The Top 25 Superstars of the Lower Leagues (15-6)

As we progress to the checkpoint, we wholeheartedly agree with your viewpoint, but this ain’t your typical list article celebrating the best 25 players at the fag end of the SPFL. Climbing up the ladder towards the more exalted talents, we encounter players whose abilities are a little more refined, a little sharper, a little more cerebral – or, for want of a better expression – simply better than what has come before. And, inevitably, we come across a handful of Rangers players slumming it out in the lower leagues until their inevitable return to the top table.

Like yesterday’s list, today’s offering shouldn’t be treated as anything other than subjective discourse – any attempts to read further into it will prove futile. There are no conspiracy theories, no deliberate attempts to cause consternation. It is what it is.

So kick off your shoes, sit back with a nice mug of hot chocolate and lovingly pour over some of the second and third tier’s most gifted footballers.

 

15) IAN BLACK (Rangers)

ian black

 

Twelve months ago, the very notion that Ian Black would even be considered for inclusion on such a list would probably have seen you spat at.

As Rangers were shunted into the unfamiliar terrain of the Third Division last season, the recruitment of Black seemed to make perfect sense. The playmaker joined the Ibrox club on the back of the most successful period of his career after winning the Scottish Cup with Heart of Midlothian, and with the poise to pick a pass and enough bite in the tackle to compete with the league’s more rambunctious characters, his campaign should have been entirely straightforward.

It wasn’t to be. Although Rangers cantered to the championship unimpeded, Black was dreadful throughout. Formerly a cog in the Hearts midfield, he seemed uneasy with his ascent to key performer and uncomfortable with the expectations placed upon him. His play was roundly unimaginative and instead of patrolling the middle of the park, he often found himself dragged into running battles with opposition players. It’s difficult to pick a low point from last season – there were numerous – but his red card during the 0-3 Scottish Cup defeat at Dundee United was possibly the nadir.

Yet this season, Black has proved himself to be one of the best midfielders in the lower leagues and has benefitted from the improvements in preparation and personnel around Auchenhowie. Paired in midfield alongside the swashbuckling Nicky Law, there is no longer a demand for the player to push into advanced territories, something which allows him to sit and dictate play from deep. It is from this withdrawn position that Black is able to showcase his outstanding range of passing, with his raking cross-field passes – often played into the channels towards for the marauding Lee Wallace – the most eye-catching facet of his game. Black’s control in possession has been a major in factor in Rangers’ outstanding year – his team-mates struggled to perform with the same purpose during his three-match suspension for football betting earlier in the season.

Finally, Black is punching his weight since dropping into the basement leagues. With his personal tumults now behind him, he can concentrate first and foremost on taking Rangers back to the top tier of Scottish football. CGT

 

14) JOHN GEMMELL (Stenhousemuir)

john gemmell

 

For a centre-back, facing off against John Gemmell must be a supremely unenviable task. Paired against the Stenhousemuir striker, they are often recast as a snivelling weakling, cowering in some remote corner of the playground as the big forward hoists them up by the ankles and shakes loose their dinner money. Gemmell is the schoolyard bully, the arch alpha male and, when on form, one of the most destructive players in the lower leagues.

With a build that more resembles a circus strongman than a League 1 forward, “The Beast” marries physicality to instinctive awareness and a fine touch. His muscular, snarling approach has seen him take on the role of pantomime villain in recent years, and the player revels in it. Gemmell certainly has the attributes to have enjoyed a very reasonable career in full-time football but after joining Partick Thistle from Queen’s Park in 2003, a combination of capriciousness and indifference perhaps prevented the player from testing himself in the higher echelons for longer. After two seasons at Firhill, he returned to part-time football with Dumbarton and a nomadic period followed, taking in spells with Albion Rovers (twice), Cowdenbeath and Montrose. It was only when Gemmell moved to Stenhousemuir in the summer of 2012, however, that he truly affirmed his status as a player of distinction.

Gemmell quickly established himself as the Warriors’ most important player, with manager Martyn Corrigan configuring his team to maximise the striker’s prowess. He has excelled at Ochilview, scoring 32 goals in 49 matches. It would be incorrect to describe Stenhousemuir as a one-man team but at times, there is little evidence to suggest otherwise. Gemmell’s outstanding performance in his side’s Scottish Cup third round replay against Annan Athletic is probably the most recent example of his significance. Two goals down and sliding out of the competition, the striker dragged his team back into the match through his own sheer bloody-mindedness. His 77th minute penalty instigated the comeback, before three assists ensured a 4-2 victory after extra-time.

Although often asked to operate as a target man (a role he has performed with increasing regularity as his team have failed to find cohesion), Gemmell’s game is based on much more than brute force. The sheer audacity of his strikes over the past 18 months has become almost routine, with 30-yard freekicks, volleys, piledrivers, snapshots and even overhead kicks making up his showreel.

