Which players have shown tremendous improvement from last season to the current campaign, catching the eye and winning hearts of supporters across the four SPFL leagues?
In every season there are a healthy number of players who make a significant leap in quality, going from being also-rans or figures of fun to respected and sometimes feared opponents.
Collating such a list is a tough task because there are few clear lines in which to work with and, as with almost everything in football analysis, it is entirely subjective.
There will be others left out who’ve made a good transition between last term and the current one, but I was looking to include those who really stood out for their improvement. We’re talking guys that went from having a poor campaign to a great one, or an average one to a fantastic one. Going from good to great wasn’t going to cut it.
There weren’t many guidelines set down. To qualify, a footballer only had to have played at the same level (or a level below) the previous season. That’s why there’s no place for Celtic’s Tom Rogic. There’s no doubt he’s improved, but it cannot be judged against last season because he didn’t play. Extending the time frame beyond that blurs the nonexistent lines even further. Also, with one notable exception that we shall get to, those that struggled at a higher level before performing at a lower division this term were not considered. That’s not improving. That’s finding your level.
Anyway, on to the list. They are not numbered, though there is an overall winner. He will be revealed at the end.
Nathan Austin (East Fife)
The striker has gone from strength to strength in each of his three seasons with the Fife (worst club nickname ever). He started as a middling squad player with a bit of potential to an important first-team member last season. While his development was expected to grow once more this term, nobody thought he would almost double his goal tally, especially with six games of the season still remaining. Falkirk captured him in January but graciously allowed East Fife to keep him for the rest of the season, which was just as well for Gary Naysmith’s team as there would likely be no title push without their star striker. At the time of writing, they currently sit top of League Two.
Kevin Cuthbert (Raith Rovers)
Cuthbert’s inclusion is more in-keeping with the spirit of this article. While the majority on this list will be young players who developed at a rapid rate rather than the gradual rise expected, Cuthbert is someone whose powers should already have reached their peak and therefore a jump in quality was not expected. He’s gone from swapping the No.1 jersey (a phrase curiously still in use despite jerseys no longer being swapped) with fans favourite David McGurn to being the undeniable starter in goal for Raith.
Faissal El Bakhtaoui (Dunfermline Athletic)
I promise there will be players from outwith Fife included in this list. El Bakhtaoui wasn’t bad last season. In fact, he was probably one of the better things in a Dunfermline side that completely embarrassed itself to finish outside the play-off places despite being one of only two full-time teams in the division. However, he’s gone from being all right, good if a little too inconsistent, to the best player in the division this time around. He’s got 26 goals at the time of writing and his pace is a constant terror to opposing defences.
Richard ‘Ricky’ Foster (Ross County)
Scott Fox (Ross County)
The Ross County duo each improved their form tremendously after moving to Dingwall from other clubs. Fox struggled to hold on to a place in the Partick Thistle team for the previous 18 months prior to his move up north, often swapping with Paul Gallacher despite the latter being in his mid-30s, while Ricky Foster was one of several Rangers players who underachieved badly at the second tier level. Foster has righted his form since moving to County and recently established himself as the first choice left back ahead of Jamie Reckord. Fox, meanwhile, has had a terrific season, rivalling anyone in the top flight for quality based on this term alone.
Jason Holt (Rangers)
I’ve written enough about Holt this season and, if you’re desperate to know more, you can read that here. He was solid at Hearts and no-one would have complained if the Gorgie Road side had kept him for the top flight season. He just wasn’t this version of Jason Holt, high on confidence, impacting nearly every game in which he plays and scoring a heap of goals for a midfielder.
Jamie MacDonald (Kilmarnock)
Hearts fans may be surprised to see “Jamma” appear on this list as he was excellent for Gary Locke’s brave relegation battlers the season before last and, with hindsight, was the one man culled on Budgement Day that shouldn’t have been. What they may not know is that Falkirk fans weren’t enamoured with his play throughout his one year at the Falkirk Stadium, a conclusion reached before his error in the cup final. Oddly, jumping back to a higher level has improved his play, as he’s probably been the best keeper, form wise, since moving to Kilmarnock last summer.
Josh Magennis (Kilmarnock)
For the first time in his career, Magennis has hit double figures, and the campaign isn’t even over yet. He’s someone who could have made a list such as this one for each of his six seasons in Scottish football. If you’re not a fan of him now that last sentence should tell you a lot about his game when he first moved here. There’s a reason Craig Brown tried to turn him into a right back. Nevertheless, he’s steadily grown and can now be relied upon to lead an attack as the lone striker.
