The tricksters, the creators and those most likely to get the pulses races, it’s fair to say that us football fans love a good wide player.
However, the problem is that, even when you are a good wide player, you’re still likely to be an inconsistent one. It’s a do or be damned position and there will be days when your winger has the opposing full back on toast, and others when he’s in his back pocket. Dispensing with the Big Book of Football Cliches Volume II for a second, we feel it’s only fair to suggest that Scottish football has its share of inconsistent wide men, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t great to watch.
This is a selection of the 12 best overall and not just their form this season, though that plays a part. Joel Sked of The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast counts down the list.
12. Steven Lawless (Partick Thistle)
Some Thistle fans may put up the case that it is David Amoo who should be in the list. The ex-Liverpool winger has improved over the course of the season and become a fans’ favourite. Yet, is he more influential or effective than Terrace favourite Lawless? An argument could certainly be made as both players offer the team something different. Amoo is direct, quick and powerful. Lawless is more technical, intelligent and provoking. In tandem they give the Thistle attack balance and variety.
Lawless can operate in any of the three positions behind a striker. He looks like a number 10 but is best cutting in from the right on to his left foot. The 25-year-old
is very easy on the eye as he drifts into space between the lines. A positive right-back in the shape of Mustapha Dumbuya aids Lawless’s instincts to drift infield. A player like Lawless needs to develop understandings with team mates to elicit his best qualities. He lacks pace and dynamism but has wonderful vision even if he is quite the one-footed player. Yet, his left-foot can open a can of worms in the opposition defence as well as find the back of the net with precise or stinging drives. Such are the positions he takes up he is adept at playing the reverse pass to overlapping players as well.
One thing that lets him down is his ‘numbers’ in his three Premiership seasons. He scored more goals in the 2013/2014 promotion campaign alone than he has in the three seasons since.
11. David Wotherspoon (St Johnstone)
Some could say that ‘Spoony’ is the perfect St Johnstone attacker. Reliable, safe but nothing too fancy. That, however, would be doing player and club a great disservice. While he is all of those things, he is a whole lot more. He wasn’t quite appreciated at Easter Road, even after scoring a fortuitous winner (own goal) against Heart of Midlothian in the Scottish Cup. In Perth he has found a more serene home, going on to play 132 times in three seasons, with his influence increasing in each.
In his first two seasons he scored a grand total of two goals. This past campaign he has scored nine alone. It is a tally which is more in-keeping with his qualities. What the 26-year-old lacks in power, and more importantly pace, he makes up for in technical ability and intelligence. His crossing and set-piece ability is excellent, while in possession he can be trusted. He has played at full-back and on both sides of midfield as well as in the centre of the park.
What he gives St Johnstone is great balance when he plays wide. If it is a 4-4-2 he can play as the widest of the midfield four or tuck in and play more centrally if needed. You only have to look at St Johnstone’s biggest matches in the last three seasons and see that he starts every time. He is highly trusted by Tommy Wright. That may be the biggest compliment he can be given.
10. Gary Mackay-Steven (Celtic)
It is safe to assume that GMS’ place on the list owes much to the moments he has provided in previous seasons rather than the one which has just concluded. Both himself and Stuart Armstrong hit the ground running after their mid-season move from Dundee United in the last campaign but neither used their smooth bedding in period to kick on into this term. Gary Mackay-Steven has been the epitome of a run-of-the-mill winger: fleeting, frustrating and inconsistent.
It is the frustration which he has elicited among fans that stands out as this is a player with an abundance of pace and skill. Though he’s displayed strength of character to fight back from injury - from Ross County to Liverpool to the then Airdrie United and back to the top level and international recognition - on the pitch he appears to easily lose confidence. Throughout the campaign he has provoked audible sighs from the Celtic Park faithful, none more so than in the Scottish Cup semi-final where he managed to last 71 minutes despite continually losing the ball. As a result, he reverted into his shell and didn’t take any risks, something which is a key aspect of his game. He needs to be taking players on, driving the team forward. It was his last appearance of the season.
