Our rocks, the men who make us feel secure, those that protect our hopes and dreams. When the seconds are inching away and the opposing side is launching attack after attack, it’s these guys who keep our worst fears from becoming a reality. The role of a good centre back cannot be understated and in Scottish football, perhaps more than anywhere else, we really appreciate a top centre back.
A number of fine players missed out on the final list, so special mention to, in no particular order, Darren McGregor, Dan Seaborne, John Souttar, Joe Shaughnessy, Paul Quinn and Darren O’Dea. Sorry guys, maybe next year.
This is a selection of the 12 best overall and not just their form this season, though that plays a part. Craig Fowler of Scotsman.com and The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast counts down the list.
12. Paul Hanlon (Hibernian)
Were it not for an untimely injury to their academy-raised centre back, Hibs’ desperate – and seemingly never-ending – struggle to get out of the second tier might never have occurred. In all likelihood, Terry Butcher would still have found a way to make relegation from the top flight happen but there’s no doubt Hibs were hampered by the loss of their dependable and loyal centre back for the final two months of that doomed campaign.
Back then there were still those who doubted whether Hanlon had the physicality required to succeed in Scottish football. While composed on the ball and an intelligent reader of the game, he often struggled against physically imposing strikers. It wasn’t that he lacked the tools, while a little on the skinny side he’s still fairly broad in the shoulders, rather that he seemed too nice playing at the heart of the back-line. However, going down to the Championship really seems to have brought out a greater ruthlessness in him and he’s been excellent over the past two seasons.
Ah, but I hear you say, in that whiny voice of yours, it’s only the Championship! While this is a fair point, his showings in some of the bigger games against the likes of Hearts, Aberdeen, St Johnstone, Rangers, show his improvement will translate well to the top flight when Hibs (finally) make it back.
11. Rob Kiernan (Rangers)
Rangers’ defence has taken a battering from all angles this season. While Wilson, Kiernan and co are not exactly the rebirth of Maldini, Baresi etc, they do have the hindrance of playing on a side that puts a far greater focus on attack than defence. That’s not a knock on Rangers or their manager as Mark Warburton created a team built around keeping possession and consistently putting their opponents under pressure. That in itself aids the defence. If the other team doesn’t have the ball or can’t build attacks without an opposing midfielder or striker in their face, then it makes it easier for the defence to do their job, and on the occasions where it does break down, these guys can be more than a little exposed. That’s to be expected.
Seeing how Rangers finished with an equal amount of goals conceded as the two other stingiest sides in the division, Hibs and Falkirk, all the while outscoring the rest of the league by 27 clear goals en route to a league title, it’s clear the approach worked. Also, when the defence came up against its sternest test in the Scottish Cup semi-final win over Celtic, it largely stood up to the task. And that was despite missing their best defender on the day for the extra-time period after Kiernan went off through injury.
After taking a few weeks to settle in following his move from Wigan, Kiernan emerged as the leader of the back four. While Lee Wallace wears the captain’s armband, it’s Kiernan from his greater vantage point in the centre who communicates with the full-backs and defensive midfielder to make sure Rangers don’t overcommit in attack. This is by no means an easy job, particularly as he’s on the same side of the back four is James Tavernier, who’d rather be in the opposite six yard box than his own.
As well as his defensive qualities - good in the air with a keen sense of danger - he’s also a terrific passer at the back, showing excellent range in his distribution.
10. Steven Anderson (St Johnstone)
For around the last five seasons, Anderson has been one of the most underrated players in Scottish football. It’s easy to see why. Not only does he play for the club where everyone, including the manager, is underrated by the wider world despite them finishing in the top six every single year, he also possesses unassuming qualities for a centre back. He’s slightly undersized for the position, around 6ft with a slim build, lacks speed and isn’t particularly athletic. Despite this he’s one of the more dependable and consistent centre backs in the country. He reads play extremely well, makes very few basic errors, either with or without the ball, and quietly goes about shutting down opposing strikers.
In the last couple of years he’s even started adding goals to his game, most notably his side’s first in their 2014 Scottish Cup final victory, highlighting an improvement in the air over the course of his St Johnstone tenure. In this current campaign, his testimonial season, he has struggled a little with injuries, which, coupled with featuring alongside an ever-changing cast of centre back partners, meant his form dipped; though he looked to be getting back to his best as the season drew to a close and will no doubt marshal the Saints back-line for another couple of years yet.
9. Josh Meekings (Inverness CT)
John Hughes’ insistence on breaking up the Meekings-Gary Warren centre back partnership to wedge Danny Devine into the side was one of the more curious tactical decisions this season. That’s not intended as a slight on Devine. He’s a young player with plenty of upside and generally performs well when he’s not making the basic errors that tend to come with inexperienced centre backs. It just that the Meekings-Warren partnership - if they were a celeb couple they’d be christened ‘Weekings’ by the media - was the strongest in the league. And since Meekings was too good to be omitted from the team outright, it meant shoehorning him at full back with David Raven dropping out of the side, something ICT fans were not too happy about.
