AFTER spending eight and a half years overseeing the development of the next generation at Firhill, Scott Allison is moving on for the next step in his coaching career. But the former Thistle Weir Youth Academy director is confident that the future is in safe hands in Maryhill.

Allison’s time at the Glasgow club was turbulent, to say the least. From promotion to the Premiership, an enforced demotion to the third tier and working under three different managers – not to mention the investment from Colin Weir, the late Euromillions winner who pumped money into the club’s academy – it’s been a roller-coaster spell with the club.

With Allison dotting the is and crossing the ts on an exciting new opportunity beyond these shores, he has been reflecting on his work with the Jags. And with a pathway from youth level to the first team now established – something he reckons is the greatest challenge facing Scottish academies – he has every right to look back on his efforts and feel a sense of pride.

“I’d been at Thistle for eight and a half years but after all that time, I felt that the academy was in a good place,” he explained. “So when this opportunity came up – I’m at the stage where I’m ambitious and I want to see if my methods work in different cultures and to learn in a new environment.

“I just felt the time was right to hand over the reins onto the guys that are there. There are a lot of good players on the cusp of coming through so hopefully we see a few more of them kick on and join the first team.

“We started up when Alan Archibald was manager. We had just been promoted to the Premiership and the plan at the time was to get an academy structure that would fit within our new status, and we did that. Then when the first team was relegated, there were a number of players – and this is well-documented – like Kevin Nisbet who had come through at the time and started to drop off. The reserve team was cut back and we ended up with a gap.

“It’s more to do with Scottish football though – Project Brave had come in so there was only under-18s football and first-team football. I still feel there’s a big jump for a lot of the kids to make. In the last couple of seasons I was trying to bridge that gap.

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“Ian McCall was different class when he came in and we worked quite closely together to make sure there was a togetherness and an approach where young players would get exposed to the first-team environment if they were good enough. We did that last year in difficult circumstances with the lockdown.

“The current batch below that, the under-17s and the under-18s – I know Ian thinks really highly of a lot of them. That’s something we’ve worked really hard on the last couple of seasons: to forge that link between the academy and the first team.”

It is a path that has not always been well-travelled in Glasgow’s west end but Allison feels this has changed in recent years. Home-grown players such as Aidan Fitzpatrick and Liam Lindsay brought in hefty fees when clubs down south came calling while others like James Penrice became important members of the first team. Allison insists that Weir’s investment cannot be overlooked.

“In October 2013, Colin came in to support the academy financially and it just transformed everything,” he recalled. “We had teams from under-11s through to under-17s and that led into the full-time under-20s squad – the one with Liam Lindsay and Jack Hendry – so we were able to build that pathway from the community level all the way through.

“Colin was really keen – his aspirations weren’t about developing players for the Thistle first team; he just wanted to see young kids get an opportunity through football. We had a huge grassroots programme and we created so many opportunities for thousands of kids, regardless of their ability or their age. There have been a lot of trips abroad, a lot of good experiences of playing in tournaments. It really did help us build the whole structure.

“The benefit of Colin’s investment is still to come in terms of the end product because those players are in the system now. It’s a shame Colin can’t see it because I know how excited he was about it but his investment totally transformed everything we do.”

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Weir’s financial backing has been a game-changer for the Championship club’s academy but Allison insists that McCall – famed for his man-management and his trust in young players – also deserves his fair share of credit after a number of youngsters have made the step up to the senior team and been handed their professional debuts since the manager’s return to Firhill two years ago.

“The manager is brilliant,” he said. “On a personal level, I had a great experience and got to see three different management styles. Alan Archibald was new into the job and did well in the Premiership, and it was disappointing when he left.

“When Gary Caldwell came in, there was a lot of turmoil about the place. He had a tough job. Then when Gary moved on, Ian came in and I think he had the toughest job out of the lot. There was so much to deal with and I think he’s doing a fantastic job.

