This season was undoubtedly Partick Thistle’s. With the second-highest points total of any First Division team since the Jags’ return to the division seven years ago, it can be no surprise to see five (technically six) of their squad included in our best XI for the season.
However, Thistle’s success doesn’t tell the whole story. Greenock Morton had a slow start to the year but proved to be capable challengers until the turn of Spring. Dunfermline Athletic arguably began the campaign as strongly as Thistle, but financial problems followed by administration hit them hard. Livingston had three managers through the season but still maintained their crisp, tidy football epitomised best by one exceptionally talented playmaker.
Meanwhile, Falkirk almost reached the Scottish Cup final with a clutch of talented teenagers spearheaded by an upgrade on last year’s talisman. Hamilton Academical flirted with relegation but were eventually dragged up the table almost single-handedly. Dumbarton looked destined for automatic relegation by Christmas, but due to a change in management, they finished as high as seventh. All in, it has been a memorable campaign.
Here is an attempt to highlight the division’s best players over a fascinating season.
Goalkeeper: SCOTT FOX (Partick Thistle)
Although the first choice for this position might have been Greenock Morton’s Derek Gaston, it has proved impossible to look beyond Partick Thistle’s first-choice goalkeeper by virtue of statistics alone.
Fox had 17 shut-outs in the league season, equating to almost 59% of the league matches he was involved in. When injured and then subsequently left out of Jackie McNamara’s first XI for the best part of two months from November, his understudy Graeme Smith conceded eight goals in only six games – a figure which contrasts sharply with Fox’s own form over the course of the season. Smith’s time in the team coincided with Thistle’s worst sequence of results in the season under McNamara, but veteran centre-back Alan Archibald’s management in 2013 saw a settled back five which thrived with the confidence given to them.
As a strong kicker, adequate commander of the penalty area and agile shot-stopper, Fox will do just fine in the SPL next season.
Right-back: STEPHEN O’DONNELL (Partick Thistle)
When he first broke into the Partick Thistle team in September 2011, it was difficult to guage exactly what his best position was. Coming off the bench to play as a full-back or wing-back, O’Donnell scored in his first start, as a winger, in a 5-0 win against Greenock Morton.
Since then, the 21-year-old has consolidated his place in the team at right-back in a band of four defenders, but with licence to give his team as much attacking width as it requires. O’Donnell provides everything required from a modern full-back: intelligence, pace, endurance and astute decision making. At times he can look nervous on the ball and can occasionally punt it without much thought, but playing in a footballing culture where full-backs clear their lines ahead of keeping possession, his grace, for the most part, is not lost on the game.
Falkirk’s Kieran Duffie might arguably be just as talented a full-back, but O’Donnell has certainly been the more consistent player for the duration of the season.
Centre-back: JORDAN McMILLAN (Dunfermline and Partick Thistle)
McMillan, like so many others in the Dunfermline Athletic squad, could not have much enjoyed the 2012-13 season. With wages rarely paid when due – and then, for the majority of the time, only paid in part – Dunfermline’s players persevered because it was the only thing they could do.
McMillan may have started the season at centre-back but in the end had to play the majority of the season in either of the full-back positions. Jim Jefferies’s signing policy during the summer of 2012 was such that when only one or two defenders were unavailable (left-back Stephen Jordan in particular), the whole defence had to be re-shuffled to such an extent that McMillan was shifted to the left while central midfielder Andy Geggan had to play as a makeshift right-back. McMillan played with aplomb wherever he operated, but, naturally, the side lost some balance when he had to move. Nevertheless, he showed his best strengths: leadership, physicality, athleticism and a perhaps underrated passing range.
Ironically, McMillan’s only league goal for Thistle came when playing at right-back for Partick Thistle (as they signed up McMillan and Andy Dowie on short-term deals post-administration) against Dunfermline, when he deputised for Stephen O’Donnell at right-back. His burst of pace along the right-flank in the lead up to the goal and the class of the finish from Chris Erskine’s through ball epitomised the quality of his all-round game during a turbulent season.