Meekings is fine at right back because of the attributes that make him a stand-out in the centre. As well as being strong and athletic, he’s quick and dependable in possession, making him the ideal centre back in Hughes’s preferred pass-it-out-from-the-back approach. He also shares an almost telepathic understanding with Warren who, unsurprisingly, hasn’t been at his best this campaign without his partner in crime beside him.
At right back he’s willing to go forward, though his dribbling and crossing skills are not ideal for the role and he looks exactly as he is, a centre half operating on the flank. The justification for playing all three could be that Warren is in his early 30s while Meekings and Devine are both still quite young, each 23, and Hughes was just trying to keep everyone sweet so he could call on Meekings and Devine to be the centre back partnership of the future when Warren inevitably begins to slow down. Or, at least, that may have been the plan before Hughes moaned himself out of Inverness.
8. Ash Taylor (Aberdeen)
It’s safe to say the towering defender has endured a few nightmares this season. When he first arrived there was a tendency to make basic errors or, more hilariously, slip and fall when there was little pressure around him, often leading to a goal for the opposition. These deficiencies then went away for around a year, and in the time between Taylor established himself as one of the best defenders in the country as Aberdeen tried to prove they were the best team. Unfortunately, this season, particularly in the last couple of months, the old errors have come back in a big way.
At his non-mistake-making best, Taylor is a thoroughly dominant stopper. At 6ft 5in and roughly as broad as the Pittodrie main stand, Taylor can just flat out bully opposing attackers. He goes against stereotypes of defenders with such size by also being athletic and, while not exactly quick, he at least doesn’t run like he’s wading through treacle. Alongside the assuming, composed and very quick Mark Reynolds, it appeared on paper that Aberdeen had undoubtedly the best centre half duo in the league this term. Sadly for the Dons, that’s proven not to be the case.
Aberdeen will still likely keep him on next season because he still adds great value to the side when he’s not single-handedly throwing away points. The recent defeat against St Johnstone illustrated this. Without Taylor in the side, Aberdeen couldn’t cope with the physicality of Steven MacLean or Graeme Cummins in the Saints attack, neither of whom are especially imposing forwards. If he can rediscover the reliability he showed in 2015, he’ll go back to being a top five defender in this country.
7. Mark Reynolds (Aberdeen)
From one underperforming Aberdeen centre back to another, the steep decline in Reynolds’s play this season has been startling. Here was a player who, in the eyes of Aberdeen fans, typified the unfair overlooking of their stars by national team boss Gordon Strachan. Reynolds had been excellent ever since initially joining on loan from Sheffield Wednesday in 2012, Scotland were not blessed with a plethora of talented centre backs, and yet the player remained uncapped. This lingering resentment continued well into this season - and then Reynolds started playing.
Normally such a competent defender, Reynolds has made basic errors with alarming frequency. His game is built around his assuredness which, along with speed and in-game intelligence, makes up for his lack of stature and aerial ability. It’s also undermined his presence as the leader of the back four, a role he’s never looked entirely comfortable with since injury forced Russell Anderson out of contention last season and eventually into retirement.
So, why does he still make our list? Well, similar to Scott Brown in the midfielder’s top 12, we’re looking at the body of work and giving the player the benefit of the doubt. Reynolds was injured in the first game of the campaign and subsequently spent three months out. It’s possible that it completely threw him off course and he was never able to recover. Next season will be telling - if Derek McInnes doesn’t sign someone to replace either him or Taylor this summer.
6. Jozo Simunovic (Celtic)
For the most part, you can file Celtic’s biggest summer signing under “potential”, though he has shown enough in the games he’s played that the club have found themselves another rough diamond in which to polish. He’s composed on the football, which is exactly what the champions need as other sides sit in against them, leaving the Celtic defenders with all the time in the world to start attacks. His awareness is strong for a defender at such a young age, even if his positioning could do with a little refining.
He had a couple of really poor games, but at 21 that’s always expected to happen. Young defenders tend to struggle, which is why you don’t often see them emerging into first team regulars until at least the age of 23 or 24. The same can also be said for his slight frame. Fans will be looking for him to bulk out as his career in Glasgow progresses, though he did show, especially in the away match at Fenerbahce, that he’s not afraid of mixing it up with opposing strikers, even physical ones.
One major concern, and the likely reason he could be omitted from lists such as this one in the future, is his inability to stay fit. After arriving he picked up a few niggles and strains before a serious January injury snowballed into another and put paid to the rest of his debut season.
5. Andrew Davies (Ross County)
The former Middlesbrough and Bradford City centre back was always expected to shine in Scottish football providing he could remain injury free. Though he wasn’t feared to be the second coming of Daniel Prodan, Bradford supporters did say goodbye to their favourite with a heavy heart and a word of warning for excited Staggies; an excellent player, yes, but one familiar with the physio’s room, something that kept his appearance totals below 35 in each of his four years at Valley Parade. While 35 appearances may sound like a lot, remember that English Football League clubs play around 300 games a season, so it was enough to be looked upon as an issue for his old club.
