As it’s an international week, here at Scotsman Towers we drew up a list of features to distract you all (and ourselves) during the fortnight without club football.
Looking for inspiration on Friday morning, I volunteered to take on the challenge of writing this article, which had originally been claimed by a colleague.
What a stupid decision that was.
It doesn’t matter how many times I find myself in this trap, a list article ranking players always looks like fun. That’s because, in a setting with mates down the pub or in the group chat, it is fun. You can say your piece, argue over the little things, but once it’s all done it’s immediately forgotten. It is not indelibly cast into the world for fans to ridicule in the present and future.
With that pressure, every decision takes on added significance. Arranging the players in what you believe to be the correct order is bad enough, but the worst part is leaving others on the cutting room floor. ‘Surely there’s a space for Player A in this list?’ you chide yourself. But who drops out? There’s nobody. They all deserve their place! Aaaaaaaaarrgh.
The original draft of this top ten looked very different at the back end. In order to try and make things easier, those with a smaller sample size were discounted. Leaving out Celtic defender Filip Benkovic, Hibs’ midfielder Mark Milligan and Uche Ikpeazu of Hearts quelled some of the indecision - until it was discovered that they’d all played more games than Kilmarnock attacker Greg Stewart.
Ikpeazu and Milligan were left out regardless. Fitness is a skill and Ikpeazu won’t be back until February at least, while Milligan may have sneaked in had he played all of his nine games in the middle of the park, where he looks very good, rather than at centre-back, where he’s passable cover.
Another Hibs player who was included in the top ten originally but eventually cut was Stevie Mallan. On the surface, the midfielder should be a certainty based on his seven goals in 15 appearances in all competitions. But there’s a criticism among Hibs fans that he doesn’t do enough to influence the game when he’s not shooting for goal. Perhaps they’re being too harsh and this is symptomatic of expectations being too high after the loss of John McGinn and Dylan McGeouch and Scott Allan’s return to parent club Celtic, but those dissenting voices were hard to ignore when there are players getting universal praise who may have missed out instead.
Another to find himself harshly cut was Connor Goldson. The defender’s form hasn’t quite been consistent enough over the piece. After enjoying a tremendous start he’s fallen back down to earth somewhat in recent weeks, possibly hindered by his defensive partner often switching between Nikola Katic and Joe Worrall.
If this list was extended to 11, making it even more arbitrary than it already is, then Jimmy Dunne would have been included. The Republic of Ireland international has been superb and held together the Hearts defence in the absence of Christophe Berra and John Souttar, both lost to long-term injury. However, in a toss up between him and some of the players who did make it, the fact that he’s only on loan until January did count against him. You can’t be that brilliant a signing if you only play half a season. If the loan deal is extended, he’d immediately jump into the top five based on current form.
10. Ryan Kent (Rangers)
The most dangerous Rangers attacker not called Alfredo Morelos this season. He’s the player more than anyone else in the Ibrox side who can pick up the ball and run at defenders. It’s a traditional skill for a winger to have but one we’re saying less and less in the sport nowadays, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Unsettling the full-back can have a hugely negative impact on opposing teams, as it creates a chink in the defensive armour and often removes an additional attacker if the flanking defender is too hesitate to commit further up the park. He may have appeared higher had he signed on a permanent deal, but as it stands he’s only on loan from Liverpool.
9. Greg Stewart (Kilmarnock)
Despite playing in only eight games - he signed late in August and Killie were already out of the League Cup - Stewart makes the list for the influential contribution he’s made so far. Nobody remembers now, but Killie had a relatively slow start to the campaign and didn’t quite look capable of matching their feats of last season. Stewart was the missing piece. Operating in the No.10 role and looking back to his Dundee best, his creativity and goalscoring has given the attack a much-needed punch. Again, he’s only a loanee, but his deal with Birmingham City runs out at the end of this season. Having spent two successive campaigns in Scotland, it’s expected he’d return home, and if he enjoys a happy campaign in Ayrshire then Steve Clarke’s side could consider themselves favourites for his signature.
