The 2013-14 League 1 campaign is unlikely to be remembered with much fondness. There was little drama to the season: Rangers’ presence and their expensively assembled squad saw any talk of a title contest rendered irrelevant long before it even began, while the promotion play-off challengers settled into their positions in late November and remained there for the rest of the year. There was minor excitement elsewhere – Stenhousemuir’s late flourish and Forfar Athletic’s unexpected charge upwards briefly threatened to upset the sides in third and fourth, while the relegation battle between East Fife and Arbroath was mildly distracting – but on the whole, this was the second season in succession where one team indifferently tore through the division and left the others cast asunder.
Still, there were a number of outstanding performers along the way. For all Rangers’ achievements – 38 games unbeaten, 102 points collected and 108 goals scored – they were dismal for large parts of the season. Only a handful of their team rose above the collective mediocrity surrounding the club and played with distinction for the best part of the year. Unlike Queen of the South, who were represented by six players last term, this season’s champions have three players in the Team of the Year. Inevitably, the bulk of this XI were handpicked from sides sitting in the play-offs. Dunfermline Athletic’s two standout performers were quickly drafted in; Stranraer’s outstanding campaign yielded three; and Ayr United’s finest player was an obvious inclusion in attack.
Imagine for one moment if these players were brought together for a year… Just imagine! There is little doubt this side would have finished the season with 103 points, scoring 109 goals in the process, and having more fun on the football pitch than you ever thought possible.
Goalkeeper: CHRIS SMITH (Stenhousemuir)
Cammy Bell might feel aggrieved not have been included on this list – his record of 19 clean sheets in 31 league appearances is far superior to anyone else in the league – but the statistics only tell half the story. Bell hasn’t really had to do anything this season. The odd save here, a block there perhaps, but nothing truly extraordinary to rescue his team from a precarious situation.
Stenhousemuir’s Chris Smith, however, has enjoyed a stellar campaign. Statistics might not necessarily reflect favourably against him – he played in every league fixture and only kept four shout-outs, and was part of the side that lost eight goals to Rangers – but he has been the Warriors’ finest player and probably the best goalkeeper in the division this year. Without him, his club would have been more concerned with avoiding relegation than challenging for a promotion.
Smith is probably the complete goalkeeper. The rashness that coloured his spell with Dunfermline Athletic has been abolished and he has matured into a fine player with little weakness: his shot stopping is of a high calibre (penalties are a particular strong point), his willingness to come for crossballs is a fine quality, and his distribution can quickly turn defence into attack. This season, it could be argued his individual contribution won matches against Brechin City (1-0) and Forfar Athletic (2-1) and he was crucial in the club’s run to the Ramsdens Cup semi-final, all while playing behind a haphazard and error-prone defence for the first half of the season.
His career with Police Scotland might prevent him from playing on next term, but if available then ensuring that Smith remains at Ochilview should be one of Scott Booth’s priorities this summer.
Right-back: MARK BAXTER (Forfar Athletic)
A lack of outstanding candidates to slot in at right-back has maybe seen Mark Baxter drafted into the team by default more than anything else, but that shouldn’t diminish what has been a very sound campaign for the 29-year-old. “Beaky” has always been a capable defender and his performances were arguably the highlight of Forfar Athletic’s uneven season.
A solid distributor of the ball, a strong tackler and someone keen to push forward into attack and overlap his winger, Baxter has slotted seamlessly into Dick Campbell’s side (even if he briefly lost his place in the starting XI to Gary Fusco at the turn of the year). Forfar would do well to retain his services going into 2014-15.
Centre-back: FRANK McKEOWN (Stranraer)
There is nothing necessarily cerebral about Frank McKeown’s game – he’s actually a pretty limited defender whose qualities rarely rise above and beyond that of your everyday stopper – but when all you’re looking for is a bloody big bugger who’ll do anything to stop the ball getting anywhere near his goal, then he’s yer man.
