This has been quite a unique season in the Championship, with records broken and at least one of Hibernian and Rangers guaranteed to be staying put for a second season. Heart of Midlothian managed to keep the rest of the division at arm’s length until the title was won and only the formalities remained, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see them so heavily represented in this Team of the Year.
Hibs, meanwhile, include the same number of individuals in what was at first a stuttering campaign before pipping Rangers to second place. The Hibees’ prospects were helped by having such an exquisite playmaker in the team, but their season was also built upon strong defensive foundations and no lack of enthusiasm from the full-backs.
There are only a couple of players from elsewhere in the division’s top five clubs, but that was always likely to be the case in a division dominated by teams clubs with top-flight traditions. It is telling that there are no inclusions from Rangers at all, when third place in the second tier with the second-largest budget in the country should be viewed as an abject failure – there were no players in the squad who consistently played to expectations throughout the season.
So there you have it, this season’s Championship Team of the Year is a composite of Hearts and Hibs with a couple of gawky extras. Maybe next year will provide a bit more variety, but there’s no disputing the quality on show here.
Goalkeeper: NEIL ALEXANDER (Heart of Midlothian)
This year’s goalkeeper was a difficult choice. Cammy Bell has been one of the few players in the Rangers squad to have come out of this season with any kind of merit, but he hasn’t played enough games to be genuinely considered here. Danny Rogers has been outstanding at times for Dumbarton but has also been error-prone at this early stage in his career. Jamie MacDonald hasn’t quite hit the heights of last season’s pyrrhic heroics at relegation-bound Heart of Midlothian; Hibernian’s Mark Oxley has been good enough but just that; Zander Clark has been proficient but not outstanding at Queen of the South; and David McGurn has mostly been his usual exemplary self apart from a sloppy – but brief – spell in late autumn for Raith Rovers. Neil Alexander gets the gig almost by default.
Alexander has been just fine this season, but he hasn’t always had that much to do with a rampant Hearts outfield dominating most teams. He has possibly spent more time passing out to the defence as he has with the ball in his hands and has been a solid distributor for the vast majority. He has a good reach and can collect a cross with assurance – even if a significant proportion of Hearts’ goals conceded have come from crosses and corners, it would be harsh to blame the goalkeeper for defenders not winning their headers.
Alexander has had 14 shut outs in the league this season and that is reason enough to include him here.
Right-back: DAVID GRAY (Hibernian)
Hibernian manager Alan Stubbs made David Gray his first signing last summer; he hasn’t regretted it. Gray returned to his home city after playing all of his senior football in England to that point, and he has made an immediate impact on the Scottish game with commanding performances on the right flank.
Gray has been noteworthy for the amount of time he spends in the opposition half, always offering the out-ball in a switch of play to his side. Stubbs’s preferred 4-4-2 diamond shape, with the narrow midfield containing creative players like Scott Allan, Fraser Fyvie and Danny Handling, demands that the full-backs need to get up and down the pitch to avoid the system clogging up. It took the Hibees some weeks to adjust to the Championship but once the strategy bedded in the full-backs thrived – Lewis Stevenson has arguably had his best season in the ten years he has been around the first team, while Gray has relished being the main outlet on the right-hand side.
Gray doesn’t score many goals that his attacking bias might suggest but he has netted in a couple of definitive matches against Rangers, as well as the winner against Alloa Athletic in the Scottish Cup. His second against the Gers, in the 4-0 drubbing at Easter Road just after Christmas, was a delight, killing the spinning ball 20 yards out before cutting it into the top corner.
As part of the second-meanest defence in the league, the club vice-captain has added so much to the team that he had to be the automatic choice for right-back here, even with stern competition from Callum Paterson.
Centre-back: ALIM OZTURK (Heart of Midlothian)
When Robbie Neilson signed Alim Ozturk to play alongside Danny Wilson at centre-back, he arrived with the reputation of being able to step out of defence with the ball and either shoot or bring others into play. He hasn’t disappointed, with some outrageous strikes from range helping to keep Heart of Midlothian some distance from the rest of the division.
Ozturk struck a good enough rapport with Wilson but there was always the slight impression left when watching Hearts that they could improve in the centre of defence. Both centre-backs are comfortable with the ball at their feet and together combined to help the Jambos towards 15 clean sheets in the league, but they each appeared as if they would be better off being the covering defender to a more aggressive, dominating centre-half. The fantasy pairing of Ozturk and Liam Fontaine would cover all bases and it is no coincidence that both appear in this particular side.
