The Scottish lower leagues can sometimes be an untapped gold mine of talent.
READ MORE - Five things we learned from Hibs 1 - 2 Rangers
Leigh Griffiths and Andrew Robertson are two recent examples of players picked up from outside the top flight to great effect, while there’s countless other examples from down the years.
However, it’s quite rare for someone to go from one kind of player in the second tier to an even better one in the top flight. Yet, that’s what we’ve witnessed this campaign.
This article originally started out as a list of those who’ve played above expectations this season, but when it became apparently that around three-quarters were guys who’d hardly set the Championship alight last term, it morphed into something a little more interesting.
Differing factors can contribute to a footballer raising his game despite an increase in competition. He may fit his new manager’s gameplan better, he may have been ill-suited to a loan move, or there may just be a natural progression in his abilities.
Here are the seven stars who’ve looked comfortable in the Premiership environment despite not playing a single minute of it last season.
Scott McKenna (Aberdeen)
After Aberdeen signed Dominic Ball at the end of the summer transfer window, McKenna was generally considered fifth choice centre-back at the club, behind the new acquisition, Kari Arnason, Mark Reynolds and Anthony O’Connor. Fast forward to the present day, McKenna has played the last 12 games and has arguably been their top performer over that stretch. His recent fortunes are in stark contrast to his troubles earlier in the year, where he struggled on loan at Ayr United before disappearing back to Aberdeen following a wild red card in a cup defeat to Hibs.
Lewis Spence (Dundee)
The midfielder is now in the midst of a lengthy injury spell and had struggled in his previous two games prior to hurting his ankle. However, his overall form has been a positive and that seemed highly unlikely when he was signed in the summer. A step up for Spence following on from last season would have been regular playing time in the Championship, having flitted in and out of Dunfermline’s starting XI. Instead he was snapped up by Premiership side and has largely proven Neil McCann right. A combative player capable of carrying the ball up the park and making the smart pass, he’ll be a welcomed return to the side in the new year.
Ross Callachan (Hearts)
The red-hot form of the midfielder’s first month has certainly died down, but he’s still a valued member of the Hearts squad and came off the bench to good effect - even if he did miss a glorious chance - in the recent victory over Dundee. Last season Callachan was caught up in the omnishambles that was Raith Rovers’ 2016/17 campaign. Narrowly beaten by Hibs in the previous year’s playoffs, they were then relegated 12 months on. He was a League One player when Hearts snapped him up and, over the piece, he hasn’t looked out of place.
Martin Boyle (Hibs)
When Neil Lennon looks back at his time at Hibs, he may view the development of Martin Boyle as his greatest coaching achievement. The former Montrose and Dundee man has gone from being a squad player in the Championship to someone who, in the wake of his performance against Rangers at Easter Road, I realise should have been in my Scottish Premiership Team of the Season so far. He always had the tools to be a top winger in this division - lightning pace, dribbling skills, decent finisher - but he was far too raw around the edges. Not any more.
Simon Murray (Hibs)
He’s only four goals away from reaching his total scored for Dundee United last season, both in terms of the league and in all competitions. More than that, he plays with a purpose sometimes missing from his efforts at Tannadice where, commendable as it was, he could often get lost chasing the ball around the field, forgetting what his main job was. It’s not a big sample size but results would suggest Hibs are at their best with Murray in the side and Stokes on the bench. You didn’t think we’d be contemplating that at the start of this campaign, did you?
Blair Spittal (Partick Thistle)
After a dazzling display in the play-off quarter-final victory over Morton, Dundee United fans were a bit miffed when BBC Scotland pundits gushed over his talents, calling him one of the best players in the division, as they’d been forced to endure his inconsistency across the campaign. They weren’t particularly bothered when Thistle picked him up during the summer, but while the Jags have disappointed this term, Spittal has been one of the few positives. He’s the side’s most creative player, and has dutifully performed whether he’s asked to play as an advanced midfielder, on the flank or even at wing-back. He’s even chipped in with six goals.
Ross McCrorie (Rangers)
It seemed like Pedro Caixinha had once again opened his mouth and let his belly rumble when the Rangers boss promised us all that McCrorie would be a future Ibrox and Scotland stalwart at centre-back. It seemed wildly premature at the time, and even more so when I contacted supporters of both Ayr and Dumbarton, where McCrorie had spent time on loan, only to be told that he wasn’t generally trusted to play the position in Scotland’s lower divisions. However, in fairness to Caixinha, everything we’ve seen from McCrorie since that time would indicate that he does have a great future ahead of him. Aside from a dreadful back-pass against Hamilton, the kind of mistake you can chalk up to inexperience, he’s looked about the most accomplished Rangers centre-half this season.