While Thistle’s own duo of Conrad Balatoni and Aaron Muirhead deserve honourable mentions, the ability that McMillan has shown throughout the season, in spite of economical duress, ensured that we had to include him in the team, even if he spent the majority of the season at full-back.
Centre-back: CRAIG REID (Greenock Morton)
Is there a more elegant defender in the division?
To think that last season the player could barely get a game in his preferred position for a Queen of the South side who were criticised for the consistently poor defending throughout the year and managed by a former centre-back. The outcome of Queens’ season was not the particular fault of Reid, however, who endured a difficult campaign but still emerged as one of the team’s better players.
Reid was often asked to play at right-back for Greenock Morton this season too when Allan Moore preferred the bulk of Mark McLaughlin and Kevin Rutkiewicz. Yet when played in the centre beside one of the other two, Reid showed his best football. A defender with a better than average distribution, excellent reading of the game and not slow along the ground, he complements a more physically rugged centre-back immeasurably.
Reid now has invaluable experience to add to his game. It is Morton’s gain and everyone else’s loss if he remains at Cappielow next season.
Left-back: AARON SINCLAIR (Partick Thistle)
Another archetypal modern full-back, Sinclair combines height, strength and pace with solid positional sense (for the most part) and a thunderous left foot. His width on the left flank has been a vital weapon in Partick Thistle’s armoury this season, particularly at Firhill, as it allows the left-sided attacking midfielder to drive inwards and overload elsewhere.
When part of the defensive unit, Sinclair is a formidable opponent: it is difficult to beat him on the outside or inside due to his quickness on the ground and strength in a duel. In attack, he is not restricted to the overlap and his surprise bursts infield can be very effective. It will not be a surprise to see him develop into one of the country’s best left-backs.
Central midfield: STUART BANNIGAN (Partick Thistle)
Another Partick Thistle player who earned his first U-21 international cap during this season. Bannigan began the campaign as a makeshift left-back in an attempt to find a place for himself in the team; latterly, he was the first name on the team sheet, starting more than any other player in the league.
In many ways, Bannigan is a symbol of Partick Thistle’s youth system. He is a player who manages to make the game look effortless, as if keeping the ball on the deck, when the other 19 outfielders rampage through relentless commotion, is the easiest aspect of the sport.
There is something hypnotic about his willingness to be available for the short pass that is reminiscent of the best players, like Xavi Hernandez or maybe a youthful Fernando Redondo. Perhaps of more relevance, he is like a younger, fitter and more tactically aware version of Bryan Hodge – a very good player indeed.
Central midfield: MICHAEL TIDSER (Greenock Morton)
Physically imposing yet inherently creative, Tidser is getting better every year. While a tally of six goals gives him a ratio of just over one in every six league matches, he does give a perception of being a more dangerous attacking threat than that. Tidser strikes a balance between sheer strength and imagination with the use of his left foot. That, together with the size of his frame, makes him one of the SFL’s most prominent midfielders and he was one of the major drivers of Greenock Morton’s relative success this season.
Tidser has developed a terrific understanding with Fouad Bachirou in the centre of midfield over the last three seasons. It is unlikely that both will remain at Cappielow, but if they do, the league is in a stronger position for it.
Attacking midfield: STEFAN SCOUGALL (Livingston)
Scougall represents Livingston’s youth policy better than anyone else. As a midfielder who is creative, versatile, extremely tidy on the ball in terms of passing and dribbling, boasts a short centre of gravity and as agile in mind as he is in body, he is the flagship youth graduate who many others (St Johnstone-bound Dylan Easton included) would surely like to emulate.
Scougall’s class on the ball is such that he could play anywhere in the middle of the park and still grab the attention of his audience. He is as adept at dictating the tempo at the base of midfield as his is further forward, but it is generally viewed that – like departing St Mirren playmaker Paul McGowan – his technique and vision better suits the number 10 position where he can pull apart defences. Scougall himself is an emerging goal threat, having scored six goals in the league this season. Despite having a very slight frame, this player is good enough to star with the best in the country.
