Spanish-born Jack Harper, a midfield star in Real Madrid’s illustrious academy, and Chelsea Under-18 forward Islam Feruz, are two players at the forefront of a new wave of gifted Scottish youngsters that also includes West Bromwich Albion’s Scott Allan, Falkirk’s Craig Sibbald and Celtic’s James Keatings.
Former Celtic man Feruz may be familiar to many for his rise to relative fame before attracting criticism on his departure to Chelsea, but it is the Madrid youngster who represents an intriguing figure for the Scottish public.
His club have been extremely diligent in dealing with the 16-year-old’s exposure. Born in Fuengirola, Malaga, he grew up on the Costa Del Sol with his Glaswegian parents. The middle child of three, he started his career with local club Los Boliches before moving to the Madrid Academy in 2009.
Playing in an attacking midfield role, Harper is a classic number 10, blessed with the ability to create as well as score goals from deep – something which he does consistently for his under-16 team. The inevitable comparisons with Andres Iniesta and Juan Mata are understandable, but Harper’s size and strength make him more comparable to former Madrid great Zinedine Zidane than his Spanish compatriots.
Having only just turned 16, the youngster is now at a make-or-break stage of his career, and the prospect of professional football looms large. Madrid have the option to offer Harper a long-term contract now he is 16, and the contract length could be a guide to how highly rated the midfielder is.
Early in his Castilla career, his coach Santiago Sanchez lauded the youth player: “He has a lot of talent and, while he has a lot of developing to do, I really believe he will play for Real Madrid in years to come.” This glowing reference is music to the ears of Scottish fans, who must be excited at such a prospect. He has already been subject to media attention and it is a sign of what a great club Madrid are that they want to protect one of their prized assets from the glare of a sometimes cynical football world.
By way of a comparison, Scotland may have benefited from the exposure afforded to Feruz, but a more understated approach from both the player and his club may have been better for the prodigious youngster.
Born in Somalia, the Feruz family moved to the UK before being placed in the Castlemilk area of Scotland. Threatened with deportation, Celtic – led by the late Tommy Burns – campaigned to keep the family in the country and were successful in doing so. As the first asylum seeker to represent Scotland at international level, Feruz looked to be heading for the top with Celtic and his adopted nation.
A regular at Celtic’s training ground from as early as 14, he first burst on to television screens across the UK with his performance against Wales in the Under-16 Victory Shield tournament in 2009. The forward single-handedly led Scotland to a 1-0 lead and despite his age – and height – stood head and shoulders above the rest of the players on the park that night. His approach was explosive, with short darting runs a cornerstone of his play, which also included an assured touch and cool finishing which belied his years. You only have to watch Feruz’s goal that night to witness all these attributes in equally impressive measure.
Possibly Scotland’s most prized asset, the 16-year-old’s development stagnated from this point on with relations between player and club becoming increasingly stale for reasons unknown. Many have alluded to Feruz’s attitude, with others – Celtic manager Neil Lennon chief among those – critical of agent involvement: “I think he’s been badly advised. I don’t think the football is the main issue here,” said the Northern Irishman.
The move from Celtic to Chelsea is an understandable one. However, Feruz has quite rightly been criticised for his lack of loyalty to a club which had taken him and his family from a rough part of Glasgow to an area where he could focus solely on playing football.
Regardless of his reasons and his supposed attitude, he is potentially the greatest Scottish talent in the last 20 years. In the first leg of Chelsea’s under-18 FA Youth Cup semi-final against Manchester United at Old Trafford, he terrorised his opponents with another mature display. Feruz’ quality was summed up when he picked up his own surprisingly slack pass to stride forward and unleash an unstoppable right foot shot past the helpless United goalkeeper, leading Chelsea to a 2-1 victory.
His involvement in the national team is not in doubt, as Somalia offer no real competition when he develops to the full international stage. Similarly, it is already known that Harper is intent on representing Scotland internationally – a brave and wise choice at such an early age – despite the opportunity to be capped for Spain. Ross Mathie, the former Scotland youth coach, gave Feruz and Harper their first call-ups and alluded to the appeal of a player like the latter representing Scotland. “The history of Real Madrid and the Scottish connection will capture everyone’s imagination,” he said.
You can only imagine, like Mathie, the impact two players of such potential could have on an ailing national side like Scotland. Failing to qualify for a major international tournament since France ’98, the Tartan Army have found it difficult to achieve any sort of consistency in performances and results.
Recently Darren Fletcher, Charlie Adam, Allan McGregor and Steven Naismith have emerged as players arguably capable of bringing success to the country. However, Craig Levein has built a side which is rich on industry but lacking real creativity and ingenuity in the final third – a weakness shown only too often in recent qualifiers. For a playmaker like Harper to emerge, complementing a potentially powerful and talismanic striker in the form of Feruz, Scotland’s hopes would surely be bolstered and the prospect of reaching Euro 2016 – when the youngsters will be 20 – looks increasingly realistic.
By Jonny Boyle