“Ian was different class with me as he showed a real interest. He was coming to games, always showing interest and coming to my office asking how the players were doing. He got familiar with the players’ names and their families – he just showed a real interest.

“Once he was able to see the picture, he knows what players he can trust now and that’s why you’re seeing boys at 16 getting debuts and getting involved in first-team squads.

“He’s a really good judge of a player: you can see that in his recruitment. What stood out for me is that he would ask for four or five names to join training and I would recommend some players I thought could step up, and he would come back and say he agreed.

“Everything that he was saying was stuff we had been saying for a number of years so he’s definitely got an eye for a player. Then when the players were going in, he’s got that ability to connect with them and look after them.

“He knows what ones need support, what ones need a wee bit of a challenge because he’s done his research. He’s been a breath of fresh air for the club and I think Thistle are in good hands for as long as Ian McCall is there.”

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The self-sustaining nature of the Jags’ youth set-up is another point of pride for Allison.

“When we were setting up the academy there were three things that we looked at: we wanted to develop players first and foremost for the Partick Thistle first team; we wanted to develop players to represent Scotland at different levels; and we also wanted to develop players that could get a financial return for the club,” Allison explained.

“Liam Lindsay was in the youth system before Colin Weir’s investment came in but the transfer fees were structured so there was a kickback to the club and a small contribution back into the youth academy. Aidan [Fitzpatrick] went for around £350,000. So there have been good financial returns.

“We wanted to develop an academy that was self-sustaining so the fees we’ve brought in have helped us to build a structure that’s sustainable. The club don’t need to put any finance into the academy model so that was a real bonus.”

The likes of Fitzpatrick and Lindsay represent success stories for the Thistle Weir Youth Academy but there are also one or two that didn’t get a chance in the first team before flourishing elsewhere. Scotland internationalist Nisbet is the obvious example but there are others – such as Dylan Tait, recently signed by Hibs, and Kyle Turner, now back at the club as a first-team player – that also slipped through the net.

“Kyle was unfortunate because he was in the system when we were in the Premiership,” Allison recalled. “We recommended that he go full-time but there were too many midfielders already in the first team. Kyle went away and played with men from a young age and he’s came back now as an asset for the first team.

“Dylan was another one and it was the exact same: there were too many full-time players ahead of him. He was a talented midfielder for us but there was no room for contracts when he was taking the step from under-17s to the first team. He’s done really well too.

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“Back when we were in the Premiership there were a lot of full-time players but now we have a smaller squad and I think the model is better. With a smaller first-team squad, there’s a better pathway there for young players to step in and train, make the bench, make their debuts and go on to become long-term starters for the club. In the past boys never had that chance.”

Allison continued: “The strategy now is that these players would go out on loan and the age group below that – I think they’re good enough and the manager thinks they’re good enough to go on the bench at times. The win-win situation we’ve created this year is that the older ones are out on loan playing and the younger ones are getting the experience of being around the first team.

“James Penrice was one who really benefitted from going out on loan. He went to East Fife and then Livingston and went on to play over 100 games for us by the time he was 21. Wee Fitzy didn’t go out on loan but he came through and played 30-odd games in the Championship.

“Young players need to get games against men: that’s the biggest challenge. Banzo [Stuart Bannigan] was great for all the young players as well. He’s a great example for all the boys – he shows there’s a pathway there at Thistle if you want to stay there in the long-term.”

Allison is taking a short break before he gets his feet under the desk at his new job and is putting the time to good use by visiting clubs across the UK, picking up pointers and seeing how some of the better-financed youth teams operate. And the good news for Thistle supporters is that a lot of what he has seen has been pretty familiar, by and large.

He added: “Before I take on my next challenge, I’m taking a wee bit of time out to reconnect with friends and travelling around the UK, seeing a lot of different club structures. It’s been reassuring because I’ve been to a couple of clubs and a lot of what I’ve seen is similar to what we do at Thistle. It gives me confidence that there are a lot of good things being done.”