Rangers Academy Season Review: A Long Read

By This Is Ibrox
 June 8, 2021

With season 2019/2020 being curtailed and the COVID outlook being very much an unknown I was surprised the club were looking at the new season with optimism in terms providing sufficient game time for the forty-seven players between the B Team and U18 squads. I kinda predicted what would happen although even I didn't see quite the impact the pandemic would have in competitions being cancelled.

With the Challenge Cup being pushed back it was quickly followed by the UEFA Champions Youth League which had a proposed start date of 2nd March 2021.

The B Team's only option for competitive action was looking like the Glasgow Cup and a decision was made to complete the previous season's tournament before starting the 2020/2021 version. So the B Team played three competitive games, a goalless draw at home to Queen's Park in November, followed by a three goal defeat away to Celtic and a 2-0 win at Clyde thanks to a Glenn Middleton double. Although a Queens Park v Clyde match is still outstanding, Rangers and Celtic will finish second and first respectively and were due to meet in the final which has still to be played.

The only other game time was in a series of bounce games against a variety of teams from BSC Glasgow to East Stirlingshire. The situation worsened with the Challenge Cup being cancelled for the season on 11th January with the UEFA Youth League going the same way on 17th February.

A number of players were part of the first team squad and early decisions on loan moves were made on a few players. Nathan Patterson, Glenn Middleton, Leon King, Ciaran Dickson, Jamie Barjonas and goalkeepers Nicky Hogarth, Brian Kinnear and Jay Hogarth or all with the first team at some stage during the season. Stephen Kelly (Ross County), Robbie McCrorie (Livingston), Jake Hastie (Motherwell), Lewis Mayo (Dunfermline Athletic), Kieran Wright and Rhys Breen (Partick Thistle) and Cammy Palmer and Matthew Shiels (Clyde) all moved on loan in July/August. With Josh McPake (Morton), Kai Kennedy (Inverness CT), James Maxwell (Queen of the South), Danny Finlayson (St.Mirren), Zac Butterworth (Edinburgh City) and Lewis Budinauckas (Civil Service Strollers) following in September/October. Krystof Hampl from the U18 squad left the club in August for Czech lower league FC Hlinsko.

With the situation becoming more and more a problem for the players above Under 18's and not within the first team testing bubble. The club did a really good job in getting all players above Under 18's and not with the first team out on loan. First of all there was a few changes with players already out on loan. Josh McPake moved to Harrogate Town for the second half of the season, Kai Kennedy swapped Inverness for Kirkcaldy moving to Raith Rovers, Rhys Breen swapped Firhill for Palmerston and Zac Butterworth moved to try his luck at

Clyde after struggling for game time at Edinburgh City. Cammy Palmer completed his time at Clyde and moved on a permanent deal to Linfield.

From Christmas through March it really was a revolving door going in one direction as the club tried to secure loan moves and game time for a multitude of players. Nicky Hogarth (Cowdenbeath) was first out on Boxing Day, January saw Glenn Middleton (St. Johnstone), Ben Williamson (Arbroath), Jack Thomson (Clyde) and Dapo Mebude (Queen of the South) all move out on loan. In March Ciaran Dickson joined his three colleagues at Palmerston, Kane Ritchie-Hosler teamed up with Jack Thomson and Zac Butterworth at Clyde, Brian Kinnear joined (Annan Athletic), Kyle McClelland (Falkirk), Harris O'Connor and Chris McKee were joined by Under 18 player Adam Devine at Brechin City. Fellow Under 18 players Arron Lyall and Cole McKinnon joined Inverness Caley Thistle and East Fife respectively. Last to leave was Murray Miller who headed North to Elgin City. Umaro Balde left the club with "mutual consent" in February.

Under 18 League
No sooner had Rangers allowed three Under 18 players to go out on loan when a belated and truncated U18 League was announced starting on April 9th. It would consist of nine teams playing each other once before the league splits in to a top five and bottom four who play each other again, giving the top five teams a total of twelve games. The winners will be Scotland's representatives in next seasons Champions Youth League (Although if the first team qualify the U19's will automatically play in the Champions Youth League group stages).

