Part three in our series counting down the best players from the SPFL in 2015.
30. Murray Davidson (St Johnstone)
There are plenty of cautionary tales of Scottish football players who chase the bright lights (read: money) in England and end up ruining their career momentum. So it was heartening to see Davidson re-sign for St Johnstone in 2013, two months after leaving, having admitted the club did what no suitor in England could: make him feel wanted.
Unfortunately things went quickly downhill thereafter. Davidson struggled for fitness initially having missed all of pre-season, then disaster struck. Playing in a home match against Hearts, Davidson would suffer a knee injury that would keep him out of the game for nine months. Regrettably, his time on the sidelines coincided with the club winning the first trophy in their history.
2015 was always going to be an improvement on the year previous, after all it could scarcely get any worse. Thankfully Davidson has used the time to finally prove his fitness after a succession of false-starts on his return from injury, and he’s now back to approaching his best, which is a mix of strength and skill few other talents have in the country.
29. John Baird (Falkirk)
It was a shame Baird, in the recent win over Rangers, cost his 17-year-old strike-partner Kevin O’Hara a first career goal with an stunning piece of football dumbness, because it overshadowed a terrific performance from the striker, who is in the form of his career. He’s netted 21 goals in all competitions since being discarded by Queen of the South in early January, and generally leads the line terrifically for Peter Houston’s side.
It’s an Indian summer to a 13-year career that’s saw him play for 11 clubs throughout the Scottish league structure, and he showed against Rangers that his game isn’t just about goals as he made intelligent runs and harried the Rangers centre backs throughout the match.
28. Jamie Walker (Hearts)
The silver lining to Hearts’ relegation was that it would give their younger players a chance to shine and develop as players. That’s certainly the case with Jamie Walker. Often thought of as a wide player, the youngster was moved into the centre in the latter months of 2014, playing as the No.10 in the 4-2-3-1 formation preferred by Robbie Neilson, before carrying that momentum into this year.
The best complement you could give to Walker is to state that Hearts - a newly promoted side that sit third in the table - have missed him terribly since a persistent injury problem flared up in late August. Prior to then he was adapting seamlessly to the top flight and looked likely to have a tremendous season.
27. Craig Gordon (Celtic)
I’m happy to admit that Gordon would have appeared higher on this list had I not witnessed many of his European performances over the past 12 months. After lighting up the group stages last term in the Europa League, he had a couple of gaffes against Inter and that shakiness continued into this campaign.
This evidence has warped my opinion of the great man somewhat, because he’s continued to be outstanding at domestic level, most notably against St Johnstone. Like, seriously, look back at the games. Gordon seems to pull off an absolute stunner every time he faces the club from McDiarmid Park. One can only guess what he’s got against them.
26. Mark Reynolds (Aberdeen)
Is Mark Reynolds the least offensive player in Scotland?
He’s one of those defenders whose reading of the game is so good that you barely notice him, which must also go for Scotland boss Gordon Strachan, who’s often ignored the centre back at international level, despite a dearth of talent in the position.
A good couple of months missed through injury at the beginning of the current campaign have bumped him down this list a little.
25. Ash Taylor (Aberdeen)
Taylor looked a strange signing when he first pitched up at Aberdeen. After all, in Reynolds and Andy Considine, with Russell Anderson in the squad, and the team desperately needing a decent ‘keeper, it didn’t look like there would be any place for him. Those doubts only intensified when he was utterly guff for the first three months of his Dons’ career, looking cumbersome and error-prone in frightfully equal measure.
Things began to turn around towards the end of 2014 and, other than a ridiculous tackle in his side’s last meeting with Celtic, he’s been a rock at the back for Derek McInnes’ side throughout this year. Once terrified in possession, now he looks assured, and that increase in confidence has allowed his defending to speak for itself, which comes naturally to someone athletic, 6ft 3in and built like the side of a house.
24. Jason Cummings (Hibernian)
The quote machine is also pretty handy in front of goal, as shown by his 28 strikes in all competitions across the calendar year. He’s also developed across the 12 months, as well. Before he was little more than a goal poacher, now he’s capable of making intelligent runs into the channels, and his ability to link with team-mates is improving also. And while he’s never been one to lack confidence off the park, he’s now channelling it into his football, as evidence by a terrific display in the recent defeat at Ibrox, where he was undoubtedly Hibs’ best player.
His hair remains off the charts.
23. Lee Wallace (Rangers)
Because it all ended with Cammy Bell slapping at a Marvin Johnson shot in the manner a drunk man would try to attack a seagull, few remember the improvement in Rangers under Stuart McCall at the tail end of last season. Of course, as demonstrated by the Motherwell humbling, there were still numerous problems with the team, and the board were right to turn to Mark Warburton. But there were members of the first-team squad who looked back to their best in his brief spell in charge, with Lee Wallace being one of them.
The marauding runs from deep, such a staple of his game throughout his career, finally took on purpose once more after he’d sleep-walked through the final year of Ally McCoist’s reign and throughout the disastrous, rudderless tenure of Kenny McDowell.
He’s taken that momentum into this season where, quite frankly, his performances have flown under the radar because of what some of his team-mates are producing. James Tavernier may have 10 goals, but Wallace has contributed a healthy number himself with five, and Wallace is the better defender. So, I ask you, who is having the better season?
22. Jason Denayer (Celtic)
There exists an alternate universe where Manchester City, instead of waiting until the end of August to see which clubs would make Europe’s premier competition, decided to help strengthen Celtic’s chances by sending Jason Denayer back on loan prior to the start of the season. With a more familiar centre back partnership, Ronny Deila’s side don’t concede some of the daft goals they handed Malmo and reach the Champions League group stage. With the extra money and reputation of eating at the top table yet again assured, they are able to sign a stronger calibre of player, including a top class defender to replace Virgil van Dijk (regardless of qualification, he was going anyway) to partner Denayer, meaning Dedryck Boyata doesn’t inflict his weekly damage on the team, and everyone in green and white is much happier.
So Celtic fans, it’s basically all Man City’s fault.
21. Osman Sow (Hearts)
The Hearts striker is a walking football paradox. In terms of turning and an initial burst he lacks quickness, and can appear quite cumbersome at times, but over 30 yards he’s one of the fastest players in the country. He stands at 6ft 3in, but is considered so poor in the air that he was told to mark Shay Logan at set-pieces in the recent defeat to Aberdeen. He’s as strong as an ox, but possesses terrific skill. And he’s a humble guy who sticks to himself, barely celebrates his goals, and yet holds a burning ambition to get himself back to England and prove himself at the highest level.
He’s also Hearts’ best striker, arguably their best player, but has spent a lot of 2015 on the left-wing to accommodate first Genero Zeefuik and now Juanma. He’s a fascinating player and hopefully he stays longer than next summer when his contract expires.