Every year across Scotland, a handful of young men fulfill their boyhood dreams when they sign full-time for a football club. Here at YFS we're putting the spotlight on the new kids on the block who've just made the grade from youth academy level to the professional game, as they make the next step in their promising careers. Here, focus is on Hamilton Academical.
Alan Hansen once famously said “you can’t win anything with kids” but the management staff at Hamilton must have not watched Match of the Day that week because for years now they have prided themselves on a strong ethos of youth development. Hamilton finished 53rd, two places above FC Barcelona, in Europe for percentage of minutes played by home-grown players last season and were the only UK team in the top 100 clubs. A fantastic honour which when paired with the fact that they are entering their fourth consecutive season in the top flight of Scottish football, just shows the true extent of the success of their youth academy in recent years.
Some youth academy graduates have also gone on to taste remarkable success down south in recent years, James McArthur and James McCarthy being notable mentions with their moves to Wigan in 2009/10 going on to win an FA Cup final just three years later, but also Stephen Hendrie who signed for West Ham United in 2014 and midfielder Daniel Armstrong who transferred to Wolves in 2015.
This conveyer belt of gifted Scottish players doesn’t seem to be stopping either as we look at the next vein of players signing their first professional contracts at the Superseal Stadium.
Goalkeeper Connelly alternated most of the Under 17 season last year with Kieran McDougall as both gave many memorable performances to repeatedly knock each other out of the starting 11. Connelly helped Hamilton to a fourth place finish in the league and a sizeable goal difference of +46 but he really showed his talents when the team travelled to Normandy in June to play in the ESMGO International Under 17s Tournament. The competition featured other reputable youth teams such as Charlton Athletic who have produced Chris Powell and Danny Murphy in the past and Dinamo Moscow whose youth graduates include Russian internationals Pavel Pogrebnyak and Aleksei Ionov.
Hamilton went on to win the competition for the second time in a row, with Connelly in the squad both times but he was given more of a chance to shine this year as his opposite number Jon McCracken had moved to Norwich, therefore giving the number 1 shirt to Connelly. Hamilton only conceded three goals as Connelly and his defenders were awarded the trophy for Best Defence.
Ross Connelly was also chosen to represent the Scottish Schools FA Under 18 team in April still aged 16 where he kept a clean sheet to help Scotland to their first victory in the Centenary Shield competition over Northern Ireland since 1986.
This amalgamation of great performances in the league, international competitions and being chosen for the Schoolboys national side resulted in him being offered a full-time professional contract with Hamilton where he’ll train and play in the Under 20s team with a view to eventually make his first team debut. And that opportunity could come earlier than expected as many players have made their debuts at 17 like James McArthur, James McCarthy came into the team at 15 and Mark Hill, who later moved to Celtic, sat on the substitutes bench as young as 13, so Connelly should know that he has a great chance of breaking into the first team as long as he keeps up the hard work he has committed to in his career so far.
Douglas was another of the players to be in the ESMGO International Under 17s tournament winning team as the centre back helped secure a watertight defence which helped them lift the trophy again.
He was a pivotal part of the defence both in France and domestically as Hamilton conceded the second least goals in the league. Douglas was appointed the vice-captain of the Under 17s team and wore the armband in the absence of Lewis Smith.
Hamilton has been sending a team to the D&K Lafferty Cup pre-season competition in Oban since 2003, for the third time in four years they lifted the cup despite only fielding a squad filled with 17-20 year-olds. Despite this, they won the competition with ease, scoring 13 goals in the four games and conceding none. This competition came just after Douglas signed his professional contract so the Hamilton management staff would have been happy to see him continuing his fantastic defending ability into his career as a now full-time player.
Wilson made his debut for the Under 20s aged just 14 when he was subbed on for player/manager Martin Canning in April 2016. From then on, the defender has been regularly playing in the Under 17s and represented Scotland at Under 16 level in the Victory Shield where he opened the scoring in a 2-0 win over Northern Ireland.
Wilson has made many of the same achievements that the other players mentioned so far have made, but Wilson is remarkable in the way he has done them at such an early age. Wilson travelled to France in 2016 at age 14 and again in 2017 where he started in the final in the youngest team in the tournament. Wilson was also in Oban where his defence didn’t leak a single goal. Wilson seems like a real talent who should be earmarked by scouts all over Europe.
The final player to sign full-time for 2017-18 was Leon McCann, a fullback which means you could almost make up a back four and goalkeeper just with the players who have signed professional this season. McCann was in Oban, started the final in Normandy and was a fifth of that defensive 5 which got Hamilton their fourth place finish in the Under 17 league amongst strong Rangers, Celtic and Aberdeen teams.
McCann was a graduate of Braidhurst high school which was designated a Scottish FA Performance School in 2013. This was the initiative – Scotland United: A 2020 Vision – set up by the former First Minister Henry McLeish and Stewart Regan, the chief executive of the Scottish FA, as they aimed to have Scotland perform better at all levels by 2020. One of the pillars of this vision was the seven performance schools which were set up to nurture the best Scottish talent and get them involved in local teams with a view to have them in the national team one day. Leon McCann is a prime example of one of these players trained by Braidhurst High School and now signing a professional contract with Hamilton Academical, Hamilton also has two other Performance School graduates in their u17s ranks in the forms of Kieran McDougall and Marley Redfern.
Judging by the rapid progress of these players and the history of Hamilton’s famous youth academy, the manager Martin Canning can be confident that his club will continue to have a vast pool of confident, gifted and already experienced players coming up the ranks pushing for a first team place. The work of George Cairns in the youth academy has been excellent in recent years so Hamilton supporters should begin learning the names of these players because they will undoubtedly be walking out to the thousands of fans at the Superseal Stadium in no time.