The 2014-15 League 1 campaign has been the most probably been the most exciting third-tier competition since 2009-10, when Stirling Albion clinched the championship on the final day of the season on goal difference. The margins haven’t been quite as tight this year but it’s been an exhilarating ride, culminating in “Helicopter Saturday”. And yet, for its thrills and charged narratives, the division has been lacking in quality. Only occasionally has a team or a player stood out above the rest – as such, putting together this team proved a little vexing.
Declan McManus at Greenock Morton was the only obvious nominee; the rest of the selections were pulled together after hours of strenuous debate. Who should partner McManus in attack? Who are the picks for the middle of the park? What about the full-backs? Countless nights were lost in deliberation, but we got there at the end.
As expected, most of the players have been culled exclusively from the division’s top five sides (and perhaps a little unexpectedly, four of them come from Brechin City – just imagine where they would have finished if they’d sorted themselves out earlier in the season?) The fact that this side has been more or less evenly picked from these clubs highlights how little there is between the teams this year.
Goalkeeper: DEREK GASTON (Greenock Morton)
Selecting a goalkeeper for the League 1 Team of the Year was perhaps the most taxing decision because there are a number of viable candidates. The veteran Rab Douglas at Forfar Athletic has rolled back the years to enjoy a fine campaign and Dunfermline Athletic’s Ryan Scully, so often a one-man defence this season, can look back on his efforts with pride. Graeme Smith has played well at Brechin City while Greg Fleming has done his very best at giving Stenhousemuir’s regular beatings a respectable sheen.
No, it is Derek Gaston who deserves his place in our side. Gaston can catch the ball and kick the ball and organise his backline just as well as the rest of them – they’re a much of a muchness in this case – but what marks the Greenock Morton goalkeeper above his peers is his ability to produce crucial saves at the most opportune moments. There have been several instances where Gaston has won his side the game but there are two that immediately stick out in the mind.
The first was against Ayr United on 21 March. Morton were a goal down when Jordan Preston suddenly found himself one-on-one with the goalkeeper but Gaston dived low to his left to push the shot away. His side used this as the platform to stage a stunning comeback and scored twice in injury time to win. The second was in the season’s decisive match with Stranraer at Stair Park. Declan McManus would take the plaudits with his two goals but when the scores were level, Gaston instinctively tossed an arm up to block Frank McKeown’s goal-bound header. It is these moments on which championships are decided; and so it proved.
There are good goalies throughout the division, but Derek Gaston is the best.
Right-back: PAUL McLEAN (Brechin City)
There’s been a handful of decent right-backs in the League 1 this year – Lee Kilday’s been pretty good at Greenock Morton, while Ayr United’s Nicky Devlin has generally risen above the rest of the muck at Somerset Park – but it would be remiss to ignore the efforts of Paul McLean. Over the course of the season the Brechin City stalwart, who recorded his 200th appearance for the club, went through an inexplicable purple patch in front of goal: he netted seven over the course of the campaign. When was the last time a full-back showed such attacking prowess?
Indeed, while McLean has shown the qualities to succeed on the right flank – he is a solid defender, quick across short distances and reads the game intelligently – it is his adventurous steak that sets him apart. Having forged an excellent partnership on City’s right flank with Bobby Barr, his knack of being in the right place at the right time has paid dividends. Take his goal in the 2-1 win over Ayr in January – lurking on Kevin McKinlay’s shoulder, he burst past him to smash Andy Jackson’s cute cutback into the net.
There’s also his strike in the narrow victory over Stenhousemuir. Hanging around at the back post, he reacted the quickest to hook Colin Hamilton’s flick over the line. And then there was his superb equaliser against Dunfermline Athletic the next week where he held off his marker to smash a low shot home. The two goals, followed by subsequent strikes against Forfar Athletic and Ayr, took him to four in six matches.
Playing his park in Brechin’s long unbeaten streak is one thing, but his ability to score with such pleasant frequency and at such significant moments has made Paul McLean’s season so impressive.
