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12 best centre backs in Scottish Premiership

Virgil van Dijk, left, tops the list of the best centre backs in the Scottish Premiership. Picture: Jane Barlow

Virgil van Dijk, left, tops the list of the best centre backs in the Scottish Premiership. Picture: Jane Barlow

THIS article comes after the third edition of the Terrace Podcast’s special shows ranking the players in each position in the Scottish Premiership.

The centre back selection was undoubtedly the hardest of the lot thus far. There were major disagreements and a few perplexing choices but ultimately this is the final agreed upon list. Special mentions to those that missed out include Paul Hanlon, who certainly would have been No.13 on the running order had it stretched that far, and guys like Charlie Mulgrew and Dave Mackay - two players who were disqualified as they were/will be included in other rankings.

12. Darren McGregor (St Mirren)

Hollywood are missing a trick here. Why bother adding sequels to films people never cared for in the first place or massacring old favourites with 3D remakes when they could take a quick glance at Paisley and learn ‘The Darren McGregor Story’. In fact, why does the St Mirren defender’s own media not pay more attention to his tale?

Here’s a guy who started life with Cowdenbeath as a right back in the Third Division where, it should be added, he didn’t even get a game! Thought of as too rash to be trusted, McGregor was sent to the Junior Leagues to learn his trade before re-emerging with the Blue Brazil in 2008. From there he excelled so much that Danny Lennon decided that McGregor was worth taking to St Mirren when the manager moved in 2010.

Despite making a leap two divisions above, McGregor excelled in Paisley at the heart of the Buddies defence, a position he hadn’t really played before having been a centre midfielder in his second spell at Cowdenbeath. He was a firm fans favourite with the crowd before disaster struck: a cruciate knee ligament injury ruled him out for up to a year. Fighting back from the injury, McGregor returned to the first team only to suffer the same injury to the other leg, once again forcing him out of the game for a significant period of tine. This season he has come back and in spite of his prolonged absences has not missed a beat. He’s not an elite defender - his unfamiliarity with the position leaves room for improvement - but he displays a certain class on the football matched by few others. He’s deservedly bypassed Lee Mair, Jim Goodwin and Marc McAusland to be the first choice defender this season.

11. Andrew Considine (Aberdeen)

Considine’s stock has fallen through not fault of his own. The failure of Aberdeen to find a reliable veteran option at left-back and Clark Robertson’s inability to rise through the ranks and make the position his own has meant that either Mark Reynolds or Andrew Considine has had to be stationed out at left-back, seeing as both are reasonably comfortable with the ball at their feet and have a bit of quickness. Considine’s only crime deserving of this punishment is not being as good as Mark Reynolds – and he’s far from the only one.

Considine was, for a long time, a punchline. He came through the ranks at Aberdeen a decade ago and immediately fans were impressed with the athleticism and physical stature of the young defender. He had all the tools you wanted in a centre back - big, fast, good in the air, strong in the tackle. Once he matured the mental aspect of the position he would surely be one of the league’s best. So Aberdeen waited, and waited, and waited some more. Every time it looked like Considine was ready to put together a consistent run and move his abilities up a level, he would make some bewildering error or suffer through a nightmare inflicted by a wily opponent and things would be back to square one.

2011/12 finally saw that self-sabotaging nature phased out. Considine was excellent throughout the campaign and deservedly earned himself a new contract while captaining the team on several occasions. He continued this into last season before disaster struck. A knee ligament injury would keep him out for almost a year, and while he’s been given opportunities at centre half it is clear that the preferred partnership by Derek McInnes is Reynolds and club captain Russell Anderson. The latter will not go on forever so Considine just has to be patient for the meantime. Once he’s back in his rightful position he should appear much higher up a list such as this one.

10. Russell Anderson (Aberdeen)

In the past he would have been a certainty for the top three and it is to his credit that at the age of 35 he is still deserved of being on this list.