This might sound a little disparaging to McKeown, but it’s exactly what’s made him one of the best centre-backs in League 1 this year. Built like the side of a house (if you ever needed convincing of the effects of Herbalife, look no further), the Stranraer captain thrives on the physicality of the sport. He is rarely beaten in the air or on the ground and can expertly time his headers or blocks to keep the opposition at bay; there is an impressive ruthlessness to his game. McKeown also exudes charisma – he is a capable organiser and has marshaled his defence into an organic, full-functioning unit; the Stranraer back four have looked far more adept now than they have done since he joined from Arthurlie in 2011.
McKeown was recently awarded the PFA’s Special Merit Award for working all night at the Clutha tragedy as a fireman before playing against Clyde in a Scottish Cup tie the next day. Not that this had any bearing on his selection for this team, but it is a mark of the man. Having agreed terms for next season, McKeown will no doubt play an important role, regardless of what division his team are in.
Centre-back: CALLUM MORRIS (Dunfermline Athletic)
Although Dunfermline Athletic’s defending has been overly generous at times this season, it would be remiss to ignore the contribution of centre-back Callum Morris. The 24-year-old has been central to the side’s second place finish – at times, he has single-handedly held together a callow backline and, despite playing at a level beneath his capabilities, he has actually improved as a player over the course of the year.
An expert at the basics of defending – heading, tackling, blocking, all that rough ‘n’ tumble – it’s his communication and organisation that have set him apart from his peers. Dunfermline’s lack of experience has sometimes been overplayed but it cannot be overstated how important Morris’ influence has been in calming and cajoling the inexperienced team-mates around him. The Pars conceded 54 goals this season (for such a high figure, it was actually the best total in the league behind Rangers) and without Morris, it would surely have been far higher. His ability on the ball is also impressive, and the player is comfortable taking it out of the defence.
Morris is currently at an impasse with Dunfermline over a contract and looks likely to leave the club in the summer. Finding a replacement of equal quality will be a vexing task for Jim Jefferies.
Left-back: LEE WALLACE (Rangers)
Lee Wallace has been the only player to emerge from Rangers’ campaign without criticism or any questions regarding his effort or application. He looks exactly like what he’s supposed to be – a player from a higher level playing at a lower level – and has performed to a consistently good standard each week. That he collected two Scotland caps at different points over the season underlines his qualities.
He has been excellent, both offensively and defensively. Even from left-back, he is Rangers’ greatest attacking threat, with his raids down the flank invariably leading to a chance on goal. Wallace’s pace is an invaluable asset and, on numerous occasions, he’s covered for Lee McCulloch’s and Bilel Mohsni’s errors. Adored by supporters and his team-mates (he completed a clean sweep at the weekend’s Player of the Year awards), he has set a tremendous example to those around him in such turbulent times.
Right wing: FRASER AIRD (Rangers)
While Ally McCoist has been roundly criticised for his failure to develop, improve and integrate the Rangers’ youth players, Fraser Aird’s progress over the last two seasons is something he can be proud of. Alongside Lewis Macleod (who spent the second half of the campaign stricken with a virus), Aird is an Auchenhowie youngster who has made a sustained impact in the first team – while his inclusion last season was more down to necessity than anything else, he is now picked to start on merit.
There are a number of facets of his game that need improvement – his decision-making can sometimes let him down and his crossing is often wayward – but these are to be expected from a 19-year-old. With time and the correct coaching he could develop into a fearsome prospect (although whether or not he’ll get that from McCoist and his backroom staff remains to be seen). Aird already has the natural attributes to succeed in the position – he is strong and quick – and he has the energy and willingness to hurtle up and down the wing. His return of seven goals in all competitions is credible, as is his numerous assists.
Aird also looks as though he is enjoying playing for Rangers, something that cannot be said about a number of senior players over the last nine months. His continuing development can only be a boon for the club.
