YEARS ago when I was at Aberdeen, I got sent off in a friendly, and Sir Alex sent me up to Huntly to play with the kids the next again night.

We had a young boy at centre-forward, and the centre-half smashes him. And I mean smashes him. Then at the corner kick, the guys says to him politely ‘Where did I get you son?’

He says ‘Just on the top of my foot there’. And the centre-half slams his foot right down on that exact spot again. It was brilliant, I couldn’t stop laughing. But there is a serious point here.

I only have a page, and I could fill the full paper on the topic of youth development. Something I hear a lot, and it has started to really annoy me, is the term ‘pathway’. And the more I think about it, the more obvious it is that people being given a clear path is a huge part of the problem we have in developing players. We’re shovelling five thousand kids through a pathway when really, maybe between a couple of hundred and a maximum of one thousand should be on it.

On the 'pathway' to becoming a top footballer, there has to be an element of having to deal with hurdles. Can they deal with a bobbly, grass pitch? Can they deal with expectation?

For me, that’s why the Colt teams playing in the Lowland Leagues has to happen. Academy football is so clinical and so nice.

Years ago when I was at Celtic, I didn’t think reserve football was all that great. I was all for the under-23 league, until I seen it in practice. Sometimes you’ve got to hold your hands up.

It wasn’t real football, nobody was interested. Nobody knew or cared what the score was, there was no pressure from media or fans. Some players got a false sense of smugness about them, I noticed it at Celtic. It was easy. They were never tested. Then at the weekend, they are still Celtic players, but they aren’t doing anything.

The worst of it was that there was a rule that you had to have so many Scottish players on your bench at that time, so I was leaving out two or three hungry players for these kids. Some of them you couldn't get out on loan, because they knew they were going on the bench and would be picking up bonuses. They were getting the rewards through false pretences.

It was a nonsense. You had plastic pitches, plastic atmosphere, plastic everything.

I’ve been all over since then looking at youth development. To Athletic Bilbao, Man City, Spurs, the Eastern Bloc countries, all over the UK. And in the UK academies, especially at the top level, the thing they always told me they couldn’t do was produce characters. People who can stand up to things, both physically and mentally, that can deal with things without throwing the toys out of the pram. How do we do that?

It all comes back to hurdles. Not a clear pathway, where you let everybody up without putting pressure on them or asking questions of them. Because when it comes to a crisis and they are playing against players from real hard backgrounds who are hungry and will do anything to win, it spooks our players because they are so used to this sterile football.

Playing in the Colt teams in the Lowland Leagues is one way to address that. You won’t be on the best of pitches, and you have to deal with that. You are up against men who are desperate to win, and you have to deal with that. I know the academy coaches are delighted with it. It gets players out there, and it tests them.

Guys who will be working at the gas board on the Friday will be coming up against these young guys from Celtic and Rangers and saying ‘Here we go!’ When you are playing these lads who are part-time and they're hungry, you’ll soon find out who wants to be a player.

A footballer can play when the time is right for him, when the surface is right for him, when the opposition is right for him. A player can play any time, anywhere, in any conditions. And that’s the difference.

So, I think the Colts teams are a great thing. It will be beneficial for the Lowland Leagues. And it will give young kids a real idea of what it is like to be a football player, because a lot of kids I meet right now are delusional. They actually think they are working very hard, but I don’t think it is even near 50 percent of what the real top players put into their game.

At 64, I didn’t think I would be having sleepless nights, having to get up, watching rubbish on the telly and wandering about the house wondering how I can make the boys I’ve just seen in the under 18s better players. All I could think of was how could we achieve that as coaches. It’s our job. There’s absolutely no doubt about that.

But then I was thinking to myself, what are they actually doing themselves to make themselves better? It was like a eureka moment.

Are kids going with their mates and running? Are they playing other games? Are they testing themselves by trying to beat their previous times? On an even simpler level, are they getting their touches in?

Within half an hour, with two walls and a ball, you can get a thousand touches. In an academy game, the average touches for a midfield player is between 65 and 75. So that’s about 14 games in terms of touches, which for an academy player, would be spread over something like four months.

So, in that half hour, I can get the same amount of touches as I can in four months of playing academy games, which don’t teach you any of the other things you need to know to become a top player either.

So, the Colt teams idea isn’t a magic wand. But between the lessons the players can pick up there and through their own hunger and endeavour, they will have a better chance.You make your own pathway in football, but you have to be exposed to real football at an early age.

Taking kids from that clinical football we have now at youth level and putting them into the real world, it’s like taking a domesticated animal and chucking them in the jungle.

I’ve heard the arguments about tradition, but what tradition are we talking about here? Some club with 120 people at their games? If your community doesn’t pay attention to you, then why should anyone else?

Tradition has held us back in Scotland, absolutely it has. I used to get it at the SFA, people talking about tradition. What about progression?

I’ve said this often enough, but if we had a really top level player, we would have been at tournaments for the last 10 years. If we want to get there consistently, we have to produce one or two of these really top level talents like a Robert Lewandowski or a Gareth Bale. And to do that, we all have to have open minds.