Celtic and Rangers kids must prove they can handle pressure
There are easier things to achieve in football than carving out a career at Rangers or Celtic.
Northern Ireland has a healthy representation at the Old Firm but with the honourable exception of Steven Davis at Rangers, the other local lads — Andy Little, Kyle Lafferty, Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt — still have to prove they have staying power in the SPL.
Hoops boss Neil Lennon clearly has faith in 26-year-old McCourt after handing him a three-year deal but it’s performances that will dictate how long a player stays at a club and Parkhead and Ibrox can be unforgiving venues.
Gers starlet Little (21) and Hoops winger McGinn (23) are diamonds to be polished but not all players are given that precious commodity — time.
Time to show that you can be part of a successful Rangers or Celtic side.
Derek Ferguson was given an early introduction to life at the Light Blues when he made his first team debut at the tender age of 15 in Tom Forsyth’s testimonial match in 1983.
A stormy relationship with his boss Graeme Souness stopped him from flourishing but he can reflect on 111 appearances for Rangers and a time when his young heart missed a few beats.
“I was given my first team opportunity at a young age along with players such as Ian Durrant, Robert Fleck, Hugh Burns and Dave MacFarlane because the club had spent all its money at the time on stadium reconstruction,” said Ferguson.
“We all played under-18s and knew if we performed to the best of our ability we had a chance with the first team and the boys today have got to look at it that way as well.
“However, can the lads handle playing in front of 52,000? At Rangers and Celtic you've got to win and win well and can they also handle the criticism that might come their way?
“It's not just about being a good player but also showing you have the right type of character to cope with all the expectations.
“And by criticism I'm not necessarily talking about from the media and supporters, but also from fellow pros.
“I've seen a lot of young guys go under.
“At under-17 and under-19 level players aren't hung out to dry by their coaches because youngsters are more mollycoddled these days.
“However, if you are in a dressing room and a top man such as Walter Smith is giving you an absolute rollocking you've got to be able to handle it.
“You've got to be man enough to take it, you can't spit the dummy.
“Walter will know best but this is a massive opportunity for the youngsters and if they don't grasp it now they never will.
“If they don't grasp it, they'll look back in future and rue the day.
“This is a big chance for them. I came from Hamilton and as a youngster I travelled every day with guys such as Davie Cooper and Nicky Walker and they were a big, big help.
“The first team players loved the youngsters coming in because we brought added enthusiasm and even a bit of extra bite to training.
“We wanted to prove we weren't just as good as the more senior pros, but even better.
“When I was young we played without fear and had a hunger and desire.”
Ferguson, who welcomed Tennents’ new sponsorship deal with the Old Firm rivals, also had strong words for Northern Ireland striker Kyle Lafferty who has kicked off a make or break season at Ibrox.
“A massive season for him? It was a massive season for him last year too and he must produce better this time around than he did then,” said Ferguson.
“He came with a pretty hefty price tag and Walter was pretty lenient with him.
“He's got to do better and I like to think he will. He'll know that as well.”
Rangers and Celtic both kicked off their SPL campaigns on a winning note at the weekend, with McCourt conjuring up one of his trademark sensational goals at Inverness.
The former Derry City favourite injured himself in the goal celebration but he will be fit for tonight’s Europa League first leg clash with FC Utrecht at Parkhead (7.45pm).