought we were good enough to pack a punch in this league, but we quietly went about our business. We ended up having a very good year. We made it to the play-off against Queen of the South and ended up beating them 2-1 at home so we felt we had a chance. On the bus on the Saturday down to the second leg, we all thought that we could do it. Then the game happened! Stephen Dobbie was a class above. We had Sean Dillon playing for us at the back and he’s played over 300 games for Dundee United and played at a high level, and he struggled. He scored a hattrick that day and was hooked after 60 minutes, to rest for the next game. I think we were good enough, but the gulf in class was quite a step up, even though we beat them on the Tuesday night. We were disappointed but we didn’t want to get too disheartened because Montrose were overachieving again. As a club, from where we came from, the Brora days to a Championship play-off was incredible.

What does the future hold for you now then?

I can’t see much else than staying at Montrose to be honest. I’m enjoying my time at Montrose and I enjoy the time with the boys that are there, the fans, the staff, the directors, I feel like I have a really good relationship with them all now. The next step as probably a testimonial. I’ve signed a new extension which takes me to 2023, so that would be the next stage for me. I just want to do well for Montrose. I think I’ve established myself as a League 1 player and if we get Montrose to the Championship then why not, I think we are good enough to do it.

In terms of after my playing days are over, I can’t really see myself being a coach because I think coaching is so different nowadays. All the sport science, personal programmes for players and things, I have no interest in that. I would like to stay in football and maybe be a scout for someone. I would miss the Saturday’s because the Saturday’s just now are terrible! I definitely wouldn’t go into coaching but still be involved in some capacity.

“I’m not going to settle for second best, I’m not going to settle for good” NE98 speak to Dundee United Academy Director Andy Goldie

By Keiran Fleming

Dundee United were once renowned for producing some of the best talent in the country with the likes of Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Gauld and Johnny Russell all making an impact at the club and beyond. However, over the last five years or so it seems as though the academy has struggled to consistently produce players who make a name for themselves at the club.

NE98 Assistant Editor Keiran Fleming spoke to Andy Goldie who has been the Academy Director for two years now about the ins and outs of the Arabs new look youth structure. Although Dundee United is still in the early stages of its new era under new ownership he believes there is more opportunity than ever for young players to break into the first team:

“The performance strategy and the business plan that the owners Mark and Scott Ogren and Tony Ashgar have put together, with input from the likes of myself and other members of staff, centers all around the development of young players.”

“If we want to bring success both on and off the pitch  such as winning trophies, qualifying for Europe, finishing higher up in the league or success as in the business plan bringing more financial stability to the club and making profit, as the owners have rightly set the target of, then we have to invest in our young players.

“Gone are the days where we buy a journeyman or someone who is going to block a pathway for a young player. First and foremost we look to see what’s in the academy first to see if there’s a player ready to step in. We’re early on in that journey we’re only two years in but it’s really rewarding to see some greenshoots come through with the number of 17-year-olds coming through already, Lewis Neilson, Chris Mochrie, Kai Fotheringham and Darren Watson who all made debuts. You’ve still got boys like Declan Glass, Louis Appere, Jamie Robson and Logan Chalmers who are only a couple years older.”

“The first group of players I mentioned are still only 16-17 and in the second group of players the oldest is 23, Jamie Robson. It’s an exciting time for us. It involves everyone buying into the same vision. It involves everybody really investing and believing in our young players and giving them those opportunities. Lastly it involves everyone not putting a ceiling on what any of our staff or any of our young players can achieve.

“If we are going to paint the picture and sell the dream as just playing for Dundee United then ultimately we’re not going to achieve very much or move forward in the significant amount we do want to. It needs to be more ambitious than that. Our benchmarks aren’t within Scotland, our benchmarks are the best practices around the world.

“ We had Fluminese presenting today, we’ve had Hadjuk Split, Benfica, Roma, we’ve got connections with Partizan Belgrade, Dinamo Zagreb, Nordsjaelland. These are the clubs we’re benchmarking ourselves against because these clubs produce players for the top five leagues, Champions League, international level across the world. We need to learn and steal best practise from them and make it our own but at the same time they are wanting to learn what we’re doing and what we’re implementing in our methodology at the club as well.”

Although interactions and connecting with clubs all over the world has been extremely beneficial for the club, Andy doesn’t want United’s academy to just be a copycat of those abroad:

“What I’ve always hated is (the attitude of) Spain is doing great, let’s copy Spain; Germany is doing great now let’s copy Germany; Belgium is doing great now let’s copy Belgium. What we have to create is a real identity of what we want at Dundee United first and foremost. So if we are going to continue and try to replicate what other countries we are always going to be ten years behind. Belgium is getting success now because of what they did ten years ago; Spain was getting success at one point because of what they did ten years before; Germany is the same because of what they were doing ten years ago.