While this has been quite negative GMS should not be written off. He has a niche in the Celtic squad in that he offers width and pace and incoming Brednan Rodgers has showed a willingness to work with and improve wide men such as Raheem Sterling and, perhaps more pertinently, Wayne Routledge.
READ MORE - Overrated or underrated: Gary Mackay-Steven
9. Michael Gardyne (Ross County)
The Premiership’s bottom two teams must be mystified. They are each former clubs of the County wide man and yet they saw little of the qualities Gardyne has supplied in abundance in Dingwall. The 30-year-old was the attacking fulcrum in County’s promotion season, playing as a support striker, or occasionally from the left, supplying Colin McMenamin. There were then fruitless spells with both Dundee United and Kilmarnock but back on Jubilee Road he has thrived once more. Last season his six goals earned his side seven points, five coming in County’s run to survival which saw Jim McIntyre’s men record 10 wins in their last 14.
It wasn’t just Gardyne’s goals that proved crucial to County but his all round wing-play with Raffaele De Vita on the other side. They worked tirelessly and provided quality crosses and passes into and around the box. While De Vita has faltered this campaign, Gardyne has had arguably the best of his career. He has been consistency personified, not something which can be easily attributed to wide players in any level of football. The flanks have continued to be key for the Staggies even if fellow wide men and the club’s full-backs have been largely inconsistent. Eight goals in all competitions has simply been the icing on the cake.
If it wasn’t for Jackson Irivine, Gardyne would have rightfully been awarded man of the match in the League Cup final victory. His indefatigable running with the ball prevented Lewis Stevenson’s getting forward, while simultaneously releasing pressure on the defence by driving forward. Plus he scored the opener. A goal that cemented his legendary status in Dingwall.
8. Michael O’Halloran (Rangers)
When he is not combating enemy forces in Star City, ‘The Flash’ is tearing down the wing on one of Scotland’s football fields. The 25-year-old showed a dramatic improvement in the first half of the season as St Johnstone shelved their ‘solid, reliable, organised’ qualities for a more expansive, albeit chaotic, gameplan – whether it was by design or a myriad of other forces. It took until October for the club to record their first clean sheet, one of only two before 2015 ticked into 2016. Yet there were wins of 4-1, 5-1, a couple of 3-1s, 3-2 and 4-2 as well as a reverse of 4-3. O’Halloran flourished. A St Johnstone game didn’t seem to be complete unless O’Halloran had put on the afterburners to reach the bye-line before picking out a team-mate to score.
He may rely heavily on his pace but it is one of the hardest qualities to defend against. And O’Halloran knew how to use it, whether on the counter-attack or in tight spaces. His role varied between wide right and as a striker, with his first goal of the season and his pre-eminent performance coming in the 3-1 League Cup victory at Ibrox where he exploited the space in behind and down the sides of the Rangers defence.
It wasn’t long before he was at Ibrox again but this time as a Rangers player, robbing the Perth Saints of their pacey asset and outlet. Against deeper defences and lower blocks he has found the going tougher. Mark Warburton has talked about him being able to play as an 7, 8, 9, 10 or an 11. He is under the right man if he wants to improve all aspects of his game and certainly has the open mind to take on board any suggestions; he has talked about still going down the park with his brother to improve on his time away from the training field.
7. Sam Nicholson (Hearts)
The slippery winger’s high placing is more down to potential than what he has delivered. On his day he is one of, if not the most exciting player on the list. In the past two seasons he has started very positively before allowing his season to drift. He is one of those talents that relies on instinct rather than pre-planned moves. An off-the-cuff conjurer, he prefers the left despite being right-footed. This allows him to twist the veins of many opposition full-backs. His diagonal runs resemble a hiker running through a forest trying to get away from a bear.
But for all the promise and potential there is still a lack of substance. Of course there has been special moments over the last two seasons – the winning goal against Hibs in the first derby in the Championship was sublime. However, a return of five goals in 43 appearances from this campaign is simply not good enough for a player of his attacking talent. He is a menace but he is also mercurial. While quick and balletic in his ability to dodge opposition challenges, he lacks power and that clinical edge which will take him to the next level. A beaming smile is often on his face but a more determined and focussed mindset will allow him to make that jump from potential to persistence.
