The 17 most improved players in Scottish football this season

Which players have shown improvement from last season to the current campaign, catching the eye and winning hearts of supporters across Scotland?

James Tavernier has taken his play up a level this season. Picture: SNS
James Tavernier has taken his play up a level this season. Picture: SNS

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The 17 most improved players in Scottish football this season

In each of the last two years, this introduction spent time explaining that only a “tremendous” change in productivity would be good enough for a player to make the list. “Good to great” didn’t cut it.

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However, while there are certainly SPFL footballers who have gone from average to brilliant, in order to beef out the selection for 2017/18 we needed to include a few who were decent already and made that extra leap. Starting with...

Kristoffer Ajer (Celtic)

The Norwegian centre-back was impressive during his loan spell at Rugby Park this season. But it’s one thing being a stand-out performer on one of the poorest teams in the league and quite another to become the best central defender on the country’s top side. The future is very bright for the 19-year-old.

Ryan Bowman (Motherwell)

By the admission of the Motherwell coaching staff, Bowman entered this season as fourth choice forward after failing to impress through his appearances last term. He’s not exactly blown the doors off the Premiership but he’s still fashioned himself a role as an important squad member and his fighting style (sometimes literally) embodies what the Steelmen are all about.

Martin Boyle (Hibs)

The deal that brought Martin Boyle to Hibs saw Alex Harris going in the other direction. Safe to say that’s not the best piece of business ever conducted by Dundee (though perhaps not the worst either). ‘Squirrel’, as he’s affectionately known, has excelled in the top flight. He’s gone from being a back-up, speedster specialist to one of the first names on the teamsheet. Regardless of the opponent or how poorly Hibs are playing, his quickness and direct running makes them a constant threat to score, as evidenced by Saturday’s opening goal against Partick Thistle.

Eamonn Brophy (Kilmarnock)

From a bit-part player at Hamilton to one of the brightest prospects in Kilmarnock’s near future, it’s safe to say the decision to leave New Douglas Park for some fresh scenery was the right one for the young striker. His 0.55 goals per 90 minutes is seventh best among active players in the Ladbrokes Premiership this term.

James Forrest (Celtic)

For the second year in succession we find Forrest on this list. Last term it was down to his transformation after looking like a player who was certain to leave Parkhead. Tthis time it’s to hail his ascendancy to Player of the Year candidate. Two things have stood out in particular. One, incredibly enough, is his durability. Remember the guy that couldn’t go a month without getting injured and disappearing from sight? Well, he’s already played 55 games for club and country this term. The other is his end product. Sixteen goals represents his best season by far in front of goal.

Gary Harkins (Morton)

An ageing playmaker coming to the end of his days, Harkins had his moments in an Ayr United shirt last term, though they were too few and far between to save the Honest Men from relegation. It was therefore somewhat of a surprise to see him land on his feet at play-off side Morton. Surely this was an error in judgement from Jim Duffy? Absolutely not. Rather than a mercurial No.10, as he’s operated through a lot of his career, Harkins has found new life as a deeper lying midfield maestro, where he dictates the flow of games and still provides a burst of creativity.

Chris Kane (St Johnstone)

Hands up, there is some recency bias at play here. Kane hasn’t been tremendously improved across the whole of this season in comparison to the whole of the last one. He has, however, found a consistency to his game in the last two months which is better than anything we’ve seen from the striker before. He finally seems to be putting it all together. He’s more physical, reads the game better and is a greater goal threat. If he keeps this going for the entirety of next season he’ll finally live up to the ‘next Stevie May’ tag that was initially applied during a particularly proficient loan spell at Dumbarton in 2014.

Alan Lithgow (Livingston)

There are a few Livingston players who could make this list. Craig Halkett and Scott Pittman, like Lithgow, both performed well in the club’s League One title success last year and yet seemed to have take it up notch since promotion. Lithgow, though, stands out as a possible Player of the Year candidate and the fact that, when Sean Crighton was let go in the summer, many fans believed it should have been the 30-year-old to go instead. Nobody is making similar claims now.

Dylan McGeouch (Hibs)

It was mainly down to injuries that McGeouch was unable to star for Hibs in the Championship as Neil Lennon’s side cruised to the second tier title. Getting himself fit was always going to give him a boost. Even still, the way he’s seamlessly adapted to the Premiership has been quite remarkable. The fact that a sizable number of Hibs fans would select him as the club’s Player of the Year over John McGinn tells you everything you need to know.

