What a phenomenal end to the season we have witnessed.
With the race for first place almost ebbing and flowing with the regularity of the tide until the end, it was fascinating to have three teams within a single win of the title until the last game. Not since 1995-96 have we had such a closely fought contest in Scotland’s second tier.
It would be a lie to say that the quality of the season as a whole was of stand out quality. Had Dundee been properly managed at the outset, they had the resources to outstrip the rest of the division but instead John Brown accumulated a bloated squad with January signings that only exacerbated the team’s weaknesses. Hamilton Academical took a long time to recover from player-manager Alex Neil’s absence through injury, but their campaign was bookended by almost faultless runs of form at the beginning and end of the season. Falkirk, meanwhile, faltered at the beginning of Gary Holt’s first full season in charge, but the arrival of Mark Millar on loan in January galvanised the team to at once challenge with an unbeaten run through mid-winter, before falling away and once again hitting a winning streak to put pressure on the other contenders.
That no team managed to assert their dominance over the others is at the very least circumstantial evidence for the argument that the league’s past champions would have firebombed the division. That makes the league no less entertaining, however, and although Dundee have been decreed champions, it is arguable whether or not their team contained all of the best players.
It’s no surprise that this year’s team is mostly made up of the top three teams, but the division is scattered with undisputed talent. It is interesting to note that, from end end of January 2014, all of last year’s team were playing at a level above; we have no doubt that the current best XI could manage the same to some extent.
Goalkeeper: MICHAEL McGOVERN (Falkirk)
Perhaps unlucky not to make last year’s edition, Michael McGovern’s goalkeeping qualities should have seen him established in the top flight before now. Having missed only a couple of matches this season, McGovern’s 29 years make him among Falkirk’s most experienced players, and his presence is certainly an assistance (and a vocal encouragement) to the defenders playing with him.
A typically strong shot-stopper, reasonably confident at claiming crosses (although like many goalkeepers at this level, it might be his greatest weakness), but exceptional in one-on-one circumstances, McGovern’s ability is not just correlated to 13 clean sheets in the league but a cause of them too.
Right-back: ZIGGY GORDON (Hamilton Academical)
Regarded as the one of the division’s best defenders for a couple of seasons now, Ziggy Gordon has a bright future ahead of him.
A near ever-present in the Hamilton Academical XI, Gordon has accumulated over 70 league appearances at the age of 21 and is yet improving with experience. He is an athletic presence, an accomplished passer of the ball with his right foot and his reading of the game is above average for Championship level.
Gordon had a chastening experience when placed at left-back against Dundee at Dens Park just after Paul Hartley took over from John Brown. Martin Boyle’s searing pace had already cause huge problems against Stephen Hendrie, who was dismissed with a second yellow card, and Gordon’s redeployment to the left was uncomfortable to the extent that he was sent off himself, little more then ten minutes after his team-mate. Nonetheless, Alex Neil was confident in his player’s abilities and in the last meeting between the two sides at New Douglas Park, Gordon played on the left against Boyle again and had a much more composed match, barely allowing his opponent to get the beating of him.
Gordon will only get better against tougher opposition and his rise to the next level is much anticipated.
Centre-back: WILL VAULKS (Falkirk)
This has been Will Vaulks’s breakthrough year and, despite his youth, he has consistently showed over the course of the season that he is one of the league’s best defenders.
Vaulks appears physically mature beyond his years, with a big rectangular frame that helps him compete aerially. That has certainly helped him hold his own among the division’s tougher opponents, but at 20 years old he is quick enough on the ground to allow manager Gary Holt to play a high line when the occasion is asked for.
Vaulks’s distribution from the back is one of the reasons why he will do well beyond the Championship. There aren’t many defenders below the Premiership (or even in the top flight) that have the former Tranmere Rovers centre-back’s composure to find a ground pass further forward – in the modern game, it makes a telling difference to have a team able to play from the back. If Vaulks can have such a positive influence on his team for the rest of his playing days in the way he has this season, he’ll have a prosperous career.
Vaulks has often had to deputise for Kieran Duffie on the right flank, but there is no mistake that Vaulks is already developing into a quality centre-back.
Centre-back: DECLAN GALLAGHER (Dundee)
It was only two years ago that Declan Gallagher was finishing his season with Clyde in the Third Division, having previously been on loan to Stranraer and then subsequently released by parent club Celtic. Gallagher turned 21 during his time with the Bully Wee and showed in his time there that he ought to have been playing at a higher level.
