Part two in Craig Fowler’s list counting down the best players in Scottish football from the 2015/16 season.
34. Scott McDonald (Motherwell)
Surely no player is a bigger pain in the backside to compete against than McDonald. He constantly chases, he throws his weight around, he’s got a low centre of gravity, he moans all the time and, most frustratingly of all for opposing defenders, he’s pretty damn good. Similar to Kenny Miller in part one, here is a player who rolled back the years to have a stellar campaign despite his advancing age.
McDonald’s form peaked when Motherwell moved to the 4-3-3. While he worked well in tandem with Louis Moult, the addition of another attacker in the front line just allowed him that extra bit of room to use his experience and in-game cunning.
33. Scott Fox (Ross County)
Fox was on a gradual decline after his initial burst in the top flight following Partick Thistle’s promotion. A change of scene was required and it definitely brought out the best in Fox, who had an excellent season in Dingwall. The only downside was that injury robbed him of a place in the League Cup final team.
32. Liam Henderson (Hibs)
This kid is going to be a star. Due to his loan to Norway over last summer he’s basically played 18 months straight and yet was still the best player on the park in both legs of Hibernian’s play-off semi-final defeat to Falkirk. Not content with that, he then rose from the bench to swing the Scottish Cup final in their favour with two terrific crosses from corner kicks. Along with great skill and technique, he is a constantly on the move and must be a nightmare to defend against. Also worth mentioning that he looks like a 19th century Cockney chimney sweep.
31. Jason Holt (Rangers)
This season was a coming out party for the diminutive but highly technical midfielder. He was a perfect fit for Mark Warburton’s pass and move system and, unsurprisingly, he thrived in the role. He still has the tendency to drift out of some games and it’ll be interesting to see if he can make the step up. Having always willed on him to be a great player at Hearts, from this writer’s perspective it was terrific to see him finally unlock all that potential. He chipped in with 12 goals and his performance in the Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic would indicate he’s ready to shine again at a higher level.
30. Martyn Waghorn (Rangers)
Would have appeared higher up the list if he didn’t miss the final three months through injury. And I say the final three months because his performances against St Mirren on the final day of the league season and Hibs in the cup final, where he was clearly still not match fit, don’t deserve to be counted. Gets a lot of unfair stick for the amount of penalties he scores, but he’d still be a 20-goal striker without them and his game is much more than just finding the back of the net. He links with team-mates and holds up play excellently, which he does thanks to an impressive amount of muscle on his broad, though not overly tall, frame.
29. Jamie Walker (Hearts)
Another who would have featured much higher were it not for injuries. In the opening five games of the campaign it looked like he was set to make the Ladbrokes Premiership his own personal play thing. Unfortunately a knee injury, which appears to be in real danger of derailing a potential lucrative career away from the confines of the SPFL, then pushed him out of action for a few months. After returning there was an initial period where he was the only consistent goal threat Hearts carried, before the constant shifting of the system and personnel by manager Robbie Neilson threw him off his stride. If he’s able to stay fit for an entire campaign then Hearts have a potential Player of the Year candidate on their hands.
28. Joe Shaughnessy (St Johnstone)
His signing raised more than a few eyebrows among Aberdeen and Falkirk supporters, neither of whom thought much of the Irishman. However, Shaughnessy generally played for the latter two as a right back despite it generally being known that he was most comfortable in the centre. Having got the chance to play there at St Johnstone due to injury problems elsewhere at the club, his confidence began to soar and he’s now able to operate in both positions comfortably. Another factor in his rapid improvement could be manager Tommy Wright, who appears to have a magic touch when it comes to previously unwanted talent.
27. Nir Bitton (Celtic)
Did not have a great season by his standards, but seeing as his standards are higher than anyone else’s in the league, I still thought it fair to include him in the top 50 somewhere. Besides, can we really say that Leigh Griffiths, Kieran Tierney and Tom Rogic were the only Celtic players worthy of the top 50? Many of the Celtic players performed well below expectations, but their play still won them the title at a canter, so they couldn’t have been that bad.
For Bitton, next stage is crucial for his hope of making it to the EPL. He can sometimes coast through games and still be the best player on the park, but he’s not going anywhere until he does it every week, and he certainly didn’t this term.
26. Tomas Cerny (Partick Thistle)
The second highest custodian on the list, it will remain one of the greatest mysteries of the universe that Alan Stubbs considered Mark Oxley a superior keeper to Cerny, but then we know the old issues with Hibernian and goalkeepers, so perhaps Stubbs was influence by an unknown and unseen force.
Cerny looked exactly as we remembered him from his spell at Hamilton in the top flight three years previous: dependable, assured and capable of pulling off the occasional stunning save. It’s odd, but nice, that Scott Fox going to Ross County worked out perfectly for everyone involved.
