While some in Australia might look down on the standard of Scottish football, and question whether it’s the right spot for a talented player in their early-to-mid 20s, Arnold sees it as the perfect stepping stone between the A-League and the bigger competitions in Europe. The big, boisterous crowds, heavy media scrutiny and threat of relegation make it a more intense experience.
Then there’s the sheer number of games: on top of the 38 rounds in the league (compared to the A-League’s 26), there’s the Scottish Cup, League Cup, and for Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Dundee United this season, European competition .
“I’ve been saying it for four or five years – we don’t play enough football in this country,” Arnold said.
“I don’t think the challenge so much is the actual quality of the league, it’s just the amount of football that they’re playing. The standard is good – not that much different from the A-League – but the competition of every game, they’re playing for something. And the threat of relegation is always there as well, so it really changes their mindset. It’s a great first step for these kids.”
There are some obvious, long-standing reasons behind this trend. First and foremost, Australian players come pretty cheap, and since Scottish football is not exactly awash with cash – that’s important.
Australians are also reliable. With so many success stories throughout the years – and recent ones, too – Scottish clubs are more familiar with Aussie talent, and trust them to slot in without too much hassle. They already speak the language, if not always understand the accents, and the culture is broadly familiar to back home.
Without a doubt, the success of Postecoglou – who has now brought Socceroos legend Harry Kewell on staff at Celtic – has opened Scottish eyes even wider to the wonders Down Under.
“For him to be in charge and do what he’s done has definitely put a light on Aussie players and that connection,” said fringe Socceroos defender McGowan, who has just signed for St Johnstone, from where he will mount his World Cup selection bid. He and his brother Dylan, now at Kilmarnock, came through the academy at Hearts.
“I’ve had a lot of phone calls from different clubs about different players in Australia. Having been around the Scottish game for a long time, it’s the best publicity that I’ve seen – [there’s] lot of people in Scotland talking about those boys.”
But one of the biggest factors is Brexit. The UK’s move out of the European Union has dramatically changed the way British clubs navigate the transfer market. Before, Scottish teams leaned heavily on European talent, but now all non-British players require a work permit, which means there is just as much paperwork involved in recruiting from Spain as from Australia, Japan or anywhere else. Clubs are spreading their scouting focus accordingly.
To get an automatic work permit, players must tally 15 “points” through the UK Home Office’s criteria-based system, which assesses players based on the caliber of league they come from and how often they play for their club and national team. Most players from the A-League would struggle to hit that requirement, but in Scotland – unlike England – clubs can appeal to a generally lenient “exceptions panel″. More often than not, with the right endorsements, the panel will wave through the foreigners who fall short if they are deemed to be of sufficient quality.
English clubs no longer have access to an exceptions panel – which is no problem for those in the Premier League, who can afford to pay top dollar for players from big countries who easily hit 15 points. But for those in the English Championship and below with tighter budgets, it makes recruiting players from more obscure or less regarded nations, such as Australia, more difficult. That’s why so many Aussies who in the past might have gone to clubs in England’s second or third tier are instead lobbing in Scotland.
And from there, it is much easier to get into the English Premier League or Championship, since starting regularly in the Scottish Premiership earns a player up to eight of the required 15 points for a permit to play in England. The rest of the points can be earned through finishing high on the league table or by playing continental club or international football.
That’s the other big appeal for Aussie players: Scottish football as a shop window, particularly for English teams.
“A lot of games are shown on Sky Sport over here, so it’s a UK-wide audience,” McGowan said. “If you do well, people down south are watching.
“Because the country is so small, and England is so close, you get a lot of scouts coming up to games. You can have that opportunity to perform well so that scout that’s looking at another player will write your name down and keep tabs on you.
“If they’re performing well, they’ll get recognised, they’ll get noticed, and moves can come from that. If they have a good couple of seasons, it’s an easy pathway down into England, which is where a lot of those younger boys probably want to end up.”
AUSSIES IN THE SCOTTISH PREMIERSHIP THIS SEASON
Nathaniel Atkinson (Hearts), Keanu Baccus (St Mirren), Aziz Behich (Dundee United), Mark Birighitti (Dundee United), Martin Boyle (Hibernian), Phillip Cancar (Livingston), Cameron Devlin (Hearts), Lewis Miller (Hibernian) , Dylan McGowan (Kilmarnock), Ryan McGowan (St Johnstone), Aaron Mooy (Celtic), Kye Rowles (Hearts), Ryan Strain (St Mirren)
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