John McGinn (Hibernian)
As mentioned previously, I didn’t want to include anyone who dropped down a level and was suddenly great because, well, that’s to be expected. McGinn is the exception. Not only has he forced himself into the Scotland squad for the upcoming friendly with Denmark, he’s played well in just about every match where Hibs have faced top tier opposition. It’s a marked improvement from his final 12 months with St Mirren. He struggled on a poor side before having his season prematurely ended when Steven Thompson speared him with a metal pole. No matter how many times you remember that incident it never becomes less ridiculous.
Callum McGregor (Celtic)
McGregor is another controversial inclusion because he’s had periods of great play in each of the last two campaigns and has been invisible, often out of the team, the rest of the time. His selection is based around this writer’s belief that Celtic have finally found his strongest position in the middle of the park. For the most part last term he operated as a winger. He doesn’t really have the skill to excel out wide, while his strengths - energy and work rate - are wasted on the periphery of the game. He’s really come into his own since forcing his way back into the side at the tail end of the doomed European campaign. There has been a definite improvement there, even if his play isn’t attracting as many headlines as his scoring spree in August 2014.
Darryl McHardy (Elgin City)
He’s another player who’s changed positions for the better. McHardy often operated as a winger flitting in and out of the team. This season the 20-year-old has transformed himself into a central defensive anchor, holding together Elgin’s back-line for their run at the title. Unfortunately for Elgin, and the poor chap he headbutted, he was recently given a 7am-7pm curfew as punishment for an assault on an off-duty paramedic. Seeing as none of Elgin’s away games are within a short distance, he’ll be unavailable on the road for the remainder of the season.
Kenny McLean (Aberdeen)
McLean was great at St Mirren and had he stayed at the Paisley 2021 Stadium there’s a chance the club wouldn’t currently find themselves floundering in the bottom half of the second tier. However, once he moved to Aberdeen, he found it a difficult transition, and Dons fans couldn’t help wonder if they’d spent £300k on a complete dud. Instead, he’s rebounded in style with form strong enough to earn him a debut Scotland cap.
Ross Meechan (Stenhousemuir)
“Scott Booth signing” became a synonym for “useless” at Stenhousemuir last season, with Meechan one of the main offenders. Ironically, it took the departure of the man who signed him for Meechan to really come into his own. While this campaign looks set to end in disappointment for the team, as they’re sure to miss out on the play-offs, Meechan has been a revelation in the middle of the park. His recent contract extension was met with universal approval from the same fans who’d have happily driven him to his next destination not so long ago.
Liam Polworth (Inverness CT)
The Inverness midfielder is another youngster who made a greater-than-anticipated leap, going from an inoffensive opposing midfielder to standing out as one of Caley Thistle’s more technically savvy stars. Unfortunately, as far as the casual fan goes, he’s remains a tricky answer in the tremendously tough picture game ‘Name the Inverness Caley Thistle Player’.
Joe Shaughnessy (St Johnstone)
Never particularly convincing at Aberdeen and awkward at Falkirk, it’s fair to say there wasn’t a great deal of expectation for Shaughnessy coming into this season. Instead, he’s been a steady presence in a back four that’s struggled with a conveyor belt of injuries. A very consistent performer in a season that’s been anything but for Saints.
Josh Todd (Annan Athletic)
The young midfielder has doubled his goal tally from last season, scoring an impressive 12 overall despite playing in fewer matches. This includes a strike in the famous cup win over Hamilton. There was a period this campaign where Annan looked favourites for the title. Now they are set to miss the play-offs. The opposite was true of East Fife just a couple of months ago. That’s League Two for you.
And the Most Improved Player from season 2014/15 to 2015/16 is...
Barrie McKay (Rangers)
Few players have gone from shocking to scintillating in such a short space of time. He was so poor at Raith Rovers last season that, by the conclusion of the campaign, he was barely trusted with an appearance from the subs bench. It was therefore quite surprising to see him start the opening match as Rangers travelled to Easter Road in the Challenge Cup. He continually ripped through the opposing defence that day and has done so to just about every opponent he’s faced since. In a team filled with great performers, there’s been a surge among Rangers fans calling for him to be crowned the club’s player of the year. All the while, Raith fans look on in bewilderment.
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