It’s easy to feel a measure of sympathy for Jack Harper, the Spanish-born Scotland footballer currently on the books at Real Madrid.  Through no fault of his own, the 19-year has set off a debate in Scottish soccer that has seen the likes of Craig Brown, Ian Cathro, Kevin Gallacher and Graham Hunter all weigh in with their opinions.

So what’s been the cause of this very Scottish controversy? Scotland Under-19 coach Ricky Sbragia opted to leave Jack Harper out from his squad. A surprise decision perhaps but one that Sbragia has every right to do as he is the coach. However it was his justification for Harper’s omission that has prompted the outcry and led to a larger discussion about the direction of the game in Scotland.

Before we delve in to the intricacies of this debate, it’s important to know what Sbragia said. Building up to the matches against Austria, Italy and Croatia, Sbragia explained: 

“Our concentration is on the opening game with Austria (which Scotland won 2:1) and we’ve deliberately got more height in our squad. That’s one of the reasons why Jack isn’t in.

“Unfortunately, I don’t see enough of him in action. The last time he was with us, he did OK, but I wanted a little more impact. At Real Madrid he can float all over the place, which he does. But with us, he has to be more disciplined.

“He’s an exceptionally gifted lad, but sometimes we can’t carry him. He can be a luxury sometimes. In some cases, if it’s going well, he can be a good luxury.

“Listen, Jack’s time will come. The last time I spoke to him, he wanted to really settle in at Real Madrid and find a place there. That’s been a big thing for him. I’ve gone with the boys I’ve seen most in the last six months. We keep tabs on Jack and see video clips of him. We have people over there who keep their eye on him.

“There are others I’ve left out like Dominic Thomas at Motherwell who will have gripes that they’re not in the squad.  But I’ve picked a group of 18 which will hopefully do well for us. It’s my opinion and I’m not saying it’s right. But the squad I’ve picked is an extremely strong one.

“I can only pick 18 when I really could have picked 26 or 27. I’ve gone for a physical side and runners. Hopefully I’m right. It’s purely tactical and there certainly hasn’t been a lack of enthusiasm from Jack about playing for Scotland.”

There are quite a few things to unpack in that statement.

First, Sbragia hasn’t banished Jack Harper into the international wilderness.  It is entirely feasible that if Harper progresses into the Real Madrid first team squad (easier said than done), he will in all likelihood become a full Scottish international on the proviso he’s not capped by Spain first.

Second, he mentioned height which is a rather more confusing justification. Harper stands at 6ft 1in so he’s not exactly on the short side — sleight perhaps but not small. Was Sbragia more concerned about the Real Madrid player’s heading ability? Former Scottish international Kevin Gallacher was dubious citing his own playing career:

“I don’t believe in it. I stood at 5ft 8ins and under 11 stone when I played my best.  It’s about the talent, how you can play for that team and if you fit into it. For me, that’s a football player.”

Third, Sbragia admitted that he didn’t see Harper enough. Now that is an interesting statement to say the least though he did qualify that by stating that there are people there observing Harper’s progress. Spanish football expert Graham Hunter (who happens to be a Scot) was scathing in his assessment when the Scotland U-19 coach made that admission.  Hunter reasonably claimed:

“This coach isn’t in a full-time club job, and one of the complaints of all who coach at international level is the lack of day-to-day contact with players.

“What they DO have is time. Time to study, time to follow players’ development. If Ricky hasn’t seen a lot of Jack … then WHY not?

“Games in the Madrid youth system are easy to follow, there’s no reason not to have taken in five or six of them in person or via a scout”.

Another point worth raising is that if Sbragia didn’t see Harper enough, then how can he label the youngster a ‘luxury’ player?  Surely to form that kind of conclusion the coaching and scouting team at the very least should have seen him play enough times at Real Madrid and in close quarters to make that decision. Again Hunter shot down Sbragia’s assessment and conduct:

“Quality is never a luxury. High technique is never a luxury. If the coach has an issue with Jack’s work rate he should a] tell him in private b] help alter that.

“Personally, having seen how Jack plays, understanding his will to play for Scotland, and having suffered too long without Scotland having sufficient high quality players in our playing pool I think this is a retrograde step, almost impossible to understand and extremely disappointing”.

Is the footballing public being seduced by the name Real Madrid?  It’s not every day that a Scottish talent is progressing at one of the leading clubs in world soccer but then again there’s no guarantee that Harper will fulfill his potential.  Former Scotland boss Craig Brown opined: 

“The name Real Madrid hypnotizes people.  They have hundreds of development players; you can’t simply say because he plays for Real Madrid he’s got to play for Scotland.”

That said Graham Hunter made the point that the Real Madrid youth system is not a place for those short of the highest quality:

“They cull every year if you’re not good enough, if you’re not athletic enough, if you’re not intelligent enough, if you’re not professional enough – you’re out”.

