The final part in Craig Fowler’s list counting down the SPFL’s best players from the 2016/17 season.
10. Kenny Miller (Rangers)
The basic numbers aren’t all that impressive. 14 goals in 47 games wouldn’t normally secure top ten status in this countdown. However, those raw statistics mask Miller’s true contribution to Rangers. He was the team’s heart and soul. At numerous points throughout the campaign, the underwhelming men in blue looked like they were going through the motions, and yet Miller would still tear around the field, trying to get a lift out of them. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but you had to respect his determination and enthusiasm in light of such trying circumstances. Whether asked to play up front, No.10, left mid, right mid or deep in the middle of the park, he played with the same gusto we’ve become accustomed to over the course of his career. Some will scoff at the inclusion of a Rangers player in the top 10. But consider that, while the season was a huge disappointment for the club, they still finished third. Somehow had to be playing pretty well for that to happen.
READ MORE - The top 50 players (50-41)
9. Kenny McLean (Aberdeen)
Always a gifted passer and someone who could spot a gap in the final third, McLean worked hard at his craft and really became a more rounded midfielder this term. Often guilty of playing too passively, he significantly upped the tempo in his game-to-game performances and his consistency improved dramatically as a result. It enabled him to impose himself more on matches, forcing the issue when in possession and pressing the opposing defenders when the ball was lost. He became a vital component of Aberdeen’s play and will have to continue that next season, perhaps even improve upon it, if the Dons are going to make up for the loss of Niall McGinn and (perhaps) Jonny Hayes.
READ MORE - The top 50 players (40-31)
8. Graeme Shinnie (Aberdeen)
The new Aberdeen captain gets in just above his team-mate because, while McLean took a couple of months to get going, Shinnie has just been excellent since the start of the campaign. Some Dons fans still believe he’s at his best at left-back, since his crossing abilities cannot be utilised as much in the centre, but the energy which he brings to the engine room is an attribute that Aberdeen cannot do without. He always seems to be playing the game at 110mph, but with the intelligence of a player watching everything unfold in slow motion. If he can lead the club into another successful “cycle” (to use Pedro Caixinha’s phrase) then he will one day cement himself as a modern day club legend.
READ MORE - The top 50 players (30-21)
7. Moussa Dembele (Celtic)
He probably would have been number one were it not for some late-season injury problems. With some of Europe’s richest clubs reportedly ready to battle it out over his signature, there’s a chance we could look back at the signing of Dembele as one of the greatest in Scottish football history. Bought for a mere £500,000 compensation fee, he could go for, literally, 60 times that amount. In the time between, he netted a hat-trick against Rangers, helped defeat them on three occasions, scored in every round of the Betfred Cup, and netted a number of vitally important goals on the continent. This writer has gushed about this performance before but it bares repeating: the trip to Borussia Monchengladbach is where we saw the best of Dembele. He was isolated for a lot of the game, but not only did he help to drag Celtic up the park in a vitally important match, he was able to retain some of the menace he routinely showed against inferior defenders in Scotland’s top flight. There’s a long way to go before he realises his immeasurable potential, but there’s no doubt he can be a special player.
READ MORE - The top 50 players (20-11)
6. Kieran Tierney (Celtic)
Speaking of special players, Tierney followed up his astoundingly impressive debut season with another terrific campaign. A massive amount of credit is due to Brendan Rodgers for the development in the attacking side of the teenager’s game. He was a mere threat under Ronny Deila; now he’s something much more: a force, a menace, someone capable of changing the game in a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, he’s improving all the time as a defender, and just as a footballer in general. His performance at right back in Scotland’s win over Slovenia was just ridiculous. It showed how quick he is at adapting. So clearly uncomfortable on the opposite flank in the first half, he ended up being Scotland’s best player in the last 30 minutes. Who else could do that at such a young age?
5. Scott Brown (Celtic)
After a poor 2015/16 campaign, the Celtic skipper rebounded in style. To borrow an oft-repeated word on Scottish football Twitter, Brown is at his best “bodying” opponents in the centre of the park. Capable of physically dominating his opponents and dictating the flow of the game from in front of the back four, he’s a vitally important part of a team packed with attacking talent. This time last year, Celtic fans would have happily driven him to his next club. Now, he’s a treble-winning legend. What a difference in 12 months.
4. Jonny Hayes (Aberdeen)
The flying winger led the league with 15 assists and contributed 11 goals, the most he’s managed in a single campaign since moving to Pittodrie from Inverness. But he’s more than just an end-product player. Unlike the stereotype of a traditional winger, Hayes is a battler who isn’t hesitant about charging back to defend and getting stuck into the action. He also plays a crucial role in picking the ball up in deep areas and driving Aberdeen up the park. Though £1.2million (the quoted fee Celtic are set to offer) is a fair price for a 30-year-old, with Niall McGinn and Ryan Jack also going, Aberdeen may find they’ll make their money back further down the line if they hold on to their asset for another season as they attempt the smooth the transition between one team to the next.
3. Liam Boyce (Ross County)
Without meaning to sound overly critical of Jim McIntyre, had the Ross County boss not insisted on playing Liam Boyce in midfield from the end of 2016 until early April of this year, then its highly likely the player would have earned a Player of the Year nomination. And with Celtic’s stars stealing votes off each other, he may even have upset the odds and won the whole thing. The fact that he played in a deeper role for so long - he only had one shot from open play inside the penalty area from January to early April - and still finished top goalscorer in the Ladbrokes Premiership, well it just shows the kind of quality player he is.
2. Stuart Armstrong (Celtic)
If we’re measuring Scottish footballers in terms of their peak performance over a sustained period, say a month or two, then Stuart Armstrong would have been No.1. The levels he reached from the end of October right through until early April, no player has managed to match that. He was simply outstanding. He ran games from midfield, scored goals, created chances, shrugged opponents off the ball. He did it all. This was his coming of age movie, and we can’t wait for the sequel. And his hair is just... sen-f*****g-sational.
1. Scott Sinclair (Celtic)
Here we are, the best player in Scottish football, bar none. While, in this writer’s opinion, Armstrong may have had the higher peak, Sinclair did it right through the campaign, starting with the winning goal on his debut at Tynecastle. For an opposing fan, there’s no Celtic player as intimidating as Sinclair. He’s fast, powerful, scores goals from inside and outside the area. He can beat defenders for skill, he can beat them for pace, he can just about run right through them. Though he’s basically an auxiliary forward in Celtic’s 4-2-3-1/3-5-2 hybrid, always drifting into the centre, it’s still very impressive for a player who starts from the wing to score over 20 goals in a single season. The best player on an unbeaten team that won the treble, that’s the kind of thing that lives on throughout history.