The guys at The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast give their answer.
Gary Mackay-Steven has had an unusual path to Dundee United. I was planning on writing about the fact he was not that young any more (in football terms), expecting him to be 25 or 26. He only turned 24 at the end of August. He started at Ross County before spells at Liverpool and Fulham. However, injury hampered his progress and he had to drop down to Airdrieonians where his career finally began to take off like one of his forays down the wing for the Arabs.
What that sums up are the peaks and troughs of his career to date, highlighting his capacity to deliver sparkling performances as well as anonymous ones. There are moments when he is terrorising the opposition full-backs time and again with aggression, pace and skill with an end product at the end. It is these moments that explain why he was at Liverpool as a youngster. These moments when you want him in the Scotland squad. These moments when you wonder when rather than if he will be flying down the wing English Premiership grounds.
Last season was his best in terms of numbers but he wasn’t the team’s chief attacking threat. You could argue he was fifth. Surrounded by talented players he was an Indian rather than a chief. But with two of those fellow attacking threats away and others struggling for their very best form you want him to step up and alongside Stuart Armstrong and Nadir Ciftci to become a chief. However, I don’t belief he has the confidence in himself and consistency in performance to do so. My worry is more suited to a more periphery figure who can dazzle grounds with wonderful skills, tricks, runs and goals, rather than a central role where he is the man. Can he produce a Lionel Ainsworth double-double in terms of 10+ goals and 10+ assists? He has the ability, but I’m not sure he ever will.
Let me start by saying that I think Mackay-Steven is a very talented player. If the Scottish Premiership was a freestyle street football league then there is no doubt that he would cruise to the Player of the Year award. He has gained international recognition well beyond what would be expected of a Dundee United player courtesy of some of his individual pieces of skill finding their way on to YouTube and latterly Vine. The problem with these videos, though, is that they generally only last a few seconds and don’t give a rounded impression of the player’s 90-minute performance.
Those of us who watch him semi-regularly know that he is a very good player who is extremely capable at the Scottish Premiership level. Like all wingers, he capable of winning games on his own, but also has more than his fair share of ineffective showings. However, for the many more people whose opinions of Mackay-Steven are formed solely from YouTube and FIFA, he is propelled towards a demigod status as Scotland’s answer to Lionel Messi. It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that I believe Gary Mackay-Steven is an overrated player.
Mackay-Steven is now 24 years old, and yet there has never been any serious attempt to seize him away from Dundee United. Team-mates Johnny Russell, Ryan Gauld and Andy Robertson have all moved on to bigger things, while he has been left behind at Tannadice. He has intimated that he will be leaving on a free transfer next summer, and he should easily find himself an English Championship club. He should thrive in that league, but I can’t see him being consistent enough to carve out a career at a higher level.
It’s easy to get swept away by Gary Mackay-Steven. It isn’t often players come around with such tremendous close control, coupled with a will to use it to be as creative as possible. As a component in an already entertaining Dundee United attacking unit, he is still the most enjoyable to watch when he’s at his most confident. And he’s from Thurso? He could hardly get more exotic.
I disagree with the natural criticism that, as a showy wide-man, he’s deceptively ineffective. He’s never dipped below five assists a season since moving to the Premiership, and that’s before you include his less quantifiable value in dragging defences away, creating space for team-mates. This season too, where speculation over his departure notably high even for him, he’s started excellently.
It’s still difficult to escape the nagging suspicion that he’s stagnated in the last couple of years. He’s also never started more than 30 times in a single Scottish top flight season. Those injury issues make his keenness to move to the fixture-congested leagues in England a little counter-intuitive.
That said, you cannot begrudge any successful Scottish Premiership player who wants to have a go down south. He will have to improve and become more consistent to avoid being written off as a mere show pony, but poorer players have gone down south and fared well. I’d be reticent to call him either overrated or underrated, but I’m certainly not sold on any GMS-revisionism which suggests he isn’t up to much.
To ask if GMS is over or under rated is surely to cut to the heart of what we want as football fans: do we want to see our teams win at all cost? Or would we rather be entertained with the thrill of watching close encounters that enthral us?
Because if it’s the former, then GMS is overrated. How often in the ‘big’ games for Dundee United has he delivered? As a winger, he’s not the sort of player than when the chips are down can inspire the rest of his team to turn their fortunes around.
However, if you attend matches to be entertained then GMS is undoubtedly underrated. We know wingers are inconsistent, but GMS has consistently delivered jinky runs and superb pieces of skills.
Last year GMS did this outrageous piece of skill against Kilmarnock. Isn’t it telling that I remember the game for this rather than the final score? (United won 3-2 by the way). Whilst football might be a results driven industry and the record books will detail the result, the attendance and the scorers, they won’t tell you the impact that GMS had on younger supporters in attendance that day who would have gone home and tried to emulate him.
Frankly, you can’t put a price on that.
Ultimately, I think GMS is probably underrated. As a fan that subscribes to the idea that entertainment trumps results then Mackay-Steven is genuinely a player that gets fans on the edge of their seats and thrills them. The fact of the matter is that in a generation’s times they will be fans at Tannadice that will discuss GMS in revered tones.
Duncan writes about the PR and marketing problems in Scottish football for The Terrace site and is a supporter of both Hibs and Elgin. Read more on his thoughts on Twitter.
Well, we’re at an impasse. This is something I did not expect when I gave the boys their latest homework, and I like the fact that this argument has gone deeper into the football fan’s psyche.
Unfortunately, this stalemate needs my vote to sway it one way or another, and I’m going to be harsh by saying I do believe GMS is overrated.
Football has changed to the extent that individual roles around the park are becoming increasingly blurred. ‘Wingers’ need no longer hang out on the touchline or influence in between long periods on the periphery of matches. Particularly in United’s flowing attacking system, Mackay-Steven has the freedom to use his skills to completely dominate games, but it’s something he rarely does. He’s the old breed of winger. A type player I love watching but have always doubted their effectiveness.
Verdict: Overrated (but only just)