Finally, Sbragia said that the choice to omit Harper was a purely tactical one. This is a tough statement to consider too. Is the focus purely results driven hence the decision to take a more physical approach? Is Harper incompatible with the other players in the Scotland Under-19 squad? Is this the footballing identity that Scotland wants to pursue?  The under-19 coach explained:

“It would be great to have eleven technical players, but that doesn’t happen now. The more games I see, the more it is becoming physical and the height factor. It has gone back to that now.

“They say ‘let’s play from the back’. There are not many teams that play from the back now, maybe the top four or five. They launch it and play off the second ball.

“Set-plays are a big part of it now. We lost a set-play against Finland and one against Norway. At that time, we were on the edge of maybe being too small and it was a concern.

“I looked at what I saw in Austria, Italy and Croatia – and they are big, physical teams – so that is the idea behind the squad I have got now.

“If it had been different depending on the draw, it might have been a different squad.”

Sbragia’s observation about the game becoming more direct could be interpreted in a couple of ways. Is he simply being pragmatic to the changing nature of soccer? Is he being reactive rather than trying to forge his own path? To be fair, the game has been favoring teams that are quickest to transition from attack to defense and vice-versa though his description of sides launching and playing off the second ball does suggest that he’s looking to go direct.

However judging from his quotes, Sbragia has clearly decided to take a pragmatic approach rather than an ideological one. As he admitted if the draw was different his squad make-up may have been too. That again throws up the question of results versus player development and what’s valued more.

Will that style of game suit the likes of Harper, who has been described as an intelligent, technical player? Can the team adapt to Harper’s interpretation of the game? Is the focus on the team stifling the development of individual skill? Former Scottish FA Performance Director Mark Wotte, who labeled Harper as Scotland’s answer to Robin van Persie, has railed against emphasis on results rather than the development of players. In an interview with Inside Futbol, Wotte claimed:

“I’m not sure if academy managers in Scotland have picked up what is essentially the most important aspect for current football youngsters: to be recognized as individuals with their own potential and DNA, to be treated as football pupils/students, to be educated as world-class footballers and prospects for their clubs and to become part of a better future within the first team or somewhere higher up with a decent return on investment”.

He went on to elaborate his fear that Scottish football would stagnate or even go backwards when it comes to developing talented players.

On the face of it, Sbragia’s justification does seem to hark back to an outdated style of football favoring graft over talent. Graham Hunter bemoaned the dropping of Harper stating:

“This is a horrible day for the future of Scottish football – if we want to play well, intelligently, maturely, in a cosmopolitan, European style.”

Of course, everyone associated with Scotland wants to see the team play well, intelligently and maturely but do they necessarily want it done in a ‘cosmopolitan, European’ style?

Ian Cathro, the Scottish assistant coach at Valencia, warned against his country trying to copy the model of other nations:

“History says that Scottish football does have a tendency to shy away from the technical players in favor of the more physical.  We’re Scottish. We should not try to be Portuguese or Spanish because we will just get beaten. Scottish football has its own values and there are ways of making progress with a particular type of football. But you must always respect who you are, what you are”. 

Scottish soccer needs to figure out its values though and what it wants to pursue on the pitch. Realistically, Scotland is not going to compete for major titles any time soon.  So do the powers that be focus on athleticism over technique as the future of the Scottish game and get the likes of Jack Harper to conform within the system?  Do they want to play a more progressive game and let players express themselves?  Can a convenient middle be found?  Scotland, at the moment, will not produce a similar number of players with the same technical ability as Spainish so Cathro is right insofar as warning against copying the styles of other countries.  That said it still seems strange that a player of Harper’s skills can be overlooked.

The focus has been on Jack Harper’s omission but it does the whole debate reflect fairly on the abilities of the other player within the squad?  Harper was labeled a ‘luxury’ player with the inference that he is tactically ill-disciplined but inadvertently the rest of the under-19 squad have been tagged as just tall, physical runners which seems hardly fair on them either.

It just goes to show how a few words, no matter how well intentioned, can change the perception of things.  Sbragia deserves credit for being honest and after seeing Scotland beat Austria and draw against Italy his young team could seal a spot in the European Under-19 Championships if they can get a positive against Croatia.  However he has painted himself into a corner not only by seemingly abandoning technique in preference for athleticism but also the need now to produce the results to justify his decision.

If Scotland fail to qualify for the European Under-19 Championships then the door for a Jack Harper return will be well and truly open.  If Scotland make it then Sbragia will be justified in his squad selection, for the short term at least.

More importantly should results at this level of the game take precedent over player and team development?  Does development beget results or is it the other way round?  Results and player development are not mutually exclusive either.

Harper’s father said that Spanish footballing authorities enquired about Harper’s availability once they learned he was dropped from the Scotland squad.  The nightmare scenario for anyone involved with the SFA would be seeing Jack Harper score the winning goal in a competitive match for Spain against Scotland.  That couldn’t happen, could it?