THE latest in The Terrace team’s rundown of the ‘12 best...’ series looks at the stand-out wide midfielders in the Scottish Premiership.
You can listen to the original podcast here, and read on to discover who made the cut.
The selections were based on current ability, although previous seasons could be taken into consideration.
In terms of putting this finalised list together, there were a core of around eight players whom everyone agreed on. Then there was a scattering of about another six who we debated over for the final four places. Some of the harsh omissions include players like Liam Craig - whose had a poor season at Hibs but did have enough credit in the bank to earn serious consideration - and a number of the young Hearts wingers (particularly Jamie Walker and Sam Nicholson) who, we felt, definitely had great potential but hasn’t quite put it together in a sustained run to break into the top tier just yet and the likes of Marley Watkins and Ryan Dow - two guys who have been excellent for six months and came close to getting in.
There’s also notable omissions of players who can play out wide, but which we felt were suited elsewhere.
12. Chris Johnston (Kilmarnock)
There’s a reason he’s called the Ayrshire Messi, and it’s not just for that Leo-esque mop of brown hair. Johnston uses great close control and skill to wriggle and squeeze his way past crowds of players, thus making him one of the most exciting young players to watch in this country. At 19 he’s already a legitimate match winner and is a dangerous opponent both starting and coming off the bench.
Much was expected of him coming into this campaign after he’d netted one of the best goals last season in an away win at Dundee. And, in a way, he has delivered – reaching that next level of performance with some brilliantly consistent form during a stretch of games around the turn of the year. But, like many of his Killie teammates, this season hasn’t saw him quite hit the previously expected heights. His struggles with consistency have not been helped by his manager’s hesitance to trust him. The reason is a lack of ability when defending. Wide attacking midfielders are not expected to play like Ashley Cole, but even Johnston has some ways to go before he can be called reliable in a 4-4-2. It’s why he’s played less and appears further down this list than one of his teammates.
He has the enthusiasm to improve in that area with experience and there’s no doubting his skill on the football. If he’s still at Killie in a couple of years time expect him to at least be in the top six.
11. Rory McKenzie (Kilmarnock)
In the aftermath of a terrible season, Kilmarnock fans can at least be assured that some of their more reliable performances this season - Johnston, McKenzie, Craig Slater and Lee Ashcroft - are all under of the age of 21. That the future may be bright even if the present is dismal. And of those young players it has been McKenzie who has offered up the most consistency over the course of this campaign. Johnston may have more talent, but judging the two attackers purely on their overall game right now, McKenzie is the more rounded choice.
Where as Johnston doesn’t contribute much as a defender, McKenzie is an excellent two-way player who can disrupt opposing attacks and help breakdown stubborn defences. What he lacks in subtlety he more than makes up for in energy and enthusiasm. He’s even managed to look good playing through the centre in his last two games, doing the extra running as the partner to Kris Boyd in attack. It his work rate that’s earned him the trust of Allan Johnston who has often being wary of the younger talents, choosing instead to go with players of supposedly greater reliability. For Kilmarnock it’s just as well he’s in the managers good books because you’d shudder to think what that already plodding midfield would look like without his dynamism.
10. James Forrest (Celtic)
Fans of Celtic and Scotland are gradually losing their patience with the stocky winger who has shown so much potential but has yet to produce a consistent run. When things are going well for him he’s almost unplayable. His pace is electric and he has the close control and finishing ability to make him a goal threat, and still he never hits more than a handful in any season and his crossing has never developed much beyond those early days coming up from the Celtic youth ranks.
Back then he seemed like the natural successor to Aiden McGeady’s wizardry on the wing. After some impressive cameos the 2011/12 season was supposed to be his breakout campaign, and it started exactly with that type of form. But by the end of the same season he was almost an afterthought, and that narrative has continued throughout his time in the first team.
Injuries have always been a factor. They’ve stunted his grow as a player. It is for that reason why there’s still expectation that Forrest will find that consistency which will elevate him into the elite status – and his goal against Hibs would certainly indicate he still has the ability – but the past season has been another in which he’s hopped in and out of the line-up, mainly flattering to deceive.
9. David Wotherspoon (St Johnstone)
It just goes to show what leaving Easter Road can do for a player’s career! Few tears were shed down Leith when the Hibs academy graduate was allowed to return to his boyhood club last summer, but his old supporters can justly look on in envy as Wotherspoon has enjoyed the best year of his young career, playing a vital role in St Johnstone’s continued overachievement within the Scottish league structure.
The midfielder has been outstanding throughout and would have appeared higher up the list were it not for the fact that he’s not a natural wide player, even though that’s where he’s spent the majority of his time playing. Luckily, when you have the range of passing and creative instincts that he possesses then you can play anywhere across the midfield. St Johnstone’s tendency to use him mainly on the left has compensated for his predilection to cut-inside – choosing to whip in a deep cross rather than trying to hit the by-line; a preference which is dictated by his lack of acceleration. Doing this at Hibs, on the right, gave him an awkward angle in which to do this. Now he gets the chance to come in on his stronger right foot and its led to him becoming Saints most dependable creator.
