Ryan Christie | Meteoric Rise

29/12/13.

When Ryan Christie debuted for Inverness Caledonian Thistle versus Celtic, few beyond his hometown club envisioned that he’d eventually sport the famed green and white jersey of his opposition.

Christie’s meteoric rise over recent months will have come as little surprise to fans of the Highlands based club. Initially introduced into an Inverness side transitioning towards a more technical style of play, he impressed in his debut campaign.

“The moment I came to the club I saw his talent and he needed to be training with the first team” – John Hughes, Christie’s former Inverness coach

It was the following season, however, in which both Inverness and Christie flourished. In the clubs most successful season to date, Inverness finished third in the Scottish Premiership and won their first Scottish Cup.

Christie was integral to Inverness’ success, often deployed as one of three attacking outlets in midfield. It was merely his first full professional season of his career, yet Christie’s undeniable ability to distribute and dribble combined with his game awareness and impeccable attitude allowed him to shine in an already impressive side. Club success coincided with personal success for Christie as he was voted the Scottish Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year and like his father before him, he’d agreed a deal to sign for Celtic.

Initially loaned back to Inverness the following season, Christie was later recalled and introduced to the Celtic squad in January. Game time was reduced for the remainder of the season under Ronny Deila and it appeared that Christie would suffer a similar fate to his father, who failed to make a first-team appearance for Celtic.

Little changed after the clubs appointment of Brendan Rodgers the following summer as Christie’s opportunities remained limited. Interest was shown in January by Aberdeen, who flexed their tendency to sign ex-Inverness players, and signed Christie on an initial six-month loan deal.

Christie flourished and his stint with Aberdeen totaled a season-and-a-half. Similarly to his spell at Inverness, his attacking prowess was utilised as part of an attacking trio. Similarities in his game remained from his time in the Highlands, however he’d added final product to his game.

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Consistent goals and assists made Christie an important player in an Aberdeen side that finished second over two consecutive seasons in the Scottish Premiership.

“Celtic made it clear that he has to go back for pre-season… Brendan said he’s part of their plans going forward, so that for me kills it unless it changes from Celtic’s point of view.” – Derek McInnes, Christie’s former Aberdeen coach

Despite clear intentions from Aberdeen to retain Christie, he instead returned to Celtic Park this summer. After consecutive treble-winning seasons, it was questioned whether Christie could emerge from the periphery at Celtic.

All doubts have since been quashed in a career-defining month. Including and beyond Celtic’s semi-final triumph versus Hearts, in which he contributed to all three goals, Christie has assisted six and scored four in nine starts for club and country and has proved integral in both League Cup and Nations League successes.

“I always felt he could come back and then make a contribution because you need that personality to play for the big clubs and play in big games… Since he’s come back, he’s shown that. He’s come into games, he started games and you saw his impact.” – Brendan Rodgers, Christie’s current Celtic coach

Christie’s renaissance as a Celtic player is nothing short of spectacular and with his self-belief and the continual confidence of his coach, Christie will be an asset for both club and country for some time.

“When I first came up here, he used to be Charlie Christie’s son and now Charlie is known as Ryan Christie’s dad.” – Brendan Rodgers, Christie’s current Celtic coach

Both Charlie and Ryan are remembered fondly from their time in the Highlands, as local Invernesians who were integral figures in some of Inverness’ most successful periods. While Charlie wasn’t able to replicate that form for the duo’s boyhood club, it appears that Ryan will. Ryan Christie isn’t only living his dream, but that of his father too.

Scottish National Team | Problems with the SFA

France ‘98.

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Scotland’s most recent endeavor in a major tournament was twenty years ago. Similarly to what’s since followed, it proved underwhelming. The lack of progression by the Scottish National Team since is concerning and the blame lies with it’s governing body. The Scottish FA.

A detailed look into the SFA’s efforts to rectify the nation’s failings in recent years does little but dishearten. The evidence is damning.

Coaching in Scotland is undoubtedly an issue and recent managerial appointments such as Alex McLeish and Gordon Strachan only personify the underlying issues.

‘The UEFA A Licence is a coaching licence mandated by UEFA, the official governing body of European football. The licence is one level below the UEFA Pro Licence and allows holders to be head coaches of youth teams up to age 18, reserve teams for top-flight clubs and men’s professional second-tier clubs.’

In short, the UEFA ‘A’ Licence is integral in order to become a manager / coach. In Scotland, the cost of obtaining this license solely is £2,740 comparatively to an estimated cost of £700 in Germany and £1,000 in Spain.

If a Scottish coach took the conventional route to earn their coaching badges, following the main (youth/adult) coaching pathway, upon completing the UEFA ‘A’ Licence they’d accumulate at least £5,257 worth of debt.

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It’s unrealistic to expect an influx of successful Scottish coaches when the progression is so inaccessible.

Similar issues have arisen in terms of player development. The SFA’s dismal attempt at youth development, Club Academy Scotland, has done little other than cause further issues.

