Scotland, through to the semi-finals of the UEFA European Under-17 Championship in Malta, are starting to see the first fruits of a measured overhaul of their youth development system.
Three years ago, Mark Wotte was named performance director at the Scottish Football Association (SFA). With a "2020 vision" aimed at delivering players capable of breaking into the senior team six years from now, the first steps on that path have proven to be successful.
Wotte, a former coach of the Netherlands U19s and U21 national sides, as well as manager at Southampton FC, admits Scotland's success in this U17 campaign is ahead of schedule. "I thought it would take a little longer to get to a certain level," he told UEFA.com. "There were some key matches that helped us to come so far, though, such as the second game in the elite round against Belgium when we were 1-0 down at half-time and won 3-1. That was a catalyst for us."
The initial spark was supplied when the SFA assessed its youth policy and appointed Wotte. "We implemented a performance strategy which contains the national youth-team set-up from U14s to U21s," he explained. "The most important job for me is to build a new generation for the Scottish FA. In 2020, the level of the players coming through the football education system has to be of a higher level."
Two fundamental changes were made: the players' mentality and their style of play. "We've set out in a booklet the way we want to play with the Scottish teams," added the 53-year-old. "We started to work with these boys in a 4-3-3 – a new philosophy of playing football, a more continental style.
I've analysed all of the successful teams in the world and I couldn't find any team that didn't play 4-3-3 – the Belgians, the Spanish, the Germans, the Dutch. You can see there's a benchmark, they were always playing a 4-3-3 or a flexible 4-3-3.
"It's not always possible because you need to have the players for it and the level of the players can dictate whether you can play like Spain, or you have to play like Scotland. In England they have an ocean to choose from yet we only have a pond. We have to find a mix, but eventually it has to be a blueprint.
"It's also a bit about the mindset in Scotland; it's not 'we can do it' but more 'let's see if we can do it'. Where I come from, maybe we are a bit overconfident and that's our downfall at times. I always say to the boys: 'We are better than we think we are.'"
One Scottish trait Wotte has tapped into, however, is their spirited approach. Even in the face of adversity, such as in their final Group B fixture against Switzerland, he knew he could still count on them. "We are very dangerous when you underestimate us and that's one of the best characteristics we have," Wotte said. "We call it the 'Braveheart' mentality and it's still there.
"When we made it 1-1, you saw the shock in the eyes of the Swiss players and we were on fire. We were unstoppable and we took them by surprise with the [half-time] changes. It looked like we had a heavy blanket on our shoulders in the first half, and then everybody threw it off and played like they had nothing to fear. Then you saw what we are capable of."
That turnaround set the Scots up for a semi-final against Wotte's native Netherlands, another step up in their heady ascent. "The Netherlands have no secrets for me," said Wotte. "It's a fantastic game to be involved in and we've [already] surprised the Germans, the Belgians and the Swiss. I know we're the underdogs, but we want to be confident underdogs."
Improvement is always the aim, though, and with coach Scot Gemmill, Wotte believes Scotland's stay in Malta can continue beyond Sunday. "Scot has been a very good find," he said. "I thought he had a good future as a coach and he just needed an opportunity. I feel very comfortable working with him. It's really a great team effort the fact that we're here."
©UEFA.com 1998-2015. All rights reserved.