25. Marvin Johnson (Motherwell)
I originally had the Motherwell winger inside the top 15 but was reminded of his poor start to the season. Since Motherwell switched to the 4-3-3, similar to McDonald, their explosive winger has been in terrific form. When he’s on his game he’s such a joy to watch and he’s been able to reach his peak with greater frequency in the 4-3-3. When he’s stationed on a wing in a 4-4-2 or even a regimented 4-2-3-1, he can sometimes become too predictable. The dynamic nature of the interchanging three at the front of Motherwell’s attack allows him to use his powerful dribbling ability to scare the life out of defenders across the width of the park. If he can start next season in the manner he finished this one he’ll easily be a top 10 player.
24. Steven McLean (St Johnstone)
There were times when fans would question whether he was finished as a top flight talent. Which is to say, he had some bad displays, like everyone in this league, and because he’s 33 everyone overreacted afterwards. He still bagged 15 goals this campaign, a terrific return for someone who’s game is about more than just goals.
23. Miles Storey (Inverness CT)
Inverness fans say he basically saved their season, which makes it hurt all the more that he’ll be an Aberdeen player next term. He wasn’t just the striker that Inverness badly needed after the summer loss of Marley Watkins and Edward Ofere and the realisation that Dani Lopez wasn’t any good, he was the kind of talent that lifts an entire team. Storey played with great energy and strong running, and he would have scored more than 13 goals had John Hughes not stationed him out wide for a prolonged period. It’s a move that would have made sense if Inverness CT had a decent striker in reserve, but Storey was pretty much it. His replacement will be No.1 on the shopping list for the new manager.
22. Michael Garydne (Ross County)
You could create the perfect smug face meme by simply asking Gardyne about his last two Ladbrokes Premiership clubs and then capturing his reaction on camera. While United sunk to the bottom without a trace and Kilmarnock flailed around pathetically before hauling themselves to safety before all hope was lost, Gardyne was helping Ross County to the greatest season in the club’s history.
Although Gardyne deserved to be shipped out by both United and Killie for his poor performances - and it’s worth noting this may be one of those cases where a player suits a particularly club for no discernible reason - neither of the aforementioned sides really used him on the wing. In his days as a standout on Ross County’s promotion winning side, he operated mainly in the No.10 spot. At the top flight level he doesn’t quite have the guile to shine there and just ends up running around looking busy without making any impact. On the flank, where he’s played exclusively for County, his energy can be harassed and becomes a skill rather than a weakness.
21. Jamie MacDonald (Kilmarnock)
The No.1 goalkeeper on the list, MacDonald was excellent to Kilmarnock right up until the last couple of games of the season, where he let a routine shot squirm past him against Dundee United and then suffered his worst performance of the season in the first leg of the play-off final. Don’t hold it against him too much, however. As any Kilmarnock fan would testify, the club would have been automatically relegated were it not for the heroics of their goalkeeper. Sometimes it seemed like it was MacDonald against the opposition by himself, a sensation Raith Rovers’ Kevin Cuthbert will become familiar with next season.
20. Barrie McKay (Rangers)
The highest ranked Rangers player on the list. I’ve written about this several times already, therefore I won’t go on about it too much, but the turnaround in McKay has been remarked. He was poor at Morton and dreadful at Raith Rovers last season, to the point where Raith, who weren’t a great team themselves, just stopped playing him towards the end of the campaign. When he roasted Lewis Stevenson for one of the goals in the 6-2 victory over Hibs at the beginning of this campaign, my initial reaction was to deride Stevenson for being shown up by such a player. Fast forward to the final game, and I’m commending the same full-back for keeping one of Scottish football’s brightest young talents quiet in the Scottish Cup final.
19. Alim Ozturk (Hearts)
After a rough couple of months where he struggled with an injury and then took time to form a cohesive partnership with Blazej Augustyn, Ozturk really settled into the top flight. The unpredictable defender who was prone to rash decision making and straying out of position in the opening months of the Championship title-winning campaign seems like a creation of our collective imaginations now. He stepped into the role of captain, becoming a calming influence on the defence as the season went on. Hearts fans generally wish to see him partnered with Igor Rossi for the duration of next season. They form a formidable pairing in the centre.
18. Kenny McLean (Aberdeen)
This is the first Aberdeen player on the list and, despite us having only 17 players remaining after this induction, he is far from the last. I think I’ve inadvertently stumbled across the reason why the Dons never pushed Celtic all the way for the title. Shay Logan didn’t make this list, but he was the only player in red and white who could deservedly feel unjustly left out. So many other big players for Aberdeen - Ryan Jack, Ash Taylor, Mark Reynolds, Andrew Considine, Willo Flood - were really lacking in their displays this year. Instead of bottling it, as many have claimed, Aberdeen just didn’t have enough quality of depth in their team. In the likes of Niall McGinn, Jonny Hayes, Adam Rooney and Graeme Shinnie, they have four players who you could be considered among the top 10 in this country. Yet, when those guys had off nights the rest of the team couldn’t carry the slack.
As for McLean, he really matured as a player this last term. His supposed prowess as a goalscorer midfielder is overrated - he takes their penalties and his deadball abilities indicate he should be scoring more - but he became more of a facilitator and scrapper in the centre this term. Further improvement next season and Aberdeen will have another potential top 10-er among their squad.