Central midfield: NICKY LAW (Rangers)
There might have been some disappointment to the manner in which Nicky Law’s season petered out but in truth, he has been generally excellent over the course of the year. His performances at the beginning of the campaign – full of swashbuckling abandon and replete with a series of fine strikes – set the bar impossibly high. Law was eventually suckered by the downturn that took hold of Ally McCoist’s squad midway through the campaign, but he remained one of the few players to keep his head above the malaise.
Law is too good to be playing in the third tier – that much is obvious given how well he had performed with Motherwell in the SPL – and it immediately showed. Paired with Ian Black in the heart of the Rangers midfield, he was afforded the freedom to roam forward into offensive positions and support the attack, a tactic that yielded ten goals in all competitions (his scoring prowess in the earlier stages of the campaign saw some claiming the midfielder would net more then 20). Law’s ability on the ball and his willingness to shoot from distance marked him out as distinguished opposition.
He might have lost his scoring touch (his contribution became more sporadic) and his confidence seemed to dip, particularly around March, but Law still did his best to drive his team forward from the middle of the park. His performances against Stenhousemuir and Stranaer in the third and second last games of the season respectively were more in keeping with the tone he set at the beginning of the year. Law will need to maintain the same levels as the club challenge for the Championship title next term.
Central midfield: ANDY GEGGAN (Dunfermline Athletic)
It is little surprise that Andy Geggan should feature in the Team of the Year. The midfielder last played at this level with Dumbarton in 2011 and excelled in an otherwise average Sons side. His two years in the First Division with Ayr United and then Dunfermline Athletic has seen the player hone his game and develop into a highly capable box-to-box midfielder with an eye for goal. He has returned to the third tier a better player and has caught the eye with a series of flamboyant performances in the middle of the park.
Alongside senior players Josh Falkingham and Stephen Husband, Geggan has taken on an extra burden of responsibility this season and relished it. He can operate either as an effective screen, protecting the back four from any opposition breaks, or a more orthodox central midfielder. Geggan is tough player, but marries grit to innate passing. One of his best performances of the season, his side’s 0-2 defeat to Rangers in mid-March, a match broadcast on satellite television, showcased the very best of his abilities. He was unfortunate to have lost that afternoon.
Having signed on for next season, Geggan will no doubt form part of the bedrock of Jim Jefferies’s team.
Left wing: ANDY STIRLING (Stranraer)
Andy Stirling has always been a fabulously prodigious player; it’s only now his talents have been fully realised and appreciated. A graduate from St Mirren’s youth academy, Stirling spent an indifferent 18 months at Stenhousemuir where John Coughlin and then Davie Irons seemed unsure of how best to deploy the him – was he a winger? Was he a central midfielder? A number 10? Neither manager seemed to know and the player drifted in and out of the team with little consequence.
A move to Coughlin’s East Stirlingshire, punctuated by a short spell with Kitsap Pumas in the United States, saw Stirling regain his mojo and he was the bright spot of the club’s dismal 2012-13 campaign. Operating behind the striker or in a wide position with licence to cut infield, he was central to the Shire’s infrequent highlights. Since moving on to Stranraer in the summer, however, he has developed into one of the most exciting and technical players in the lower leagues.
Stationed out on the left flank (even though he is predominantly right-footed), Stirling cuts an elusive, tricky figure. Not the paciest of players, he instead relies on pure skill to get the better of his opponents: show him inside and he he has the ability to quickly move the ball over to a team-mate or attack the goal himself; show him onto his weaker foot and he is still capable of driving towards the byline and tossing in a cross. Left-back Mark Docherty deserves credit for supporting Stirling and affording him the freedom to attack as he sees fit, but when the diminutive player has the ball, something thrilling invariably happens. It must be noted that his influence diminished towards the latter part of the season as opposition teams learned that double-marking him was the best strategy to limit him.
Such has been Stirling’s prowess over the course of the season that a return to full-time football is a distinct possibility, regardless of where Stanraer are playing next season. Should that come to pass then Steve Aitken faces an invidious task of finding a like-for-like replacement; players of this calibre don’t come around too often.
