The 2017–18 SPFL Development League season kicks off in earnest exactly four short weeks from now and here at YFS we’re taking a look at the season ahead. We’ll round up the latest news, cast our eyes over the recently released fixture list and highlight the most enticing match-ups, and provide insight on some of the most exciting up-and-coming stars to watch this season. You can also check out our preview of the Irn Bru Cup draw, featuring Scottish Premiership ‘colt’ teams, here: http://www.youthfootballscotland.co.uk/component/k2/item/19680-irn-bru-cup-2017-18-preview.html
The shape of the league will be different to last year, as three clubs made the controversial decision to quit the Under 20s set-up. Rangers were the first high-profile side to do so and will instead embark on a year-long programme playing against teams from south of the border and across Europe. Inverness Caledonian Thistle also left the league along with Dunfermline Athletic. Rangers finished sixth last season, whilst Caley were second-bottom and Dunfermline placed tenth.
Inverness Caley’s Highland rivals – and last year’s champions – Ross County, will open the season with a trip across the A96 to play Aberdeen in what also looks look the most interesting encounter of the opening round of fixtures. County won both ties between the sides last year but key players from the league-winning side, including top scorer Greg Morrison, have stepped up to the first team.
Hamilton Accies, runners up last season, face St Johnstone while third-placed Celtic, who finished with the best goal difference in the league in 2016-17, travel to Falkirk.
The second round of fixtures plays host to two big city derbies, the first Edinburgh derby of the season, and the Dundee derby. Hibs, who’ll be without the league’s top scorer last year in Oli Shaw who moves up to the senior team, welcome city rivals Hearts and the Dundee sides lock horns with United taking up the away dressing room first. The return fixtures are February 13 for the Dundee derby and March 27 for the Edinburgh derby.
Accies and Motherwell were the highest and third-highest scoring teams in the Development League last season, and the Lanarkshire sides’ first meeting is on October 3 at Motherwell, with the return match played on the penultimate week of scheduled fixtures.
SPFL Development League opening fixtures, to be played Tuesday August 22, 2017:
Aberdeen v Ross County
Dundee United v Motherwell
Falkirk v Celtic
Hamilton Accies v St Johnstone
Hearts v Dundee
Kilmarnock v Hibernian
Partick Thistle v St Mirren
But that’s enough about the teams themselves and we’ll now turn our attention to the players. The Development League’s modus operandi is to promote players to the first team, so who will be the ones to watch this season?
Ieuan Williams of the Dunfermline Press believes it’s too soon for Ross County duo Ross MacIver and Davis Keillor-Dunn to break into the first team just now, but that should not be taken as a slight on the pair. “Another season in development under Stuart Kettlewell's guidance can only aid their cause if they manage to break into the senior squad. Both are comfortable with the ball at their feet and beating their man, and while Keillor-Dunn is a more natural winger, MacIver is versatile, adept at playing on the flanks or through the middle when required.”
Kieran Green has taken charge of many Academy matches during his time as an SFA-licensed referee, and thinks highly of two attacking midfielders, Dundee United’s Declan Glass (photo, right) and Harry Cochrane of Hearts. On the former, he said: “He’s a player I have refereed in school games and a couple of Club Academy games also. Technically gifted with the ball at his feet, and a player with a tremendous attitude and personality on the pitch. He will go far in the game.” Speaking about Cochrane, he said: “His playing style is a true number 10, in the hole. He’s very physically mature for his age.”
Ronnie Charters, sports reporter with Radio Clyde, reckons Ronan Hughes of Hamilton Accies and Celtic’s Michael Johnston are must-watch talents.
“The Accies have a reputation for producing top young talent, none more so than the two James’s - McArthur and McCarthy - in the last decade. Ronan Hughes is the latest teenage prospect exciting the coaching staff at New Douglas Park. Martin Canning has high hopes for the gifted playmaker who’s came right through the ranks from the Accies’ Under 11 side but is keen to see him continue his development at Under 20 level.
“When you think of a Johnstone playing on the wing for Celtic, many will think of Jinky. But Celtic could have a new lord of the wing. Michael Johnston is fast becoming one of the hottest talents in Britain and recent performances saw him linked with Premier League Champions Chelsea. Johnston put in an impressive performance to help the Hoops' Under 20s secure a Scottish Youth Cup triumph over arch rivals Rangers last month.”
Callum Scott of the Burst Baw Scottish Football Podcast has high hopes for Kilmarnock FC starlet Innes Cameron. He said: "The striker has already been dubbed as the next big thing to come out of the Killie youth academy by manager Lee McCulloch, and it comes as no real surprise. The teenager was one of the many bright sparks to shine for Scot Gemmill’s Under 17s at this year’s European Championships in Croatia, bagging a vital goal against the Faroe Islands. The frontman was also subject to an approach from English Championship club Derby in the summer, the fee believed to be £200,000, but Kilmarnock were able to hold onto their youth prodigy, and Rugby Park is the best place for Cameron to be at this stage in his career."
And a final thought from me on Celtic’s Jack Aitchison. Aitchison is a name known to more than just Celtic fans, thanks to the fact the 17-year-old has already made the first team appearances in the league for the Hoops and has an impressive record at international level with Scotland. But it’s only this season where he’ll officially make the step up from Under 17 to Under 20 football, but there’s nothing standing in the way of the forward firing his way to the top of the scoring charts - and into Brendan Rodgers' thoughts once again.