The third and final part in Craig Fowler’s list counting down the best players in Scottish football from the 2015/16 season.
17. David Wotherspoon (St Johnstone)
I would describe Wotherspoon as ‘quietly’ amassing nine goals this season, but then does Wotherspoon ever carry out his duties as a footballer in any other way? After a disappointing 2014/15 season, where he struggled to hit the heights of his debut campaign, he’s rebounded back this time around. He really helped St Johnstone find their way again after suffering a malaise prior to and after the sale of Michael O’Halloran. His set-piece delivery and range of passing was so important to the Saints attack as they ditched their shockingly unexpected gung-ho, early-season style for something a little more classically St Johnstone.
16. Niall McGinn (Aberdeen)
McGinn is so talented that he makes the top 20 despite frustrating supporters for a lot of 2015/16. While Jonny Hayes had the better campaign, more on him later, McGinn arguably remains more important to this Aberdeen side. While both players are excellent at delivering the ball into the penalty area, with Hayes slightly ahead of Hayes in that regard, McGinn is a much greater goal threat. Even though he didn’t hit the heights of past campaigns, he still netted 10 goals, along with 12 assists, in the Ladbrokes Premiership. Get McGinn inconsistent for an entire season and Aberdeen have a real shot at winning the title.
15. Ross Draper (Inverness CT)
Though not the most aesthetically pleasing of footballera, Draper is incredibly effective. Once viewed as part of the Draper-Owain Tudur-Jones ‘brothers of destruction’ double-act, a role he then reprised alongside Greg Tansey when OTJ moved to Easter Road, Draper has now carved out a niche for himself as the most unusual playmaker in Scottish football. He never seems to have complete control of the ball, or his limbs, but his strength, determination and willingness to put his body on the line continuously pays dividends in the final third, where’s he’s among the best in the business at drawing fouls, especially penalties. He won four this year. Aside from this new-found attacking expertise, he remains one of the league’s premier midfield enforcers.
14. John McGinn (Hibernian)
The highest ranked Championship player. While I don’t agree Lee Wallace was the second tier Player of the Year - as his omission from this top 50 would suggest - I’m not sure McGinn was either, as his form tailed off as the league campaign drew to a close. Instead, it’s his overall season which sees him placed so high on this list: notably his performances in the League Cup victories over Aberdeen, Dundee United and, particularly, St Johnstone; his surprisingly assured and confident Scotland debut, and his terrific display in last Saturday’s Scottish Cup final victory over Rangers.
The best thing about McGinn is that he’s terrific at both ends of the park. He can drive the team forward in possession and pick out a killer pass, while at the same time being tenacious and strong in the tackle. Though he may lack the vision of Scott Allan, the man he effectively replaced at Easter Road, Hibs bagged themselves a more complete player overall.
13. Greg Stewart (Dundee)
He’s going to cut inside on his left foot and he’s going to shoot. Unfortunately, telling this to a SPFL defender is like telling an NBA point guard: “Steph Curry is going to shoot 3s”. There’s a huge difference between knowing what he’s going to do and actually stopping it. As many have already discussed, Stewart didn’t quite reach the level of performance he showed last season and his Player of the Year award nomination was a big surprise. However, he’s still a great player who had a great season, just not quite as great as it could have been.
12. Andrew Davies (Ross County)
County have a dreadful defensive record but the blame should not be laid at the feet of their captain. The Staggies usually play without a recognised defensive midfielder protecting the back four and have suffered through inconsistent play from their full-backs. And while Davies’ lack of pace can be an issue, partnering him alongside the equally slow Paul Quinn was not the best piece of tactical ingenuity by Jim McIntyre. They are the best two centre backs at the club, but McIntyre might want to consider someone else as the long-term partner for Davies.
Individually, which is what this list is based on, Davies was excellent. He’s a natural leader on the park, shows great awareness and anticipation to snuff out potential danger, and is terrific in the air. He also led the the team to the first major trophy in the club’s history.
11. Adam Rooney (Aberdeen)
Rooney would have given Leigh Griffiths a run for his money at the top of the goalscorers’ chart and placed higher on this top 50 were it not for the injury which robbed him of all but one game in his final three months - obviously, he scored in that lone appearance. In the end, 20 goals in all competitions is a tremendous return for someone who missed so much time. There’s another striker still to come on this list that scored fewer goals than him, and I’ll explain the reasoning why he figures ahead of Rooney when we get there.
10. Jackson Irvine (Ross County)
There is no more magnificent sight in the SPFL than that of Irvine, in full stride, charging through the midfield with the ball rhythmically being pushed ahead of him. It’s less of a run and more a gallop, as opposing defenders shirk in his presence. What’s particularly thrilling for County fans is, as great as the Australian has been, there is still room for improvement. His partnership with Martin Woods has never really clicked and yet McIntyre stuck with it for a lot of this season. Woods has a more laid back style, encouraging Irvine to do most of the hard graft. His athleticism and stamina enables him to do so, but it detracts from his improving play as an attacking force. The right partner and another strong season next term and Irvine could break the top five.
9. Tom Rogic (Celtic)
Rogic could have been No.2 on this list if Ronny Deila had shown a little more faith in the Australian midfielder. It was an odd contrast. Deila raised a few eyebrows early in the campaign when he went for Rogic ahead of the abundance of other available talent Celtic have at the attacking midfielder position. The Norwegian was then quickly vindicated for his selection with Rogic turning in a number of impressive displays. However, as we got to the business end of the campaign, Deila then turned back to using Stefan Johansen in some of the bigger games. This was despite Johansen barely kicking his backside all season. The difference in the two players’ form this year could be encapsulated in the Old Firm semi-final. Johansen barely made an impact, while Rogic was his side’s best player in the period after he rose from the substitutes bench.
