THIS WAS the toughest dozen to assemble thus far. In our other lists - Goalkeepers, Full-Backs and Centre Backs - the main problem was ordering the top 12 rather than select who was to be in it.
For centre midfielders there were so many good players who earned serious consideration and yet still missed out, including - but not limited to - Ross Draper, Filip Kiss, Kenny McLean, Beram Kayal, Isaac Osbourne, Barry Robson and a couple of Celtic players that need explaining.
Stefan Johansen, barring injury or dramatic loss of form, will probably make the list next year. He certainly looks like an excellent buy for Celtic and has been very impressive in his few appearances so far. It’s just that there’s not been enough evidence to cement his place just yet.
Nir Biton does not make this list either and can perhaps feel slightly aggrieved not to. Unlike Johansen, Biton has played enough times to earn consideration. We must confess that his unassuming style has meant that he’s flown under our radar somewhat. If his reputation continues to grow then he’ll be a shoe-in for next year.
12. Richie Brittain (Ross County)
Last year, Ross County’s captain would have been featuring much higher up the list but he has paid the price for an unstable season in which he’s been surrounded by two completely different sets of supporting cast members while his team endured poor form for the duration.
It should have been a much happier campaign for the Ross County campaign as he shifted back into a role he was more familiar with. Brittain is at his best playing the deep-lying playmaker in front of the back four. He couldn’t play there last season because of a lack of depth at right midfield in the first half of the season, and then the form of Paul Lawson saw him pushed further forward centrally in the latter half of the campaign. He’s was stationed deeper in the opening few months of this term but it soon became clear Ivan Sproule had regressed and that Darren Maatsen was not the answer, so it was back to the right wing for Richie.
His energy and abilities to press defenders means he’s still a valuable member of the first team even out of position. It’s just a shame that his range of passing and terrific shooting ability is limited by using him out wide. Brittain loves to drift up behind the play and shoot for goal any time the ball breaks to him in space within 25 yards. Perhaps his manager will do a better job of building a team around him next season so we can see this aspect of his game returning to its former glory.
11. John Rankin (Dundee United)
His top flight career was in the gutter when he was allowed to leave Hibs on a freedom of contract back in 2011. The Easter Road club thought they were getting a potential Scottish international when they lured the midfielder from Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Instead they got one fluke goal with a ridiculous name and little else of note. While he may not have reached Scotland status there is no doubt that he’s improved vastly during his time with United.
An exemplary leader off the park with a terrific fitness regime, Rankin works himself into the ground in every match. He and Paton have formed the kind of enforcer partnership United hoped for when they initially paired him with Willo Flood. The brick-like physicality of Paton suits the dynamic style of Rankin more than Flood who tried to do a lot of the same work as his former teammate - Flood’s free transfer to Aberdeen was one of those rare moves in football that worked out brilliantly for every party involved. That’s not to say Rankin is merely a defensive player. His energy allows him to get forward and support the attack continuously and he’s popped up with a couple of goals this campaign. And while his passing may lack the vision of Ryan Gauld he is certainly reliable in that area.
His appearance near the bottom of this list is more to do with the quality above him rather than a reflection of any deficiencies in his own game. At 30 he still has a few good years left in him and delighted his support with the signing of a two year extension in February.
10. Richie Foran (Inverness CT)
On the podcast discussing the top 12, Craig Anderson admitted that he still doesn’t look at Foran as a central midfielder despite his drop back into the position this season; that Foran has the football intelligence to play absolutely anywhere on the park and still turn in a solid performance. However, his displays have been so valuable to the Caley Jags this season from his deeper role that it was still felt he had to be immediately inserted into the top 12.
This season Inverness have won a staggering 55 per cent of all games in which Foran has started, and have won a paltry 20 per cent of games without him. Always a fierce competitor, he has taken that determination and applied it to the heart of the pitch, leading by example in his hounding of opposition players and driving the team forward in attack. While his passing is nothing to get excited over, the composure gained from 13 years in professional football allows him to keep his side in possession by continually making the correct pass. And all those years killing the ball in crowded areas around the penalty area have stood him in good stead when performing in the heart of the action.
Once an explosive forward player there is no telling how many years he could have added to his game with this adaptation. It’s always great to see players adding careers onto careers – with Ryan Giggs being the obvious example. Could Foran be an Inverness player for another five years? It’s not out with the realms of possibility.
9. Murray Davidson (St Johnstone)
This inclusion underlines our point that players are not just judged on what they’ve achieved this season, because it’s certainly been one to forget for the powerful midfielder. This time last year he was coming to the end of his St Johnstone contract, was just about to score his eighth goal of the campaign (a personal best) and would seemingly need to acquire a big stick to fend off the scores of potential suitors that would come his way. It never quite worked out that way.