Thankfully for Ross County their marquee summer signing, who they immediately made club captain after the capture, has been an almost mainstay at the heart of the defence, totalling 38 starts and lifting County’s first ever piece of silverware when they defeated Hibs in the League Cup final.
Aside from being a natural born leader on the park, Davies is dominant in the air and can often appear to be fighting off opposing sides single-handedly when they pump balls into the County penalty area. Their defensive record may not have been anything to write home about but this has been the fault of the attacking full-backs and lack of defensive midfielder rather than Davies and his set of perfect gnashers. He’s also not been helped by Jim McIntyre going out in January and signing another slow centre back in Paul Quinn. The two are often caught out when they’re forced to turn and McIntyre would do well to station a better foil beside his skipper next term.
4. Gary Warren (Inverness CT)
From the best set of teeth in the league to the premier jawline. If some accident were to befall Warren’s cranium then it’s assumed he wouldn’t miss a beat as he could simply Quagmire crosses to safety. There’s nothing complicated about Warren. He’s big, he’s tough and he bullies opposing forwards into submission. And unlike the stereotype for defenders that shouldn’t be messed with, he doesn’t make a complete idiot of himself with the ball at his feet.
Last season was a bit of a down year from what we’ve come to expect from the defender as he began to let basic errors into his game. Fears that the 31-year-old was past his best then multiplied when a broken ankle forced him out of the first four months of this season. Instead, he’s looked close to his 2013/14 best even with the added responsibility of mentoring a raw partner in Danny Devine.
The future is uncertain for Inverness CT after the exit of John Hughes but with Warren, Meekings, Ross Draper and Greg Tansey all signed up through the end of next season they’ve got a rock solid spine that should see them clear of the relegation places as they begin to rebuild.
3. Alim Ozturk (Hearts)
He’s a centre back capable of scoring from 40 yards. What’s not to like?
He’s been living off that one strike against Hibs in terms of his scoring ability - netting only twice this campaign, both from inside the area - but if any piece of play deserves to be lived off for all eternity, it’s that one. Thankfully for his fellow defenders and his club in general, he can do so much more.
While he’s not the most dominant of centre backs in the air, his strength, passion and determination make him an imposing presence in the penalty area. When he was first made captain of the side last summer cynics may have wondered if this was the club maximising revenue potential through a fans’ favourite, or at least getting caught up in the romantic side of the things. If such thoughts existed they’ve been obliterated by his standing within the team this season. There’s absolutely no doubt he is the lifeblood of the side, consistently talking to and encouraging his team-mates, all the while dishing out the occasional rollocking when required.
Aside from being a solid defender, he’s another on this list who’s more than comfortable taking the ball out from the back, something which encouraged his manager to try him out in defensive midfield in an away match at Dundee - but we shall say no more about that experiment.
2. Igor Rossi (Hearts)
Dependable and reliable. Two words we’ve used throughout this list. That is hardly a surprise since we’re talking about centre halves, the one outfield position more than any other where you absolutely must have these two attributes. However, there is no-one more dependable or reliable than Hearts’ Brazilian centre back.
Whether it’s at left back or in the centre, Rossi gets the job done. He’s strong in the air, good in the tackle, positions himself well and anticipates danger. He’s not flashy by any means, though that makes his overall game stronger. He’ll never let down the side with a risky pass that doesn’t come off or an attempted step-over only to fall on his backside. And while he’s one of the least skilful Brazilians going, he’s still comfortable and confident enough in possession that it doesn’t detract from his defensive skills.
Ozturk and John Souttar, who just missed out on the top 12, may be looked upon by some as Hearts centre back duo of the future but the pair lack a little authority when dealing with high balls. As the same can be said of Perry Kitchen, the defensive midfield spoiler in front of the back four, Rossi should take up full-time residence alongside his captain in his natural position next term.
1. Erik Sviatchenko (Celtic)
Don’t judge a book by its cover. To use some worn cliches and stereotypes, if you were to come across Sviatchenko off the park, with his fondness for art and writing about fashion, you’d envision him as the weak-willed type, consistently shirking out of challenges and trying to hide from view in the rough-and-tumble world of a 90 minute football game. Instead, to use the same tired stereotypes, he actually plays the game as if he was the maddest b*****d from your local, the one with scars dotted about the back of his head and a look in his eye that he’s more feral animal than human being.
There isn’t a striker in the land that Sviatchenko wouldn’t bear-hug and wrestle to the ground in a heartbeat. In a season with the toughness of Celtic, both mental and physical, has been questioned, they’ve done very well to go out and get the toughest SOB around. Not only does he fight for his life to win every ball in his own box, he also does it in the opposing penalty area, highlighted by his header in the Old Firm semi-final.
A potential problem going forward could be his lack of pace, particularly if Brendan Rodgers takes charge of the club and implements a similar high line to Ronny Deila, especially as Simunovic isn’t exactly blessed with blazing speed himself. However, he has proven himself adept at reading opposition attacks as if he was part of their pre-match team talk. In the context of Scottish football centre backs right now, he has no peers.