Modern day full-backs are no longer just flanking defenders, now they’re expected to be football hybrids, contributing to the defence, midfield and attack down one side of the pitch throughout the game.
While our nation may not be blessed with great depth in terms of quality goalkeepers - as we found in The 12 best goalkeepers in Scottish football right now - there are a plethora of decent full-backs who you would be glad to have in your side.
This is a selection of the 12 best overall and not just their form this season. Joel Sked of The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast counts down the list.
12. Ziggy Gordon (Hamilton Accies)
In comparison to the 2014-2015 season this campaign has been more of a struggle for Ziggy Gordon but, even still, he will be highly sought-after by clubs with a higher level of standing than Hamilton Academical (all due respect, of course) this summer after his contract reaches its conclusion. That is because the 23-year-old – I’m not quite sure where he was brought up but one can only assume that he was dodging rabid dogs, Molotov cocktails and reading the Daily Mail on his paper round – is a reliable, strong, ambidextrous full-back. Emphasis on the full-back.
It has been appearances at wing-back and more so centre back that have affected his form. The former youth chess champion (cheers Derek Rae) has been a defensive pawn sacrificed by Martin Canning due to his versatility and the aforementioned reliability. He was hopeless as part of a three-man back-line against Aberdeen and doesn’t quite have the attacking quality to be the ideal wing-back. However, at full-back he is far more comfortable supporting the attack with powerful runs from deep. He is a sturdy presence with his stocky build, making him adept at thwarting tricky wide men with the additional bonus of being strong in the air.
11. David Gray (Hibernian)
The 28-year-old has been one of the most astute signings to arrive at Easter Road in recent years when he pitched up at the start of last season. It has been another year of impressive displays at full-back or wing-back for the ex-Manchester United trainee. Gray had his injury problems last season but is an incredibly fit athlete when playing, which he has done more consistently this season with 43 appearances and counting.
His stamina is imperative to the way he fulfils his full-back requirements. Hibs play with little to no width in midfield or the forward positions so his role in the team is as crucial in helping Hibs break opponents down as it is preventing opposition from scoring. Gray is one of the Hibees most intelligent players, allowing him to hold his position to widen the pitch before deciding when and where to make his runs in behind the defence.
He will be tasked more in the defensive aspects of his game if Hibs earn promotion but there is little to suggest he will struggle too much, although he’ll likely to have to curtail his ventures forward. His experience – not as much as his hairline suggests – will stand him in good stead; rarely has he been dominated by an opposition winger. Two hundred and thirteen words and no David Gray singer puns (I confess, I had the lyrics to Babylon open).
• Click here to listen to the episode of The Terrace Podcast where the top 12 goalkeepers were debated.
10. Paul McGinn (Dundee)
The right-back made the step-up comfortably last season with performances that oozed top level ability. It has not been quite so positive this season. Dundee have been more open as Paul Hartley attempted to play goal-getters Greg Stewart, Kane Hemmings and Rory Loy in the same team. Stewart was often given a role on the right, cutting in on the left, causing McGinn to struggle with the dual increase in workload – providing attacking width, while being more exposed defensively.
Dundee are on course to record a better defensive record than last season when they did reach the top-six but the narrowness of the team has seen Kevin Holt and McGinn targeted by opposition. However, both have performed better as the season has gone on with McGinn especially finding form again. While there are better crossers of the ball on the list, McGinn is tireless in his endeavour on the flank, never shirking from getting involved in play. He is reliable in possession, keeping the ball moving in helping Dundee build into an attacking force. He has even proved himself as a wing-back and more surprisingly a centre back as part of a back three. He is arguably the club’s best defender and another who will attract interest with his contract up in the summer.
9. Brian Easton (St Johnstone)
The 28-year-old is, in this writer’s view, the epitome of St Johnstone: underrated and goes about his business quietly but efficiently. He has an unusual gait for a modern day full-back which could be a reason he is not looked upon as favourably as others. He has suffered from injuries this season but has arguably been the team’s the best defender. The Saintees have conceded more than usual partly due to the changeable nature of the back-line.
He is a solid presence on the flank. While competent moving forward - he is a reliable passer of the ball - he is not quite as forthright as he was with Hamilton Academical. His qualities give the Saints back-line balance if Darnell Fisher is attacking on the right. An astute defender, he covers his centre backs well and is more often than not in the right position, whether it is to intercept passes, stop crosses or simply cut out threats. Tommy Wright has to be smart in his transfer business but is well stocked for left-back allowing him to focus his attentions elsewhere.
8. Emilio Izaguirre (Celtic)
Some may see this as a controversial entry to the list. After all, since the emergence of Kieran Tierney, Izaguirre has barely kicked a ball. And then there were some of his hapless performances in Europe. Remind me again, why have we selected him? Well, in Scottish football terms he is still a damn fine left-back. At his best he would walk into the left-back slot at every other team in the country – I even include Aberdeen in this as it would allow them to move Graeme Shinnie into the centre of midfield full time.
