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Put Your Money Where Your Youth Is


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Record Sport Columnist Tells Old Firm Fans To Stop Living In Past Big-Spending Days Are Over And Only Way Ahead For Our Clubs Is To Invest In Their Kids

THE credit crunch has forced some of the biggest names on the High Street to pull down their shutters for good.

If Woolworths can go out of business after a century of trading, so can Scottish football clubs born 30 and 40 years earlier.

However, the worldwide economic crisis can also open a door of opportunity for clubs such as Rangers and Celtic, as long as their fans see the bigger picture of the market in which their favourites are now operating.

Supporters must embrace a new realityand the only way to survive - and even prosper - is to rely increasingly on the development of young players to be sold on for handsome fees.

Ihave enormous sympathy for the position in which Walter Smith and Gordon Strachan find themselves.

The demandfor success from fans of the Old Firm is so insistent it's difficult to pitch even the brightest young talent into the team and give him the time to develop, make his mistakes and learn from them. It's easier to bring them through at other clubs.

At that level,it's also as much about the strength in the head as the talent in the legs and even the best prospect in the reserves might struggle with the expectation levels when he steps into the first team and plays in front of a crowd of maybe 60,000.

However, Old Firm fans are going to have to learn patience because we've probably reached the stage in which multi-million pound buys are a thing of the past. Sections of Rangers fans have listed a series of complaints about the way their club has been run, including the fact only two league titles have been won in eight years and two cups in the last three seasons.

Goodness knows how much they have forked out in transfer fees during that time but might it not be better if fans are now forewarned success cannot be guaranteed but the promotion of young players can? It may make barren periods easier to endure in the future.

Rangers, and probably also Celtic, will now become selling clubs rather than buying ones and fans must acknowledge the position their teams hold in the wider European sense.

They could compete with the best on the continent in the 1960s and early 70s but broadcast revenues have helped change that.

These days clubs such as Aston Villa, who cannot hold a candle to the big two in terms of fanbase, dwarf them financially because of TV money and can come in and pick off players such as Stilian Petrov and Carlos Cuellar.

There's little point in Rangers and Celtic continuing to throw buckets of money at their squads to win the SPL as even Champions League riches soon won't be guaranteed.

After next season our champions and runners-up will find it even tougher just to make the group stages so we've reached a crossroads and it's time to assess priorities.

The Old Firm have both qualified for UEFA Cup finals in recent years but the chances of repeating those achievements will not be as good. Rangers and Celtic can still compete at a decent European level but supporters are living in the past if they think they can return to their glory days on that stage. I've long argued the Old Firm now occupy a position in the European game similar to that of Dundee United in the Premier League.

We've managed to compete due to prudent purchasing and youth development and it's the only route for them now to follow, although greedy agents make it much more difficult to hang on to young players.

Arbroath invited me to Gayfield last Friday to watch them take on a young Rangers select and I was really impressed by the likes of John Fleck and Aaron Niguez in the Ibrox ranks.

They had a young defender, Danny Wilson, on the bench against St Johnstone and hopes are also high for kids such as Jamie Ness, while Celtic have boys such as Ryan Conroy, Simon Ferry and Paul McGowan catching the eye.

Only time will tell if they're good enough but one of the most important commodities in which the clubs will trade in the next few years will be the understanding of their fans.

More than ever they must realise their clubs can only spend what they earn and if that means occasional troughs in terms of trophy success while they develop more of their own it might be a price worth paying.

That's not pessimism, it's realism. The ongoing financial stability of both clubs is far more important than anything else.

No one turned up to watch Woolworths staff do their jobs on a Saturday afternoon but their stores will still be sorely missed. It would be a pity in years to come if we're saying the same about our major Scottish football clubs.

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