For long enough into the season, the SPFL’s bottom division seemed hyper-competitive and the least predictable league in the country. Even after a dozen matches, only four points separated the top six clubs and at that stage, there was no certain challenger to the title.
However, Peterhead’s nine-match unbeaten run had them gradually climb up the table, from being as low as seventh at the start of November. By the end of 2013 they would sit in first place and didn’t cede the position for the rest of the season, so it should be no surprise to see a clutch of their players feature in this article. The Blue Toon’s ascension wasn’t as unexpected as Clyde’s surge and consolidation within the play-off positions, with their wide midfielders particularly coming of age.
Meanwhile, Annan Athletic were released from Harry Cairney’s shackles and are ever improving under Jim Chapman’s tutelage; Stirling Albion surprised many in their ability to consistently churn out positive results; Berwick Rangers largely flattered to deceive but put in some show-stopping performances, particularly when Colin Cameron took over from Ian Little; and East Stirlingshire started the campaign brilliantly before eventually fading into mediocrity.
This composite team is a celebration of the division’s finest players over the course of the season. Could they achieve something great beyond the fourth tier if brought together under the right management? Almost certainly. That is only a fantasy, but there is no doubt about the reality that these players are among the finest in the league.
Goalkeeper: GRAEME SMITH (Peterhead)
For the second season in succession, Graeme Smith finds himself lauded as the division’s best goalkeeper almost by default.
In such a specialist position, it is often the case that the country’s better ‘keepers congregate among the top flight clubs, sometimes even as back-up to the chief stoppers. Smith himself has considerable experience of the leagues above, and although it might have been obvious to some at the time that the upper echelons were probably out of his reach, Smith has brought his experience to Peterhead and has consistently showed that he is among the best goalkeepers in the league.
Although susceptible to crosses whipped in to the corridor of uncertainty and on top of him at set-pieces, his shot-stopping and general presence are without peer in the division. Peterhead have recorded 29 clean sheets in the league in the last two seasons and Smith’s contribution to that should not go unnoticed.
Right-back: GRAHAM SHARP (Peterhead)
It isn’t often that a team’s source of creativity so often comes from right-back, but that is the case with league-winning Graham Sharp. Capable of providing the extra impetus to the team going forward to tip the balance in Peterhead’s favour, the converted winger has learned that timing the late run – and gauging the free space to attack into – can be as devastating as beating an opponent through sheer pace and skill.
Peterhead are as likely to play with wing-backs in a 3-5-2 as they are a flat back four and it is commendable that Sharp can be used in any position on the right flank. Playing all but two of the Blue Toon’s league campaign, Sharp’s role in the division’s meanest defence is evidence towards his proficiency in staying disciplined while timing his runs forward.
Centre-back: BRIAN McQUEEN (Clyde)
Anticipation, positioning, tackling, heading and awareness are all attributes that the Football Manger series likes to tell us are crucial to playing the centre-back position at any level. Fortunately for Clyde, they have a player with those qualities available exclusively to them. Yet it is his composure when taking the ball out of defence that gives him a distinction from most of the league’s stoppers.
McQueen’s commanding nature in the centre has undoubtedly helped propel Clyde up the league. Having missed playing football for the whole of last season through injury, it is no coincidence that McQueen’s near constant presence has allowed the club to accumulate double the amount of clean sheets than the previous campaign.
Centre-back: SEAN CRIGHTON (Elgin City)
This entry might be a surprise to many considering that Elgin City finished second-last in the league, but there is no doubt at all that Sean Crighton has been City’s best player over the duration of the season, and has shown a level of play in the vast majority of matches to prove that he is among the league’s best defenders.
The 24-year-old has been the constant in Elgin’s defence this season in a campaign that has been affected by injuries and unavailability – Crighton’s 33 league appearances are only bettered by forwards Shane Sutherland and Craig Gunn. Crighton’s consistency can be highlighted by him only receiving three yellow cards in the league this season – while he has two red cards to his name, the most recent one was subsequently downgraded for going into a challenge with Lee Currie after taking the ball around two players.
