The curious case of Barrie McKay

An exciting, incisive winger destined for the top or an inconsistent, lightweight luxury who goes missing when it matters? Barrie McKay is a curious case, writes Joel Sked.

Barrie McKay celebrates his winning goal against Hearts. Pic: SNS/Craig Williamson
Barrie McKay celebrates his winning goal against Hearts. Pic: SNS/Craig Williamson

Ask fans of Raith Rovers and they would lean heavily towards the latter, baffled by a player who shot to prominence in Rangers’ Championship winning campaign, earning a Scotland call-up. In Govan, fans would be more inclined to believe, hope even, that it is the former, although he can provoke bouts of frustration among the Ibrox denizens.

Eyebrows were not so much raised, as launched into orbit, cartoon-like, when speculation emerged earlier in the season, linking Bundesliga outfit RB Leipzig, who were challenging Bayern Munich at the time, with a £6million offer for the wide man. Reports on Monday linked McKay with a reunion with former Rangers boss Mark Warburton at Nottingham Forest.

While no more than mere speculation at the moment, what the two rumours do show is the apparent downturn McKay’s season has taken. Saturday’s clash with Hearts was only the 21-year-old’s second start since the beginning of April – in his previous start, at home to Partick Thistle, he was hooked at half-time.

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What is perhaps most galling is that he’s been overlooked for Martyn Waghorn. Even after the Englishman’s struggles in the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Celtic, he retained his place for the league encounter a few days later with McKay staying on the bench for the full 90 chastening minutes. Remarkably, Waghorn was still starting the following week when Rangers made the short journey to Firhill.

Heading to another defeat, it was McKay’s arrival which helped turn a game that Rangers had no right winning. He latched on to a long, bouncing ball, impressively bringing it under control before jinking past two Thistle defenders. Now in the box, he still had much to do, yet showed the necessary composure to side step the highly-rated Liam Lindsay and then calmly side foot past Tomas Cerny.

Barrie McKay battles with Hearts' Sam Nicholson. Pic: SNS/Craig Williamson

It was a moment of magic that has been lacking too often in the final third for Rangers, in what has been a season of frustration in front of goal for Pedro Caixina’s men. They have scored less than Hearts, 13 less than Aberdeen and 46 (FORTY SIX) less than Celtic. Their failure to convert chances against bottom six clubs has hampered their attempts at not only challenging Celtic but even finishing in the runners-up spot.

McKay followed up his impressive cameo at Firhill with the winning goal against Hearts on Saturday. But more than that he was constantly looking to dissect the Edinburgh side’s backline, playing a number of passes beyond the defence for runners, namely Josh Windass, to meet.

Wingers are often tarnished with a reputation that they flit in and out of games, too often on the periphery. That is not the case with McKay. He is heavily involved in the build-up and creation of chances. He doesn’t get to the byeline and lash crosses into the area or aimlessly swing balls in from out wide. When he gets into the final third he gets his head up and aims to pass the ball to team-mates giving them a better chance to either hit a shot first time or take a measured touch.

Barrie McKay battles with Hearts' Sam Nicholson. Pic: SNS/Craig Williamson

The above clip shows that Rangers have been creating good chances through McKay, but they’ve lacked the necessary finesse, composure and all-round quality to convert them into goals - by the end of March only Wes Hoolahan, Philippe Coutinho, Alexis Sanchez and Henrikh Mkhitaryan averaged more shot assists per 90 minutes than McKay (as per @TheSPFLRadar).

McKay is about to enter the final year of his contract having turned down the club’s first contract offer. Another has not been forthcoming. It would surely be folly for Rangers not to pull out all the stops to tie down a player, who made his debut for the team as a 17-year-old at the end of the 2011-2012 season, on to a long-term deal.

He was given a grounding in League Two, playing 41 times in Rangers’ first season outside the top-flight. Before bizarrely being loaned up a division the following season. While Ally McCoist’s side were on route to winning League One, McKay spent the second half of the season on loan at Greenock Morton.

He was back on loan the following season, this time with Raith Rovers. While Rangers slumped to third in the Championship and a comical play-off defeat to Motherwell, McKay had a similarly miserable time in Kirkcaldy. Ineffective would be a compliment.

After five goals and eight assists over 18 months in the Championship, hopes weren’t high of a Rangers future. Mark Warburton may have his detractors but he saw promise in McKay and was rewarded with a fine season from the youngster, his output increasing drastically with nine goals and 13 assists in 48 games.

Yet, even with the jump up in standard and two spells out the starting line-up he has still managed to net six times and assist a further 11 goals. While his performances as a whole may have suffered, he is unique in a winger in that he still provides. Viewers couldn’t fail to hear the groans and moans from Rangers fans when McKay was struggling to make an impact. But one thing about McKay, he continues to get on the ball, continues to be brave, continues to try and make things happen.

Another unique aspect of McKay as a winger is that his strongest asset is his vision, and he possesses the passing ability to slice defences open. For someone who plays a high number of through-balls per game his passing success rate remains high.

One of Celtic’s most dangerous weapons is the relationship between Kieran Tierney and Scott Sinclair. Tierney’s attacking drive allows Sinclair to drift infield. Lee Wallace and McKay are the reverse. McKay pulls wide and drops deep to allow Wallace to bomb forward and infield. It is such a dangerous weapon for Rangers, something which the team have missed greatly – McKay clipping passes between full-back and centre-back for the bombarding left-back.

But that is not take away from McKay’s ability in one-v-one duels, situations Scottish fans like to see. As he showed in the New Year Eve’s derby he gave Mikael Lustig a tough afternoon. He can stand a full-back up and use either a swivel of the hips or his acceleration to take him skating away.

Being involved with the Scotland squad may have gone against him in terms of perception among fans who don’t see him every week, especially when he was being called-up while playing for a Championship side. However, it is clear what Gordon Strachan sees in the player, a difference maker.

As Rangers struggled in recent weeks it was a surprise Caixinha didn’t put more faith in McKay to help make that difference. It would be a bigger surprise if Rangers didn’t do all they could to hold on to the wide man. He may have his foibles but there is no question he is an exciting, incisive winger. Whether he makes the top is still open to question.