Football: Smith protects his youngsters

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The Independent Online
THE SCOTLAND under-21 manager, Alex Smith, yesterday warned of the dangers of overburdening young talent with the expectations of a nation as his side seek to advance their own Euro 2000 cause in Belgium.

While his senior squad counterpart, Craig Brown, stands accused of keeping faith with an ageing group of players, the Raith No 2 is currently overseeing the development of the country's emerging talent.

Paul Dalglish, a scorer on his debut for the under-21s on Friday, Gavin Strachan - another with a famous father - and the Celtic striker Mark Burchill are among those who have already been tipped to break into the full international arena.

But Smith, whose first match in charge after taking over from Tommy Craig was the 2-0 win over Estonia, insists they must be given time to develop before making the leap into the senior Scotland ranks. He said: "There is a great danger of pushing young players too quickly and it is a big step from under-21 football to full international level.

"It may be possible for one or two of these lads to be looked at for promotion to the full squad in the future, but it is certainly too early for them at the moment. We have got to be careful we don't destroy talent and try to bring them on gently, play them at under-21 level for as long as possible. International football is laced with experience and there has to be a balance."

Smith acknowledged that the Rangers midfielder Barry Ferguson, a Scotland debutant in the 0-0 draw in Lithuania last month, had proved "an exception to the rule" in recent times. And he admitted that, should any of those that play in Ghent tonight make similar progress over the coming months, he will not hesitate to advance their case if they are deemed ready.

"I will recommend any lad that comes through at under-21 level, but with due care and the confidence of knowing they can go in and handle the international scene," Smith added.

"I am very pleased that the spotlight has turned back on our young players. For too long the attention has been on imported players that have come into our game.

"We need to encourage our youngsters that there is a way forward for them and we need to produce our own quality for the benefit of our own international football."

Smith will make a late decision between Burchill and Raith's Craig Dargo - the other scorer against Estonia - as to who will partner Dalglish up front in the Belgium game. But he intends to use all four of his strikers, including Manchester United's Alex Notman, at some stage as part of counter and then attack strategy.

n England under-18's warmed up in style for next month's trio of European Championship qualifiers when they beat Italy 4-2 in a friendly international in Rome yesterday. Two goals from Everton's Jamie Milligan helped Howard Wilkinson's side to follow up last month's 5-0 demolition of Uefa champions, the Republic of Ireland, in Dublin.

The Aston Villa striker Darius Vassell was also on the mark to make it three goals in two games for his country and the scoring was completed by Liverpool's Steve Gerrard.