Right wing: CHRIS ERSKINE (Partick Thistle)
Maryhill’s own version of Pele/Messi/Moses defies all superlatives. In previous seasons (and even during this), some questioned his role in the team. What is his best position? Does he fit into a conventional system? Why can’t he just stop giving the ball away?
For every piece of magic conjured up by Erskine – and there have been many – he is almost as likely to lose possession in his high-risk approach to attacking a defence with the ball at his feet. Is that a bad thing? Strictly speaking, yes, but it is implausible to have one without the other, otherwise he would be competing in the Champions League every season. Would you take that away from his game? Definitely not.
This season, Erskine has eradicated the sloppy first touch to the best of his ability and has delivered more consistency in his performances than ever before. He can score a variety of goals due to his ever-improving technique and size. The player is not gifted with frightening pace, but his unique level of improvisation is something to marvel at in the SFL. At times, he has all but carried Partick Thistle to victory and some of his seven goals – the majority of them utterly sublime – in 2013 alone proved vital in the chase for the title.
Having signed a pre-contract with Dundee United, it remains to be seen how Erskine will perform outside a team built around his strengths and at a higher level of competition. If he is given the time needed to settle into the team, there is no doubt that he can illuminate the SPL.
Centre-forward: STEVIE MAY (Hamilton Academical)
Having not scored any goals at all in his first nine appearances in the season (between parent club St Johnstone and Hamilton Academical), Stevie May must have had at least some doubts about reproducing the kind of form which propelled Alloa Athletic to the Second Division last season. However, since scoring two late goals in a 4-0 defeat of Airdrie United at the beginning of October, May hasn’t looked back.
It seems improbable that any club in Scotland wouldn’t want a forward like May in their squad. He relishes the alpha-male role in the team – with all of his hair, uber-determination, selfishness around the 18-yard box and malevolence in front of goal, if you stood close enough to him on the pitch you could probably taste the testosterone from the air around him.
May scored 21 goals in 2013 and 25 in total for the league season, including two hat-tricks in the space of a week. That form alone is worthy of a place in the team of the season.
Centre-forward: LYLE TAYLOR (Falkirk)
For so long the top scorer in the division, Lyle Taylor still enjoyed a remarkable first season in Scottish football. Although many Falkirk supporters thought that Farid El Alagui might have been irreplaceable, Taylor out-scored and, generally speaking, out-performed his striking predecessor.
There is no doubt that Taylor can play at a higher level – that Falkirk have him tied to playing at Westfield for another year is a real boon. His ability to spin off and beyond the last defender is great on its own, but the efficiency in his movement is frightening. Although he is not anywhere near as competent as El Alagui was in aerial duels, his lanky, six foot plus stature prevents defenders from dominating him while they are too wary to get tight in case he turns them.
Taylor’s finishing technique is as good as any in recent years. If he can be provided the quality service that he craves (and which only the recently departed Sean Higgins, among the current squad, consistently gave as good as Taylor wanted), his goals could very well have Falkirk challenging for promotion next season.
Manager: IAN MURRAY (Dumbarton)
Despite merely being a 32-year-old rookie, Ian Murray’s transformation of Dumbarton’s form is nothing short of incredible. Ending the season with a 50% win rate in the league from 24 matches, Murray’s record already matches Ross County manager Derek Adams’s career average.
When Murray took over the team in late November, the outlook on the season was dire. Five points from the first third of the season was not acceptable form, even for a club with such modest aspirations. Alan Adamson was sacked in late October with the side already four points adrift at the bottom – some might have thought that was too soon in the season to judge, but the decision was vindicated.
Murray got the best out of talents like Scott Agnew and Chris Turner in midfield, while Jim Lister (soon to be an Airdrie United player) led the line with distinction. Murray revamped the professionalism, discipline and crystalised the potential within the squad, taking them to the highest placed finish of a part-time club in the SFL in over ten years. The achievement cannot be understated.