Due perhaps to the changing nature of football, there isn’t as much quality in the Scottish football wide midfielder corps as there was among the centre midfielders. While tons of great players were left off the CM list, this list is a little more scrapped together.
That being said, there’s still an excellent array of talent at the top end, with wide players at Celtic and Aberdeen among the best we’ve seen in the league, at any position, over the past ten years.
Without further ado, we’ve collated who we feel are the best 12 wide midfielders plying their trade in Scotland. If you want to recall last season’s elite dozen, you can find that here.
Note: this is a selection of the 12 best overall and not just their form this season.
• Click here to listen to the episode of The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast where the top 12 was debated.
12. Elliott Frear (Motherwell)
The 26-year-old has only taken 15 matches to earn his place in the top 12. It can be put down to a mixture of fine performances and the lack of quality, reliable wide men in the league. Frear had been part of the Forest Green first-team squad prior to his move north midway through the season. While his former team ended the campaign with promotion from the National League into England’s League 2, his current team did enough, just, to avoid their own play-off. However, if Motherwell had their way Frear would have been in place a lot sooner and he may have helped drag them further up the league earlier.
The winger was pinpointed as the player to replace Marvin Johnson who moved south to Oxford United in the summer. The Steelmen weren’t able to get their man then but eventually secured his services until the summer of 2019. He took time to find his feet and then when he was introduced into the team he was often fielded in a wing-back position. But it was immediately clear how potent Frear could be from wide, swinging in cross after cross into dangerous areas. He has a turn of pace which allows him to make room for himself then provides a measured cross which sweeps between defence and goalkeeper. He doesn’t thrash at the ball, there is thought behind his delivery. Louis Moult may be thinking he’d have been in for a good chance of the golden boot if Frear was in place for the whole season.
He is one of the players to keep an eye on going forward. His directness, pace and ability to put in threatening crosses will excite Well fans and neutrals alike.
11. Sam Nicholson (Hearts)
Somewhat lucky to have made the list, relying on his previous work and reputation, as well as the paucity of talented wide players in the country. His season was best summed up in a 16-minute cameo at St Johnstone. Coming off the bench, the winger made no impact before spitting at/towards a linesman and then foolishly claiming he didn’t. Good try.
It encapsulated a frustrating season for both player and club. A season, with the exception of the European games, which started so well for the 22-year-old. He scored four and assisted three times in his first eight games, but was then required to undergo surgery on his knee and effectively missed four months of football. By the time he returned Hearts were under new management and a calamity within a few weeks, making it difficult to assess if he ever got up to full speed.
He has made his intentions clear to Hearts that he’ll not be remaining past this summer, which is entirely understandable. If ever a player needed a new environment to try and release his potential it is Nicholson. With Hearts he was always on the cusp of being special. Moving higher up the list there are players who have not only sustained it over a whole season but did so consistently for two or three seasons. Nicholson was always treated with kid’s gloves, ‘ahhh, he’s always liable to have a poor spell but he’ll come good again’. He was too often a peripheral figure rather than a protagonist.
The team who will procure him will be receiving someone with the talent to succeed but perhaps not the application - he has spoken before of his reticence to gym work. But give him the ball and ask him to run at defenders he can be thrilling. Unable to run in a straight line, he runs in diagonals, slaloming past players like a downhill skier. He excites fans but lacks the mentality and physical qualities to dominate defenders. He does, however, possess the skill.
10. Dougie Imrie (Hamilton Accies)
The midfielder epitomises a lot of what Hamilton Accies are about: energetic, aggressive and annoying as hell. The Lanarkshire side have survived in the top division thus far behind these qualities, which are most apparent in their midfield. Fighting against the lack of resource available to the league’s smallest club, they battle as hard as anyone, particularly at New Douglas Park where they’ve lost only six of 19 matches this past league season.
The humble ground is the closest thing the nomadic Imrie has had to a home in Scottish football. Across two spells, he’s played his best football for Accies. Like Rudi Skacel and Hearts or Liam Craig and St Johnstone, he just seems to suit the club. When Accies last signed him, in the summer of 2014, Imrie had just suffered relegation to the third tier with Morton, while Accies were on their way to the Premier League. Jumping two divisions looked to be beyond the player, but he rose to the challenge and has continued to be one of their most productive attacking players over the time.