If Stenhousemuir are to finish the season in the play-off positions, they must do their best to keep Gemmell fit, motivated and free from suspension for the remainder of the campaign – it is little coincidence that the side toiled badly when an ankle injury ruled him out for ten weeks last term. With the Warriors frequently having to outscore their opposition, the Beast’s participation will be crucial to their progress. CGT

 

13) JAY FULTON (Falkirk)

jay fulton

 

When making his first-team breakthrough as a precocious 17-year-old in 2011-12, Jay Fulton seemed to be a promising player just waiting to be coaxed out of his chrysalis and develop into an exceptional playmaker. That day has just about come, as Fulton is as important as any other Falkirk player in their aim to return to the top flight.

In all honesty, Fulton is just one of many young midfielders at the club who could justify being on this list. Towards the end of last season, Blair Alston’s dynamism in any role made him arguably the Bairn’s best performing midfielder at the time. Craig Sibbald has long been regarded as the best of the torrent of youngsters coming through at the club, but he still has to impose himself on matches on a more regular basis (which will no doubt come in time). Conor McGrandles is this season’s most improved midfielder and with an intimidating physique to go with immeasurable composure, he will eventually be a star in the Premiership. Elsewhere, Mark Millar’s impression on the team since returning on a temporary basis has been beneficial to the tune of three wins and a draw in his four appearances, but whose short-term loan status precludes him from being considered for this feature.

However, for this writer, Jay Fulton is the best footballer at the club. With the vision and ability to execute through-balls like no other in the lower leagues, Fulton marries these with expert balance and an uncanny ability to slalom past players in tight spaces, making him a player who could seamlessly fit into any role in midfield.

Where exactly his best position is can sometimes be difficult to judge: should his ability to see the game unfold in front of him (and play audacious through balls like this) mean that he operates as a deep playmaker as part of a double-pivot? Or ought his willingness to take the ball in compressed space and play wall-passes dictate that he should be used behind a forward? It could be that he would be most effective further forward at this stage in his career and then eventually fall back, but he is equally capable of playing on the flanks.

Despite all of Fulton’s technical ability, he does need to improve on other aspects of his game if he is to prosper at a higher level. While Steven Pressley protected him from burn-out at the very beginning of his career, Fulton still looks more tired than other players at the end of 90 minutes. His body language isn’t always endearing to the “old-school” observer, with his hands tucked into the sleeves of his under-shirt like a 13-year-old in an after-school practice in winter’s rain, while he can sometimes be watching the play from the other side of the park instead of being pro-active about his position and how he can affect the game without the ball. Currently being used as a wide midfielder, Fulton can get away with this and although he has the ability to dictate matters from a central role, he might need to toughen up a little.

Nonetheless, Fulton would improve any side in the lower leagues and a handful of clubs in the Premiership. Amid rumours that teams in England are looking at him and with a contract expiring at the end of May 2014, we should enjoy him while he remains in the Championship. JAM

 

12) RYAN McCORD (Alloa Athletic)

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For all the acclaim afforded to Paul Hartley, it is sometimes easy to forget the role his players have had in Alloa Athletic’s recent success. Sure, the manager is responsible for devising tactics and overseeing their implementation, but it is the players who are responsible for their execution. And as Alloa to continue their giddy rise through the divisions, no-one has emblemised their evolution and improvement quite like Ryan McCord. He has matured from an energetic box-to-box midfielder into an intelligent (and a little more subdued) playmaker, and the 24-year-old has been a key component in his team’s superb campaign.

One of Hartley’s most trusted lieutenants, McCord was one of the manager’s first signings in 2011. Recruited alongside Scott Bain and Kevin Cawley, the midfielder was another player rebuilding his career in the basement tier at Recreation Park. A youth player with Dundee United, McCord’s two first-team appearances (both in League Cup ties, both against part-time opposition) bookended a brief loan spell at Stirling Albion but it was a season-long loan with Airdrie United in 2010-11 that was crucial in his development, and McCord stood out in an otherwise indifferent campaign. Released by United that summer, the player had options with a number of First Division clubs but he and his brother Ross chose to join the recently relegated Wasps; a Third Division title in his first season and promotion to the Championship the following year vindicated his decision.

McCord was wonderful during their ascent. An old fashioned central midfielder, capable of providing attacking and defensive cover, the player bounds around the pitch with all the enthusiasm of a Labrador puppy, knocking passes here, there and everywhere. It would be incorrect to dismiss McCord as a player who just runs around a bit – he has finesse, precision and skill. His more obvious attributes are his wholesome tackling and his goal-scoring ability, and he has almost 30 strikes since joining Alloa, many hit from range.