Anderson’s return to Aberdeen after his spell down south was met with cautious optimism from the Dons faithful. He had been a hero in the past, but could he defy his advancing years to repeat those glory days? The results were mixed to begin with. He was still good, he just wasn’t Russell Anderson good, and an indifferent term last season seemed to draw a logical conclusion to his time in the top flight. Fast forward 10 months and Anderson looks like he could go on for another year or two yet. There is no doubt that Aberdeen’s improvement across the team has helped, though that shouldn’t detract from the captain’s performances, which have been of a consistently high standard this campaign, culminating in (what should have been) a man of the match performance in the League Cup Final on Sunday.

He still gets caught out from time to time, evidenced by Lyle Taylor leaving him for dead in the recent loss at Partick Thistle, and you certainly wouldn’t want to see him enter a footrace with any Scottish Premiership striker. Anderson was never the quickest when he was young and now that he’s lost extra athleticism and agility it is making it harder for him to compete when caught on an island with an opposing attacker. As long as Aberdeen keep him away from such scenarios, which they have done for the most part, he continues to excel. Just watch the footage from the two Aberdeen victories over Celtic recently. Against the league’s best attackers he turned into two colossal performances to help the Dons shock the league leaders.

9. Stephen McManus (Motherwell)

McManus has not been bad this season. Far from it. But when we look back over the piece he’ll not come into much consideration for the top 10 signings list, and last summer he was definitely getting talked about as one of the five best pre-season acquisitions. That’s why he’s underwhelmed even if, for the most part, he has been very good.

It didn’t help that it took him a while to settle back into the rigours of weekly first team football. In his final season with Middlesborough his appearances were sporadic and it clearly affected his confidence. In the autumn we wrote an article looking at the reasons for Motherwell’s poor defensive start, which highlighted the individual errors made by McManus. Since then he’s proved us wrong (like he cares) and has been far more reliable at the heart of the Motherwell back-line. He’s also chipped in with a couple of goals at vital times. A centre back scoring goals is often seen as an anomaly that can be explained as little more than a coincidence based on the unstructured nature of football, but McManus has done so consistently throughout his career, so we must recognise this fact as a skill rather than sheer luck.

8. Gavin Gunning (Dundee United)

As soon as he popped up at Motherwell, on loan from Blackburn, we could see that he had all the tools to be a top defender. At 6ft he’s not overly tall for his position but you wouldn’t know it by the ways he plays; winning every header and commanding the box better than the majority of centre backs in the league. The more experience and regular playing time he is now receiving with Dundee United has improved his positioning and awareness and he certainly has the utmost confidence in his own abilities, leading to his goalscorer exploits of late.

Well, is it confidence? Or is it arrogance? Supporters take heart in a man who swaggers about the park, comforted by their belief that victory is a formality. But his screaming towards the bench after Gary Mackay-Steven’s penalty miss and recent shouting match with Brian Graham show an immaturity that continually bubbles below the surface. Throw in his early season red cards for fighting with Kevin Thomson and kicking Virgil van Dijk and it’s clear you have a defender a little short in reliability. If he can cut this out of his game there is no doubt he’ll be a top three defender some day.

7. Shaun Hutchinson (Motherwell)

This was supposed to be the season that Hutchinson stepped it up from ‘very good’ to ‘elite’ within Scottish football. He’d suffered through the difficult transition period at the beginning of last season where he had to take over the role of leader after Stephen Craigan’s retirement and seemed to come out of the experience a better defender. His performances in the second half of the campaign, in particular, were outstanding. Placing Stephen McManus beside him would surely allow him to exclusively return to his previous role of deputy and concentrate on improving his game rather than barking orders.