In addition to winding up opposing players and fans, Imrie uses his combative qualities in an attacking sense as well. He may not have the tricks or elusiveness to get beyond many defenders, but he remains a threat running with the football thanks to a direct style and a try-and-stop-this confidence when it comes to dribbling. He can chip in with a goal on occasion as well, netting 13 times over the past two seasons.
9. Jordan Jones (Kilmarnock)
Jordan Jones has packed a fair amount into his fledgling career so far, albeit most incidents of note have come away from the pitch. He has previously admitted to making a number of daft decisions when in his late-teens. While at Middlesborough he was involved in a street brawl which ended with a friend receiving a jail sentence. A more forgiving decision was turning down a call-up to the Northern Ireland under-21 squad because he wanted to play for England and thought he was good enough.
More than four years on from his Boro debut, via spells at Cambridge United and Hartlepool United, he has earned a call-up to the full Northern Ireland side. The 22-year-old’s startling form for Kilmarnock attracted the attention of Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill. Having knuckled down after his previous transgressions Jones was simply waiting for a run in the team, any team. And he has been afforded that at Rugby Park.
He has played more times this season than he has in all his senior career. He was an intermittent threat with his dribbling and pace under Lee Clark, but it was only when Lee McCulloch took over where his danger became consistent. In the final nine games of the season he was involved in six goals. While right-footed, he is best operating on the left where he can turn defenders in and out, comfortable going inside and outside.
He was one of the cast of hundreds brought in by Kilmarnock, but one of few who succeeded and it is no surprise that he is trailed by Scottish clubs.
8. Barrie McKay (Rangers)
The curious case of Barrie McKay. From a Raith Rovers reject to a Rangers revelation. From being linked with a £6million move to the Bundesliga to apparently being made available for £2million as part of a Rangers fire-sale. The winger has his detractors and he has his admirers. It would be fair to say that Pedro Caixinha falls closer to the former and Mark Warburton to the latter.
He is a player who appears to thrive with the trust of the manager. He was given that in the Championship and was electric. Pace, vision, trickery and an end product. It resulted in a Scotland call-up and intrigue as to how he would fare in Rangers’ return to the top-flight. There is no word to best describe his season, more an array of noises. Hmmmm, ummmm, ehhhhh, huhhhhhh. By the end of October even Warburton appeared to have lost faith, McKay having to make do with a number of substitute appearances.
Yet, he still contributed six goals and 11 assists, down from nine and 13. And, thanks to @TheSPFLRadar, we can see the number of key chances he has created for his misfiring team mates.
He is a player who can split opinion, and at 22 years of age there is plenty of work still to do, but he possesses an abundance of promise. He is an unique talent in that he is a hybrid, a playmaking winger. His link-up play with Lee Wallace is a joy to watch, pulling wide and dropping deep to collect the ball before playing in the marauding left-back. His vision is exceptional, dissecting defences with outrageous through-balls. In a more traditional sense he has the pace to take on full-backs either side, as seen by his performance against Mikael Lustig in the first Ibrox Old Firm game. Rangers would be foolish to let him go.
7. Danny Swanson (St Johnstone)
It’s fair to call the 2016/17 season a breakout one in Danny Swanson’s career, even if he was unable to maintain the early season form that saw him bang in 11 of his 15 goals before December. The player put it down to an improved diet, having finally embraced the benefits of nutrition as a sports star. However, the part Tommy Wright and St Johnstone played in his improvement cannot be ignored. Since leaving Dundee United, Swanson has looked at his best in his two spells at McDiarmid Park. His reasons for signing for boyhood club Hibs are understandable, but it still represents a gamble to leave a side where he was allowed to do his thing without much repercussion (aside from a Ricky Foster fist in the face).
St Johnstone are unfair recipients of many backhanded compliments. Though they are well organised, they can also play a bit and will continue to do so next season without Swanson. That being said, the little piece of magic, the sudden burst of invention that comes from nowhere, will be harder to find without their departing playmaker. In addition to his goal exploits, he’s notched 10 assists in the league.
Void of much pace or physicality, Swanson has always been a player that’s relied on his skill and technique. Usually found on the left of the midfield four, he uses his attacking instincts to drift into spaces in central areas, where he can cause the most damage, either poking the ball through for Chris Kane or Graham Cummins to run on to, or linking with Steven MacLean to have a pop himself. Both in open play and from set-pieces he’s a danger from distance. Though his goalscoring stats from penalty kicks have beefed up his numbers (eight of his 15 have been from the spot) he’s still a threat that must be respected.
