Team of the Season 2011-12

WITH the end of the footballing season already here and with the numerous player-of-the-year-type awards having been distributed in typical fashion, it is perhaps appropriate that this website offers a nominal award of its own.

This is the Team of the Season. It is, of course, made up of individuals. However, this particular team has been selected based on more than who has simply performed the best over the course of the season (have a look at the PFA team of the year in that regard)

We have tried our hardest to imagine that this team could play well together.

The players in question are selected on their own individual performances, as well as on how well they would theoretically play with the rest of the team. That is quite an un-scientific method, but it is helped by looking at smaller player-partnerships within the side.

The selected players will be discussed below, together with other candidates for the same role/position.

There might seem to be an inherent bias towards Ross County players (six selected out of 11). An unbeaten run since  August 15 2011 and a national record-breaking margin at the top of the table suggests that their team performed significantly better than the others. The number of Ross County players included reflects on how well different partnerships within the team worked.

In a 4-4-1-1 formation:

1. GOAL-KEEPER – David McGurn – Raith Rovers

The Rovers number 1 was, once again, in excellent form during the season. He is arguably the complete goal-keeper at First Division level. Often referred to as ‘the witch’ by Raith Rovers supporters, McGurn’s reflexes allowing him to cast the illusion of defying physics. There is rarely a week when the Raith Rovers highlights do not show an otherwise implausible save pulled off by McGurn.

McGurn’s consistently excellent standards seem even more remarkable with the knowledge that he was the only part-time player in the Rovers squad in 2011-12.

Other candidates:

  • Michael McGovern (Falkirk) one of the team’s better performers over the course of the season. His ability to save in one-on-one situations is exceptional.
  • Rab Douglas (Dundee) who despite turning 40 at the end of the season is still one of the division’s best players. His experience is possible compensating for a natural decrease in athleticism, but any team in the SFL would still gladly have him on their records.

2. RIGHT-BACK – Kieran Duffie – Falkirk

Duffie is a right-back who struck a unique partnership with forward Farid El Alagui. Duffie could call the right flank of the pitch his own for the majority of the season, with whomever playing in front of him tucking in to midfield to give him space to attack. Duffie is a similar player to Ross County’s Gary Miller, in that both are relied upon to give their team width down the flank. While Miller is probably a more accomplished ‘defender’, Duffie’s final ball was consistently better this season. He provided a number of assists to El Alagui’s 18 league goals, which earns Duffie a place in this team.

Other candidates:

  • Gary Miller (Ross County) an ever present in the league during the 2011-12 season.
  • Gary Irvine (Dundee) a technically accomplished defender who doesn’t give up his territory easily.

3. LEFT-BACK – Aaron Sinclair – Partick Thistle

Sinclair is arguably the First Division signing of the season, having previously played for Montrose. At 6’1″, he is strong enough to prevent being bullied in the full-back position. Thistle can have no complaints about his defensive contribution to the team this season.

However, like Duffie, it is when he is attacking when he looks at his best. Sinclair has long legs, an enduring stamina and most of all a considerable willingness to get forward to support in attack. Thistle manager Jack McNamara – after experimenting with a number of formations during the season – eventually settled on a back-three system, with Sinclair given the wing-back role. As such an important player to the system, giving width on the park in attack and helping the left-most centre-back in defence, Sinclair has excelled.

Despite his later role as a wing-back in different three-man defence formations, it is in fact Sinclair’s combination with Cairney on the left flank, in a 4-4-2 system, that has consolidated his place in this team. He offers the overlap at will, letting Cairney cut in on the inside, but Sinclair can provide a rare diagonal run towards the corner of the box himself, which attracts opposing defenders towards him and away from Cairney.

Other candidates:

  • Marc Fitzpatrick (Ross County) was injured for the majority of the season, but was part of the team that won nine league matches in succession in the late Autumn
  •  Tam Scobbie (Falkirk) is more a natural centre-back but his not inconsiderable experience for a 24-year-old helped a less established star in Murray Wallace develop, with good positioning to cover Wallace. Scobbie was never spectacular with the ball but still offered an assured pass out of defence.

4. CENTRE-BACK – Scott Boyd – Ross County

Boyd has consistently been one of Ross County’s best players since their return to the First Division in 2008. When at first, he seemed a nervous, slight defender who could be harried off the ball and bullied, he is now a much more accomplished player.