It was founded upon unrealistic targets that projected a figure of 75% of Scottish Premiership players would be of Scottish nationality by this point, a target way off the mark. In fact, that statistic currently shows as a mere 45%.

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It’s these unrealistic targets that are harming youth development. Overestimations of the talent pool available to a nation of Scotland’s size and stature have resulted in the programme becoming oversaturated with players. Club Academy Scotland’s capacity for youth players is currently over 3000, spread over 31 pro-youth academies, while a country of Germany’s footballing success, stature and populous accepts it has capacity for merely 500 more.

While failing to cultivate the nations coaches and players, the SFA also continues to fail the countries league structure, Scottish Professional Football League.

An underwhelming TV deal has left Scottish football behind other European leagues in terms of resources. The SPFL has merely the 18th best TV deal in Europe, £18.75 million, and is paid insufficiently in comparison to other leagues. Austria, Sweden, Switzerland and Poland to name a few have healthier TV deals, while Norway and Greece’s deals eclipse the total granted to the SPFL. SPFL’s joint deal with Sky Sports and BT Sport clearly isn’t as financially beneficial for the league as it should be.

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Amidst the current speculation that Sky Sports and BT Sport are battling it out for the acclaimed SPFL TV rights, it’s important the correct broadcaster is selected. While Sky Sports are rumoured to be offering a greater sum of money, an estimated £40 million, BT Sport’s refined and refreshing approach to presenting the SPFL leads many to believe that they should be the sole broadcaster of the Scottish game.

It’s not like a country of Scotland’s standing shouldn’t be able to compete on the international front. Scotland’s populous of over 5 million eclipses that of successful footballing nations, such as the 4 million inhabitants of World Cup ‘18 finalists Croatia or the infamous Iceland, with a populous of little over 300,000. Even the home nations have improved in recent international tournaments. Scotland were the only home nation who failed to qualify for the most recent European Championships, while all other home nations progressed through their groups.

It’s reasonable to critique the SFA for it’s recent questionable choices, such as the league cup semi-final stadia issues alongside the Paul Gascoigne hall of fame debacle. Yet it’s the fundamental failings to correctly serve the nations coaches, youth players and league itself that is truly unforgivable.

Athletic Bilbao | Self-sufficient

There’s no football club more self-sufficient than Athletic Club Bilbao.

Bilbao, founded in 1898, are one of three founding members of the Spanish Primera División never to be relegated, alongside Barcelona and Real Madrid. Unlike their domestic counterparts, Bilbao aren’t subject to paying extortionate transfer fees or associating with super-agents, due to the clubs cantera policy.

The cantera policy limits players whom are eligible to sport the famed red and white jersey. There’s a sole reliance on those native to the Basque Country, where the club is based, or have graduated from the club’s cantera youth academy.

“Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación” (English: “with home-grown talent and local support, you don’t need foreigners”).

Contrary to popular belief, the Basque ideal has not always been implemented at the club. Bilbao originally composed of two separate teams, Bilbao Football Club and Athletic Club, with the former composing of British workers while the latter was formed by Basque students. Competing together for the first time under the alias Club Bizcaya to win the Copa del Rey, later to be renamed Athletic Club Bilbao with the cantera policy soon following.

Success hasn’t stopped there for Bilbao. 32 titles ranks the club third in Spain’s all-time honours list.

Outside perspectives regarding the club are mixed, with the club gaining both admirers and critics for their philosophy. Yet an ‘El Mundo’ poll in the 1990’s revealed that an astonishing 75% of the fan base would rather the club be relegated than scrap the cantera policy. Some would be shocked to learn that the cantera policy is only an unwritten rule within the club, though there has never been an attempt to undermine it since its introduction.

“It’s not written into our constitution that the team has to be all-Basque. It’s just a philosophy we’ve had from the start and we see no reason to change. We would rather go down than change our habits, I know the supporters feel the same”. – Fernando Garcia Macua, former club president.

Bilbao’s success relies on cohesion between the cantera and the clubs lezama training facilities. The lezama training facilities are integral to the club’s success, as they host first-team training sessions and are home of the cantera. This results in many squad members experiencing the facilities as a youth prospect prior to as a first-team member. Several squad members also begin their transition to the first-team either via Bilbao’s Segunda División B side, Athletic Club B, or Bilbao’s affiliate club, Club Deportivo Basconia. Kepa Arrizabalaga is an infamous example.

Arrizabalaga epitomizes the successful nature of Bilbao’s facilities. Progression to the first-team came via CD Basconia, followed by the cantera and Athletic Club B before his opportunity in the first-team arose. Arrizabalaga raised international attention after first-team success, which resulted in Chelsea paying a world record fee of £71.6 million for the goalkeeper this summer. This progression certainly isn’t an anomaly at Bilbao. Javi Martínez, Ander Herrera and Aymeric Laporte are merely some whom have trodden similar passageways and have reaped the rewards of Bilbao’s facilities.