6. Jamie Walker (Hearts)
Last year Walker was in the centre-midfielders list. That was because Robbie Neilson had increasingly used the attacking midfielder through the centre, in the No.10 role. It was a position Walker clearly fancied as his strongest, as even when he was on the wing he would drift inside and play centrally, which is exactly what he does now.
So why have we reversed that decision and placed him among the wide-midfielders again? Partly it’s because his appearances as an out-and-out No.10 have dried up. But it’s also reflective of the way many wingers operate nowadays, especially when they’re the team’s chief playmaker. Walker may not play on the wing, but he plays from it. The same goes for a couple of other players we’ll soon get to.
Had he kept up his 2016/17 form pre-February for the remainder of the campaign, he most definitely would have been in the top five, and possibly even the top three, but there’s no denying that his performances have dropped off a cliff. Sure, the horrendous form of his team, led by the unsteady hand of Ian Cathro, has likely played a big part in Walker’s individual malaise. But the mark of a great player is the ability to shine, or at least stand out, even in a bad team. Walker has not done that. If you had only started watching the Gorgie Road side since February, you’d think Walker was just another player.
That is a shame, because he’s a terrific talent. What he’s lost in pace over the years through his various knee injuries, he’s made up for in quickness of mind. He’s great at finding and exploiting gaps, whether it’s with a short burst of acceleration, using his quick feet to manoeuvre in tight spaces, or channelling his vision to pick out a team-mate. There are few in Scottish football better at making things happen in the final third.
5. James Forrest (Celtic)
The knock on James Forrest coming into this season, one which has followed him through most of his career thus far, was that his final ball was flaky (at best) or nonexistent (at worst). One of the many improvements Brendan Rodgers has made to the Celtic first-team squad has been getting Forrest to be more of a threat around the penalty area.
He still can’t match the likes of Patrick Roberts or Scott Sinclair for end product, and he may never become truly consistent in either his goalscoring or assist-making. However, that doesn’t mean that he can’t be an effective winger. Pace is Forrest’s biggest strength and he knows how to use it.
What’s the point in pace when the final pass is missing? We hear you cry. Well, when Forrest is truly on his game, he can absolutely frighten the life out of an opposing defence. It begins by him beating the full-back once or twice in the opening few minutes. This gets the opposition on the back foot and creates a sense of danger in their mind. To try and stop him, they have a midfielder or centre-back drift over to try and shut him down. He’s already affected the game at this point, without the need to do much else. The other team are shifting their shape, maybe even changing their gameplan. It’s easy enough to tell the defenders, “that’s fine, let him do it and we’ll clear the cross”, but it’s a player’s natural instinct to react to such a threat.
4. Niall McGinn (Aberdeen)
It would be remiss to say the Northern Irishman had disappointed for large spells of the last two or three campaigns. The numbers suggest that would be nonsense. This is a player with 68 goals and 53 assists across five seasons at Aberdeen. It may just be that someone who scored 35 goals in his first two seasons dropped to a return of 19 in the following two.
Possibly that sticks in the mind, but one thing is not up for debate: he has a propensity to frustrate. None more so than when it comes to crossing. He engineers space, beats a full-back then sends a cross flying over everyone in the box or scoops it over the bar. But this is the criticism of a player who straddles the line of being very good and being excellent.
He’ll be a massive miss for Aberdeen. His output is excellent. He is a reliable scorer from midfield and provider of goals. Derek McInnes’ tendency to tinker can hamper him at times but he is most effective on the left. There is nothing more frightening for a full-back than a wide man who is comfortable going either way. McGinn does just that. He stands his opponent up, looks him in the eye, a keen sense of where the ball is, before dropping his shoulder or a shuffle which lures defender in before scooting down the wing.
This season he looked like a player still feeling the effects of representing Northern Ireland in the European Championships, and scoring. But his turning point was the same as Aberdeen’s. A 3-1 win at Fir Park in December.
3. Patrick Roberts (Celtic)
Celtic fans won’t like being reminded, but the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Rangers last season could have been so different. No, not Tom Rogic’s penalty. Before that. Patrick Roberts was presented with an open goal and missed. Up until that point in the season, other than Leigh Griffiths, the Englishman was the only player who looked like doing anything positive in the final third as Celtic’s attacking inspiration was down to individuals rather than a collective effort.