The sheer power with which Ozturk strikes the football makes him a goal-threat from any range, but the timing of his goals have been crucial too. The best examples are the famous 35-yard strike against Hibernian in injury time to maintain Hearts’ unbeaten record and then the winning goal against Raith Rovers a week later.
Ozturk hasn’t been perfect and is prone to lapses in concentration. Nonetheless, he makes it into this team due to his strength at the back, and his goals have certainly helped too.
Centre-back: LIAM FONTAINE (Hibernian)
Liam Fontaine joined Hibernian at the end of August when the club had already lost three of its first four matches in all competitions. Michael Nelson and Jordan Forster had been paired at the back in the absence of Paul Hanlon, but the duo just hadn’t been working out. Indeed, the club had struggled to get a solid centre-back partnership in place for at least a couple of years to that point and the backline was crying out for someone with Fontaine’s commanding assurance. Fontaine went straight into the team for the League Cup tie against Dumbarton on the day that he signed – Hibs won 3-2 and it boded well for the rest of the season ahead.
Granted, he lost the very next match in a 1-2 reverse at Alloa Athletic, but Stubbs shifted from a back four to a three-centre-back system for the next fixture, away to Ross County in the League Cup, which worked tremendously for everyone involved. Fontaine played on the left of the three and was the stand-out player in the Hibernian team as they soaked up pressure from their Highland hosts, hitting on the counter, which was the prototype to the exceptional performance in the 3-1 win against Rangers at Ibrox six days later.
Stubbs soon settled with a 4-4-2 diamond and Fontaine struck up a reliable partnership with Paul Hanlon in the centre of defence. Hanlon had previously been derided for numerous error-prone performances, but the confidence of having a defender as strong and assured as Fontaine beside him has brought out the best of him this season. Hibs only lost one of 25 matches in all competitions after the defeat to Alloa – it was no coincidence that they had their first established, dependable backline in years.
Fontaine has been an excellent acquisition. He wins so much in the air, is rarely left exposed on the ground and has a good enough passing range. For the manner in which he has settled the team down after a turbulent start, he has arguably been the most influential player in the division this year.
Left-back: LEWIS STEVENSON (Hibernian)
It seems at odds to have Hibernian represented by three of the back four when their rivals Heart of Midlothian finished first in the league, with a comfortable margin and a considerably better goals against record. Kevin McHattie and Adam Eckersley have both performed well enough in their respective spells in the Hearts first team, and Eckersley is probably the best left-back in the division on his own merits, but they have effectively been job-sharing the role. Robbie Neilson’s wealth of choice is McHattie and Eckersley’s downfall, at least in terms of finding their way into this team.
Stevenson has tended to be a utility player for Hibs over the years, sometimes playing at left-back, sometimes on the wing, very occasionally elsewhere. Alan Stubbs has had faith in Stevenson cementing a place at left-back this season and the 26-year old is repaying that with a level of consistency that he hasn’t always showed in the past. The full-back-cum-wing-back role in the diamond system plays to Stevenson’s strengths: he has a peerless work ethic and the stamina to cover the length of the pitch, while his crossing has improved a lot over the last season. His dash into the box and volley past Lee Robinson at Ibrox, with eight minutes to go, just highlights how how well he suits the team – it is obvious that he is thoroughly enjoying his position in the side under Stubbs at the moment.
Right wing: JAMIE WALKER (Heart of Midlothian)
Is it really four years since Jamie Walker showed so much promise as a 17-year-old on loan at John McGlynn’s Raith Rovers? Walker was the standout among a clutch of loanees dispatched to Kirkcaldy from Gorgie, but until recently there was a very real possibility that his peers – Jason Holt, Billy King and Sam Nicholson – could outshine the winger. He has proved himself this season, however, making more appearances than any other attack-minded player in the Hearts squad this season, justifying his place with 11 goals over the term.
As far as attacking midfielders in the SPFL’s second tier go, Walker is essentially the complete package. He has – deceptively – enough pace to chase on to a ball over the top of defence and drag the opposition backwards; he has the cunning to play a wall pass to get to the byline like Billy King; he can drift with the ball and encourage defenders to come on to him to create some space for others like Sam Nicholson; and then there’s his trademark shooting inside the far post with his right foot.
Walker is 21 years old now but already has 100 league appearances on his CV. Quite how good he will become in the top flight remains to be seen, but he’s proved to be quite excellent in the Championship.
