Raith Rovers’ relegation and subsequent hunt for a new manager may have kept the first team plans on hold over the past fortnight, but for Craig Easton’s league-title winning Development Squad, work has been ongoing to build on a successful first season.
Three more youngsters were signed up to the squad last week as it prepares to enter its second year of operation – Jack Smith and Kieran Dall, two 17-year-olds from Glenrothes, and Euan Valentine (16) from Livingston – taking the number of apprentices on the club’s books up to nine.
All three join from the Fife Elite Academy – the youth programme shared by Fife’s four senior clubs – having regularly featured as trialists for the Rovers U20s in the Development League East title-winning campaign.
And the message from within the club is that all the youngsters on the club’s books will be given more first team opportunities following relegation to League One.
Easton told the Press: “One of the best bits of the job is offering contracts to these promising kids. They are young and eager, and each one of them has shown something. You can never tell what will happen, or whether any one of them will become a professional footballer, but they are three lads with great attitudes that will do everything they can to make it.
“I’m really looking forwad to working with them.”
Valentine is described as a robust left back who can get up and down the park, while Smith, a striker with an eye for goal, spent time training with Benfica last season. Dall, who came through the Glenrothes Strollers age groups, is a skilful forward who can also play on the right.
They will join fellow youngsters Jamie Watson, James Berry, Ryan Stevenson, Finn McLeod-Kay, Kyle Bell and goalkeeper Rory Brian in the Development Squad.
Easton’s work with the youths, and his overall positive impact on the club, saw him rightfully considered for the vacant first team manager’s post, but after speaking to the board, the 38-year-old decided against putting himself forward.
“It’s a hard one because my ambiiton is to be a manager – it’s just not the right time,” he explained.
“I’m one year in this job, and it’s went okay, but I think I’ve got more work to do with the boys I’ve signed, and to put a structure in place that the club can benefit from for 10, 15, 20 years to come. There’s a long-term plan there and I don’t think I’ve got enough in place yet.
“It’s an honour to be considered for the position after only one season at the club. I wouldn’t rule it out sometime in the future and if we were talking two or three years down the line it probably would have been the right time. This time last year I was on a building site, so I’ve got to be happy with where I am at the moment.”
The pain of relegation was felt by everyone at the club, including Easton and his boys, but as far as his U20 squad is concerned, things will continue to operate as they did in the Championship.
In fact, Tom Phillips, the Raith director with responsibility for the youth set-up, reckons the drop to League One football may, in fact, benefit the youngsters at the club.
Phillips explained: “When you look back on its first year, you have to feel that the development squad has been successful, and Craig Easton is a big part of that.
“My only disappointment is that our young players hardly featured in the first team. The way the season panned out limited their opportunities, but now we’re in League One, I think the situation is dramatically different.
“We’ll be going with a much smaller first team squad than we had this year, and while relegation is an enormous disappointment, if you’re an apprentice or a youngster offered your first professional Raith Rovers offers you an enormous opportunity now. These guys will have to figure in some shape or form for us to get through the season.
“We’re all still hurting after relegation but we accept where we are, we have to learn some lessons from last season and we have to rebuild and regroup. These young boys have to be part of the solution and the rebuilding going forward.
“I’m excited because I can see opportunities for them, and anyone who watched the development squad playing in the second half of last seasonwill agree that some of these youngsters are capable of doing a job for the first team.”
Phillips conceded, however, that it should not take relegation for youngsters to be given their chance.
“Managers play young players when it’s safe for them to do so,” he said. “Whenever pressure is applied, young players get shoved to the back of the queue.
“There seems to be a lack of belief that young players can respond to difficult situations. I accept that they need to learn their trade and build up their experience but sometimes young people can surprise you, not just in football but in all walks of life.
“I wish that not only at Raith Rovers, but in Scottish football in general we created a culture where it was easier to use young players, and they actually get more opporutnies to play first team football, which would enhance their development significantly.
“But the way the culture is in the game, and the pressure on managers, it probably needs directors to be a bit clearer to managers over what’s expected. Maybe we should be dictating our aspirations regarding young players and how we want to see them used to managers who come in. We need to change it and we need to get young players on the pitch. They are our future.”
Raith’s Development Squad is resourced partly by a fund which asks supporters to contribute a monthly deposit. There are also donations from supporters groups and fundraising events, while the club has also ring-fenced cash. To sign up for the Player Development Fund, visit www.raithrovers.net/player-development-fund.