“Of course there are always lessons we can learn but if we don’t have a clear vision and a clear strategy of what we want to do and achieve then we’re always going to be behind and that’s the biggest problem in Scottish football. We’re copying everyone else and we don’t have a clear why. Why do we have an academy? What do we want to achieve? If we get that bit right we can actually formulate our own plan, our own DNA, our own identity and then we could potentially be the frontrunners and industry leaders.

“People will ask what Dundee United is doing? What is Scotland doing as a nation? So it’s not about constantly copying others but it’s about stealing best practise to make our own ideas even better.”

A lot of United fans have been very excited by the current crop of young players coming through, Chris Mochrie, Lewis Neilson and Kai Fotheringham. Some Arabs have even dubbed this group of players as a “golden generation”.

United’s Academy Director sees these players as the beginning of what could potentially be a wave of talent pushing their way into the first team:

“We don’t really want a ‘golden generation’ because that suggests it’s a flash in the pan. What our mission statement says is we want sustainable success so to get sustainable success we need to look at a bigger picture.

“Yes our 2003 age group are really strong but we also have really strong 2004s, really strong 2005s, really strong 2006s, who are part of the player pathway and they will continue to come through the player program as well. It’s not about just one age group in every five, six, seven years, we look at it as a whole approach. We look to see what’s coming in behind them and any decisions we make on our players is based on three or four age groups at a time.

“We know, for example, we have Chris Mochrie who almost skipped under 18s and went into the first team environment. So we’ve got an opportunity to invest in 2004 and 2005 in a similar position without clogging the pathway.”

“100% the 2003 age group is exciting. We’ve come in at a really good time where we can use those kids as role models and I do emphasise the word kid because they are still 17-years-old. There’s a lot of expectation on what they are going to achieve both short term and long term and it’s up to us to manage that as well.

“It’s been great to see Lewis breakthrough and play relatively consistently in the first team; It’s been great to see Chris become the youngest ever debutant; It was great to see Kai and Darren breakthrough and make their debuts as well as a number of other 2003s forming part of the squad. We’ve had Fin Malcolm and Kerr Smith from the 2004s being part of the squad as well.

“Underneath that there’s a conveyor belt of talent coming through and it’s important we support that in the right manner, manage their expectations as well as our own. It’s more about patience and making sure we get the right moment for these young kids. When they do breakthrough and when they do feel that belief that they’re ready for it then they’ll make a bigger impact and it’ll be a more sustainable impact.”

Chris Mochrie certainly proved himself in his short loan at Montrose and Lewis Neilson has made a good impression in the games he has played for the Arabs so far. Andy believes the success of the players is down to the person rather than the academy they come through:

“We always remind the coaches, the staff, the parents and players that we don’t create any player. So we don’t make any player a footballer and create a successful journey for him they need to do that themselves.

“In terms of processes, the strategy, the way of working, our identity, all the things we’ve put in place, I would say the 2003s are the first group to benefit from that whole package. They were the first group to come in and really benefit from the full-time pathway we created. They benefited from consistent, coherent daily messages of how we want our players to play, how we want our culture to look, the values we wanted to instill in them.

“Even things off the pitch. Like Lewis Neilson goes and achieves five highers in his first year of becoming a professional footballer, as well as transitioning into a new position, as well as becoming a Scotland under 17 international and breaking into the first team and making his debut. So these are the aspirational messages we were delivering on a daily basis.

“What really excites us is the boys that have been immersed in the full program for maybe three, four, five years and that really excites us. Even more so than the 2003s.”

A huge criticism of the academy systems across the UK in the past has been that players have been given false hope. Many players who were dropped by their clubs at a young age have gone on to claim that football ruined their life after they were told to focus on the sport rather than education.

The key change in the Arabs new academy setup is it aims to develop the players talent as well as further their education:

“I think there was an article down in England where 70% of the players they interviewed didn’t feel supported and felt their expectations had been mismanaged. When that journey comes to an end (a player being let go). if it does come to an end, we prefer a proactive approach.

“One of the messages we deliver to our parents and to our players on a regular basis is if you think that you’re coming into Dundee United football club’s academy just to become a professional footballer then ultimately you’re going to fail because it’s about so much more than that.