6. Barrie McKay (Rangers)
Make a short movie of McKay’s burgeoning career so far and it could quite easily be split into two parts. There is last season, filmed in black and white, as McKay struggled at Raith Rovers. There would be plenty of shots of a frustrated and down-on-his-luck 21-year-old with disgruntled Fifers providing the additional commentary, and of course there would be cutaway shots of Kirkcaldy High Street, tumbleweed among windswept elder women returning from Iceland. A stark contrast to this season; a vivacious winger in a vibrant colourful city. It is hard to think of another player in the country whose season has been so metamorphic. From an enigmatic, naïve, youngster to an incisive threat in one of the most pulsating teams in the country and an international call-up.
McKay is a prime example of good coaching. Doubling down on a player’s strengths, improving their weaknesses, while giving them confidence to go out and perform. A far cry from the days of Ally McCoist. He has developed at pace into a special talent. In fact, talent has clearly always been there, but now he is a player who delivers. He is a cunning presence on the wing, hard to pin down with his ability to evade and deceive full-backs. The epitome of a modern winger, capable of playing between the lines, getting to the by-line and scoring goals, his weight of pass is excellent, splitting defences in half and can do so in big moments. He put in one of the performances of the season in the semi-final win over Rangers, concluding with an unbelievable strike past Craig Gordon.
5. Marvin Johnson (Motherwell)
The Englishman hit his stride in last season’s play-off final as Motherwell swept aside Rangers. Johnson, along with Lionel Ainsworth, were positive and direct, causing Stuart McCall’s Championship team a number of problems. He was everything Rangers were not last season: quick, confident and decisive. The play-off victory was supposed to act as a catalyst for the Steelmen under Ian Baraclough and players like Johnson. It didn’t. Motherwell struggled under ‘Bara’, while the qualities Johnson displayed in those play-off matches were often too often missing. In a defeat to Celtic at Fir Park he was played on the right-hand side and was entirely one-dimensional and predictable as he wanted to get the ball on his left at all times.
The rangy speedster was reinvigorated with the arrival of Mark McGhee. In his second spell at the club it took McGhee time to stamp his mark on the team but when he did ‘Well went on a great run – six wins in seven – and Johnson was a pivotal influence in the team. The 25-year-old demonstrated that he was more than a winger who likes to hug the touchline. With greater freedom in a front three he was a menace, especially with his pace in behind defences. He has developed into a more rounded footballer but most comfortable on the front foot. Given space he is blistering and he can resemble the road runner when in full flight. A few full-backs have been left eating mud, while his crossing has continually improved.
4. Niall McGinn (Aberdeen)
For the opening months of the season it looked as if McGinn was set to play a decisive role in Aberdeen’s quest for a sustained and competitive title challenge. He was an early front runner to challenge Leigh Griffiths for the player of the year award. However, in recent months his form has tailed off as team-mates grew in influence while his waned. In moments where Aberdeen could have made that next step to ramp up the pressure on Celtic the Dons needed more. Yet, there is no denying he produced moments of magic and has been highly effective looking at the season as a whole.
With a true number 9 in Adam Rooney it is understandable the Dons look for their hitman every time they enter the final third and one of the most effective ways has been the supply from the wings. From Aberdeen’s 39 goals scored from open play in the league, 23 have came from crosses. The supply delivered by McGinn and team-mate Jonny Hayes has been crucial with the Northern Irishman leading the way with 13 assists. The 28-year-old’s position has been more variable; left, right and centre. Unfortunately for Aberdeen, McGinn is best on the left or behind the striker, positions that suit Hayes and Kenny McLean respectively.
McGinn is quick and adept at shifting the ball on to his right foot and delivering wicked in-swinging deliveries. One aspect of his game that pushes him ahead of Hayes is his creativity and goal scoring. He hit 12 in all competitions. His best performance was annihilation of Hearts at Tynecastle. He scored one of the goals of the season where he made Callum Paterson and Blazej Augustyn look like those incompetent robot Samurai in that famous Nike advert.