Crighton’s composure on the ball is remarkable for a League 2 defender and his range of passing is generally without peer. The development of his ability on the ball undermines City’s midfielders, who might believe they are doing the correct thing when looking to take the ball off the defence but who rarely do as good a job at building attacking moves from the back as he invariably does.
His strength in the air is without any doubt, but being based in the central belt he has never truly established a rapport with regular partner Jamie Duff on the training field. Recently appointed manager Barry Wilson might be inclined to stick with local-based players next season to better drill his team and, amid rumours that he might sign for Greenock Morton in League 1, he would certainly be an asset to any side below the Championship.
Left-back: KIERAN MACDONALD (Clyde)
This season’s best left-back falls to Clyde’s Keiran MacDonald, who has had a tremendous campaign getting forward from defence. Small but nimble, slight but with a powerful left foot, MacDonald bears a lot of similarities to Ross County’s First Division winning full-back Scott Morrison. MacDonald’s proficiency from dead balls doesn’t go unnoticed and a return of four goals for a left-back isn’t to be sniffed at – even if he ought to have put away a meek penalty in the recent loss to Peterhead.
Still only 20 years old, MacDonald’s endurance and technical ability should see that he enjoys a fruitful career in the senior game.
Right wing: SCOTT FERGUSON (Clyde)
Another youngster from Clyde, Scott Ferguson’s debut season has contained too many goals as a winger not to include him.
A return of eight has played a significant part in the Bully Wee’s surprise progress this season. Having a goal threat from wide areas has really helped Jim Duffy’s cause, with chief centre-forward Michael Daly goal-shy until the late stages of the season. That Ferguson made nearly 30 appearances shows how much Duffy is willing to rely on the teenager.
Ferguson is tiny in stature but is quick over ten yards and has a stunningly good leap that surprises most of his opposition. With Stuart McColm so keen to attack the bye-line, having a player of Ferguson’s recently established goal-scoring proficiency at the edge of the box for the cutback, or at the back post against a slight full-back, would be valuable to any team in the division.
Central midfield: LEE CURRIE (Berwick Rangers)
Making the Tell Him He’s Pelé team of the season for the second year running, Lee Currie’s league campaign was a slow burner that exploded into something special in the second half of the season.
It took until November 2013 for Currie to net his first league goal of the campaign, but a hot streak of 15 goals from 23 matches has placed him as joint second in the top ten of League 2 goal-scorers beside team-mate Darren Lavery. Currie’s membership as a midfielder in an otherwise exclusive club of centre-forwards makes him a stand-out in the division, let alone Colin Cameron’s team, which is something of an achievement with Lavery and Scott Dalziel as colleagues.
There is more to Currie’s game than his goals, of course. With a sweet left foot, Currie can stroke the ball about the park better than anyone in the division and few can boast the range and length of his passing. With a mean set-piece delivery, Currie reportedly has as many assists as he has goals, which is a phenomenal achievement for a central midfielder. If Berwick’s captain can continue the same form into next season then they will be among the favourites for promotion.
Central midfield: IAIN THOMSON (East Stirlingshire)
There is no-one who better typifies East Stirlingshire’s season than the former Stenhousemuir midfielder.
The Shire took the division by the scruff of the neck at the beginning of the season, with the whole team seemingly built around Iain Thomson’s influence in the centre of the pitch. In the epicentre of John Coughlin’s 4-1-4-1 cum 4-3-3 shape, Thomson dictated the tempo as well as he shepherded the centre-backs from opposition midfielders. In a division where 4-4-2 is still so prominent, Thomson’s space at the back of midfield handed control of the middle of the pitch to the Shire more often than not.
Thomson’s blessing as the Shire’s spare midfielder was also the team’s curse, as the lack of a goals from the forwards hindered the team later in the season. Without clinical team-mates further forward, and with the extra numbers in midfield taking away from having another striker, the inevitable happened with the Shire sliding down the league.
That isn’t a slight on Thomson, whose excellence in his role provided the platform for East Stirlingshire to remain in first place in the league for 12 matches, and if new manager Craig Tully recruits well in the summer the Shire might be contenders for promotion next season.
