Hamilton Accies has allowed academy graduates more minutes than any other Premiership club this season.
Players who spent three seasons at Accies between the ages of 15 and 21 totaled 28.5% of Hamilton’s total league minutes this season.
By comparison, Hibernian is fourth at 20%, Celtic sixth at 14.5% and Rangers are tenth with just 7.3% of minutes for academy players.
Hamilton is still tipped for relegation and ridiculed for his low turnout or plastic pitch.
Despite the league’s lowest budget, Hamilton defied the odds to avoid relegation as bigger clubs – Hibernian, Hearts and Dundee United – failed to survive the downturn, so ‘Are accies disrespectful?
“I don’t think we get enough credit for what we do with our academy because we’re doing too well,” insists Hamilton academy George Cairns.
“When people talk about Hamilton it’s the plastic field, the lowest turnout and people always wonder why we shouldn’t be in the division.
“You listen to some radio shows and everything you hear about Hamilton is negative. Some people never want to give us any credit for what we have accomplished, especially with our youth system.
“No one seems to be able to explain how we compete with our budget, how we give academy players the most minutes in Scotland or that we have elite status.
“How was it possible for Hamilton Accies to go and play Champions League football at the Under-19 level? How did a Hamilton Under-19 team go through a full season unbeaten against Celtic, Rangers, Hibs and Hearts?
“It’s always negative things about Hamilton, but everyone is entitled to their opinion. I just think sometimes we should try to be a little more positive.
Hamilton has been awarded elite level academy status from the Scottish Football Association, which is achieved using measurable performance results.
This criterion is based on the coaches’ qualifications, facilities, medical resources, talent identification and, most importantly, national appearances.
Accies enjoys the same status as Scotland’s wealthiest clubs and Hamilton’s business model, and its ability to compete in the top flight is built on their commitment to young people.
Cairns, who has been at the club for almost 15 years, added: “Our club’s philosophy is to have our academy players play, but the manager and owners have to buy into it.
“A lot of clubs will talk about their youth systems but won’t really support it and give these players a chance.
“As a nation, we are way too critical of our young players when they emerge.
“Before the pandemic I attended a lot of youth games and there is so much talent in Scotland, but you’ve never seen them play first team football.
“If the youngsters are good enough, they will have a manager’s chance, but they have to use this platform to impress.
“Hamilton is not going to pay a life changing salary, but we will give players the opportunity to grow into a great career.
“Great Docherty and Lewis Ferguson are recent examples of graduates who have had bigger moves and have gone to establish themselves in the game.
“We had players who progressed in our academy scattered all over the country; James McArthur, James McCarthy, Docherty, Ferguson, Michael Devlin, Lee Kilday, Eamonn Brophy and Darren Lyons.
The perception of the success of youth academies in Scotland is often determined by the ideology of first-team managers.
It is imperative for the development of young players that a path exists between youth football and the first team – without it players can be lost in the system.
There are unique circumstances at each club that affect a player’s progress in the first team, but Cairns firmly believes that Accies boss Brian Rice’s commitment to young players is second to none.
He said: “Brian is fantastic and it was the same with Martin Canning, Alex Neil and Billy Reid – I worked under all of them.
“Brian will go above and beyond what is required. He spent three or four nights with me this week with the under-18s.
“He invests a lot of time in our young players and when you talk to parents they appreciate that a Premiership manager gives his time to work with their children.
“You just don’t get that at other clubs. I don’t see another Premiership manager spending so much time at the youth academy.
“He’s constantly asking questions about who’s showing up, he’s always watching our games and he’ll be cheering on the kids.
“Before the pandemic, Brian was taking training for some of the under 11s and 12s. It’s so important to have a manager who supports what we do and Brian will give the players a chance.
Across Europe, there are many top academies featuring former players within the system to help educate future generations about the club’s philosophy.
Hamilton captain Brian Easton emerged at Accies before joining England with Burnley, but he is now likely to end his career at the club he made his professional debut for.
The 33-year-old is preparing for the future by training at Accies academy and Cairns believes he is the perfect role model.
He said: “Brian’s story is brilliant. He broke through our academy, played for the first team and then moved on to Burnley and other clubs.
“He won the Scottish Cup with St Johnstone and now he’s back here. He trains with myself and Dougie Imrie with the Under 18s.
“He’s come full circle and it’s a fantastic story because he’s now giving back to the academy that has helped him have such a great career – I don’t think that’s happening anywhere else.”
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