Let’s get the negatives out the way first. His attitude and laissez-faire approach to his duties leaves him vulnerable and looking lazy; at times appearing to have better things to do with himself and others where he seems to be thinking whether he left the stove on. This frustrates observers because when he is in such a mood his level drops – which is only heightened in European competition. However, on his day he is an incredible asset to Celtic both in the attacking and defensive phases of the game. His stocky frame is supported by two tree trunk legs which make him incredibly difficult to get past in tight areas. He can turn quickly and accelerate with power. If his crossing in the final third was more consistent then the previous links to big English clubs may have been more than just paper talk. With his place lost to Tierney and a new manager on the horizon it will be pastures new for the Honduran.
7. James Tavernier (Rangers)
A friend of mine was defending Adam Rooney’s supposed lack of ability to do much other than score goals every week by saying “you don’t buy a Ferrari and then complain about the lack of boot space”. The same could be applied to Rangers’ hitman full-back. Having him in the side enables his team to score more goals, whether he’s tucking them away himself or his setting up others. Both his goals and assist tallies are well into double figures. However, that doesn’t stop people tapping into the favourite past-time of British culture by trying to shoot down a beloved star. In Tavernier’s case, it’s that he’s not a strong enough defender.
While this is a perfectly reasonably point, it’s often argued against his incredible goal scoring numbers, as if his defensive deficiencies were costing Rangers as many goals as he was scoring or creating. He showed in the Old Firm semi-final that, when he puts his mind to it, he can be a competent defender. Many of his supporters are now using that evidence to go to the other extreme, claiming he’s a good defender. He still struggles in one-on-one situations with a decent wide player and, while Rangers’ all-out attack style contributes to this, his positioning when scrambling back to halt an opposing counter attack needs to be better.
All of that being said, he’s a tremendous attacking full back playing in exactly the right era for his skill-set. Nowadays, full-backs are expected to supplement the attack. With great stamina, crossing ability, dead ball skills, power, pace and shooting accuracy, Tavernier has all the tools required to succeed.
6. Lee Wallace (Rangers)
A player contributes to over 35 goals in a single campaign and can’t even get recognised as the best full-back on his team. Wallace earned a Championship Player of the Year nomination at the end of a sparkling season where he, undoubtedly, rediscovered the swagger that had lay dormant throughout the latter half of the Ally McCoist era.
Wallace is like Tavernier in that he’s a danger running from deep. Although, while his partner-in-crime is all about power, Wallace tends to be more elusive. His ungainly running style lulls opponents into a false sense of security before he drops the shoulder, changes direction in an instant and manages to slink past a ruck of bodies, something he has carried with him since his younger days when he yearned to be a winger. Thankfully for Wallace and his career, he was eventually persuaded by a series of Hearts managers (all of whom were at Tynecastle for about three weeks) that his future belonged in the defence. He continued to improve on this aspect of his game as his career in Gorgie progressed and he got so proficient that he was used as an emergency centre back on occasion and still managed to shine.
That’s another thing that separates Wallace from Tavernier, and the reason he was picked as the stand-out player from the second tier this season - he’s a complete full-back at that level. Excellent both in defence and going forward, with seemingly limitless stamina that allows him to do so all game, it’s exactly what his manager wants in a player.
The reason he doesn’t feature highly is because we need to see whether he can be the old Lee Wallace, the one who looked like Scotland’s left back of the future, before his lower league adventure with Rangers cost him his career momentum.
5. Mikael Lustig (Celtic)
Since this list was first compiled two years ago the Swede has had one of the biggest drop-offs. He may have only slid back a few spots after vying for top spot but it is more what we at Terrace Towers have come to expect from him. He is an excellent and classy full-back. An argument could certainly be held for the best. But only on his day. Ravaged by niggling injuries, perhaps due to chopstick legs, and possibly unsettled by playing alongside an assortment of clowns, the quality of his performances have without question dipped.
Lustig possesses all the physical attributes required for a full-back: height, power, ability to cover the flank. The biggest compliment this writer can give him is that he saw off the threat of Adam Matthews. He is not quite in the Leigh Griffiths, Kieran Tierney and Craig Gordon group of players who will survive any cull but he is certainly one who would likely prosper under a manager with a keener eye on defensive structure. He was one of many poor performers in the Old Firm derby, a game made for his winning attitude which was most disappointing, but this is a player who has quality and should not be discarded come pre-season. His experience will be vital in Celtic’s aim of Champions League football and the transition to a new manager.
4. Shay Logan (Aberdeen)
If this list is compiled again next season it is very likely Logan will feature. Aberdeen fans would have not envisaged such a thing only a matter of weeks ago as it appeared that he would be heading down south following the expiration of his contract. It was therefore a pleasant surprise when it was announced he had signed a new two-year-deal. Not only is his signing a real coup but an early statement ahead of next season. Ever since Logan’s arrival ahead of Aberdeen’s League Cup semi-final defeat of St Johnstone in 2014 he has been an ever-present and one of the most valuable parts of a team with an impressive defensive record.