Left midfield: STEFAN McCLUSKEY (Clyde)
This position was a toss-up between two Clyde players: Stefan McCluskey and Stuart McColm. McColm, like McCluskey and Scott Ferguson, has had a terrific season and blossomed over the summer to become the division’s best attacking winger: there is no-one in the division better at driving towards the bye-line to drill a cross along the goal-mouth or to cut the ball back to an oncoming forward.
While McColm made the left flank his own, it was Stefan McCluskey’s role in the team as the number 10 that congealed the attacking impetus from the flanks and he had to find a way into this team at McColm’s expense.
McCluskey’s selflessness is such that he is happy to drift out to the flanks for the sake of allowing the wide players to cut in and it is arguable that his positional play is more important to the team than his new-found goal-scoring touch. McCluskey has always been blessed with above-average technique with his right foot but was prone to fall out of games – and his boss’s favour – last season. His tally of ten goals is modest for a forward compared to the competition, but being the team’s chief central creator and to still be its top scorer is a notable achievement.
Striker: KENNY McKAY (Annan Athletic)
Annan Athletic’s top scorer Kenny McKay would be a dream for any League 2 manager. Big but quick, strong but with cute technique, McKay is a handful for any defence coming up against him. An efficient marksman in front of goal, McKay can also drift across the pitch and offer his team the best opportunity to create chances by drawing defenders close to him and either beating them or releasing the ball late for his colleagues.
His ability to come short and drag his defender out of position is married with enough pace to get behind a defence – McKay’s sprint on to a volleyed pass and his lob over the goalkeeper in an away win against Queen’s Park is as exquisitely minimalist a goal you might see from a single forward and is something he specialises in, but he can also cause deep-lying defences trouble with his touch and physique.
If Jim Chapman has eyes on challenging for the title again next season, he will want to have his star striker signed up to a new contract as quickly as possible.
Striker: RORY McALLISTER (Peterhead)
There is little to say about the country’s top scorer that hasn’t already been said. Rory McAllister might have been wasting his talent in the fourth tier in the last couple of seasons, but boy, has he scored a bucketload of goals along the way.
McAllister always appears to be unfavoured by opposition supporters when at a match, partly due to jealously and partly due to the fact that he is the danger man who can turn the complexion of a match at any given time. His play is improved exponentially by having a creative forward like Andy Rodgers (who is perhaps unfortunate not to have been included in this side) next to him to allow McAllister to concentrate on scoring, but his own link-up play and ability to hold the ball up is as good as anyone else’s in the league.
Nonetheless, McAllister’s finishing capability on its own is enough to get him in this team. A striker capable of scoring any type of goal, he is just as potent with a freekick at 25 yards as he is getting on to a cross ball from six.
Now moving up a division with Peterhead (and returning to a competition where he previously flourished with Brechin City), he must ensure that the issues with complacency and a lack of personal discipline do not reappear, or they might affect his own prospects as much as the team’s chances of consolidating in League 1. If he remains motivated and is still supported by an experienced core of players who have played a lot of football together in the last couple of years, then he will undoubtedly fire the goals to make the Blue Toon a force in the league above.
Manager: JIM DUFFY (Clyde)
Jim Duffy’s award is as big of a surprise to you as it is to us.
Clyde were written off at the start of the season as the worst of a bad bunch, with uncertainty over the club’s future home and a lack of resources cited as reasons to doubt the Bully Wee’s potential to have a good season. However, Duffy has overseen a remarkable campaign that saw his side finish in the play-offs with five points to spare, all the while playing positive attacking football with swashbuckling wingplay the most prominent feature.
Getting the best out of Stuart McColm and Stefan McCluskey was the key to Duffy’s success, when they were peripheral and inconsistent figures the season previous. Having Brian McQueen return from a long-term injury helped, while the nurturing of prodigal talent Scott Ferguson has reaped the benefit of important goals throughout the campaign. Duffy has been able to mix up his tactics to some surprise, occasionally preferring 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formations to go alongside the tried-and-tested 4-4-2.
Who knows what 2014-15 holds for Clyde from this moment in time, but it will be fascinating to see if Clyde can improve on this season’s progress.