Central midfield: MORGARO GOMIS (Heart of Midlothian)
It would be remiss to leave Heart of Midlothian’s Mr Consistent out of this team when he has been at the very centre of the success that the club has had in the league this season. No-one at the club made more appearances than Morgaro Gomis during the league campaign. There was a temptation to try to squeeze Miguel Pallardo into this team for his vision and finesse in passing the football, but Gomis simply has to be in for the way in which he has protected the defence and started moves from deep.
Gomis is a very understated but highly influential player. His ability to break down attacks, rarely needing to go to ground to do so, is as easy on the eye as it is effective. Gomis has always been terrific at intercepting the ball, but he has been just as important for the way in which he has split the centre-backs in possession, to offer the different angle and allow Hearts to make the patient build up. At times Hearts have looked a little frantic against Hibernian and Rangers when they pressed Hearts high up the pitch later in the season, but Gomis has very rarely been flustered and attempts to keep the tempo flowing regardless; he has given an accomplished performance over the whole competition.
Central midfield: SCOTT ALLAN (Hibernian)
Scott Allan won the PFA Player of the Year this season and it is thoroughly deserved. The midfield playmaker has had a fantastic campaign and deserves to be showcasing his talent in the top flight. Whether or not that happens with Hibs remains to be seen, but he shouldn’t be spending too much longer in the Championship when he has such an enviable ability to split open a team with a pass.
Compared to other playmakers in the second tier from recent years, Allan’s vision is extraordinary. Jay Fulton had the capacity to pierce a team with the long pass threaded among bodies and behind the full-back; Iain Vigurs excelled in drifting in off the flank to play through balls for others; Steven Lawless was very effective with the reverse pass when cutting in from the outside; and going further back, no-one could touch Russell Latapy’s languid creativity high up the pitch. Yet no other player has had the range of distribution and so regularly showed the capability of splitting open an entire team with one pass, at any given time or position on the field, in the way that Allan does. He was instrumental in setting up three of the four goals scored against Rangers in the 4-0 win and one website attributes as many as 15 assists to the playmaker, while he creates so many more indirectly.
Allan has been a joy to watch throughout the season. To have him back again for 2015-16 would such a treat but it would also be a big waste of his talent.
Left wing: CRAIG SIBBALD (Falkirk)
With Conor McGrandles leaving at the end of August and Jay Fulton long since been sold, Falkirk had fewer of their starlets to choose from – it was only Craig Sibbald and Blair Alston left of the batch of midfielders who emerged in the first team around the same time. Sibbald first shone brightly, but to a certain extent was found only playing occasional cameos while some of his peers stole the limelight. He was even in danger of losing his place when Alex Cooper arrived to compete for the same position in the summer.
It should be noted that Sibbald is still – just – a teenager, with four full seasons and over 100 league appearances behind him. The last four years in the Falkirk team will have been a tremendous experience for the midfielder, and that cumulative game time seems to have had a notable effect on his performances this season. Sibbald is still predominantly stationed on the left flank but now controls the proceedings of a match on a much more regular basis than he was doing so before. The “Mini Messi” tag placed on him by some quarters does him an injustice, because he is quite a unique player in his own right. Yet there is no escaping that he has exceptionally tidy and quick feet in and around the penalty area – his dribble into the box before shooting, to put an end to Heart of Midlothian’s unbeaten streak, had the grace and delicate precision reminiscent of the late Maya Plisetskaya breaking hearts with The Dying Swan.
Sibbald always had the ability; he just needed to become more influential in matches on a more consistent basis. He is doing that now and that makes him one of the best players in the division.
Striker: DEREK LYLE (Queen of the South)
It has been a fine season for Queen of the South’s veteran striker Derek Lyle. With his chestnut tan and flashing white smile it is sometimes difficult to avoid spotting him when he’s on the pitch, but Lyle has been noticed this season for his performances alone.
Lyle has struck a pretty formidable partnership with Gavin Reilly this season. Queens manager James Fowler’s tendency to use a 4-4-2 system has allowed the two forwards to blossom a rapport – Lyle is good for dropping short and linking Reilly with the midfield and he is clinical with his movement in the box when attacking a cross, while Reilly lengthens the playing area of pitch with his ability to run in behind a defence and finish early. The pair have 28 league goals between them, which accounts for just under half of the club’s output this season. They had only started 19 matches in the league as a partnership, with injuries, suspension and initially John Baird getting a brief chance to dislodge one of them, but Lyle scored nine of his 15 alongside Reilly and there were four fixtures in which they both scored when playing together. The duo complement one another and there are few forward partnerships in the country as prolific and consistent as these two.
