Meet the ex-NSL, A-League defender developing Scotland's next stars

Former NSL and A-League defender Stuart McLaren Source: Twitter

For more than a decade Stuart McLaren starred in the National Soccer League and, later, the fledgling early days of the A-League. Now, the 45-year-old is helping bring through Scotland's next generation of football stars.

Born in Glasgow but emigrating to Queensland in 1980, McLaren has long had skin in the Australian game.

He grew up in the sunshine state, came through the famed AIS system and broke into the NSL with Wollongong Wolves in 1994.

The centre-back or midfielder went on to play for Stirling Albion in the UK and then briefly in Hong Kong, before coming back down under to finish his playing career with Brisbane Strikers and then in the A-League with the Roar and Perth Glory.

“I was five when I left Scotland,” McLaren told The World Game.

“The AIS was a brilliant program. I was sad to see the decision to stop the funding for the football program there.

"In my group there was some guys who went on to have fantastic careers in Europe and for the Socceroos as well.

“I picked up a lot there that I still rely on now in my coaching career, thanks to Ron [Smith]. Richard Evans brought me to Wollongong. But it was a bit of a mixed bag there… but overall a good period to learn the game.

"I had two years at Stirling Albion, it was always an ambition to come to Scotland and have a go at it. The majority of the NSL in those days was part-time football so the dream was to go on and achieve a full-time gig.”

McLaren joined the Strikers in 1998, spending six years with the club, becoming captain and eventually player-coach in 2003.

After a sojourn in Malaysia with Sarawak when the NSL ended, he then signed with Queensland Roar under Miron Bleiberg; spending three seasons with the new A-League franchise.

“John Kosmina was interested in taking me,” he explained.

“It was coming back home I suppose… it was great. In the second season, Kossie offered to become club captain, which was a highlight for me. We made the finals under Kossie.

“Becoming player-coach was a surprise but it was great to get it at that level. Then with the A-League it was an interesting period.

“I started with the Roar on an injury replacement contract. I got a heap of games towards the end of that first season before Miron offered me a two-year deal.

“Frank Farina came in and I had an ankle injury when my contract was up for renewal. I went back to the Strikers, was player-coach there for two years before getting back into the A-League as an assistant at North Queensland Fury.”

McLaren spent a year as an assistant coach to Franz Straka in Townsville, before relocating permanently to the UK in 2011.

In England, he served as head coach at Loughborough University for two years, as well as working as a scout for the FFA, then had two seasons managing Stirling Albion before being appointed by the Scottish FA in 2016.

After working as a community development manager and then in coach development, for the past two years McLaren has been in charge of the Scottish national Under-16s team.

“It was family reasons that meant I had to come back to Scotland,” he said.

“I’m absolutely loving it with the Scottish FA. I’m working as part of a group of national team coaches and until last week, under the auspices of Malky Mackay the performance director, it’s been a really good environment to work in.

“There’s been a lot of good work being done over the association, also with our relationship with the professional clubs here and some really good work they’re doing in player development. It’s been a good time.”

Scottish football is on a collective high at the moment with the country ending its 22-year wait for an appearance in a major tournament after booking qualification to next year’s European Championships.

“The Euros has been absolutely enormous,” McLaren said.

“The qualification to that, and you look at the current age of the squad, it’s a relatively young squad, so it’s probably got a mixture of experiences in there.

“There’s Andy Robertson and the likes there with a lot of caps at a young age, and then there’s the emergence of Ryan Christie and people like that, and then some younger ones that are starting to emerge.

“[Lyndon] Dykes is a contentious one with his Australian background obviously, but we’ve got Billy Gilmour on the cusp.

“And even around the 21 to 19s and 17s, we think we’ve got genuinely three or four players in each of those age groups that have got the potential to be, not just good professionals, but international players and really good international players. We think the future is quite bright.”

Despite being based now at Hampden Park, McLaren still keeps a close eye on Australian football after spending more than half of his life down under.

He believes with James Johnson in charge of the FFA, someone he coached as a youngster and has known for several decades, the beautiful game is in good hands.

“It’s such a difficult thing for all the reasons that are well-spoken of – it’s such a competitive market in Australia with AFL, rugby league, rugby union, cricket,” he said.

“All the challenges the game has internationally, the financial implications of running a national competition there and all the travel. I do keep an eye on it.

“The A-League was going through a healthy period of growth for that first 10 years, it possibly plateaued for a little while and now it’s looking for a way and means of getting an injection.

"The establishment of the FFA Cup was a really good initiative.

“Hopefully things continue to evolve with James Johnson’s involvement, hoping that’s going to kick on and get some more investment that will help facilitate a full-time second division, give more clubs an opportunity and create some hype around promotion and relegation.”