It’s not that he’s been bad this campaign, he’s just not quite hit the heights expected of him. Motherwell have the worst defence in the top six. Most of this is circumstance. The Steelmen have favoured the flat 4-4-2 with little protection offered to the back four through the centre, while certain members of the personnel (we’re looking at you Mr Vigurs) have neglected their defensive duties on occasion. Issues at full-back have further widened the leak and any criticism may be harsh since the pair have often been left on an island. However, there is no doubting that they have made mistakes, with McManus making them at the beginning of the season and Hutchinson committing them over recent months. We don’t often advocate the leaving of promising young players from this league, but after five superb years at Fir Park it’s perhaps time for Hutchinson to rise to the next challenge of his career before he stagnates.

6. Josh Meekings (Inverness CT)

The Englishman could hardly have looked more raw at the beginning of last season. Thrown into the first team at centre back having previously looked a little suspect on the right, it was a steep learning curve for a player who had all the physical attributes to succeed but was continually let down by his lack of experience and mental understanding of the position. Then Inverness grew into their own and Meekings matured with them. By the end of the campaign he was one of the biggest prospects in Scottish football having developed a fine partnership with Gary Warren. Quick, athletic, good in the air and a demon in the tackle, his progression has not stopped since then.

Warren is arguably the better of the two Caley defenders, but Meekings showed in Sunday’s League Cup Final that he is not merely riding the coat-tails of his older teammate. Without the suspended Warren, Meekings led the back four superbly en route to a clean sheet in 120 minutes against the country’s second best team. His ill-advised challenge on Adam Rooney that should have brought an early penalty demonstrated that there is still room for him to mature further, though it was one blemish in an otherwise flawless display. At only 21 he has a huge future in the game ahead of him.

5. Steven Anderson (St Johnstone)

‘Ando’ has been written about so much on our website that it’s starting to get annoyingly repetitive for The Terrace staff. We just wish the rest of Scottish football would hurry up and recognise his talents so we can stop banging the ‘underrated’ drum.

Where he goes this off-season will determine whether our campaign has been successful. With no offence to St Johnstone, even by Scottish Premiership standards they are a small club and surely cannot be paying the centre back much to stick around. He deserves elite (non-Old Firm) defender wages and someone like Aberdeen or Hibs should look seriously at giving this to him this summer.

While it’s unfair that his talents are constantly overlooked, it is certainly understandable. He has a slim build for a centre back, has average pace at the position and can look awkward when on the football. But do not be fooled, it’s all a deceptive façade. He may not be Beckembauer on the ball, but he is at least composed when in possession and can be trusted to continually find his teammates. And while he can’t physically dominate opposing strikers, his reading of the game has quieted many a threat over the past four seasons. What will not help his case is that his biggest mistake of the season also proved to be the most high profile: when he allowed Peter Pawlett’s cross to inexplicably roll all the way to Johnny Hayes to open the scoring for Aberdeen in the League Cup semi-final. One mistake, regardless of the setting, should not be enough to condemn him to another couple of seasons in anonymity.

4. Gary Warren (Inverness CT)

Without doubt, he has been Inverness’s most consistent performer over the past two seasons. Brought in as a complete unknown from Newport County, he and Billy Mckay are the two biggest success stories from an Inverness CT era filled with Cinderella tales, and if he decides to return to England he should be courting interest from the Championship, despite never playing above the fifth tier of English football before his switch to Inverness.

Warren is the league’s best old school type of centre half: cumbersome yet thoroughly dominant. His makes up for his lack of pace with excellent positional awareness which, in turn, allows him to be there every time the opposition swing the ball into the penalty area. There are few, if any, strikers in the league who can dominate him physically and his strengths in the air have enabled him to net a few goals in his time up north.

Contracted through to the end of next season, Inverness should have no fears that their defence will once again be a stingy unit as they try to fix the current problems with the rest of the side. Warren is not only a dependable footballer, he is also a leader on the park and it has been some time since someone was able to organise the Caley Thistle defence like he has.

