By Jason McKeown
Width of a Post understands that Scott Brown is on the verge of signing for Scottish Premier League outfit St. Johnstone after being informed he could find a new club, due to the extremely high likelihood of there been few first team opportunities available for him this season.
The 18-year-old Scot, who received offers from England but prefers to head back North of the Border, completed a trial match at St. Johnstone last week where he was said to have impressed greatly. He will join their first team squad.
Brown was signed by Bradford City as 16-year-old in July 2011 with a ringing endorsement by manager Peter Jackson prompting everyone to sit up and take notice.
“We feel that we’ve got a real find on our hands here. For such a young kid to come down from Scotland to a big club like ours and train the way he has done is exceptional. He’s going into the developmental squad to start with but I do believe we could have a real success story on our hands here as he’s one of the best 16-year-olds I’ve seen in a long time. My record shows that I am not scared of giving young players their debuts and hopefully I’ll by giving Scott his this season.”
That hasn’t worked out, and now the bar to first team football that Scott needed to reach has been raised even further by the club’s promotion to League One. The club is in a very different position to when he joined – not least in the fact they are affluent enough to afford four senior central midfielders that means the opportunity for Brown to enjoy a run in the side looks slim.
The fact Brown was sourced and signed by Archie Christie will automatically prompt another round of slating of the former Chief Scout and Head of Football Development and his supposed lack of judgement. But I really hope we can be spared this tiresome debate, at least until Jackson’s long-awaited autobiography is published with whatever revelations he has in store for us.
Because it isn’t the story here, the story is about a promising youth player leaving the club and what that might signify (let us not forget, Brown signed a new contract at the end of last season so clearly was in Parkinson’s longer-term plans). It’s about a kind-hearted and friendly teenager (I have met and interviewed him) having a go at moving to another country at a relatively young age and finding his development stunted. It’s about the world of difference between a hugely promising 16-year-old and the importance of those next few years getting to the level of senior football (Freddy Adu anyone?).
For there is no doubt in Brown’s potential and that it remains – he is, after all, joining a top flight Scottish side. Those who saw Brown’s City’s debut in the Bradford City XI’s 7-1 friendly over Silsden two years ago will have surely been struck by the wonderful first impression he gave us. Playing alongside Michael Flynn, Brown impressed greatly with his long-range passing and vision. He saw things others did not and had the ability to match foresight with execution. The wonderful throughball to trialist Nahki Wells still sticks in the mind. Here was a guy who could play the quarter back position Tommy Doherty had failed at and which Nathan Doyle did so well performing this season.
Another Development Squad match at Steeton one month later, another impressive Brown display. And even though the goalposts very quickly changed with the departure of Jackson and arrival of Phil Parkinson, Brown’s path to the first team still did not seem particularly long. When injuries piled up prior to a home game against AFC Wimbledon in September 2011, Brown was about to make his full debut whilst still 16. In the end Michael Flynn passed a late fitness test and so Brown was denied his big opportunity. During that interview I did with him, a few days after the Wimbledon defeat, I asked him how he had felt about the prospect of almost playing in front of 10,000 at Valley Parade and he seemed remarkably unfazed.
Alas progress then slowed. Christie’s abrupt departure causing the disbandment of the Development Squad that Brown was a member of. Scott trained with the youth team for the remainder of the 2011/12 season, with Mark Lawn admitting that he wasn’t developing at the rate the club had hoped. A relegation battle for the first team meant it was not the time to blood him and he wasn’t ready anyway. But having only turned 17, it was hardly a big concern. How many 16 or 17-year-olds have figured for City over the years?
The 2012/13 season saw Brown become more involved. Often he was an unused substitute and then at Northampton in the FA Cup in November he was awarded a first team debut. Apparently he did well and earned rave reviews from the 1-1 draw. Brown also started the replay, which I saw, and did okay if slightly struggling with the frantic pace of the 3-3 draw. His third and final appearance came at Brentford in the second round – a 4-2 replay defeat when Parkinson largely fielded reserves.
That was it for Brown and the first team, though it was a common sight to see him warming up on the pitch for away games – he would travel as member 19 or 20 of the 20-man squad – suggesting he wasn’t too far away. For differing reasons to a year before, the stakes were too high for Brown to get a run in the side. In other seasons, when the final few games see us having nothing to play for and the senior central midfielders had disappointed, Brown would surely have had the opportunity to shine.
But the progress of the club has made makes it harder for Brown to get into the team even this season. Gary Jones, Nathan Doyle, Jason Kennedy and Ricky Ravenhill – that’s a lot of injuries and suspensions to occur at one time in order for Brown to get a chance. And even if this unlikely sequence did arise, there’s every chance City would dip into the loan market anyway. That’s not a criticism of City or Parkinson, it all makes sense in the short-term. But Brown cannot wait forever and, if Jackson was correct to talk of his intention to give Brown his debut in 2011/12, he is surely at the point now where he needs first team football.
Nevertheless, Brown’s departure does offer a wider question mark over City’s faith in youth development. The last junior to make it through the ranks in a meaningful way was Luke O’Brien in 2008 – that’s nearly five years ago. The promise shown by the likes of Luke Sharry, Darren Stephenson, Forrayah Bass and Adam Baker did not transform into anything more significant. It is not the case that City’s first team is stuffed with ageing pros and that inexperienced players are distrusted; but still, the first team’s only local boy owes his development to clubs like Guiesley and Eccleshill rather than the Bantams.
The Development Squad idea was supposed to bridge the gap between impressing in the youth and reserves and getting into the first team. This season, the club has decided not to field a reserve team and although there are probably excellent reasons for it (Width of a Post was told that it was prompted by some rather embarrassing heavy defeats to sides who, unlike City, use their reserve teams to play senior reserves, which is not good for the development of our youth players) you wonder where that left the likes of Brown and whether it has hastened this decision to let him go.
As Brown failed to figure at Guiseley on Saturday, other youngsters did and life goes on in that regard. City never got to the point where they could give Brown the opportunities he needed and so his departure is not one we will keenly miss. But if at St. Johnstone he fulfils his vast potential and starts making a name for himself, back in West Yorkshire there will be an air of sadness and a few what-might-have-beens.