Until this point the only game time had been a series of friendlies, although there was a lot of players needing game time and multiple substitutions were the norm results were disappointing, winning only four of the sixteen games played and suffering heavy defeats to St. Mirren and Hearts.

Rangers started the league campaign well with narrow wins at home against Kilmarnock and Dundee United and a more comfortable victory away to Hearts. Next up was a home game against Celtic and the youngsters twice lost a lead before falling behind and it took a superb Alex Lowry free kick to secure a point. At this early stage Rangers, St.Mirren, Hibs and Celtic were setting the pace and were already looking good bets for the top five.

Rangers got back on the winning track with away wins at Hamilton and Hibs and a home win over Aberdeen which had them looking good at the top of the table. In the final games before the split Rangers looked to be consolidating their position at the top with a two goal lead at St. Mirren around the the hour mark, but St. Mirren stormed back with three goals in barely a ten minute spell to inflict Rangers first league defeat. With Rangers, Hibernian, St. Mirren and Celtic secure in the top five, the other place was between Kilmarnock and Aberdeen. Kilmarnock needed to match Aberdeen's result to pip them.

With Aberdeen at home to Dundee United and Kilmarnock away to Celtic it looked like the Dons would be favourites. They did their bit with a 3-1 home win but Killie's 2-0 win away saw them secure the 5th spot.
The impressive Alex Lowry missed the St. Mirren game and having broken his arm in the previous game against Hibs and he was out of the remaining games. This seemed to coincide with a drop in form as Rangers fell to a further defeat away to Kilmarnock. They bounced back with a comfortable win over Hibs but then lost to Celtic at Broadwood. Rangers were still sitting top but with one game left, while three of their rivals had two the league was still wide open with all five teams still in with a chance.

With Rangers sitting out the midweek fixtures St. Mirren took on Celtic while Hibs hosted Kilmarnock, a positive result for any team in these games would have really boosted their chances. Rangers would have been hoping for a draw in both fixtures and would have been delighted when it finished 1-1 at Hibernian and 2-2 at St. Mirren. These results put an end to both Hibs and Celtic's chances, Hibs had now completed their fixtures and were a point behind Rangers while Celtic were four points behind with one game remaining.

So Rangers went into the final game at home to St. Mirren knowing a point would be enough, they could even afford a single goal defeat, as long as Kilmarnock did not beat Celtic by four goals. It might have been in the back of the Rangers players minds that in three friendlies and a league game against St. Mirren they had lost all four. All that was irrelevant as goals from Charlie Lindsay, Arron Lyall and Rory Wilson secured a 3-1 win, while Kilmarnock lost by the same score at home to Celtic.

Rangers finished on top for the third consecutive season and secured qualification for the UEFA Champions Youth League. Hopefully this will prove just to be a fallback option and the first team make the groups stages of The Champions League, which would ensure the Under 19's participation in the group stages of the Champions Youth League.

In what has been a very strange season the short format of the Under 18 league over April and May has worked well. For some reason in Scotland there is a reluctance to promote it and results and league tables are difficult to come by. Over a longer season the fixtures are spread and cancellations many, meaning there can be a big imbalance in games played at different points in time, thus giving a false impression through league placings. The short format and all games being played when scheduled made tracking the league's progress much easier.

Loans
In this strange season Rangers had close to thirty academy players out on loan at some stage of the season. I would split these loans in to four categories.

Category One - Players who have progressed and looking to step up on their loan experience, this would include the likes of Josh McPake, Kai Kennedy and Lewis Mayo.

Category Two - Players moving on their first loan, with a chance to impress and show they can make a step up. James Maxwell, Ben Williamson and Rhys Breen for example.

Category Three - Players coming to the end of their Rangers contracts which won't be extended and a chance to put themselves in the shop window. Jamie Barjonas, Danny Finlayson and Matthew Shiels spring to mind.

Category Four - Players moving on loan purely in search of game time. Jack Thomson for example, whose injury problems have restricted his time on the pitch in recent seasons. With no other options for games time the likes of Chris McKee, Murray Miller and at the time Under 18 players Arron Lyall, Cole McKinnon an Adam Devine.