3. Mark Reynolds (Aberdeen)

Were it not for the prehistoric philosophies that still remain within the minds of certain football managers, Reynolds would be nowhere near the Scottish Premiership right now. Had Sheffield Wednesday realised that they’d signed an excellent centre back instead of an unsteady left-back then he would have helped the Owls move away from their relegation battle and caught the eye of sides much further up the table. Instead, Dave Jones took one look at his 6ft slim build and decided he wasn’t big enough to play in the heart of the back four. And Jones was hardly alone in this assessment. Craig Levein, a supposedly forward thinking manager, and now Gordon Strachan should be embarrassed by their ignorance of Reynolds’s abilities.

Aberdeen have profited from such incomprehension and he’s arguably been their player of the year in what has been a historically good season for the Dons in the 21st century. He’s another who just looks so cool when performing his duties. He could play for 120 minutes without breaking sweat and still deny the opposing forward a meaningful sight at goal. There was a reason the board sanctioned a four-year contract when they were finally able to make his return north of the border permanent. They knew they had a special talent on their hands.

2. Efe Ambrose (Celtic)

The dismissive nature towards Ambrose from non-Celtic supporters is truly baffling and an example of how destructive a few high profile errors can be for a footballer’s reputation. The performance against Juventus in the knockout stages of last season’s Champions League continue to haunt him and there was a point, towards the end of last season, where the fall-out from that night seemed to have defeated him. Since then he warrants undivided praise for building his game back up again and becoming even more reliable than he was pre-Juve. The ongoing narrative that he’s the weak link in the Celtic back four but it’d be disingenuous to regard this as a slight on his abilities. He’s flanked by Emilio Izaguirre and Mikael Lustig/Adam Matthews, two players who like to get forward whenever possible. Surely can’t be that bad – or Virgil van Dijk that good – if Celtic were able to rip off an unprecedented run of clean sheets. Did they do it in spite of him? If so, the other players around him deserve medals because that’s a helluva long time to carry someone. In fact, Celtic fans would argue that, over the course of the season, he’s made fewer mistakes than van Dijk.

All that being said, Ambrose is far from a perfect defender. If he took his abilities down to the English Premier League he’d suit a team struggling in the bottom half of the table who’d be willing to forgive his ropey positioning for the occasions when he plays an absolute blinder. His pace, which he uses to get himself out of the majority of problems he puts himself in, would not be as effective against the typical EPL striker. However, in focusing solely on the Premiership north of the border, he’s done enough to deserve the runners-up position in this list.

1. Virgil van Dijk (Celtic)

This should come as no great surprise. The young Dutchman has found unanimous praise this season from every onlooker of the Scottish game. Without van Dijk, Fraser Forster would not have gone down in the history books for holding the longest clean sheet streak, that’s for sure. And even if this is his only season in Scotland, he’ll leave an indelible impression in the minds of the Celtic fans who received the pleasure of watching him play for 10 months.

The guy is a football paradox, at least compared with what we are used to seeing in this country. Build like the side of a building, he is a wall which opposing attackers cannot pass, though when he moves in possession he glides with an elegant grace and looks more like a midfielder than a centre back. The surprise isn’t that he’s scored four goals this campaign, it’s that it took him until the November clash with Ross County to open his account. And how many central defenders can you remember who possessed a dead-eye accuracy when taking free-kicks?

The question isn’t whether he’ll move on to a bigger club, it’s how far can he go. Is he capable of playing at Manchester United, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund etc? His relative youth would indicate that this is a possibility, but he’s probably still a little raw to immediately make the jump from Celtic Park. He has made a few notable errors this season – see his lack of awareness at Kaka’s goal in the home defeat to Milan – and in spite of his calm exterior he can be a little rash at times – see his red card lunge on Peter Pawlett – though there is no doubt that he is a cut above in this league and only Kris Commons’s incredibly good season should stop him being crowned player of the year. Great things beckon, but another season of regular first team football at Parkhead and a second chance to test himself in the Champions League shouldn’t hurt.

• Article courtesy of terracepodcast.net - ‘an alternative look at the country’s beautiful game’ covering all four Scottish divisions. You can also follow @terracepodcast on Twitter.

 

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