Boyd’s recovery pace, with his ability to read the game, ensures that he is rarely beaten by forwards on the ground. His maturity – physiologically and psychologically – has made him almost the perfect, covering centre-back partner, to the strong man-marker. During the 2011-12 season, Boyd won his place back in the team after Ross County’s only defeat of the season. He and Munro dominated forwards for the rest of the league campaign.

5. CENTRE-BACK – Grant Munro – Ross County

It is safe to say that Munro’s experience in winning the First Division title twice previously with neighbouring Inverness Caledonian Thistle, was an important factor towards County’s own success.

While concerns can be validly raised on the centre-back’s distribution of the ball under pressure, there is no denying his man-marking ability, physical strength and positional discipline.

One fact that looks favourable on Munro is that Falkirk’s talismanic forward, Farid El Alagui, scored his only goal against Ross County when Munro was not playing. The goal arrived from a set-piece immediately following Munro’s substitution, to treat a wound inflicted by El Alagui himself.

Other candidates:

  • Neil McGregor (Dundee) has been consistently one of the best defenders in the First Division for a number of years. His presence at the back helped Dundee at a time when Rhys Weston’s form dipped.
  • Grant Murray (Raith Rovers) showed that when afforded a place in the centre of defence (he was occasionally needed to play right-back) then his veteran experience could be the foundation on some much-needed form for Rovers.

7.  RIGHT-MIDFIELD – Richard Brittain – Ross County

The competition for places in this team’s midfield is pleasingly high. However, this team of the season cannot be formed without the inclusion of the title-winning captain.

Brittain is not a natural right-winger, more a functional right-sided midfielder who covers his attacking full-back and can cross well from open play. Yet, “functional” is a dis-service to Brittian, as his high work-rate married to a calm, play-making approach, makes him arguably his team’s most important player. Brittain’s character and technique is exemplified best in his hat-trick against a resurgent Ayr United in a narrow 3-2 win on a wet Wednesday night. His force of will alone would get him into this team.

Other candidates:

  • Nicky Riley (Dundee) had an exceptional first half of the season. Riley was Dundee’s main creative force, winning penalties, assisting with crosses and scoring goals for himself. Riley was unavailable due to injury for most of the season after January.
  • Chris Erskine (Partick Thistle) is very much a left-footed winger who is asked to play on either flank (or sometimes behind the striker(s)). His unorthodox dribbling and spontaneous decision-making mean that sometimes he can be frustrating to watch, but when his confidence is high there are few more dangerous opponents in the division.

6. CENTRE-MIDFIELD – Paul Lawson – Ross County

Any reader of rosscountytactics.com will appreciate how crucial Paul Lawson’s form has been to his team during the recent season.

As a deep-lying play-maker, Lawson’s ability to collect the ball from defence, retain possession in midfield, switch play from one flank to another and play lofted through passes are without peer in the SFL.

8. CENTRE-MIDFIELD – Stuart Kettlewell – Ross County

Lawson’s midfield partner for Ross County and indeed this team is former amateur Stuart Kettlewell.  Kettlewell stood out to this writer in the Second Division, playing as captain for Queen’s Park in 2007 on a saturated pitch at Hampden, beating Ross County 3-2.  He has improved considerably as a player since then.

Like Boyd and Munro, Kettlewell and Lawson are a balanced partnership.  While Lawson dictates the tempo from deep, Kettlewell presses high.  Kettlewell’s all-round game has improved to the extent that he scored a number of decisive (i.e. winning or opening) goals during the season, ultimately scoring five in the league.  His goals typically came from late bursts into the box, getting beyond the striker to meet crosses or through passes.  Generally regarded as one of the fittest players in the league, his relentless harrying of opposition midfielders allows the others to play.

Such a balanced partnership can be proven statistically: Ross County have not lost a league match since January 2010 with Lawson and Kettlewell starting together.