The Australian is still underrated by some as he’s not a stereotypically flashy No.10. Instead, he uses terrific close control, upper body strength and composure on the football to be highly effective forward player. Defenders find it so difficult to dispossess him on the edge of the area and when he passes, he almost always finds a Celtic shirt. He can also unleash a thunderous shot.
8. Arnaud Djoum (Hearts)
Hearts came into this season with a ridiculously strong squad for a team that had just been promoted, but the kind of player they perhaps lacked the most was a centre midfielder capable of making those late runs into the penalty area. When the summer transfer window came and went, it looked like they’d have to make do without. Then this unknown Belgian arrived on trial, secured a short-term deal and went on to be Hearts’ most consistent attacking player over the course of the campaign.
Djoum is just such a great player to watch. Intelligent, skilful, shows an eagerness to scrap and battle, and can produce a terrific shot, as evidenced by his effort in the cup against Hibs.
7. Igor Rossi (Hearts)
Back-to-back Jambos and the best pure defender in the country this year, bar none. There’s not much to stay about the least flashy Brazilian ever. He just never lets you down. Good in the air, great strength and capable of playing both at centre back and left back with distinction. Similar to Djoum, Rossi was an afterthought having been initially signed as a back-up, but went on to have a starring role.
6. Louis Moult (Motherwell)
I’ve gone for Moult over Rooney for one main reason, Moult contributes more to the team as a whole and can play well even in matches where he’s not getting much service. Celtic fans like to argue that Leigh Griffiths’ importance to their team is overstated since Rooney scored a similar percentage of his team’s overall tally. That simplifies their worth a little too much. Griffiths does more than Rooney in terms of contributing to the overall attack, and I think the same is true of Moult. There has rarely been a game this season when he’s not received praise from the Motherwell support who absolutely adore the striker for his hard work, movement off the ball and ability to link with team-mates.
5. Kieran Tierney (Celtic)
Every few weeks into Tierney’s season there would be an upcoming challenge where we would all wonder if he could stand up to the task. Can he be trusted in Europe? Will he be able to handle Aberdeen? Can he really perform for Scotland? Will he overcome the pressure of an Old Firm derby? Yes, yes, yes and hell yes, were the answers. I’ve never in my life witnessed a footballer so consistently brilliant at 17/18 years old. If he progresses in just a normal fashion from his ability now to where he could be at age 25, we might have one of the best players in the world playing for our national side. Shame he’ll be a left back and not the next Luis Suarez, but beggars can’t be choosers.
4. Graeme Shinnie (Aberdeen)
Tierney actually outplayed Shinnie at left back, but Shinnie places one spot higher for his influence in the centre of the park. His versatility was supposed to be a bonus when he first joined. He’d played in the centre for Inverness CT, with distinction, but mainly remained at the full-back role. Instead, he became Aberdeen’s best and certainly most reliable defensive midfielder in the team’s 4-2-3-1. Part of this was to do with Shinnie being just bloody brilliant, and part was the poor form of Ryan Jack and Willo Flood, not to mention the injury problems of an ageing Barry Robson. Personally, I prefer Shinnie in the centre. He’s such a driving force that it’s a shame to have him limited to one side of the field, though I get why McInnes salivates over the prospect of a Shinnie-Hayes or Shinnie-McGinn partnership.
3. Kane Hemmings (Dundee)
At the beginning of the campaign you could get odds as far out as 80/1 on Kane Hemmings finishing as the Ladbrokes Premiership’s top goalscorer. Of course, it didn’t happen, but the bookmakers were still well off in their probability prediction as he finished second to Griffiths. If fairness, such cynicism was understandable last summer as most observers, this writer included, envisioned Rory Loy as being the summer recruit most likely to make a greater impact in the top flight. Hemmings had been excellent at Cowdenbeath alongside Greg Stewart but, oddly, that almost counted against him. After all, Dundee had already caught lightning in a bottle once with Stewart. What chance did they have of signing another player from that team, which still nearly got relegated from the Championship, and seeing him have similar success? Well, as it turns out, a very good chance. 25 goals in all competitions was proof of that.
2. Jonny Hayes (Aberdeen)
When Hayes runs it’s like the football is stuck to his feet. At least, it does until he decides to cross it, at which point it whips around the retreating defensive line and into the path of one of his team-mates, usually Rooney, to divert towards goal. He’s the best crosser of the ball in the league and what made him so good this year was his evolution beyond an archetypal winger. He demonstrated great versatility the campaign before, operating at both left back and the centre of midfield, and this was the campaign where it all came together. While he mainly stuck to the wing for this season, getting that experience elsewhere on the park helped him grow as an overall player, and he was Aberdeen’s talisman this year. The next step is for him to add more goals to his game. Two stunning strikes against Celtic at Pittodrie in two of the last three seasons demonstrates he’s got the range. He just needs to find a way of finding the back of the net consistently.
1. Leigh Griffiths (Celtic)
Of course it is. Seriously, who the hell else was it going to be? He was undoubtedly the best player on the best team and bagged 40 goals.
The most ridiculous thing is, he could still get better. Griffiths isn’t as much of a threat outside the area as he used to be at Hibs, which must be a decision on his part rather than the skill receding, while he does tend to snatch at one-on-one chances with the opposing goalkeeper. He’s also been improving his first touch and link-up play and, at the age of 25, there’s no need to assume that development is going to stop any time soon.
Everyone is wondering if he can replicate what he showed in the SPFL in Europe and for Scotland. If the transition from Ronny Deila to Brendan Rodgers goes smoothly, there’s little reason not to assume that he’ll continue to grow as a player.