A couple of players now appear to be at a crossroads in their career. Robbie McCrorie on loan at Livingston for the season probably disappointed, never really nailing down that first team spot making only 18 appearances in total. Glenn Middleton is in a slightly different position, only moving to St. Johnstone in January he made 14 appearances scoring three goals, culminating in a Scottish Cup win. If Glenn can't become part of the first team squad it may be time to move on.

A few players will be returning to pre-season training following positive loan moves and will be keen to find out where there next step lies. Can they break into that first team squad or is it a step up in quality and another loan move. Josh McPake took to the physical demands of England's League Two after spending the first half of the season at Morton. He made a total of 33 appearances scoring four goals, with the highlight being a Wembley win in the FA Trophy, held over from last season. Another player who's loan spell was split over two clubs was Kai Kennedy, spending the first half of the season at Inverness Caley Thistle before moving to Raith Rovers where they reached the play offs. Kai made a total of 29 appearances scoring two goals.

As a defender Lewis Mayo probably didn't grab the headlines of the previous two but he had a solid season at Dunfermline Athletic also reaching the playoffs where he was on the losing side to Kai Kennedy's Raith Rovers. Both James Maxwell and Ben Williamson excelled and probably exceeded expectations at Queen of the South and Arbroath respectively. James making 32 appearances and scoring four goals from left back. Ben scored once in 18 appearances, impressive stats considering he only moved to Arbroath in January.

Another who had an impressive second half of the season was Rhys Breen, after a frustrating period at Partick Thistle he moved to Queen of the South in January. He finished the season on 22 appearances and one goal. Rhys along with Jack Thomson (for reasons already mentioned) will continue their development at Orange County Soccer Club over the summer.

Dapo Mebude and Ciaran Dickson both moved to Queen of the South in January and March respectively. Dapo making 12 appearances and scoring twice, Ciaran appearing on seven occasions. Rumours of off field issues would appear to have impacted both in their time at Palmerston.

It was a mixed bag for players in the third category and coming to the end of their time at Rangers. Following a spell at Clyde, Cammy Palmer secured a permanent move to Linfield in January. Another who impressed at Clyde was Matthew Shiels before injury requiring an op cut his loan short, but he'd done enough to secure a pre-contact with Hamilton Accies. Danny Finlayson looked to be struggling for game time at St. Mirren, but he made a big enough impression to secure a pre-contract with the club. Jamie Barjonas had a disappointing loan at Ayr United but I'm still surprised to see him sign for Kelty Hearts. I would have thought he would have remained in full-time football, perhaps Scottish Championship or lower league England. Nicky Hogarth impressed with seven clean sheets in sixteen appearances for Cowdenbeath and shouldn't be short of offers. Zac Butterworth struggled for game time at both Edinburgh City and Clyde, but hopefully will secure something over the summer.

As I have said previous the final group was all about getting players out to secure game time. It is likely a loan move for a few of these players was not really in the plans but any football was looking unlikely if they stayed at Rangers. Chris McKee and Harris O'Connor got decent game time at Brechin City who were ultimately relegated through the playoffs by Kelty Hearts. Time on the pitch was poor for Murray Miller (Elgin City) and Kane Ritchie-Hosler (Clyde). While of the three Under 18 players who went out on loan Cole McKinnon (East Fife) and Adam Devine (Brechin City) made quite a few appearances but in Arron Lyall's case the choice of Inverness CT was probably pitched too high at this stage in his career and be got very little game time.

Players Moving On
Jamie Barjonas - Although it was a disappointing loan spell at Ayr United I was a bit surprised to see Jamie sign for Kelty Hearts. I was sure he would have remained in full-time football, possibly even in the SPFL but certainly in The Championship or English lower leagues. I first saw Jamie as an Under 13 but playing in an Under 14 game against Queens Park at Lesser Hampden. I was of course also at his first team debut as a sub against Partick Thistle in May 2019.

Cammy Palmer - Born in England, brought up in Canada he represents Northern Ireland with his dad being from Belfast. It was an Under 12 friendly against Wolves when I first saw Cammy and he scored in an 8-3 win. Never quite made the top team but following loans at Partick Thistle, Orange County SC and Clyde he moved to Linfield on a permanent basis in January.