Centre-back: GERRY McLAUCHLAN (Brechin City)
We are all bald under our hair; we are all Gerry McLauchlan.
After Ray McKinnon took charge of Brechin City in October 2012, he initially appeared to mistrust McLauchlan and would only bring him out of cold storage (with some reluctance) whenever the preferred Ewan Moyes, Graham Hay or latterly Gary Kenneth were unavailable. Now, the iconic defender is first pick at centre-back and played an important role in his side’s 17-game unbeaten run and their ascent into the play-offs.
Brechin haven’t been prolific in front of goal, but they haven’t needed to be, not with such a stingy backline. Alongside Darren McCormack, McLauchlan has developed a strong partnership in the middle of Brechin’s defence. While McCormack is the more cerebral of the two, it is probably fair to say that McLauchlan is little more than a meat ‘n’ potatoes, no-nonsense stopper. And yet, what he does do, he does so masterfully. He is rarely beaten in an aerial duel – it is as if the ball is attracted to his big napper – and his strong positional sense means he is infrequently bested on the ground.
There’s been the occasional stumble along the way (McLauchlan played poorly in his side’s defeat to Peterhead in March) but these are rare instances: it’s been a grand old campaign.
Centre-back: DARREN DODS (Forfar Athletic)
Given the hurly-burly nature of League 1 football and the propensity for sides to boot the ball from back to front with little thought, every team requires a big defender, built like the gable end of a country estate, to repel it and keep it as far away from the goal as possible. And in Darren Dods, Forfar Athletic have one of the best in the league.
Dods is 39 years old (whenever Dods is mentioned, his advancing years always seems to elicit an automatic, Pavlovian response) and his ability to organise and settle his defence has been central to the Loons’ successful season. Of course, it helps when lining up alongside Rab Douglas, Stuart Malcolm and Mark Baxter, experienced players capable of sorting themselves out but Dods, all forehead and shoulders, is the key component in the backline.
The number of times Dods has been beaten in the air this season can probably be counted on one hand. He can sometimes be unsteady on his feet when turning to face his own goal or dealing with genuine pace but given his supreme positional discipline and his timing of the tackle, he is seldom unsettled. And anyway, Dick Campbell is aware of his defenders’ limitations and arranges his team accordingly.
It remains to be seen how long Dods has left in the tank but given his physicality, his fitness and his apparent lust for life, the big defender still has at least one more season in him.
Left-back: PADDY BOYLE (Airdrieonians)
Greenock Morton’s Mark Russell might have made a late claim for the left-back slot but Paddy Boyle has played to a consistently high standard throughout. The Airdrieonians captain has been quietly effective, motoring up and down the left flank with cool authority and occasionally chipping in with a whirling cross or the odd goal – it has been his finest season in some time.
Boyle has been one of Gary Bollan’s most trusted lieutenants – while the defence that finished the season has been radically altered from the one that started it, Boyle has been the one constant. The responsibility afforded to him appears to bring out the best of him and his performances are marked by their increasing maturity. He ignored the catcalls of Dunfermline Athletic supporters to put his old team to the sword in December and is one of the few players to have successfully shackled Stenhousemuir’s livewire Paul McMullan when the teams met in February.
The full-back will no doubt play a crucial role if Airdrie are to make a sustained assault on the play-offs next term – his class and composure in the position is vital.
Right wing: BOBBY BARR (Brechin City)
Bobby Barr was the only choice for the right of midfield. It has been his most profitable campaign in years – often flaky and capricious, he has matured into a fearsome and consistent threat from the flank and his quick-witted bursts towards the byline have created innumerable chances for Andy Jackson and Alan Trouten.
The old-fashioned, chalk-on-the-boots Barr has played to a high level throughout the season but he peaked just as his side approach the play-offs. In his side’s 2-0 win at Greenock Morton in April, it was his slaloming runs that drew the penalty and the free-kick from which his team scored, and he was a perpetual nuisance in City’s stirring victory over Dunfermline Athletic two weeks later. He has also shown fine form from the penalty spot whenever Alan Trouten’s missed out.
