Smith praises prize guy Taylor

Alex Smith, Gary Holt and Jim Preston watch over the Academy and under-20s in action against Dunfermline last season
Alex Smith, Gary Holt and Jim Preston watch over the Academy and under-20s in action against Dunfermline last season

The final crop of Falkirk Academy graduates are the ideal group to sign the previous system off on a high, says Alex Smith.

The club’s technical director is likely to provide the link between the new Forth Valley regional academy and the first team set-up when the youth structure - as revealed earlier this month in The Falkirk Herald - is up and running.

It is a radical step for Falkirk to link with neighbours Stenhousemuir and change an academy system that has been bearing fruit - particularly in recent years with the progress of Jay Fulton, Craig Sibbald and Conor McGrandles.

But the final six candidates to make the grade can provide the lasting legacy of the Academy’s success, Smith believes.

Ryan Blair, Michael Martin, Robbie McNab, Connor Hogg, Botti Bi-Bia and Scott Shepherd all signed professional terms earlier this month.

And when The Falkirk Herald asked is they’re a good set of players to sign the Academy off on, Smith agreed.

“I’d say that, they’re a good group.

“They’ll go straight into the first-team pool for pre-season and take their share during the friendly matches and the training schedule for the summer.

“Everyone has different qualities and they’re all exciting types of players. Just one - Robbie McNab – is not an attack-minded player. They can all be effective in changing matches and they’re all looking forward to coming back after the summer and taking in the under-20s games. We hope that’ll help to develop.”

Among the six new faces are two players with a ‘footballing family’.

Connor Hogg’s grandfather, James, was a captain of Aberdeen in the late 1950s, and his father Graeme, a defender at Hearts.

Hogg though, from Grangemouth is an “aggressive and quick” forward who has come through the Falkirk Academy since age 11, also taking part in the Bairns’ community football programme.

Another is Denny-boy Robbie McNab. One of the midfielder’s uncles actually played in the Stirlingshire schools’ team as Alex Smith.

“There is a very good standard and quality about them all,” added Smith, who went on to describe Botti Bi-Bia as “big, tall, strong and skillfull” and capable of playing in attack or on the wing.

Scott Shepherd is an “intelligent runner, and very quick and a good finisher” too, while 17-year-old Ryan Blair is a 6’1” left midfielder with a little experience of the under-20s already.

“He has played several times in that team and shown up well in every one. He’s always been able to cope with the demands of the step up in levels.”

Michael Martin has also broken into the under-20s team towards the end of the season with bursting runs into the box.

“He scored in one of the games,” added Smith, “and he’s always looking to get involved in the goals.”

The six follow the same path trod by Blair Alston, Kieran Duffie and Scott Arfield from Academy to first team before the new Academy structure is ironed out. That is due to be unveiled and detailed by the Scottish Football Association later this summer That will involve further tightening of numbers and releases for players but Smith was pleased the new signings were finally in amongst the top side at Falkirk.

“It has taken a wee while,” he said. “To get there with them, and some have been with us right the way through from age 11 and 12. - but they’ve always come through their appraisals well each year so that means they deserve to do it.

“There is some disappointment for others and these things are always dictated by finances. But I’m delighted these boys have stepped up and I know Gary Holt is too.”