Football is awash with stories of players with bags of potential that never quite ‘make it’.
Dundee United head of player pathway and loans Brian Grant calls them ‘inbetweeners’ and says it’s his job to help them find their way.
It is a role he has held since the start of 2019, following the arrival of American owner Mark Ogren to Tannadice, which has seen him guide the likes of Louis Appere and Logan Chalmers from the fringes to first-team fixtures.
Often, but not always, this is through loan moves to clubs further down the pyramid where former Aberdeen stalwart Grant monitors their progress with a view to getting minutes for Micky Mellon’s top team.
The 56-year-old carries out his duties with a great sense of responsibility and weight on his shoulders, insisting the trajectory is not always as straightforward as fledgling to instant Terrors star.
“You’re trying to be a connector between the academy and the first team,” Grant said.
“When the new owner and Tony (Asghar) came in they felt they needed someone to bridge the gap for guys that are too old for the youth teams but not quite ready for the first team.
“They’re almost like inbetweeners – staring into an abyss where they might lose their way.
“We wanted to develop players as not to lose them and give them a bit more time.
“It’s good for the young players to have a familiar face there that they know and can trust and come speak to.
“It’s almost like a mentor role and, with the transition of a new management team, it gives them somebody they can speak to about players they don’t know much about.
“In the last six to eight months there’s been quite a number of young players that have made their debut for the club and had exposure to the first-team environment.
“We’re working with them at St Andrews every day and monitoring the loanees – their training schedule, what they’re doing at loan clubs, who’s covering games at the weekend and analysing reports.
“We’ve got around 10 out on loan at the moment and we’re trying to gather as much information as we can.”
Although moves down the divisions or elsewhere is often about playing games, Grant insists it is not the be all and end all for individual development.
He cites young winger Chalmers and 25-year-old Tangerines attacker Cammy Smith as two very different examples.
Grant continued: “It’s still really about playing games, for me.
“They’re getting experience of playing senior football and closer to making an impact at United. Training will never replicate that.
“We can get hung up on playing games because it’s the whole purpose of going out but, sometimes, they can learn from just being there.
“It can be hard to measure the success of a loan. A ‘bad loan’ can have its advantages later – for example Logan went to Arbroath last season and didn’t play much at all.
“He thoroughly enjoyed the experience, however, being in that environment working under somebody like Dick Campbell and he’s reaping the rewards now. He’s a more mature player for it.
“We have young Chris Mochrie at Montrose doing the same with Sean Dillon, Andrew Steeves and Stewart Petrie. They’re experienced pros with the right attitude.
“You’re trying to add value to them and, in some cases, it will be an avenue for making their next move.
“A good example is Cammy, whose contract is up in January, because he’s at a different level as a more experienced player.
“We’re still trying to help him get something as part of his exit strategy so he’s not just leaving in January with nowhere to go.
“We’ll, hopefully, keep him here for the remainder of the season and look at something longer term after that.”
‘Changed days but don’t bin hairdryer treatment’
The model Grant is working under is very different from his playing days at the Dons in the 1980s and 90s and latterly in spells with Hibs and Dundee.
However, the former midfield man insists he and fellow-experienced coaches Dave Bowman and Stuart Garden are embracing the modern game.
He added: “The roles probably existed but not as it does now. It was probably a harsher environment that we had – it was a case of just getting on with it.
“The generation now is completely different. I don’t think we’d get away with what happened in our days and I don’t think players would respond in the same way.
“There are some older players that like that but there’s others that are more introverted and we need to know that.
“I’m not saying we should go back to the hairdryer treatment but we can’t totally bin it. At times, you still need that discipline and standards.
“The players and coaches all know that. However, it’s a slightly different world we’re in now compared to a generation or two ago.
“In terms of the technology side of things, you have to adapt. There’s so much more resources at hand to tap into for players.
“Whether that’s video analysis, GPS, diet and nutrition or sports science, there’s more ways to help and add little gains.
“It might just be small percentages but that can be the difference between winning and losing a game. That’s why we need to give them all the tools we have at their disposal.
“There still needs to be that human element as well, though, that we trust them and they us.”
Youth development is in Dundee United’s DNA
Grant has been at Tannadice since Craig Levein was manager and admits he’s seen a big change in the Tangerines’ approach to youth development over the years.
One thing he believes hasn’t altered, however, is the quality of player they’re producing – insisting developing their own talent is in the club’s very DNA.
He commented: “There’s been huge investment in that side of things.
“The performance strategy is developing our own players with the view to them playing in the first team or selling them on.
“That conveyor belt, hopefully, will just keep going and going. We’re still producing lots of players and there’s plenty talent bubbling under the surface at the moment.”
He continued: “I’ve been at the club since the Craig Levein days. It was around 2009/10 I came in and started working with the academy.
“He left for Scotland soon after myself and Ian Cathro came in.
“I was the senior academy manager and Ian took care of the junior academy. It was something similar to what Andy Goldie does now but the scope was very different.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes at the club over that period of time – some good and some bad.
“There’s always been a rich history of youth development here. It’s in the DNA of Dundee United.
“We’ve a proud history of producing our own but there’s been a lot of ups and downs.
“When we came in United were a top-six club, qualifying for Europe on a regular basis, getting to cup finals and competing at the top end.
“Obviously, though, there was a few changes of managers and quite a lot of change in leadership at the club as well.
“Unfortunately, that led to relegation and four years in the Championship, which was quite difficult in terms of cost-cutting at the club and not enough investment put into the youth side of things.
“There was still talented players there, they just maybe didn’t get the opportunities they’d had previously.
“There’s a pathway there now, though, and our kids only have to look at the likes of Ryan Gauld, Johnny Russell, Stuart Armstrong to see the different possibilities.
“The rewards will come if you do well enough.”