Barr’s confidence in his ability and his willingness to drive at opponents has brought an exciting dynamic to Brechin’s play this year. His position in this team, despite the competition, is well deserved.
Central midfield: GRANT GALLAGHER (Stranraer)
The screening midfielder is perhaps the most unfashionable role on the pitch – hunt down an attacker, win back the ball, pass it on, and so on – but Grant Gallagher’s good performances deep heart of the Stranraer midfield has marked him out as a player of distinction. Gallagher might not necessarily do anything fancy but the way he reads the game, his ability on the ball and his forceful, combative nature has been crucial to his side’s excellent campaign. Like several members of this Stranraer team, it cannot be long before bigger teams begin to show an interest.
With Stephen Aitken preferring a 4-4-2 formation, Gallagher’s job is vital. Aitken encourages the second midfielder (normally his brother Chris or Stephen Stirling) and the wingers to press forward, and so Gallagher provides the ballast in front of his defence. It is difficult to pick an outstanding moment – his displays are all generally understated – but his team have suffered in his absence. Against Greenock Morton in last month’s decisive contest, he went off injured after 32 minutes and left a void his replacement could not fill. Morton exploited the space he had previously occupied and won the match.
He was out of Stranraer’s match with Brechin City at the weekend and his availability could be the difference between success and disappointment in the forthcoming play-offs. The defensive midfielder might not do the most thrilling job to do but that probably doesn’t bother Gallagher one bit.
Central midfield: ALAN TROUTEN (Brechin City)
Alan Trouten is a phenomenon. A real favourite of Tell Him He’s Pelé, the Brechin City midfielder continues to dazzle with his incredible goal return – 18 in 2012-13, 15 last term and 17 this year (and only four of those were penalties). This alone makes him an automatic pick for the Team of the Year but he brings so much more to the party than just his goals. Trouten is an endless creative menace and the fulcrum of Ray McKinnon’s side – when he gathers the ball 40 yards from the opposition goal and slaloms forward, something inevitably happens.
“You could give Alan the ball anywhere and he’d take it, he’d take it under pressure,” said Steven Canning, who played with Trouten at Queen’s Park between 2005 and 2008. “The way he could go by people, it was as if they weren’t there. He’d make them look ridiculously stupid.” Not much has changed since. Trouten’s peerless ability to run at speed with the ball at his feet is one of his greatest strengths. There are fewer exciting sights than watching him storm upfield, flanked by Bobby Barr and Andy Jackson.
When Trouten was absent through injury between mid-March and April, his side won just two of their six matches. He carries a heavy burden and there’s arguably an over-reliance on him to pull his team through matches. Regardless, it’s been another excellent season for the little midfielder.
Left wing: WILLIE GIBSON (Stranraer)
Willie Gibson might not be to everyone’s tastes but there is no denying his impact on League 1 this season. The winger has been a devastating force on Stranraer’s left flank. One minute his marker has stood him up and limited his options; and the next he’s away in on goal as a tangle of confused legs lie behind him. Gibson can be guilty of over-complicating things and, if the mood doesn’t take him, dropping out of matches but these have been the rare instances this year.
On natural ability alone, he is too good for this division. His left foot, both in open play and from set-pieces, is capable of whipping in swift, deceptive balls and Craig Malcolm and Jamie Longworth have both benefitted from his ability. His goal return is very decent too – one in every three matches – and his hot streak in March helped his team climb to the top of the table. Gibson scored three times in three games and each strike was vital – he netted the winning goals in his side’s 1-0 triumphs over Stirling Albion and Airdrieonians and he chipped in with the equaliser in their eventual 2-1 victory at Peterhead.
Beguiling and often brilliant, Gibson has enjoyed a tremendous year.
Striker: JIM LISTER (Airdrieonians)
Picking a partner for Declan McManus was a tricky business. The division’s remaining strikers were good, but never great. Colin McMenamin deserves a mention, scoring 15 times for a poor Stenhousemuir side, and so too do Forfar Athletic’s Gavin Swankie and Dale Hilson. Jamie Longworth and Craig Malcolm have played well at Stranraer, while Bryan Prunty continues to be a canny forward for this level. Instead, the second striker in our Team of the Year has gone to a player who has quietly developed into quite the force in recent years: Airdrieonians’ Jim Lister.