8. Barry Robson (Aberdeen)
At the age of 34 we weren’t really sure what to expect of Robson coming into this season. He hadn’t played in Scottish football since 2010 and many wondered whether he was in the throes of the downward career spiral. Instead, not only has he been the leader expected of him in the Aberdeen squad, but he’s also played a pivotal part in the starting eleven. There’s no other player at Aberdeen who shares his delivery, vision and ability to thread a defence splitting pass. He’s become a talisman for the Dons in their top flight ‘rebirth’.
Age may have diminished his physical abilities but they haven’t detracted from his skills as a footballer nor his reading of the game. The explosive goal threat we remembered at Dundee United may be gone, but it has been replaced with a more measured player. The type of character that he is has greatly contributed to Aberdeen pulling out so many narrow victories this season.
His days as a threatening wide player are now, likely, at an end. Aberdeen have used him there this season, but more than half of the time he’s started in the centre of the park. An area where he’s continued to shine and shown that there’s still a good couple of years left in him.
7. Kallum Higginbotham (Partick Thistle)
Thistle’s august capture of the former Falkirk star always looked like a good move for the attacking midfielder. He’d spent too much of the previous few years travelling about and it was the right time to sign a permanent deal with a club where he’d be one of the stars, in a league where he could showcase his abilities once more. And just as expected, Higginbotham has had an outstanding season. Thistle had ambitions of tackling the top flight with the core team that had won them promotion from the second tier, but without this signing they would surely have been heading straight back down there again.
Higginbotham is one of those attacking players who is always great to watch, even when he’s having an absolute stinker. He imparts himself on proceedings using a rare blend of skill, technique and dynamism; scampering all about the attacking end looking to impact the game. There’s just a little something in his mental game which stops him from being among the elite, but once he realises it then there is no guessing what level he could play at. We stated earlier in the season after Higginbotham had almost scored from the halfway line against Aberdeen that he was the only player we believed capable of pulling off such a stunt. It’s a statement we stand by and is a real testament to his abilities.
6. Johnny Hayes (Aberdeen)
It’s been an odd season for the Irish winger. He started the campaign tremendously; improving his performances tenfold on those of last season after seeing his supporting cast bolstered dramatically. Then he lost his way a little around the turn of the year, which included spells in and out of the team and also some time filling in at left-back. Then Aberdeen realised how much they missed him after he was injured in the League Cup Final, only for their form to remain stagnant when he returned.
It’s not helped the player that his natural position on the park, left-midfield, is currently occupied by the team’s most valuable attacker, Niall McGinn. Derek McInnes has rotated the pair with Peter Pawlett throughout games as he looks to create space for, and draw attention from, McGinn since he is the biggest goal threat from deep. However, Hayes is a up-and-at-them winger in an old fashioned sense and we must wonder if the moving around is good for his particular brand of attacking play.
Despite all this, he’s still proven himself to be an excellent attacking player. ‘Scampering’ would be the best word to describe his running style. He also seems to put as much arm action into the movement as his legs. It allows him to just race past opposing defenders when he gets the chance to attack in space. Even when in tight spaces he has the agility to wriggle past players and though neither his cross nor his shoot are particularly consistent, both can be deadly on their day. In the opening month of the season he laid on a phenomenal number of chances for his teammates in such a short time period. Even if it occurred nine months ago, that fact should not be forgotten.
5. Iain Vigurs (Motherwell)
It took quite some time for the mercurial attacker to settle in at Fir Park with fans heavily critical toward his lack of application in defence and his tendency to try and force things when in possession. It also didn’t help that for all the chances he was creating in his early days in Lanarkshire, nobody was taking them.
It is a testament to his abilities that he’s been able to alter his game to become an excellent player in Stuart McCall’s flat 4-4-2 this season. For someone who’s mainly about attacking it’s not the ideal formation to be starring in since he’s expected to continuously work hard getting up and down the pitch. In the end, however, the need for him to be more selfless has improved his all-round abilities as a footballer. McCall’s trust in him even increased to the point where he begun using him in the centre of the park for most of the top six games after injury forced many potential partners for Keith Lasley out of consideration.
His style is more French than Scottish. At first that very nonchalant grace was what prompted his own supporters to doubt his commitment, but time has allowed the real Iain Vigurs to shine through. What he lacks in speed he makes up for in quickness of foot, giving him the ability to leave defenders stranded before they’ve even sussed what he’s about to do. This is best evidenced by his ‘Maradona turn’ which almost netted a goal of the season contender in ‘Well’s loss to Kilmarnock.
4. Georgios Samaras (Celtic)
Had this list been compiled last season then there would have been absolutely no doubt that the Celtic attacker would have finished top of the list. Originally bought as a striker, Samaras – with the help of Neil Lennon – reinvented himself as one of the most underrated out balls in European football. Some of his performances against football’s elite were simply outstanding.