Gallagher joined Dundee who were propelled into the SPL following Rangers’ demise. A difficult experience in the top flight saw Gallagher’s side unsurprisingly relegated, but his personal performances on the whole were one of Dundee’s better memories of the season and can only have served him well in the long run.
Gallagher has been an ever present this season and has been the backbone to the division’s best defence. His height at 6’5″ gives him a reach over most forwards in the air, while he stands tall and doesn’t go to ground for a tackle unless he has to. At times he can bring the ball out of defence, but under John Brown he increasingly looked for the long diagonal ball, and Paul Hartley should be encouraging him to play to his full-back or into midfield with greater frequency.
With over 100 league games behind him, Gallagher is ready to step up to the Premiership and it might be that he doesn’t return to the lower leagues again.
Left-back: STEPHEN KINGSLEY (Falkirk)
There’s little doubt that Stephen Kingsley is one of Tell Him He’s Pelé’s pet players. Tall, fair haired, versatile and with exceedingly tidy feet, Kingsley represents the archetypal Falkirk youth graduate at the moment.
It is arguable whether left-back or centre-back is Kingsley’s true calling. When at once he might have appeared to be the natural heir to Tam Scobbie (who does a bit of both), Kingsley made the left-back berth his own over the last couple of seasons. It was alleged that Scobbie was the last of the club’s high earners following the eventual dismantling of the relegated SPL team from 2009-10, so with Kingsley hitting the ground running as a 17-year-old was welcome in Falkirk’s cost-cutting strategy while re-adjusting to the First Division.
Soon to be turning 20, Kingsley’s play is all about a surprising amount of maturity. As effective going forward as he is in keeping in line with the defence, he is the perfect mould for a modern Scottish full-back. He goes about his game without drawing attention to himself, but has a trick to beat his marker and progress up the flank while being completely at ease in playing one-touch triangles with his midfielders.
When called upon to play centre-back, Kingsley’s long balls have purpose to them and he is adept at finding Mark Beck from 60 yards (although given Beck’s size, it shouldn’t be a difficult task). He is still quite a slight player and as he fills out he might eventually fall back to centre-back, but on the left of a back four there isn’t really anyone better in the lower leagues right now.
Right midfield: ANTHONY ANDREU (Hamilton Academical)
Not naturally a right-sided midfielder, Antony Andreu thrives on having the play built around him. He often had to play on the right of Livingston’s midfield (nominally, at least), but this season has predominantly dictated proceedings from the middle and has been the league’s standout attacking midfielder.
Andreu’s play is based on his ability to thread passes through to a striker, but also on his goalscoring potential. His 13 goals in the league this season is a remarkable return for a midfielder, but with his proficiency to score at range from either foot or to attack a cross with his head, as he did so well against Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park earlier in the season, then maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Andreu’s ability to produce moments of flamboyant brilliance are off-set by his tendency to drift in and out of matches, and his lack of influence in the 1-4 loss at Dumbarton towards the end of the season was perhaps as telling a factor in Hamilton missing out on the title as Alex Neil’s headbutt. Nonetheless, Andreu has had a fine season and is destined for bigger things.
Central midfield: MARK MILLAR (Falkirk)
It is debatable whether or not a player who has played just over half a season is worthy of inclusion of the team of the year, but Mark Millar’s influence on Falkirk since his return on loan has been too important to ignore.
Before Millar’s return to the Bairns from Dundee United, Falkirk were inconsistent and had already lost four of their first 11 games. There was a distinct lack of leadership in midfield, but of greater importance was a lack of somebody to stand off and see the pattern of the game as it unfolded. With Jay Fulton, Craig Sibbald, Blair Alston and Conor McGrandles happiest attacking the final third from central areas, there was a need to have someone deeper to offer a different angle of approach, with switches in play and the threat of goals from long range more prominent with his inclusion.
Millar had an immediate impact, scoring a couple of goals in his third league start for Falkirk, which was in the middle of an 11-match unbeaten streak that took his side to the top of the table at the start of 2014. Falkirk couldn’t sustain that form over the rest of the season, but their points per game ratio increased from 1.36 per match to 2.04 after Millar joined, and that isn’t a coincidence.