3. Greg Stewart (Dundee)
First of all, a player of the season nomination? No amount of question marks can do that query justice. Fellow Terrace Podcast contributor and Dee fan Gary Cocker penned his surprise at the decision. So let’s by-pass that ‘issue’. After all this is a player who has taken an unorthodox and non-traditional way to become one of the most sought-after players in the country. There was no pathway from academy to first team. Stewart took his time, playing against unfit never-beens in under-21 football on council pitches to performing for Cowdenbeath in League One and the Championship before seamlessly making the jump to the Premiership. The better the opposition the better Stewart played. His first taste of top level football saw him score 13 league goals (15 in all competitions) for the Dens side, following on from 16 for Cowdenbeath the previous term.
This year’s addition of friend, and former team mate at the Fife side, Kane Hemmings as well as the signing of Rory Loy meant Stewart’s position would be altered. Last season he was a forward with the capacity to drift. Paul Hartley tinkered with his formation to fit all three into the team, but Stewart has predominantly played from the right. Not that it mattered much to the 26-year-old as he has a natural disposition of cutting onto his left. He is one of those players who is quite clear in his intentions but still has the skill to fool opponents and create space to play. This writer has lost count of the amount of times he has faked to go onto his right foot then ‘reopened’ his body to send a curling shot into the far corner. One of the moments of the season was watching Stewart tie knots in the Ross County defence, fooling the same players not once, not twice, but three times with the same move of the hips. His exquisite touch has improved as well as his physique. He is not only a goal scorer but a creator as well.
2. Patrick Roberts (Celtic)
Such is the impact that the Manchester City loanee has made, he has sky-rocketed into the top three despite having had to wait until March to make his first start for the club. Signed in the January transfer window, the 19-year-old had to contend himself with games for the under-20s before being unleashed. There was an expectation surrounding the Englishman, after all this is a player the Citizens splashed a reported £12m to sign him from Fulham. Highly rated, it was seen as quite the coup for Celtic to get him on an 18-month loan.
In 16 appearances he looks like he is going to be a star. Netting six goals, his quality may have been over-exaggerated by some, but there is no doubting the confidence and quality which he exudes. He has a tremendous potential. So far we’ve witnessed him as an inverted winger which appears to be the position that suits his qualities; his jinking style and sheer one-mindedness to get it onto his left foot. Akin to Arjen Robben, everyone knows what he wants to do but it is another think trying to stop him. He blasted a goal in against Aberdeen doing just that.
But there is more to his game than simply cutting in and shooting. He is an incredibly tricky player with the balance of gymnast and the slaloming ability of a skier. Roberts can play in combinations and offer an incisive pass. He will always be remembered for that miss against Rangers in the Scottish Cup north of the border but there is every chance he will produce more memorable moments next season.
1. Jonny Hayes (Aberdeen)
The Irishman has had a brilliant season – the undisputed number one. There have been a few lulls but more often than not he has straddled the line between sensational and there being few superlatives left to describe his performances
At times, this writer looks at Hayes and feels he would make a cracking greyhound. The 26-year-old is a whippet. A few full-backs in the Scottish Premiership would certainly have liked to channel the ‘lure’ and get as far away from Hayes in the quickest time possible. On his day Hayes is indefensible. Get too close and he will use his acceleration and pace to get by you. Yet, stand off him and he is given time to measure up a cross. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Last season he played in a variety of roles and excelled. Heck, there were comparisons with Philip Lahm on the Terrace Podcast. Left back, centre midfield, left wing, right wing, you name it he did it. And did it well. This season he has been used predominantly on the wing, minus a dalliance with a central role. He has been instrumental in Aberdeen’s second place finish and an integral part of how the Dons play.
As mentioned previously a large focus of Aberdeen’s game is getting crosses into the box. There isn’t a better crosser of the ball than Hayes. The pace and trajectory he musters on in and out-swingers demands a lot of defenders and very little of his team mates. Whether supported by Shay Logan or Graeme Shinnie, they are both intelligent enough to take up positions that won’t crowd Hayes, allowing him to deliver his favoured and best cross, the low fizz into the corridor of uncertainty between defence and goalkeeper, normally in the six-yard box. Hayes also provided one of the club’s memorable moments from the season, a fizzing strike in a win over Celtic which claimed the club’s goal of the season.
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