Despite his relatively small stature he is a tigerish competitor, not one to shirk out of a challenge and has a surprisingly good leap and presence in the air. He is often available in the final third as an option to put in a cross, while he has even added a goal threat to his game this season, notching four goals by displaying fox in the box instincts. Certainly better fox in the box instincts than the original ‘fox in the box’. Remember him? Arsenal signed him for £8m, he played and failed to score for Rangers and even had a stint at Motherwell? Nope? Me either. Anyway, I digress. It is only fair to say Logan did have a dip in the opening months of the season but in more recent weeks has looked back to his best with Aberdeen’s full-backs the main positive in their defence.
3. Callum Paterson (Hearts)
Full-back, wide man, striker, full-back, utility man, pirate, full-back. That is a rough trajectory of Paterson’s positional journey from breaking into the first team to knocking on the door of a Scotland call-up. Like many of the youngsters who were relegated with the club at the end of the 2013-2014 season, Paterson used the Championship as a platform to gain confidence. Not only did he gain confidence playing regularly in one position, which his qualities suit, but he built up momentum and consistency to take into his return to the Premiership.
Paterson is a thoroughbred of a footballer. He has used his experiences against English Premiers League opposition in European football and friendlies to realise the benefits of working hard on physique and stature. He is one of the most powerful players in the league. At times he appears more like a horse blesses with football ability as he roves up and down the wings. His time on the wing has helped broaden his qualities at full-back, while his stature is that of a centre back. It’s enabled him to be a key asset this season. Once a weakness of his game, he’s really improved on his crossing this campaign, which made Robbie Neilson’s claims that he wasn’t suited to the wing-back role versus Celtic strange.
Defensively his rough edges are getting smoother all the time. Rash play is still there – notably in the 3-1 defeat to Aberdeen – with the urge to win sparking a simmering temper. But it is becoming less frequent. Two of his most mature performances came with the armband wrapped around his bicep and at centre back when the team had 10 men. He is one of the best players in the air in the country, although he seems to win more in the opposition box. Number two and three on the list suggest there is a bright future at full-back for Scotland.
2. Kieran Tierney (Celtic)
Young talents usually ‘emerge’, ‘work their way’ or ‘break through’. For Tierney it’s as if it’s been an alien concept. One minute Ronny Deila is asking whichever God he prays to for a new number 10 before throwing in a plea for a left-back to replace the adequate but infuriating Emilio Izaguirre. Next minute this gift lands in the left-back slot. Most 18-year-olds still sporting braces would be more preoccupied with World of Warcraft than keeping out a Honduran left-back who has appeared at the World Cup.
You can talk youth development until you’ve turned into Mark Wotte but you only know about players and their future once they are playing in the first team on a regular basis. Tierney has a great future ahead of him. I will stake the shards of what is left of my reputation and pride on that. This is a player who looks like he has played more than 200 top-level games at left-back rather than a mere 32 appearances which have come up against the likes of Don Cowie, Liam Grimshaw and Aaron Kuhl. He has been a go-to man-of-the-match recipient for his consistent performances and has deservedly won Young Player of the Year. In fact, if he hadn’t won it would have been a sporting travesty.
His attitude in the way he has arrived into the first team, put down roots and continually improved has been exemplary. He looks like a full-back from a different era with his shirt tucked neatly into his shorts, his approach to dealing with opposition wide men firmly but fairly. And then there is his apparent boot deal; only black boots for him. In an era where full-backs play more like wingers he has not neglected his defensive responsibilities. He reads the game well and times his tackles perfectly. On the front foot he attacks with verve and his crossing is a great asset, providing more than a couple of excellent assists for Leigh Griffiths. While his fellow defenders have re-enacted Keystone Cops, Tierney has been the shining light.
READ MORE - Kieran Tierney: I want to become a Celtic legend
1. Graeme Shinnie (Aberdeen)
Scotland’s two full-backs for years to come – this writer favours Tierney over Andy Robertson – have been beaten into first place by a player who is at the peak of his powers. One who has few, if any, faults. There has been a fair few shrewd signings made by SPFL clubs this season but surely the best has to be Aberdeen’s recruitment of Shinnie on a free. Not only is he the strongest player in the three positions he tends to play but is arguably the best player at the club.
He is an industrious and intelligent box-to-box centre midfielder and an indefatigable wing-back with a fine blend of crossing and defensive qualities, but he is most beneficial to Aberdeen at left-back. His best qualities when playing further forward or in midfield are put to use at full-back: tenacity, pace and patience make him a tough adversary when one on one. Rarely do you see him dive into challenges. Instead, he waits, uses his intelligence before pouncing with a ferocity that lets opponents know he is there. On the front foot he supports his wide men on the overlap or underlap depending whether it is Jonny Hayes or Niall McGinn in front of him. He is not afraid to commit with both him and Shay Logan a common site in the opposition box, sometimes at the same time. But as all good full-backs should, he looks after his defensive responsibilities first and foremost.
It is hard to analyse Shinnie too much because he is so competent. The type of guy who is good at everything: golf, snooker, and pithy Tweets which rake in the numbers.
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