A FOOTBALL pundit once said you win nothing with kids. The ball may be a different shape, but Currie Chieftains want to disprove that theory by relying on a largely untested group of players for the Tennent’s Premiership campaign.
Indeed, it’s a sign of the youthful cohort currently vying for a place in the squad at Malleny Park that Mike Vernel is considered an older head.
For several seasons he has been a first team regular and a model of consistency. Now, despite being a long way short of veteran status, Vernel has been handed the task of helping with the development of some of the club’s rising stars. And he is relishing the added responsibility.
“It’s weird being 26 and being one of the really old guys”, he laughs. “It’s about being a bit of a mentor to some of the really young guys like Josh O’Brien and Hamish Ferguson. Hamish has just turned 18 in August. There’s a lot of potential there so it’s important to maximise that and get the most out of them for themselves and also for the club.”
The list of summer departures was longer than normal. As a consequence, around a dozen players aged 20 or less have been involved in the first team so far this season. For Vernel, the opportunity the youngsters are being given is important at a club that has long been admired for its youth policy and a coaching philosophy that encourages those with talent to go as far as they can in the game.
“We had a bit of a turnover, some to Super6 and other guys moving on. It’s just something we go through. It’s something I’ve been through in previous years and we just have to pick it up and move on,” he says.
He admits that it has been a steep learning curve in the early weeks of the Tennent’s Premiership campaign for the new-look Chieftains squad, but he is confident that the lessons are being learned.
“Games like down at Marr are a bit of a baptism of fire for guys who are 18 or 19 years old. It’s moving in the right direction. It’s obviously a challenge but one we relish,” he adds.
As Vernel explains, he is now firmly engrained in the Chieftains set-up, having joined the club when he moved East to study.
“This is my ninth season at the club. I came here when I was 18”, he recounts. “I grew up in Glasgow and went to St Aloysius College and played at Allan Glen’s. I played mostly at school and then I was training at Glasgow Hawks pre-season before I came to uni at Heriot Watt. Jamie Dempsey (coach at Hawks) got in touch with Ally Donaldson and I came here. I had a couple of the years in the seconds then moved through.”
Now with that experience in his locker, he is an ideal role model for the youngsters looking to make their way in the game. Often understated and flying below the radar, Vernel is a model of consistency. The second-row is a fans’ favourite at Malleny and also earns lavish praise from coach Mark Cairns for his high work-rate and attitude of never taking a backward step.
A Malleny man
Had circumstances been different, he might have been preparing for the upcoming inaugural Super6 competition. He reveals that he received approaches. But, while it was tempting to test himself at the semi-pro level, Vernel has other priorities.
“I got a few calls from different clubs. The thing I said was that if I could make it work it would definitely be an option. For me it didn’t work. Where I am in my life, with my professional career, I thought that something would give. If I went Super6 and made the commitment, something would fall down.
While making the move into the new structure did not work for Vernel, he can understand why it is an attractive option for many players. For him, the aim is to combine performing at a good level with a satisfying job for WGM Engineering in Glasgow.
“Rugby is only for a certain amount of time and I want to get as much out of it as I can. Obviously, a job is for the rest of your life. We had boys that wanted to go and play it. I’ve said that anybody who wants it should take the challenge. It didn’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for somebody else.”
However, declining an offer of a contract should not be misinterpreted as a lack of drive on Vernel’s part. He wants to enjoy his rugby, and in the process, help Chieftains challenge for honours. He has featured in the squad for each of the club’s play-off appearances – the Malleny Park outfit has reached the knockout phase every year since the head to head was introduced – and he has his eye on doing so again.
“Our first ambition for the season is to get a home semi-final. That’s been the goal for the last five or six years. And then, obviously, we want to go on and win it. We have the belief that we can do that. But the main thing just now is that we want to improve each week,” he adds.
“There’s no point in having the goal at the end of the season and not piecing together how we are going to do it in between. Week on week, we improve, whether it be through analysis at the Tuesday training, more physical stuff, more technical skills, but we are just looking to get better and build. If we do that, we know that we can go on and have a good shot at it.”