Striker: MARTIN GREHAN (Stranraer)
Jamie Longworth’s astonishing spurt of goals between mid-September and the end of December might have made him one of Stranraer’s more eye-catching players over the course of the season but it is his strike partner, Martin Grehan, who has performed with greater aplomb on a more consistent basis for a longer period of time this year.
After leaving Stirling Albion for Partick Thistle in 2010, Grehan appeared to have lost his way a little. At Forthbank, he was a towering presence; at Firhill, he was unloved. The player returned to part-time football with Alloa Athletic last season and played his part as the Wasps clambered into the Championship. Yet since joining Steve Aitken’s side in the summer, Grehan has rediscovered the form that made him one of the most fearsome forwards in the lower leagues.
His strength might be his finest quality. Grehan’s ability to win the ball, both on the ground and in the air, is peerless, as is his skill in holding up play and bringing others into the attack. Inside the penalty area, he has shown intelligence and superb positional awareness, reflected by his 13 league goals. Grehan has also brought out the best in Longworth and the pair have forged a genuine partnership unrivaled elsewhere in the division.
Striker: MICHAEL MOFFAT (Ayr United)
Almost singlehandedly, Michael Moffat has fired Ayr United into the promotion play-offs. His 26 goals in 30 appearances and his increasingly impressive performances have confirmed his status as one of the lower leagues’ deadliest marksmen. Moffat’s season could have been undermined by the betting charges which first emerged in December and eventually saw him suspended for four matches in February; instead, his enforced absence underlined his value to Mark Roberts’ side.
Without the striker in their ranks, United toiled, losing four matches in a row and scoring just once, a sequence that threatened to derail their promotion bid. On his return, Moffat netted six goals in four games to win Ayr nine points and, arguably, their play-off place (in the final reckoning, they needed just four more points from their remaining five games).
It is little surprise that Moffat was unfazed by distractions away from the pitch. On it – and on the ball – he has unnerving composure. He is not the complete striker – an aerial prowess is lacking and he is poor at shooting from range – but Moffat is fast and has the ability to create something out of nothing, with or without his team-mates’ assistance. No defender in League 1 will have felt comfortable with the striker running towards them – with his foot on the ball and driving forward with pace, his close control allows him to breeze beyond opponents and into goal-scoring positions. And when faced with the goalkeeper, he rarely misses.
Manager: GARY BOLLAN (Airdrieonians)
There were only two credible candidates for the League 1 Manager of the Year. Steve Aitken deserves acclaim for his achievements with Stranraer over the course of the season, guiding an unfashionable and unfancied club into the play-off places and playing an attractive, possession-based brand of football in the process. Gary Bollan, meanwhile, roused a stricken Airdrieonians and lifted them from the foot of the division to the safety of mid-table whilst embarking on a startling run of form over the second half of the season.
Both managers’ accomplishments are highly credible and each circumstance differs wildly, but given the abject shambles Bollan walked into when he replaced Jimmy Boyle in October, he is perhaps more deserving of the merit. Bollan took charge of an Airdrie side anchored to the foot of the table after collecting eight points from their opening 11 matches. They were a disparate bunch, and the new manager took some time to suss out which players were worth keeping and which players needed jettisoning, while evaluating which systems functioned and which didn’t. And when he eventually did, the Diamonds began to sparkle.
In 2014, Bollan’s side lost just three times in 18 matches (with two of the defeats coming against Rangers), collecting 33 points in the process. Had the season been several matches longer, Airdrie could have even tumbled into fourth place. Bollan brought in a number of handy recruits including Grant Adam, Craig Barr and Stefan Milojevic; brought the best out of Gregor Buchanan, Caolen McAleer and Jim Lister; found a settled, stable starting XI; and, perhaps most important of all, made it fun to support the club again.
If the manager is able retain the majority of his better players and bring in the appropriate recruitments over the summer, then Airdrie could legitimately begin next season as title contenders. For the moment though, Bollan can reflect on his outstanding work throughout the latter part of the campaign.