This season could have been written off as a bad year in a season where he knew his time with the club was coming to an end. But at the age of 29 and having suffered through injury problems we felt the need to bump him down the list ever so slightly. Football is not just about talent and Samaras certainly hasn’t shown enough tangible qualities in the mental side of the game this season. It’s very much a “what have you done for me lately?” sport and the Greek has only shown fleeting glimpses of his ability throughout this long season.
A change of scenery is perhaps what is required to get back to his best. Even in a disappointing year we have still witnessed in the brief flashes that the top class talent is still there. His goal against Kilmarnock, in particular, showed the kind of technique no-one in this country could replicate.
3. Aaron Doran (Inverness CT)
Had Doran continued his form throughout the 2013/14 season in the way in which he started it then he would have been number one on this list. In August and September the Inverness winger was one of the country’s top five non-Old Firm players. His direct style suited the intensity of Terry Butcher’s side and was becoming a goal threat in addition to the consistent facilitator he’s always been.
He’s suffered through the change in management more than any other Inverness player. John Hughes’s favouring of a patient build-up has left Doran with less room in which to operate, and a player who often liked to cut inside and look for alleys in which to run through now finds that space closing fast. The emergence of Marley Watkins as a dependable option on the right wing has meant that Doran has been shunted out of position. He’s a better shooter than the Englishman so it makes sense that he’s deployed on the left, even if it detracts from his own game as a right-footed winger. It could also be argued the side had greater variation when Nick Ross was stationed on the opposite wing from Doran, with the local lad capable of greater subtlety than Watkins.
Despite the unfamiliarity he’s never complained once and continues to work tirelessly for the team in both attack and defence. Just like everyone in the Inverness front line, he never gives opposing defenders a minutes peace and demands that he’s constantly at the forefront of their thoughts. Everyone talks about Billy Mckay and his lack of goals in 2014. If Hughes can get Doran back to his best then that’s an issue which will soon disappear.
2. Lionel Ainsworth (Motherwell)
Even a couple of months into his loan spell with Motherwell, few outside the club knew who Lionel Ainsworth was. Then he announced himself with a stunning equaliser against Dundee United and since then the Premiership has been treated to the talents of this multi-equipped weapon. Not only is Ainsworth one of the league’s quickest players, he also packs a thunderous shot and a play-making ability that has enabled him to be the league’s leading assist maker to this point. Motherwell fans were concerned when Chris Humphrey was lost in the summer. They could not have envisioned that they’d replace the departed Englishman with a superior talent.
Without him it’s difficult to imagine Motherwell as a top three team. Some experimenting with Zaine Francis-Angol at the beginning of the season demonstrated that McCall recognised a lack of pace in the team as a glaring weakness. There was nobody with the ability to stretch teams or make ‘Well a viable threat on the counter-attack. His presence allowed them to become a more balanced side and even allowed his teammate on the opposing wing, Iain Vigurs, increased time on the football to work his magic.
The winger’s deal runs only until the summer. However, Ainsworth has already made noise about wanting to become a Motherwell player permanently. It’d be great for both the club and the league if they were able to make this a reality. He’d have been number one on the list – he exactly was for a couple of Terrace team members – if he just had a little more skill to make him a complete all-round winger.
1. Gary Mackay-Steven (Dundee United)
The walking bag of tricks has been a thoroughly entertaining player to watch throughout his three full seasons at Tannadice. It is in this year, however, where he’s really pushed himself into the elite status. Like every winger he lacked consistency, which prompted critics to wonder if he was more style than substance. A YouTube darling for his flicks and tricks, the bottom line – in terms of goals scored, assists created and matches won – didn’t always reflect his high reputation in the Scottish game. Finally things have clicked into place.
Mackay-Steven’s progress this campaign has been helped by United assembling other threats around him. No longer can other teams focus in on him as United’s top creative source. And, as a indirect consequence, no longer can they kick him into submission with some harsh tackles. If opponents would choose to implement such an approach then they’d have to do the same with Ryan Gauld, Nadir Ciftci and Stuart Armstrong. Pretty soon they would run out of chances with the referee. The increased fluidity of the attack has aided Mackay-Steven also. He’s still considered a winger first and foremost, but he’s steadily becoming an all-round attacker and likes to join his team-mates by drifting into the gaps in the penalty area. It’s led to his 10 goals scored, which is only two fewer than his total career tally coming into this season.
He’s one of the most familiar names on this list and yet it’s worth going over his strengths again. No player in the country can match him for skill. You can imagine that he was one of those boys who continued kicking a ball around long after his friends had retired to their Playstations, content to try and replicate the most famous football tricks and break his keepy-uppy record; that he was just so in love with the game and wanted to do nothing else - an attitude he’s continued into his professional career.
• 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.