Lyle gets the pick over Reilly in this instance for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he has simply scored more goals. Secondly, he has had the bigger influence on the team – Lyle is the player whom Mark Durnan and others can float a ball into to shield and bring others into play; Lyle is the forward whom Ian McShane can ping a low pass to dummy and get Reilly into the game; Lyle is the player who is consistently in and around the six-yard box when Danny Carmichael crosses from close to the byline.
Lyle has scored some fantastic goals, including the flick-up-and-hit from the edge of the area against Rangers, as well as the stunning side-foot volley to thwart Falkirk’s ambitions of finishing in the play-off places. At 34 years old Lyle has probably never enjoyed a more consistent run in a successful team in his career and no forward deserves a place in this side more.
Striker: JASON CUMMINGS (Hibernian)
Nineteen league goals in a first full season in the senior team is an enviable record for any striker. Jason Cummings is just continuing the prolific record he had in the Development League in the first half of last year before having the pressure of staving off relegation thrust upon him late last season and into the play-offs against Hamilton Academical, when he looked dangerous but didn’t score at all. With an instinctive talent for being in the right place at the right time, enough pace to get him there and a thunderous left foot, Cummings has already proved to be one of the best forwards in the Championship and has the making of being a very good player indeed at a higher level.
Cummings is capable of scoring spectacular goals, but this season has shown how impressive he is with his movement off the ball. His goal in the 1-1 draw with Heart of Midlothian was a highlight in the way that he deliberately ghosted in the space between Callum Paterson and Alim Ozturk – his positioning was such that neither defender could fully take responsibility of marking him without losing shape, so by the time that Allan’s cute, shallow cross found its way to the far post, Cummings could nip in by Ozturk’s blind side and stroke the volley in from close range. It was a textbook example of timing the run and of the intelligence needed to cause a nuisance to two defenders at once.
Cummings has been helped of course by Alan Stubbs preferring to use two centre-forwards throughout the season, whether in a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 diamond – he has almost always had a physical forward in the mould of Dominique Malonga or Farid El Alagui to occupy one of the other centre-backs. It also helps to have such excellent service from Allan and Fraser Fyvie, but Cummings can only do his job and there is no doubt that he has done it more than adequately this season.
Cummings isn’t a shy boy and arrogance in a striker isn’t a bad quality in many respects. He was hooked at half-time by Stubbs at Falkirk in the first half of the season, however, when his strut became too much of a swagger, but he has scored 14 goals since then and entirely justifies his place in this Team of the Year.
Manager: ROBBIE NEILSON (Heart of Midlothian)
It was tempting to choose James Fowler as the division’s manager of the year. Fowler carried on from Jim McIntyre to get Queen of the South into the play-offs once again, at the expense of Falkirk who have had greater resources – Fowler has barely even had an assistant manager to lean on as he has persevered with a depleted squad, all the while maintaining then improving the prospects of the first team.
Mark Burchill was also strongly considered. When he was made manager of Livingston in John McGlynn’s absence his team was five points away from absolute safety and they looked a certainty to be relegated. Yet four wins from their last six matches – and a Challenge Cup victory to boot – got the Lions safe due to some canny recruitment and some tactical tinkering in the final month. It was a remarkable turnaround.
Yet with an 81 per cent win rate in his first season as manager, the award has to go to Heart of Midlothian’s Robbie Neilson. When Hearts were relegated this time last year, there was still a possibility that Gary Locke could have stayed on at Tynecastle given that he presided over the relegation in mitigating circumstances. The new regime – led by CEO Ann Budge and Director of Football Craig Levein – had different ideas, however, and Neilson has performed admirably in the job he was offered. Among mixing youth with experience and promising talent from overseas, his Hearts team went 20 matches unbeaten in a league that also contained Hibernian and Rangers, who on their own merits might have been considered heavy favourites for the title in any other season.
With the introduction of double and triple training sessions and bringing the players in for work the day after the match, Neilson has raised the bar for professionalism in Scotland, not just in the lower leagues. He has already formed a squad that is capable of finishing in the Premiership’s top six next season, but there is a strong sense that there is much more to come in the longer term.