This season, as Hartley has adjusted his team’s approach and preferring the cautious over the cavalier, McCord has refined his game accordingly and operates as a more pragmatic influence. With Stephen Simmons stationed in front of the defence, McCord’s dual role is to maintain control while offering support to Cawley and Andy Kirk accordingly. Alloa currently sit in fourth place in the Championship table, four points from the summit, and McCord’s evolution has been critical in this.

What happens when Hartley eventually moves elsewhere? Will the squad stay together in his absence? Having proved himself in the second, third and fourth tiers and demonstrated his improvement as a player, a move to full-time football is the next logical step in the McCord’s career. CGT

 

11) JOSH FALKINGHAM (Dunfermline Athletic)

josh falkingham

 

It would not be unfair to suggest that Josh Falkingham will never be the recipient of any popularity awards – with perhaps the exception of Ian Black, the 23-year-old has the ability to rattle cages unlike any other player in the lower leagues. While he has admitted he thrives off the vitriol of opposition players and supporters, maybe he doesn’t get the credit he deserves – Falkingham has been consistently excellent during his three-and-a-half years in Scotland.

Following his release from Leeds United in 2010, a club where he had spent 11 years, Falkingham joined St Johnstone but after just one appearance, he dropped into the Third Division with Arbroath at the beginning of 2010-11. Despite a slightly sluggish start, it was a wonderful season for both player and club, and Falkingham played a major role as the Lichites won their first ever championship. The player scored nine goals in 33 league games and such was his prowess in the middle of the park, he was nominated for the Third Division and the Young Player of Year awards, winning the latter of the two.

He continued his fine form into the next term, with his eight goals winning him an inclusion on the Second Division Team of the Year. Although Arbroath finished comfortably in second, they were surprisingly defeated by Dumbarton the play-off semi-final.

His performances caught the eye of Jim Jefferies, who brought Falkingham back into full-time football with Dunfermline Athletic in the summer of 2012. Despite the club enduring a hugely testing season, one which culminated in administration and relegation, Falkingham could not have done anything more to keep his team in the division. The player was an inspiration to those around him, particularly towards the end of the season when the starting XI was assembled with untested youngsters. Such qualities saw him awarded the team’s captaincy for the beginning of the current campaign.

The player’s most obvious quality is his industry – that narky, insolent tenacity – but he has developed into an outstanding all-round midfielder. He can operate as a playmaker and more often than not, he is able to take complete control of games and dictate the flow and tempo. His goals have diminished since joining the Pars but his ability to create for others is an ample compromise.

Falkingham’s influence has been vital to a side that has won 19 points from losing positions this year. His current exemplary form will no doubt be vital if his club are to return to the second tier at the first attempt. SM

 

10) KEVIN MOON (Raith Rovers)

kevin moon

 

From the perspective of the Raith Rovers support, the summer of 2013 was the most positive close season the club had had in many years. Although a number of first team players departed (including the prolific Brian Graham), Grant Murray diligently worked to reassemble a talented new squad that would drastically improve on last term’s inconsistent side. Of all the manager’s imports, the greatest expectations were reserved for Kevin Moon.

The midfielder began his career with St Johnstone and was marked as a player of potential from a young age. As a 19-year-old, Moon joined Forfar Athletic on a temporary basis in 2006-07 where a series of increasingly impressive performance saw him garlanded with the club’s Players’ Player and Fans’ Player of the Year awards. Despite his best efforts, Forfar concluded the campaign with relegation into the Third Division. Moon’s time at Station Park should have given him the impetus to develop further with his parent club, but two career-threatening injuries inhibited his opportunities. In nine seasons with the Saintees, he made just over 90 appearances; his departure by mutual consent in January was little surprise.

Moon moved on to Paul Hartley’s Alloa Athletic and played a vital role in their promotion to the Championship. His stoppage time strike against Dunfermline Atheltic in the first leg of the play-off final gave his team a comfortable three-goal cushion going into the return fixture.

Alongside Calum Elliot, Moon left Alloa in the summer to join Rovers and the player immediately ingratiated himself with his new club by scoring on his debut against Stirling Albion in the first round of the Ramsdens Cup. Although his goal-scoring prowess is one of his most eye-catching traits, it is his all-round game which has impressed. He is mostly a defensive-minded player, and his willingness to chase, harry and tackle opponents is a quality the Rovers midfield has lacked for some time.

The 26-year-old’s game hasn’t been limited exclusively to breaking down opposition attacks and chipping in with the odd goal – his intelligent use of the ball has been a key component in his side’s fine start to the season and, when allowed to push into more advanced areas, his link up play with Elliot has been at the heart of their best work. Moon’s Rovers career is still in his infancy but supporters have seen enough to declare him their best central midfielder since the celebrated Francisco Ortiz Paquito.