Central midfield: CONOR McGRANDLES (Falkirk)
For too long, Conor McGrandles had been the least heralded of the bunch of midfielders that have emerged at Falkirk. That might be down to his age – it is incredible to think that he is still only 18 years old – or that he doesn’t have an obvious, signature attribute that makes him stand out among the others. Let it be said, though, that with McGrandles’s rate of development he could yet be the best of the lot of them.
McGrandles has had a fantastic season and has held his own against almost everyone he has played against. Tall, wiry but with wide shoulders and now physically maturing to compete the majority of opposition midfielders in the league, McGrandles has developed an enduring stamina that has allowed him to start every match for Falkirk this season. It seems that the player is a couple of years ahead of the curve for his development and another season of driving the midfield forward from the centre will serve him well, for either ascension to the top flight or a move on to bigger things elsewhere.
This isn’t a report on his potential, however, but on just how well McGrandles is currently performing. With high energy, quick first-time passing and a keenness to break into the penalty box, McGrandles is the perfect foil for a more naturally passive player like Mark Millar. However, the unequivocal suspicion is that we haven’t yet seen the best of him and we cannot wait until 2014-15 to see how he can improve further.
Left wing: JIM McALISTER (Dundee)
Dundee’s Mr Versatile, Jim McAlister has played across the whole of the midfield this season and even at wing-back in order to help balance the side.
McAlister’s best position is probably in the heart of midfield, where his stampedes forward to the edge of or into the penalty area can pierce the most stubborn of defending set-ups. However, his confidence in striking the ball from either foot, together with a strong stamina and enviable work rate have tempted managers – including Paul Hartley – into using him on the left of a midfield four and that is where he fits into this team.
McAlister’s work rate alone makes him one of Dundee’s best players over the past couple of years and will surely be relied upon to help his side in their cause to stay in the Premiership next season.
Striker: KANE HEMMINGS (Cowdenbeath)
Kane Hemmings is a force of nature whose 18 goals almost helped Cowdenbeath avoid the play-off position. It is extremely likely that he will leave to a more resourceful club in the summer, but his goal-scoring record for a team at the bottom end of the division suggests that he would be comfortable yet at a level above.
That Rangers saw fit to release him without realising the best of his potential is a bigger reflection of the failings of his previous employer as much as it is on his footballing ability. Hemmings is best when playing on the last shoulder of a defender and thrives on service played in behind opposition backlines; playing with his back to goal isn’t his speciality and so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that he didn’t fit into Ally McCoist’s long term plans. Hemmings is a predator whose game is built on bearing down on a goalkeeper in one-on-one situations and is the best in the division in that particular art.
With a creative number 10 behind him, the player will surely thrive at a bigger club.
Striker: PETER MacDONALD (Dundee)
Peter MacDonald fell behind Rory Loy and Kane Hemmings in the top scorers’ chart this season, but his importance to a title-winning side should not be underestimated.
Of course, in a literal sense Loy, Hemmings and even Marc McNulty scored a larger proportion of their team’s goals, but the timing of MacDonald’s spurt of ten strikes in the 12 matches between the end of September and the New Year was crucial, with Dundee churning out barely acceptable performances under John Brown. With MacDonald’s goals, they kept in contention for the title before Paul Hartley presided over slightly better and more consistent team displays.
MacDonald will be 34 in November and with an unenviable injury record, it is unlikely that he will have a huge impact in the Premiership next season if he is kept on (but his predatory instinct would probably see him fare better than, say, John Baird in equivalent circumstances). He could nonetheless remain a valuable asset to any aspiring Championship club for another year yet.
Manager: IAN MURRAY (Dumbarton)
For the second season running, Ian Murray has taken his side to the highest placed finish of any of the part-time teams in the lower leagues (excluding Raith Rovers who have a couple of part-time players but who still finished behind the Sons this season). Paul Hartley might have a glittering CV and is quick to make the headlines with off-piste comments, but we doubt that he would have had Alloa Athletic finish better than Dumbarton if he had stuck around for longer than the first trio of defeats in his managerial career.
Murray undoubtedly has his suitors already, but he appears settled at Dumbarton and it is plausible that he will commit to another contract in the summer.
Cautious but bold, consistent yet adaptable, Murray appears to have the insight to become one of the country’s best managers. It is astonishing that he is still only as young as this team’s oldest player, despite having managed for the last year-and-a-half. If he sticks with Dumbarton then he knows that he still has his whole career ahead of him to develop the knowledge and experience to succeed at a higher level. Murray seems to be at the right place just now and the lower leagues will be better for retaining him.