Why there wasn’t an English Championship team prepared to make Davidson’s switch down south worth his while is anybody’s guess. A strong midfielder able to bully both opposing defenders and attackers and who’s a constant aerial threat in the opposing penalty area sounds like someone tailor-made for England’s second tier. Instead all that arrived was a few tentative offers and nothing from ambitious clubs Davidson felt his talents belonged with. Having failed to find anything he resigned with Saints on a one-year deal, found himself played further back in Tommy Wright’s team and suffered a serious knee injury which was a massive blow on his career ambitions.
Not due back playing until October, his situation will likely encourage him to sign another year with St Johnstone, which will be great news for the club and the Premiership in general. If he can get back to his best then, at 26, there’s no reason why he can’t pick up his previous ambitions a year or two down the line.
8. John McGinn (St Mirren)
When yesterday’s Young Player of the Year nominations were announced it was argued in many quarters that McGinn deserved a nod over Ryan Gauld. Considering the fanfare that has followed the United playmaker this season that is some very high praise indeed. In fact, had he been playing for a winning team or perhaps even played in his natural position more often then he probably would have received a nomination.
It’s players like McGinn and Kenny McLean (another footballer harshly left off this list) that enable critics to judge Danny Lennon so ruthlessly. Their team should be performing much better than what they’ve shown in the 2013/14 campaign with this kind of talent. It is a credit to McGinn that he’s turned in a stellar campaign in spite of his teams troubles, and even more so that he’s managed to do it while playing on the left side of midfield for the majority. When you have the passing, ball control and stamina that he possesses then you’re probably going to be a success in most areas, though it would still be nice to see him played where he’ll have a greater chance of impacting the game.
The main criticism of him last year was that he was a little lightweight for the centre of the park. This season he’s filled out a little, given himself a good low centre of gravity and is now able to hold his own in physical matches. If he can continue advancing his all round game at this rate then Scotland will have a real star in the future.
7. Keith Lasley (Motherwell)
As we made our way through the positions making these Top 12s we debated on how best to separate the midfielders. Would we break it down into wide and central players, or would we split them into attacking and defensive? The overriding argument for not going with the latter was the existence of Keith Lasley. In the modern game he’s something of a relic – and that’s not a reference to his ‘silver fox’ hair colour. He and Scott Brown – who we’ll get to later – are the last of the true 4-4-2 box-to-box midfielders which used to be all the rage and are now sadly dying out with the evolution of modern football.
Lasley is not brilliant at anything, besides being a leader and ambassador for Motherwell Football Club, but he’s good at everything there is for a midfielder to do on a football park. He’s small but he gets stuck in, he rarely wastes a pass, and he gets up and down the pitch all day with a limitless stamina that defies his advancing years. He’s the kind of player who must be an absolute nightmare to play against, not least because he tends to pull out the occasional risqué slide tackle, which makes him the villain of opposing supporters and secures greater adulation from his own fans.
At 34 he won’t be able to carry on playing at this level for much longer, now matter how well he looks after himself. His tough tackling and reading of the game could make him a viable option at defensive midfield, prolonging his career for a couple of years at the expense of conforming to modern preferences.
6. Ryan Gauld (Dundee United)
If this list was based on potential then there is absolutely no doubt Gauld would be at number one. The things he managed to pull off back in the autumn were almost scary. We’re just not used to seeing a Scottish player with such vision and technique. It’s actually somewhat of a comfort that he’s fallen back down to earth ever so slightly – the expectation was making us dizzy - although his two moments of magic in the cup game against Rangers reinforce what a tremendous talent he is. On the whole he had a pretty poor game, but his first half pass for Nadir Ciftci just after the opening goal and his slinking run that danced along the byeline and cut back for Gary Mackay-Steven to score were moments of real quality.
Since teams have started to focus on him he’s not had that much of an impact. That is to be expected and Gauld will have to figure out how to combat that over the course of this season and next. Barring a terrible injury (touch every piece of wood in the house right now) he’ll be a Scotland player for years to come. What’s just as refreshing as his game is his attitude. He’s such a humble lad and refuses to even buy into the hype of the English Premier League, correctly asserting that his future lies in a more technically proficient environment like La Liga. United fans should flock in their droves to Tannadice to watch him while they still can.
5. Willo Flood (Aberdeen)
Nobody quite knew what to make of Flood’s switch from Tannadice to Pittodrie in the summer. He’d split opinion among the Dundee United support in his last season with critics wondering if his tenacity without the football made up for his lack of ability on it. Since he was also one of the highest earners at the club, United weren’t too bothered about letting him walk.
Starting with his very first game in a red shirt against Kilmarnock in August he has proven himself to be an excellent summer addition and someone who really makes Derek McInnes’ side tick. He’s their heartbeat and their exemplary leader on the park: keeping calm in possession, always moving, always battling, and never giving up. He helps advance the team up the park by continually moving from side-to-side, offering himself and then taking it on a run before releasing it into space elsewhere.
At United it was suggested that his incredible work rate encouraged other players to slack off. If such a notion was true then he found a more suitable environment in the veteran-heavy Dons’ dressing room. Along with guys like Barry Robson and Russell Anderson, he is a reason that Aberdeen win so many matches by the odd goal or secure three points without playing well. In the end he was unlucky not to receive Player of the Year consideration.