Scott McKenna (Aberdeen)

From the bench at Ayr United to Scotland’s man of the match in a win over Hungary: all in the space of 12 months.

When Derek McInnes threw him into the line-up for the trip to Fir Park in September it was almost a case of needs must. Anthony O’Connor and Mark Reynolds had been bullied by the Motherwell forward line of Louis Moult and Ryan Bowman in a Betfred Cup defeat just a few days prior, so the Dons boss fashioned together a more sturdy centre-back partnership with McKenna alongside Kari Arnason. And the rest, they say, is history.

He’s not only Aberdeen’s best centre-back this year, he’s arguably their best player. The only reason he’s not the most improved player overall in this list is because of his youth (he doesn’t encapsulate the spirit of the award - he was always going to get better) and the fact that it’s often hard to judge players from lower league loan spells. Ask any Raith or Morton fan about Barrie McKay and you’ll get the point.

Lewis Morgan (St Mirren)

He was good last year. One of his team’s best players, there was no doubt. But he wasn’t quite probable-Championship-player-of-the-year-and-signing-for-Celtic levels of quality. That has been reserved for this term.

In the last few months the Buddies have shown themselves to be much more than a one-man team. However, there were points earlier in the season, when belief wasn’t as high, where he was putting the team on his back. That helped build the platform which has since elevated them into becoming the champions-elect.

Aberdeen fans will love him when Celtic inevitably loan him out at some point next term.

Gavin Reily (St Mirren)

Reilly was something of a gamble when St Mirren picked him up last summer. His confidence shot from an ill-fated move t0 Hearts, he’d netted only twice in a loan spell at Dunfermline. Often players suddenly lose what once made them sparkle and that seemed to be the case with the former Queen of the South hitman. However, since agreeing to join Jack Ross’ side on a permanent deal he’s been a revelation. Even when he’s not scoring the fans love and appreciate the effort he puts in. He may have only netted on three occasions so far this year, but you can’t argue with 22 goals in total.

Darren Smith (Stirling Albion)

From 12 goals in 38 games to 25 goals in 35 games, it’s safe to say the imposing forward has enjoyed life under Dave Mackay this season. He’s continued to find the back of the net even if the Binos promotion charge has faltered in 2018.

James Tavernier (Rangers)

Outside Ibrox - and even from some inside - Tavernier was completely derided for his lack of defensive ability, particularly in covering the back post. Now, he’s not exactly transformed at that end - there have still been a few errors - though he’s improved enough to let other parts of his play shine. Furthermore, he’s got even better as an attacker this term. Beyond the seven goals and six assists in the league (both better already than all of 2016/17) his crossing has improved dramatically. He’s gone from finding his target with 25.12 per cent of his deliveries to 35.12 per cent. He’s one of the best at it in the Ladbrokes Premiership this term.

Alan Trouten (Albion Rovers)

Another striker who’s taken significant strides in front of goal. At Brechin City last term, Trouten netted eight goals (and just as many bookings). Despite playing for a poorer side this term his form has skyrocketed. Starting with a highly productive Betfred Cup campaign, where he found the net seven times in four games, he’s been a machine in attack, tallying up 28 across the campaign so far.

Josh Windass (Rangers)

He doesn’t have his critics to seek in the Rangers support. As the club continues to struggle to match the might of Celtic, Windass’ tendency to go missing in tough matches makes him an easy, and perhaps deserved, target. However, there’s no arguing with the raw numbers. Having netted just once in 2016/17 (against East Stirlingshire) he’s gone on to score 17 times in all competitions this time around. Sure, that number has been bloated by a hat-trick against Fraserburgh (what does Windass have against non-league teams?) and a double at Ayr United, but it also includes strikes against Celtic, Aberdeen, Hibs and Hearts.

And the most improved player in 2017/18 is...

Kris Boyd (Kilmarnock)

This writer has only recently waxed lyrical about Boyd’s improvement, so we shan’t stressed the point too much. Safe to say, this has undoubtedly been his best campaign since 2013/14 and it’s partially owed to the transformative powers of his manager Steve Clarke. At age 34, he’s currently the top goalscorer in the Ladbrokes Premiership with 15 strikes. This time a year ago - actually, this time six months ago - he seemed close to being finished as a top flight player. It’s that surprise factor which makes him stand out from the pack. It’s an incredible turnaround.