It’s a passageway that results in success for the players themselves while also allowing the club to profit. Javi Martínez, Ander Herrera and Aymeric Laporte were signed for a total fee of little over £12 million and have accumulated over £125 million in transfer fees for the club.

Albeit Bilbao are liable to selling their finer talents, provided they receive an adequate fee, they certainly can’t be regarded as a ‘selling club.’ Bilbao’s current first-team squad is a blend of both youthful talent and accomplished professionals. Iñaki Williams and Iker Muniain represent talent previously touted for top-tier clubs across Europe, while Aritz Aduriz continues to improve with age.

Bilbao’s financial position is the envy of many Spanish based sides. Bilbao remain untroubled while clubs struggle with the leagues distribution of TV revenue. ‘Palco 23’ revealed that as recently as the 16/17 season, Athletic Bilbao were one of only three clubs avoiding net debt in the Spanish Primera División. In fact, the club posted profits of £28.2 million for that season.

The cantera and lezama have directly enabled profitability for the club as they ensure a continued fruitful production line. While these facilities receive large funding from the club, results both on and off the pitch ensure that these facilities continue to be beneficial.

Athletic Bilbao will remain a footballing anomaly based on modern football’s current trajectory, yet, they’re both thriving and eloquently balancing supporter satisfaction, financial stability and competitiveness while remaining self-sufficient.

Rúben Neves | Age is a condition, not a sin

Seleção Portuguesa de Futebol. Individuals such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Luís Figo have instilled an ideology into the nation and increased expectations on their future produce. Aged only 17 years and 5 months, Rúben Neves was the latest talent to be burdened by this weight of expectation.

Debuting in the Primeira Liga for boyhood club Porto, Neves defied expectations and became the club’s youngest ever league goalscorer. Neves continued to break records when just five days later he made his debut in the Champions League and became the competitions youngest ever Portuguese player. Further records were accumulated in the following Champions League season as Neves became the competitions youngest ever captain, aged just 18 years and 7 months. These records alongside his performances in central-midfield highlight the maturity of Neves.

“He has so much quality and that compensates for his lack of experience. Being young is a condition, not a sin.” – Julen Lopetegui, Neves’ former Porto coach

Neves is often compared to current teammate João Moutinho. Similarly to his compatriot, he’s a central midfielder with great technical ability. Neves is often praised for his passing ability, particularly over some distance. His ability to shoot from distance has also proved to be an asset, including in his debut season with Wolves where all six of his goals came from outside of the box.

When Wolves signed Neves in a deal worth £15 million last summer, it was a deal that shocked many. Neves had previously been linked to some of Europe’s elite and this deal signified somewhat of a coup for Wolves. The economics of the deal were largely influenced by notorious football agent, Jorge Mendes. Mendes works both as an adviser for the owners of Wolves, Fosun International, as well as the agent of Neves. Despite Neves arriving in the Championship with an enhanced reputation, some doubted his ability to adapt. It didn’t take him long.

His debut season in England would be filled with success. Neves was an integral part of Wolves Championship winning side and was also nominated for the Championship Player of the Season award. While he lost out on the award to Ryan Sessegnon, he’d collect a trio of club awards. Player of the Season, Players’ Player Of The Season and Goal Of The Season. It was clear that Neves hadn’t just adapted to his new surroundings, he’d excelled.

Speculation was rife this summer linking Neves with a move away from the Molineux Stadium, yet Wolves announced that he’d signed a new contract extension with the club until 2023. Wolves represents stability for Neves whom had previously struggled for game-time during his concluding season at Porto. He’d hoped to have made an impact for his native Portugal during this summer’s World Cup, but unfortunately he wasn’t selected beyond the preliminary 35-man squad. If Neves can influence this Wolves team in the Premier League he’ll undoubtedly add to his six senior caps to date.

Neves made his senior international debut in a friendly versus Russia, receiving his call-up as a result of an injury to João Moutinho. Neves had already established himself as a regular in the Portugal setup, having played from the U16’s to the U21’s up until this point, including leading the U17’s side to the semi-finals of the 2014 European Under-17 Championship and reaching the final of the European Under-21 Championship. While Neves has played his part in tournament football for the youth setups, he’s only appeared for the senior squad in international friendlies. If Neves can continue on his upward trajectory, there will be little debate regarding his future inclusion for both the UEFA Nations League along with the UEFA European Championships in 2020 as Portugal defend their title.

Neves has started his debut Premier League campaign brightly. Combining in midfield with summer signing João Moutinho, the duo have impressed versus a revitalized Everton side and Premier League champions Manchester City thus far.

Neves has also expressed a desire to return to his boyhood club, Porto, at some point in his career.

“It’s a career goal to return to wearing the FC Porto shirt, if it will be in the short or long future, I cannot say. Football doesn’t allow this kind of perspective.” – Rúben Neves

While Neves returning to the Estádio do Dragão would be an intriguing prospect, Neves is capable of playing for any of Europe’s elite further in his career.
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