Other candidates:

  • Alex Neil (Hamilton) is the closest to being a similar player to Lawson, in a less attacking sense, but is now concentrating on his coaching and had not played the same number of games nor hit the same form.
  • Fouad Bachirou and Michael Tidser (Greenock Morton) together are another example of a finely balanced central midfield. Bachirou’s quick pressing and short, tidy passing is in contrast to Tidser’s superior physical size and longer range of passing and shooting. Morton’s best moments in the season – there were not many – happened when Bachirou and Tidser were able to play together.
  • Stephen O’Donnell (Dundee) has matured to become on of the strongest, most technically proficient players in the league, but he struggled without an established midfield partner who complimented his attributes.

11. LEFT-MIDFIELD – Paul Cairney – Partick Thistle

Completing the midfield is Partick Thistle’s player of the year.  Cairney is another player from the same Queens Park team as Kettlwell. Cairney has not always been a fans’ favourite at Firhill, but by scoring 11 goals (roughly a fifth of the team’s total output) and generally providing the main creative drive to the team outwith Chris Erskine, Cairney has now endeared himself to the Jags following.

Cairney scored arguably the goal of the season, floating a chipped shot into the top corner to score at Falkirk.

The goal can be seen in motion after 2:00 mins, on Partick Thistle’s website.

Cairney has moved onto Hibernian and his strong attacking partnership on the left-side of the team will be missed by Thistle supporters.

Other candidates:

  • Ryan Conroy (Dundee) had an excellent season, also scoring 11 goals. His run of form in the second half of the season almost made up for Riley’s absence. Conroy has a strong left foot and now an excellent record at taking penalty-kicks.
  • Bobby Barr (Livingson) was danger to many First Division defences. Like Erskine, sometimes he was played centrally behind the other forwards, but he is most dangerous when providing the team width and attack an isolated full-back.
  • Iain Vigurs (Ross County) occasionally lets his temperament spoil his performance, but for the majority shows his class on the ball. Positionally a very intelligent player, he somehow manages to offer his team width, yet moments later show up with the ball on the inside-right channel.

9. STRIKER – Farid El Alagui – Falkirk FC

It would be impossible to pick this team without considering El Alagui, who was in phenomenal scoring form in the first half of the season. A player who scored against every other First Division team, Farid terrorised defenders with his combination of physical strength and off-the-ball movement. His goal-scoring form dropped after January, which co-incided with his strike-partner Higginbotham’s transfer-window sale to Huddersfield. Higginbotham was never replaced in a tactial sense and Farid was often left in isolation, while Higginbotham’s replacement Willie Gibson drifted to the flanks.

Despite the drop in the number of goals scored later in the season, Farid developed a unique rapport with Falkirk supporters. He has since joined Brentford, but his presence in the SFL will not be forgotten quickly.

Although El Alagui was eventually outscored by Colin McMenamin, it is Farid’s combination play with right-back Duffie that ensures a place in this team. Duffie’s crosses were a large source of goals for Farid, who knew when and where to gamble with a run across full-backs and centre-backs towards goal.

Other candidates:

  • Colin McMenamin (Ross County) top-scoring with 19 league goals. His link-up play with Gardyne and midfielders was better than most Ross County supporters have seen in their team since Craig Brewster’s (last) retirement.
  • Kris Doolan (Partick Thistle) who still managed to score 13 goals, despite not having an established forward partnership
  • Rory Boulding (Livingston) scoring 11 league goals in 12 starts.

10. SUPPORT STRIKER – Michael Gardyne – Ross County

Lastly is Dundee United-bound Gardyne, who enjoyed his best season in professional football.

Gardyne started in 30 league matches for Ross County, getting 13 goals. His goals were important to the team, of course, but it is his ability to pass and dribble between the lines of midfield and attack, making him difficult for defenders to mark, that make him a valuable player.

Other candidates:

  • Gardyne holds off Kallum Higginbotham (Falkirk) who left in January but whom also had an excellent season to that point. Higginbotham’s relationship with El Alagui would have earned him in a place in the team if he had the chance to continue his form.

CONCLUSION

It should no surprise to find six Ross County players and two Falkirk players in the team. It is perhaps unfair on some Dundee players who deserve mention and praise, but there are, naturally, only eleven positions to pick from.

With many players still out of contract, we will be looking to the best players of 2012-13 with interest.

John A Maxwell

John A Maxwell

John is a Ross County supporter whose care for the lower leagues is just as thoroughgoing as when Billy Ferries tore down the wing. His footballing favourites include Fernando Redondo, Gordon Connelly and André Hainault.

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