“It’s about the shared experiences, it’s about going to tournaments and creating friendships that are going to last longer than any full-time football career; It’s about those interpersonal and transferable skills you’ll create through football being a tool rather than being the only thing that matters in the program; It’s about our academy awards night this Sunday where we get to celebrate the hard work and the successes of our players; It’s about creating networks round the players so they do have different career paths that they can go on to. Michael McPake, our Head of Academy Operations and Education, did a magnificent job in developing those transferable skills for us as well.

“It’s not just about football and their end journey within football because their end journey might be in league 2, it might be junior, it might not be to play football by a certain age. Yes we want to aspire to produce players who go on to play Champions League football, play in the top five leagues, go and represent their country in major tournaments but that’s utopia. Not every player can achieve that, so it’s important we’re proactive in managing expectations throughout the journey and tell them there’s so much more than that (football), so many greater experiences they will get that will outlast any football career.”

Fans of any club are always looking for the next young player to breakthrough into the first team and a majority of the time they are told to be patient.

Andy has a different mindset he told NE98 that fans should expect to see more and more young players pull on the tangerine jersey:

“It’s not that we’re hoping for it to eventually happen (break into the first team). We’ve got clear processes and clear strategy so that it will happen, we will achieve our vision. The number of players we achieve that with that go and play in the top five leagues in the world, play Champions League football, play international football we’ll find out but nobody puts more pressure on the success of the academy than myself.

“That’s what motivates me, that’s what inspired me to take the job and leave my previous role. I’m not here to just develop players for Dundee United first team, I’m here to develop more than that. That’s my motivation.

“To see another Billy Gilmour make his Champions League debut and win man of the match on his Champions League debut. That’s what inspires me. If we can give more of our young players that opportunity although with an understanding of patience it’s not going to happen overnight.”

“An understanding that these young players are going to make mistakes and it’s not just a linear journey or a constant positive journey, they will have bad games, they will make mistakes, they will lose goals for us. But, because of the type of character we’re developing they have the resilience to learn from those errors and therefore be a better player every time they get that opportunity.

“I totally appreciate and I want the fans to want more from the academy. I want them to get excited, I want them to buy into it. Again they’re a real stakeholder for us. Our job is to produce players they can relate to, who inspire them, who bring more fans to the stadium, put fans on the edge of their seats, who they can celebrate and hopefully they can watch them lift trophies for the club again as well.”

Although he has only been in the job for just over two years it is clear to see how passionate Andy is about his role as Academy Director and the ongoing project at United. He told Keiran that he sees his long-term future with the club as it continues to move forward in this new youth oriented direction:

“It’s not a short-term project. Of course you can’t guarantee anything in football, whether the club makes a decision or there’s an opportunity elsewhere that comes up that I just didn’t see coming, that can obviously happen in football.

“ But, I’m here for the long-term, my family has moved up here, we lived in Lanarkshire previously. We’ve moved up, the kids have moved school, we’ve fully invested in this. I’m not a person who does things by half, if I’m going to do something then I really want to go two feet in, invest everything in it. I’m really fortunate that I’ve got a wife and two kids that do the exact same and they understand that as well.

“I’m not going to settle for second best, I’m not going to settle for good, the most horrible word in the Scottish dictionary is decent that’s not success for me. Success for me is excelling, being excellent on a daily basis, constantly producing a conveyor belt of talent not just a generation, getting more fans in the stadium who are excited about our young talent, getting Dundee United fans talking about how excited they are about 16,17,18 year old players coming through. That’s where I get my motivation from, that’s what inspires me and that’s why we work so hard every day.”

NE98 would like to thank Andy Goldie for taking the time to speak to us. We wish both him and Dundee United the best of luck for the future.

Fraserburgh Chairman Finlay Noble on potential promotion, linking the northern juniors and lockdown

By Keiran Fleming

Assistant Editor Keiran Fleming recently had the chance to sit down with Chairman of Highland League outfit Fraserburgh FC Finlay Noble to chat about promotion aspirations, the impact of the pandemic and the potential for Junior football in the north-east to join the pyramid.

Fraserburgh FC, which was founded in 1910, has become a mainstay in Highland League football since joining the division in 1921.

In their long history they have won the title three times and played a key role in arguably the biggest “Giant Killing” in Scottish cup history, a 1-0 win against Dundee in 1959.

Now they have set their sights on a new goal, promotion into the SPFL. Before football was stopped the Broch had won all three of their league games.

Finlay told NE98 that even though it will be difficult he really believed the club has what it takes to win the title this year:

“It’s the goal every year. We felt as though we had a right good chance this year but obviously there’s some good teams in the Highland League and with it being a half season, where we play everyone once, it makes it harder.

“Even a two week bad spell can put you out of the race because the likes of Brora Rangers, I would imagine to be the best team, we’d be looking for them to slip up and they haven’t been doing much of that lately. Hopefully the season will start up again and that goal will still be there.”