8. Filip Benkovic (Celtic)
How did we perceive the Celtic defence pre-Benkovic and what do we think of it now? That’s why he’s made the top ten. In each and every one of his nine matches so far the Parkhead crowd has been thoroughly impressed by his poise and physical advantages: he looks as assured as they come and seems capable of jumping over the stand.
7. Liam Kelly (Livingston)
The 22-year-old has been in such excellent form this season that just this very week people on Scottish football Twitter were losing their absolute s*** that he wasn’t given a Scotland squad call-up ahead of Celtic reserve goalkeeper Scott Bain. While it’s probably a little too early to be getting bent out of shape about that, his promise for someone so young gives hope that we might not be collectively gubbed as a nation when Allan McGregor and Craig Gordon retire.
6. Odsonne Edouard (Celtic)
Yes, ok, he cost £9 million. For that amount of money, you’d want to see a footballer being the undisputed best player in the land, scoring hat-tricks before the half and getting the pipe and slippers out after the interval. However, the cost should only be a major concern if there’s little chance of Celtic making back their investment. He could be doing more on a consistent basis in Scottish football to justify that fee (though, remember, he’s still joint-top goalscorer), but you cannot argue with five goals from nine appearances so far on the continent, including the winner in the recent 2-1 win over RB Leipzig.
5. Drey Wright (St Johnstone)
Saints have been a surprise package in the Premiership so far this season. Expected by most to languish in the bottom six, they’re currently fifth in the table having won five games on the spin. Through a highly enjoyable opening few months for the McDiarmid Park faithful, Wright has been their standout. The 23-year-old, signed from Colchester United, is a direct and quick winger who gets opposing defences on the back foot. Along with Matthew Kennedy and Tony Watt, who’ve also been great this far, they’ve created a new identity for Tommy Wright’s team. Step aside stuffy, hard-to-beat Saints, and welcome sexy St Johnstone.
4. Steven Naismith (Hearts)
It’s sometimes difficult to judge a player’s true value to a team, and other times it’s really easy. Naismith falls into the latter category as Hearts’ form, particularly in front of goal, has dropped off a cliff since he limped out of the Betfred Cup semi-final defeat to Celtic. The Scotland international doesn’t just bring qualities as an attacker, he’s also a talismanic and veteran presence in the side. Constantly talking his team-mates through the game and leading by example by constantly putting his body on the line, Naismith makes this Hearts side tick. His return from injury really can’t come soon enough.
3. Lewis Ferguson (Aberdeen)
He may seem a little high considering some of the others we’ve already mentioned have played better than him over the course of the season, but as a signing this is the total package. He’s 19 years old, cost a modest six-figure fee, is already one of the best players on the team, has scored an iconic goal which will live in the memory for generations to come, and is on a long-term contract. Derek McInnes didn’t get an awful lot right with his recruitment this past summer, but he knocked it clean out of the park with this one.
2. Peter Haring (Hearts)
Great signings are always more fun when they come completely out of nowhere. It highlights just how unpredictable the sport of football can be that an Austrian second tier centre-back can become the best midfielder in Scottish football through the opening three months of the season. Haring, simply put, is a force of nature. His ability to win back possession by gobbling up loose balls is incredibly valuable to the way Hearts play, while he can also impact the game further forward with his dominating aerial ability, as evidenced by the five goals he’s scored so far.
1. Allan McGregor (Rangers)
The signing of McGregor seemed a little unnecessary at the time. Rangers already had a decent enough keeper at the Scottish Premiership level in Wes Foderingham, while Jak Alnwick was no slouch as a back-up. With both of those stoppers contracted through this season, and unable to shift either of them, what was the point in signing the 36-year-old McGregor. It just goes to show that sometimes clubs shouldn’t overthink these things. If a better player is available and willing to come, then you sign them. There’s no telling how many points, both in the Premiership and Europe, McGregor has saved Rangers this season. He’s pulled off stunning stop after stunning stop. And even when they do succumb to defeat he’s usually their best player, such as the 4-3 defeat to Spartak Moscow in the Europa League. Without him between the sticks last night, it’s not to difficult to imagine the visitors conceding twice as many goals as they did.