Garry Kenneth has lived the dream of every talented youngster currently seeking to make their mark with Dundee United.
More than 16 years have passed since the fresh-faced, raw, physically prodigious defender climbed from the bench to make his debut against Queen of the South, replacing the injured David McCracken.
“There was no mollycoddling,” he laughed. “It was: ‘You are playing, now get on with it’. That’s the best way. You find out the sort of player you have when you throw them in at the deep end. It’s sink or swim!”
If you were in the squad, Ian McCall expected you to be ready. And Kenneth was.
It didn’t go too badly from there. In 2010, he held the Scottish Cup aloft as one of Peter Houston’s Hampden heroes, the pinnacle of his 193 games for the club he loves.
So, while he is ‘surprised’ and a little disappointed to see Micky Mellon leave Tannadice this week, the thought of a new boss being charged with bringing through another generation of home-grown talents thrills him.
“I think Micky has left the club in a good place and I would have been excited to see him stay on for another year, develop the squad and kick on,” said Kenneth. “But, something hasn’t been right and he’s decided to walk away.
“Even so, there is a lot to be excited about, especially the crop of young boys coming through, which is very healthy. The club is in a better place than when Micky took over — without a doubt.
“There are a few kids ready to come through and that’s really refreshing to see again. I feel like the club diverged from the policy for a while and only recently got back to it — boys like Jamie Robson, Louis Appere and Logan Chalmers.
“That seems to be kicking on now with Kerr Smith, Archie Meekison, Declan Glass and the rest.
“We’re going in the right direction and I think supporters will be excited to see that. That’s what this club has been about — and is supposed to be about — for as long as I can remember.”
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Tam Courts, currently the head of tactical performance at United, is the current front-runner for the post and, should he get the nod, it will be a clear sign that creating a sustainable, conveyor belt of talent is a clear priority going forward.
“It does take a brave manager to blood the kids,” continued Kenneth. “But, at the same time, the game is different today and I genuinely believe more coaches are buying into: ‘If you are good enough, you are old enough’.
“More than that; if you are good enough, you are big enough. I still remember when if you were a certain height, you might not get a chance — they’d be worried about you getting knocked off the ball and bullied.
“I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Managers are willing to trust in young, technical players. That’s brilliant to see because all that should matter is consistency and quality.”
‘It’s incredible that he is only 16’
Unsurprisingly, as a player who thrived in the heart of defence, even representing Scotland on two occasions, Kenneth is audibly enthused by the progress of precocious centre-half Kerr Smith.
Still only 16 years of age, he has made five senior appearances, has trained with Manchester United and has already attracted interest from Everton and Aston Villa.
“Kerr looks very composed,” continued Kenneth, now working as a football agent after co-creating 352 Football Consultancy. “He already seems very adept at coming out with the ball, making passes and looks like a great prospect.
“All the reports I am getting about him have all been glowing and it’s incredible to think that he is only 16 years of age.
“The game is so different from when I was coming through. I was being bombarded with 20 or 30 aerial bombardments a game!
“Even in the decade since then, the game has changed and become a lot more technical. It’s about what you can do on the ground and, with that in mind, Kerr’s a really modern defender.”
Kenneth added: “The challenge becomes actually holding on to him long enough to make a mark in the senior side. You come through, do well and before the club can catch their breath, the offers are flooding in from England or elsewhere.
“Sometimes, that will catch a players’s eye — hopefully he stays, gets at least a full season under his belt and United fans can really see the potential he has.”
Thats applies to a host of hungry youngsters who appear destined to be given the chance to thrive in a new era at Tannadice.