Previous Highland League winners such as Peterhead, Elgin City, Cove Rangers, Ross County, Inverness Thistle and Caledonian (who both combined to create Inverness Caledonian Thistle) have all made a significant impact in the SPFL.

The Broch are looking to win their first title in 19 years after coming runners up to Brora Rangers last season.

The Chairman thinks that the club is more than ready for the next step:

“You want to reach the highest you possibly can. We’re part of the pyramid so there’s good belief we could survive in that environment (League 2). If we don’t and get relegated back into the Highland League, there’s worse places to be relegated into.

“There’s not that big a gulf between the bottom half of League 2 and the top half of the Highland League. Obviously since there are teams in League 2 with a full seasons experience (at that level) they would probably have the upper hand slightly. As Cove, Edinburgh City, Peterhead and Elgin have proved, Ok Elgin have remained in League 2 but they’ve survived, they’ve never been anywhere near being relegated.

“It’s something we could definitely budget for and survive in. We certainly wouldn’t hit the heights that Cove, Edinburgh City and Peterhead has done but we can run to our current budget and see where that takes us. If we get relegated so be it but I don’t think we would, I think we’d survive.”

The Scottish football pyramid underwent a huge change back in 2013 which saw the Highland League and Lowland League connected to the SPFL. In 2020 another change was made, The West of Scotland Football League, the East of Scotland Football league and the South of Scotland Football League were added to the pyramid as a feeder to the Lowland League.

Finlay Noble says that it is highly likely Junior Football in the north of the country could follow in the footsteps of their counterparts in the south and act as a feeder to the Highland League:

“There’s a meeting coming up on that subject between the Highland League and the Juniors. I think whatever’s below the Highland League would be the bottom of the pyramid in our area because obviously there’s a limited population and a limited amount of clubs.

“The North Caledonian League are onboard so we’re hopeful that the North Juniors will also come onboard so that it allows clubs in the North-East of Scotland to get into the Highland League. I’m sure there are one or two clubs that could easily survive and it also allows clubs to find their own feet.

 Dyce Juniors are in the Aberdeenshire FA, I think Bridge of Don Thistle are quite ambitious, Culter are certainly a capable club. Banks o’ Dee are very capable of getting into the Highland League they’ve proved that, and if they were to be in the Highland League they’re pool of players will be guys who want to be in the Highland League. What you’ll find is these clubs who want to get in the Highland League will attract the players who are happy to do that. I think one or two of them will be quite a good addition to the pyramid set up.”

The Highland League was suspended indefinitely in November after the second Lockdown was announced. Like many clubs across the world those at the lower end of the Scottish football have felt the effects of the pandemic.

Keiran was told that the Broch were one of the lucky ones because of the huge support they had from their fanbase:

“It’s certainly been tough because you never know what’s round the corner. We did get started but it was without supporters. We still had monthly outgoings, like electric bills and phone bills, that doesn’t stop.

“We were very lucky with the community we’ve got behind us. The players stopped taking their wages during the first lockdown but we managed to pay them through selling season tickets. The vast majority of those who bought a season ticket didn’t want a refund.

“The SFA have done a fantastic amount of work in line with the Scottish Government grants and the SPFL have worked hard through their joint response group. Clubs like ours have been lucky to get funding through that.

“There was time in the Summer when the club was in danger of folding. We’ve come through that and thankfully there hasn’t been a club in Scotland that’s folded because of the pandemic.”

NE98 would like to thank Finlay for taking part in this interview and we wish those at Fraserburgh FC all the best for the future.

“If we did go up, why couldn’t we go and do what Arbroath did last season?” – Montrose Captain Paul Watson NE98 Interview

By Lewis Michie

NE98 Head of Content Lewis Michie recently had a chance to sit down with Montrose Captain Paul Watson to chat about Championship aspirations, how the club has changed over ten years, his gaffer and young loanees Cochrane, Ballantyne and Mochrie.

Paul Watson knows Montrose pretty well, to say the least.

He’s done the round in Angus, enjoying short stints on loan first from Arbroath in 2009 and then from Forfar in 2010.

Eventually in the Summer of 2012 he’d join up at Links Park permanently, 229 appearances for Mo later he’s not looked back.

Things have changed quite a bit since then, the chairman, the board, most of the squad – and the big one, Stewart Petrie’s arrival in 2016.