Watching him now, it’s hard to believe Lister was once the butt of so many jokes. After joining the senior leagues with Berwick Rangers in 2008, the big forward jobbed at a host of lower-league clubs with little success before unexpectedly pitching up at Dumbarton in 2012-13. Why on earth a First Division club were punting on a lacklustre forward was anyone’s guess but Lister surprised onlookers with a series of smart performances that helped keep the Sons in the league. Since transferring to Airdrie the following summer, Lister keeps on impressing.
He is the archetypal target man. If the Diamonds choose to go long, Lister is the perfect man to go long to. He is comfortable at gathering in the ball wherever it is played to him – his feet, shins, chest or head – and his control and his ability to find onrushing team-mates makes him ideal to lead the Airdrie attack; his partnership with Prunty is one of the best in the league and his brute strength and his willingness to barge around the pitch have made him a difficult player to contain. His goal return is so-so – nine for the season – but he is a facilitator more than anything else.
An injury in March ruled him out for the rest of the season (and there is talk he might even retire in the summer) but in the previous eight months Lister had shown the form worthy of inclusion.
Striker: DECLAN McMANUS (Greenock Morton)
The very first name selected: Declan McManus made biggest contribution to any team in the division in 2014-15. The PFA League 1 Player of the Year kept Greenock Morton competitive over the first half of the season, and then he won it for them in the second. Where would they be without him?
McManus, signed on loan from Aberdeen, scored 20 league goals (handily captured on video by his management) and he boasts a deadly arsenal. Tap-ins, 25-yard drives, headers, penalties, sclaffs, thrikers – he can score from almost anywhere. His finishing ability is probably his most evident attribute but look at how he gets into scoring positions. What about his short burst of space to spin away from Craig Wedderburn and finish in his side’s 4-3 win over Stirling Albion? Or the confident manner in which he deftly side-stepped his marker before shooting in the 3-1 victory at Peterhead? His intelligence and awareness in the box, at this level at least, is superb.
Earlier in the season Jim Duffy misused him on the flank but it is easy to understand why his manager deployed him out wide. McManus is quick and direct and is as capable of driving towards the byline as he is at suddenly cutting inside, although he is better at finishing moves than he is starting them.
McManus’s contract with Aberdeen is set to expire shortly and there is a clamour for Morton to recruit him permanently for next season’s assault on the Championship. He still has a lot to learn (he is a little one-footed and can sometimes be out-muscled by bulkier opponents) but he would be a very decent asset to the Ton or whoever else in the second tier.
Manager: STEPHEN AITKEN (Stranraer)
There is still plenty to play for and so dishing out an accolade like this might seem a little premature but, once again, Stephen Aitken has done a remarkable job with Stranraer. Under Aitken’s watch the Blues have metamorphosed from back markers, to play-off hopefuls, to viable championship candidates in the space of two-and-a-half years. This season has been his best yet and his side just missed out on the league title on the final day – not bad for a team simply looking for a repeat finish in the top four.
Aitken lost key personnel in Mark Docherty, Martin Grehan and Andy Stirling last summer but he did not fluster. He quietly replaced them (upgraded them?) and continued to coax the same fast-paced, high-tempo approach from his players that had served them so well in 2013-14. At their best, Stranraer thrilled – the regular thrashings of Peterhead, the 5-1 obliteration of Dunfermline Athletic in late February – with his traditional 4-4-2 system as aesthetically pleasing at it was successful.
Stranraer finished the season one place and 16 points better off than last year, testament to their remarkable improvement. They might get into the Championship, they might not, but Aitken can look back on this year’s achievements with pride. He might not be there for much longer – on numerous occasions he has revealed ambitions to manage a full-time club and it must only be a matter of time before Aitken furthers his career elsewhere.