Danny Finlayson - Danny has signed a pre-contract with St. Mirren following a loan spell there in the past season. Once again he was a younger player playing up at Under 13's against Queens Park at Lesser Hampden. Another ground breaker with a loan move to partner club Orange County SC.
Matthew Shiels - Another who has secured his future signing a pre-contract with Hamilton Accies. First time I watched Matthew was in that Wolves Under 12 friendly, back then he was an attacking player but in recent years has become established at left back. He has had a few loan spells with his latest at Clyde catching the attention at Hamilton Accies.

Zac Butterworth - Queens Park seems to be a theme here as it was in a game at Toryglen when I first saw Zac. A midfielder who joined Rangers from Alloa Athletic, his recent loans at Edinburgh City and Clyde have not been great but he'll be looking to get something over the summer.

Nathan Young-Coombes - Confrirmed by the club that he is leaving and the statement mentioned he was moving to an EPL club, so I assume he is joined Brentford as rumoured. Joined Rangers from Chelsea and looked a good prospect but for whatever the reason it didn't work out. Hasn't been around the club this calendar year.

Harris O'Connor - Slightly surprised at this one but I haven't seen Harris play for over a year. He was on Charlton's books and when the family moved back north he joined Kilmarnock. Rangers paid a development fee for Harris in January 2017 as an Under 16 player and first saw him in a game against St. Mirren that month. Played regularly on loan at Brechin and shouldn't be short of offers.

The last three are shrouded in a bit of mystery and rumour which I'm not going to comment on. By a strange coincidence the first time I saw all three was in an Under 12 "Play on the Pitch" game at Ibrox against St. Mirren.

Brian Kinnear - From training the first team and on the bench in Poznan to going out on loan to pretty much sit on the bench at Annan Athletic. Talk of a new contract seemed to be shelved and he has been on trial at Birmingham City.

Ciaran Dickson - First team debut against Falkirk in the League Cup and a contract extension to 2021 announced in January. Loan deal at Queen of the South was terminated early and now on his way out of the club. Was rumoured to be leaving last summer and spent a short time on trial at Sheffield United.

Dapo Mebude - Made his only top team appearance in May 2019 at Rugby Park. Moved to Queen of the South on loan this season. His two goals in eleven games and some decent performances will ensure there won't be a shortage of interest in his services.

The club haven't said anything on the status of a few Under 18's, there could be a couple leaving the club.
A few U16 players have not been offered terms and have left the club. Brodie Kerr, Euan Ross, Kole Connelly, Elliot Dunlop and Tiaman Scott are currently trialing at other clubs and all will hopefully get somewhere to continue their career. With the exception of Tiaman Scott who joined Rangers on the demise of the Forth Valley Academy at Under 14's, I saw the others as Under 13's players.

At the moment only four Under 16's have been offered contracts with a decision on the remaining players to be made shortly.

Lowland League
With the proposal for Rangers and Celtic colt teams getting approval for next season it is interesting times ahead. It's almost certain that Rangers will play their home games at Dumbarton. With the rules on the squad confirmed I think any fans expectations need to be tempered. The colt team rules state the team should be Under 20, with one U21 outfield player and an Under 21 goalkeeper allowed. I believe Rangers proposed one outfield player over the age of 33, which would allow an experienced head on the pitch, possibly a player coach but this was rejected.

In reality the Rangers team will probably be Under 19, in the season gone by Rangers had nine players between U18 and U20 who out on loan got decent game time at least two divisions above the Lowland League. With it looking like only a handful of Under 20's will be on the books next season (unless we recruit some), and some of them likely to go out on loan at a higher level. Even the Under 19 group looks like only numbering around ten for the coming season it will be a young squad. Under 18's will be pushed up which will obviously impact on the team we field in the under 18 league. The Lowland League will total 38 games over the season so a decent sized squad will be required, I would expect some players to be recruited over the summer.

Written by Elfideldo (@rfcyouths)
Check out Elfideldo’s blog here for more fantastic youth related content: https://rfcyouths.wordpress.com

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