Scotland will field an Under-18 side as part of the drive to improve the country’s best young players.

Scottish Performance Director Malky Mackay and his staff have identified the need for an additional age-group to bridge the gap between the Under-17s and Under-19s.

Amongst those who will be the first to benefit are a clutch of the Scottish FA JD Performance School graduates who have made such a name for themselves over the past year - as part of Brian McLaughlin’s successful Under-17 side or by breaking into their respective first-team set-ups.

National youth team coach Billy Stark – who has looked after the Under-19s and recently took charge of the Under-16s since returning to Hampden in May – took time out to explain the thinking behind the move.

Dean Campbell

Billy, what’s the idea behind the introduction of an Under-18 Scotland squad?

The Under-19 team I inherited from Donald Park boasted a lot of boys who were born in 2000, who were playing a year younger than the level but did really well. So they’re a year older, better for the experience and we want to keep them together. It’s good to have continuity and for the boys to keep developing. In normal circumstances I would have immediately looked to introduce the best of the Under-17s who were moving beyond that age-group. This extra level gives them a more gradual step up. They, too, are a tight-knit group and it won’t do them any harm to remain intact. It’s a very strong bunch – full of Performance School graduates – featuring the likes of Anthony McDonald, Harry Cochrane, Dean Campbell and Ethan Erhahon. We’re working hard on the Talent ID side to identify more young players who are good enough to represent Scotland and this also gives us the chance to cast the net a bit wider and work with more of them. It keeps them involved with the national team when otherwise a few of them might have to sit it out a while between the Under-17s and Under-19s. So, for us, this makes sense on a few levels.

It’s widely acknowledged that, historically, it has been challenging for Scottish football to help the best and brightest at youth level make the transition to an older environment. What part will this play in putting that right?

Hopefully a small but significant one. Malky has a view ideas that can help us make a real difference and this is one of them. We’ll play Uzbekistan and France to start with. From the off that’s a contrast in playing styles, which can only be good for their development. Keeping them together as a group, gradually easing them through the ranks should be beneficial. It’s important to point out that it will still be done on a case by case basis. Some of them will be fast-tracked, as we’ve seen with the Under-21s, but not everyone is ready for that so early on in their career.

Harry Cochrane

This explains why the likes of Anthony McDonald and Harry Cochrane didn’t feature in the Under-19 or Under-21 squads, which generated a bit of discussion when those latest selections were announced.

Exactly. The likes of Anthony and Harry have been fantastic for Hearts. There is a lot of pride within Hampden over their progress because people know how much hard work has gone in at Hearts and within Performance School system to help get them to where they are now. The boys themselves deserve most of the credit because they’ve earned the first-team involvement that they’ve had to date at one of the country’s biggest clubs. They’ve also had their share of injuries and it’s important we don’t ask too much of them too soon, so I think the pair of them will benefit from being eased through the national team set-up. When the time is right, obviously, they will be promoted. They’re not alone and we’re lucky to have more than a few promising players breaking through and that can only be a good thing for Scottish football.