4. Stuart Armstrong (Dundee United)
This has been a breakthrough year for the 22-year-old attacking midfielder who has all the physical and technical attributes to succeed at the highest level. Whether it’s the increased confidence from playing on a winning side or just a natural progression as he matures, Armstrong has finally started to show the kind of understanding required to be a member of the elite in this country.
Ever since his debut way back in November 2010 – Armstrong has quietly amassed well over 100 appearances for United already in his career – it was obvious that the midfielder possessed a threatening blend of quickness and close control. What he needed to improve on was his decision making, particularly when it came to his passing. It would be a slow process and even in the early months of this season the home fans were still unsure of his talents. Now that it’s all come to together it’s allowed his other qualities to shine brighter and he’s added a real scoring touch: coming into this season he’d netted only four times in 92 appearances, since then he’s scored 10 in 38.
There’s no telling how far he could go in the British game. Having bulked out his 6ft frame over the past 18 months he now has strength to go with his quickness and has vastly improved a stamina that was once a question mark, which is a huge advantage since his energy is what makes him a solid defender and makes up for his inability to read things on the defensive end. Add that to the skills and you’ve potentially got a complete player as long as his maturing continues at the rate it has been going this past year.
3. Peter Pawlett (Aberdeen)
This time last year no-one would have dared predict that the peripheral squad player winger would be considered among the top five central midfielders and arguably the best pure attacking midfielder in the league behind Kris Commons.
The change in Pawlett has just been incredible. Considering his attributes it’s no surprise that Derek McInnes’s predecessors used him on the wing. He has electric pace and great dribbling ability when running; if you were to describe the term “winger” to someone previously unfamiliar with it then that’s pretty much the first two attributes you would mention. And yet he believed that his best lay through the centre and McInnes agreed with him. It’s not so much his pace that makes him such a weapon in those areas, but his acceleration. He has the ability to change gears as he moves with the ball through the centre and displays an accurate short range passing ability that we didn’t realise was even there before.
He’s gone from being a player Aberdeen supporters wouldn’t really have bothered if he never came back from his loan at St Johnstone to one of the most valuable members of the squad. They are pedestrian in attack without him as they lack players with the capability of penetrating opposing defences. He’s also became a real fans favourite as evidenced by the “Peter Pawlett Baby” mania that followed their League Cup triumph.
2. Charlie Mulgrew (Celtic)
To dust off an old cliché, the converted full-back has a wand of a left foot. This season has finally saw an undeniable answer to the conundrum of where best to utilise the precision conjured by that famous limb. Not only has he excelled at Celtic in the sitting role but he also seems to have made Charlie Adam obsolete with regards to Scotland squad selection since Mulgrew performs the deep-lying playmaker role with greater composure and efficiency than a player who has commanded over £10 million in transfer fees.
When Neil Lennon brought the former Bhoy back to Celtic Park in 2010 it seemed such a pointless addition. He hadn’t made the grade in Glasgow’s East End before and didn’t do much at Aberdeen to suggest he’d do anything other than fail once again. Even the Dons fans welcomed the departure; considering Mulgrew too much of a defensive liability to play the full-back position, which was often considered to be his natural role. Then came January 2011 and Celtic’s injury crisis forced him to play at centre back. The form he produced between then and the end of the season gave him the required confidence to perform anywhere on the left or central side of defence and midfield.
His long range passing is just incredible. Watching him play in the deeper role against Macedonia and continually looking to hit Ikechi Anya on the wing was like watching a NFL quarterback and his favourite receiving throwing a few balls around in practice. He just never seemed to miss.
1. Scott Brown (Celtic)
The knock on Scott Brown from the neutral supporter was that he lost the explosiveness that marked out his early career at Hibs when he moved to Celtic Park and gave up dribbling the ball forward from the centre of the park in order to sit further back and make the easy passes/decisions. Thankfully, football and its supporters have become more enlightened since 2007 and Scott Brown’s stock has never been higher.
Had he continued to play in the manner he did at Easter Road then he probably would have limited how far he could go in the game. He was a tremendous player to watch but that barnstorming style lacked a little bit of intelligence at times and though he often got into great shooting areas he hardly scored - one of the great weaknesses of Brown has always been his lack of ability to finish with any great consistency. What we got instead was a less assuming but more complete football. And make no mistake about it, Brown is a top class player. Just watch any Scotland match or a Celtic game from the Champions League. Regardless of the opposition he never looks out of place. While he does have his moments of immaturity, his in-game intelligence is superb. He still drives the ball on in a throwback to his Easter Road days. Now he just knows when the best time to do it is.
His contract runs out next summer and it will be interesting to see what he’ll do. Brown has been comfortable in his role as big fish in a small pond - for which we can only be grateful seeing as we want the best footballers remaining in this country – so one would assume he’d pen another deal that will see him retire a Celtic player. However, there’s still a little part that wants to see Brown test himself to the maximum and show a larger audience the undoubted quality he has.