St Mirren bosses have that winning feeling today ... after being awarded the ‘Michelin star’ of Scottish football.
The Scottish Football Association has handed Saints the seal of approval by awarding the Paisley club with the much-sought-after Elite Academy status.
It’s a major achievement for the Buddies, who struggled to find decent training facilities for many years – having to make do with patches of grass at Abbotsinch, St James Playing Fields or even at Stepps, in the north of Glasgow.
Since construction of the club’s training HQ at Ralston began back in 2009, St Mirren’s training facilities have been revolutionised.
Saints have splashed out more than £500,000 on the new training base since work started at the site.
Much of that cash was generated from the sale of the club’s old Love Street stadium to supermarket giants Tesco.
The 3.7-hectare site at Ralston boasts a state-of-the-art astroturf pitch, made in Belgium, as well as a grass playing area for the first team to train on.
Also included in the impressive complex are first team headquarters, including a dressing room, physio room and boot room.
The development also features a gym, players’ lounge and restaurant, meeting rooms, a media suite, an analysis room and offices for manager Danny Lennon and other staff.
The youth team headquarters are based there too.
All of these facilities have helped the club to expand and develop their youth programme, which has uncovered first team stars such as John McGinn, David Barron, Thomas Reilly and Kenny McLean.
David Longwell is St Mirren’s head of youth development and, along with his trusted assistant Frazer Robertson, has masterminded the transformation in the way young players are brought through.
However, they admit getting the club to where it is now has been a long, hard road.
Longwell told Express Sports: “To be awarded Elite Academy status by the SFA is a big deal for the club and it’s a great reward for everyone who has worked tirelessly to get St Mirren into the position we are now in.
“Essentially, there are three criteria that any club involved in a pro-youth set-up must fulfil in order to be awarded Elite status.
“The first is called Initiative, where you have to show what the club is doing in terms of attracting players and getting kids involved in football at local level.
“That’s something we take great pride in doing.
“The second criteria is Performance, where you have to show what provisions are in place to help develop players.
“Finally, there is the third criteria – Elite – and that’s something we have recently been able to fulfil.
“Representatives from the SFA visited us at Ralston and carried out an audit of what we have in place.
“Not only does that audit take into account the facilities, it also looks at a whole range of provisions.
“In addition, there’s a minimum number of qualified coaches they look at too.
The criteria says you must have a minimum number of eight coaches and they must have a Pro-Youth licence, which we certainly have covered.
“In terms of medical facilities, training areas, sports science and general medical provision, they take a great deal into account when they carry out their audit.”
The upshot is that Saints have facilities that are officially recognised in the same way as a restaurant would be if it was awarded a Michelin Star.
And it could well lead to additional funding from the governing body to ensure that conveyor belt of talent continues to produce talented St Mirren players for many years to come.
Ralston is currently rated as a four-star complex and is tantalisingly close to a five-star rating, not far behind the famous Carrington complex that mighty Manchester United train at, which boasts a five-to-six star rating.
St Mirren now joins a prestigious band of clubs, such as Celtic, Rangers, Hibs, Hearts, Motherwell and Kilmarnock, who have been awarded Elite status by the SFA in recent years.
Longwell added: “We feel we have a really strong set-up at St Mirren.
“We have a manager and assistant manager who believe in the youth policy, we have qualified coaches at a number of levels, we have the facilities and now we are starting to see some of our younger players coming through.
“Just look at our first team. There are six players there – Chris Smith, David Barron, Marc McAusland, Thomas Reilly, Kenny McLean and John McGinn – who came through our youth system.
“We also have the likes of Sean Kelly and others who are there or thereabouts in terms of the first team.”
Being awarded Elite status is certainly a boost but Longwell insists Saints’ coaching staff won’t be resting on their laurels. He said: “Hopefully, this recognition will lead to extra funding to keep the youth development programme moving in the right direction.
“We are working extra hard to ensure the first team manager can take his pick of the club’s best young players and this new status we’ve received is great motivation.
“The other important thing the Elite status highlights is that we’re a club which can grow talent and, hopefully, we can reinforce the message that going to the Celtics or Rangers of this world maybe isn’t the best plan for a young player’s development.
“As a club, we encourage players to try to break into the first team because, under the current set-up, they will be given their chance.”