With an 18-month loan deal, the 20-year-old knew time was on his side to leave a more lasting, more positive impression. He has done just that, serenaded in the closing weeks by the Celtic support, urging the club to sign him on a permanent deal. He has come a long way from that fateful day at Hampden.
But he has also come a long way under Brendan Rodgers. For a large parts of the campaign the Celtic boss favoured James Forrest over Roberts. A decision which is understandable when you break it down in terms of tactics and balance. Forrest offers width to counteract Sinclair’s in-to-out movements on the other side. Plus he was suited to Rodgers’ lop-sided 3-5-2.
In the second half of the season Celtic have upped the ante. Rather than simply beat teams, they have exerted their dominance. Roberts has been part of that, netting six times and recording eight assists in his last nine league outings. A lithe, artful dodger of a forward, he is the type of talent that looks like he was brought up playing football in the streets of Buenos Aires rather than a modern academy where they measure your toenails trying to predict your future development.
The Manchester City loanee makes football fun. He plays from the right but has little interest in his right foot. He possesses the Arjen Robben condition, you know what he is trying to do but stopping him is a different matter altogether. He skips past opponents, dodges defenders like Jerry evading Tom to find the little hole in the wall. He scores, creates and enthrals. But he could perhaps do more, rather than toying with defenders he needs to add a ruthlessness to his game to take him to the very top.
2. Jonny Hayes (Aberdeen)
He’s a winger and has been throughout his career in Scotland, which goes back to his 2009 signing for Inverness CT from Leicester City, but he’s progressed as a footballer to such an extent that, regardless of where he plays, you know he could do a job, except maybe at centre-back or between the sticks. Left-back? Done it. Defensive midfield? Nailed it. Right midfield, left midfield? No problem. Up front? Not yet but it’s hard to imagine him being anything other than a success.
It’s his work ethic and sense of urgency which enables him to thrive across the park. He mixes a rare blend of intelligence and quickness. The game slows to 0.5x speed in his mind, while to everyone else it looks like he’s on x2. He’s got the acceleration and speed to attack space, the quick-feet to dance around defenders in close quarters, and the passing range to make things happen from deep or inside the penalty area. He doesn’t mind getting stuck in, and while his goalscoring numbers aren’t brilliant, he’s proven time and again that he’s a threat from long range.
His goal against Celtic probably best illustrated his abilities. Using both feet, he was able to dance away from his marker, taking only four touches in total before his final one, a well-struck shot, flew past Craig Gordon and into the back of the net. Left, right, right, left, goal.
His decision to stick around for around two years should ensure Aberdeen’s safe passage from one “cycle” to another.
1. Scott Sinclair (Celtic)
It wasn’t going to be anyone else, was it? If we collated all of these individual position articles into one, Sinclair would still come out on top. Quite simply, the best player there is in Scottish football right now, bar none.
He doesn’t just make Celtic better through his individual play. His presence improves those around him, as he’s been a massive part of Brendan Rodgers’ gameplan this season. Tasked with driving into the centre from left, he opens up space for Kieran Tierney, Stuart Armstrong and the striker, be it Leigh Griffiths or Moussa Dembele, in which to thrive. He’s got his own gravitational field, pulling defenders towards him and freeing space for his talented team-mates to do some damage.
Then there’s the goal threat. If there was to be any one strike which illustrated his threat in the penalty area, it had to be his first of three in the title-clinching 5-0 victory over Hearts. When the ball dropped his way, he reared back and thundered it into the roof of the net with a first-time shot. It was so simple, so powerful, so utterly devastating. The very walls of Tynecastle looked ready to crumble around it, such was the venom. The fact the netting stayed on the goals was a near miracle.
On a sombre note, his arrival demonstrated the gulf between English and Scottish football. Not so much the quality, as we were aware of that anyway, but in a physical sense. Watching English football, did you ever look at Scott Sinclair and think he was an especially powerful or strong player? No, you wouldn’t have. Yet he comes up here and looks like he could literally run through opposing defenders. In Scottish football terms, he’s a unit. Not to mention the fact he can run like the wind, beat players for fun and score from anywhere inside 25 yards.