“Since the manager came in we’ve never really looked back to be honest”

Paul told NE98 that Montrose has as solid of a base you could wish for at a football club:

“The clubs changed massively from top to bottom since I came in”

“Really since the manager came in, and the chairman changed, and he brought in a new board”

“We’ve got a really strong board and they all love the club”

Stewart Petrie is a manager that has received a lot of praise, and rightly so. Taking over from Paul Hegarty half way through the 16-17 season, they ended that campaign in a play-off spot.

That would set a precedent, the next season they won League Two, gaining promotion to the third tier of Scottish football for the first time since 1995.

The year after that, a play-off spot in League One – taking a first leg lead against Queen of the South in the Semi-Final before things were turned round at Palmerston.

Last season, before Covid put a stop to the world, Montrose were on track for another play-off campaign, and they are looking like doing it again this season.

Petrie has instilled momentum, and an atmosphere of success.

Watson told us why he thinks Petrie has been so succesful:

“Just his mannerism and his style, his man management and the atmosphere that he brings around the club is really good”

“The players know where they stand, they know what is demanded of them – and training is good”

The belief and winning feeling that goes around Links Park, a confidence that they can go toe-to-toe with anyone, especially at home, is something even an outsider feels from the club.

“Once you start that winning mentality, it’s just built season on season” Watson continued.

“He’s also told us just to believe and be confident”

It’s been a frustrating time for everyone at Montrose. They’ve got this momentum, they feel like they can push at the top of League One – but this pandemic just keeps getting in the way.

There was a confidence last season that the Gable Endies could secure another play-off spot, they are praying they get to finish the campaign this season, because again they believe.

“It was really close, we’d kind of closed the gap and we had a good bit of momentum – so frustrating”

Paul says he’s enjoying some extra family time at the weekend, but is itching to get back:

“Struggling with the suspension to be honest, to get back playing and then for them to come out and put a stop to it – I know what’s going on, it’s hard for everyone – I just thought they were maybe a bit harsh with that decision.”

“Without consulting the clubs and without having a meeting or taking on any discussion at all”

“We had an eye on trying to squeeze into that top four again”

The thing with finishing in the play-offs in League One is that you are just four games from a potential Championship campaign.

Many would argue there isn’t that much of a quality gap between the Championship and League One – supporters of the likes of Raith Rovers, Partick Thistle and Falkirk can confirm that.

Sometimes you can go up – even as a part-time club – and like for example, Alloa, you can hold your own.

But in other situations, you might just find yourself in a bit of a mismatch.

It’s the danger of being happy to be a consistent League One club, have a good season and you risk being way in over your head the next year.

But Montrose, should they end up in the Championship eventually, won’t be there by mistake – it’s an aspiration.

Watson says they take nothing for granted, and it might never come, but he’d sure like to see the ‘Mighty Mo’ get their chance in Scotland’s second tier:

“I think a lot of people would have had us going straight back down from League One”

“The first year in League One we got to the play-offs and I think if we’d have gone straight up it might have been a bit too soon, maybe more of a Brechin season than an Arbroath season”

“But why not?, the club’s really built on solid foundations now, right from top to bottom”

“If we did go up, why couldn’t we go and do what Arbroath did last season?”

The final topic Lewis touched on with Paul is one that is bound to interest our audience – the club’s group of young loan players.

It would be easy for Paul to see the three young midfielders – Cammy Ballantyne, Harry Cochrane and Chris Mochrie – as a threat to his minutes in the team, but as far as he’s concerned, they are more than welcome.

“They’ve been excellent”

“They are all good lads as well, none of them are big headed, I’ve seen it over the years the young loan players coming in and they think they shouldn’t be there, they are too good to be there”

“We’ve been quite lucky over the past few years with our loan players”

Harry Cochrane broke through very early on at Hearts, and some Jambo fans might have hoped they could have seen him break into the team this season, but it was decided he was best off going out on loan – Hearts’ loss was Mo’s gain:

“Harry obviously broke through at a really young age, he’s still only 19 it’s hard to believe”

And St Johnstone’s Cammy Ballantyne has returned from a second stint:

“Cammy Ballantyne has just kicked on and kicked on, I said to him that he needed to add goals and he has”

“I’m surprised St Johnstone haven’t even given him a sniff around the first team yet, but I’m sure it will come for him if he keeps playing the way he is”

Chris Mochrie might be the one that’s garnered the most attention online, the Dundee United youngster is very highly thought of:

“Chris Mochrie is an unbelievable talent for only being 17, sad to see him go back to United, I think he still had a lot to offer us.”

“For 17 what a player he is, unbelievable, chasing him about training trying to get the ball of him”

NE98 would like to thank Paul for taking part in this interview, and also pass on our thanks to Graham Christieson – Chairman on Montrose Supporters Club – for setting up the interview.