With a forthcoming Ramsdens Cup final against Rangers and a place in the play-offs certainly achievable, Moon will no doubt be central to his team’s chances in both. SM

 

9) NICKY RILEY (Dundee)

nicky riley

 

Football is so enthralling and sometimes compulsive as a spectator sport because it is able to appeal to us on a visceral level unlike almost anything else. There is, of course, little comparison to the endorphin rush of your team scoring a late goal when it matters most, but it is the feeling of hope and expectation that something special will happen after a winger beats his marker that draws this particular writer back to the game every week.

Nicky Riley is the best winger in the lower leagues; the most likely source of the thrill of witnessing the skinning of a full-back and opening up of the pitch ahead. Having made over 80 league starts for Dundee, the player has been entertaining supporters at Dens and beyond for over three years. Riley’s willingness to drive at the defence with the ball and go either inside or outside of the full-back makes defending against him an unforgiving job, with several of last year’s SPL left-backs succumbing to his dribbling and crossing.

Riley’s form earlier in the season suffered when John Brown wanted to turn him into Brian Laudrup. Appreciating that a midfielder who can run with the ball directly towards the middle of the penalty area can unsettle even the most frugal defences, Brown placed Riley behind two strikers in a congested space that negated the best feature of his play: to have enough room to accelerate with the ball into. As Dundee generally having the deepest squad and arguably the strongest starting line-up on a weekly basis, they have not been afforded space in which to counter-attack, making Riley’s shift in-field a little bizarre.

More recently, Brown has asked Riley to play on the left wing, but there is no question that he is most effective on the right flank. When given the opportunity to attack the full-back one-on-one, there are few better out-and-out wingers in the country. JAM

 

8) NICKY LAW (Rangers)

nicky law

 

It is little surprise that a player who was awarded the SPL’s Player of the Month award as recently as March and who finished last season as part of the PFA’s Team of the Year has made it into this feature. Some may have griped at Nicky Law’s decision to leave Motherwell and sign a three-year contract with Rangers in the summer, but regardless, the 26-year-old midfielder has proven to be a pivotal player in transforming a team that ground their way through the Third Divison into one that is strolling through League 1.

Nottingham-born Law began his career at Sheffield United and made his Premier League debut as an 18-year-old in 2006. Loan spells with Yeovil Town and Bradford City (where he was managed by Stuart McCall) followed, but the player was culled from the Blades’ roster during a mass clearout at the end of 2008-09. Law rejected the opportunity to sign a permanent deal with McCall’s Bradford and instead joined Rotherham United. His two years at the club were, on a personal level at least, wholly successful and he finished both seasons by topping the assist charts and featuring in the Football League Team of the Year. It was something as a coup, then, when McCall was able to recruit Law for his Motherwell side in 2011.

Initially used in wider positions, the player continued to provide goals on a consistent basis, but it was a switch into central midfield alongside Keith Lasley in his second season that saw him fully flourish. His energy and creativity in the middle of the park helped drive the Steelmen to second place in the SPL last term, with Law contributing six goals in 43 appearances.

The calming presence of Lasley at the heart of an offensively-minded Motherwell side allowed Law to push forward, drift out wide when appropriate and offer support to Michael Higdon and Henrik Ojamaa; at Rangers, Law operates in a similar manner. Ian Black provides the ballast while Law drops deep to collect the ball or support swift counter attacks. He has often found himself with less space as League 1 opponents have tended to crowd out the midfield, but Law’s range of passing and movement has turned Rangers into a far more threatening proposition this term.

In the short-term, a League 1 title and a fourth consecutive Team of the Year apperance seem likely outcomes in May. Law’s deal at Ibrox, all things going to plan, should see both parties back in the top flight soon enough. It is a feat in which he is expected to play a significant role. AG

 

7) ANTHONY ANDREU (Hamilton Academical)

tony andreu better

 

Like many overseas players who move to the Scottish lower leagues, little was known about Anthony Andreu when he joined Livingston in the summer of 2012. The Frenchman was transferred to the West Lothian side alongside compatriot David Luongo from Swiss side Stade Nyonnais, and while Luongo was described as a player who would immediately improve the attacking options of John Hughes’s squad, it was Andreu who would make a sustained impact with the Lions.

Although Livingston started the 2012-13 campaign poorly, winning one game from their opening six league fixtures, Andreu delivered a series of increasingly impressive performances. Their solitary victory during this time – a fine 2-1 win at Falkirk – was lit up by his excellence: Callum Fordyce equalised from his inswinging corner, before Andreu’s outrageous 20-yard strike in injury time secure their first points of the season. The attacker showcased his shooting from range later on in the year with goals against Partick Thistle and Cowdenbeath, eventually finishing as the club’s third top scorer with seven.

Andreu joined Hamilton Academical in August, and it was a surprise it took the player quite so long to force his way into the starting XI (that said, his club’s excellent start to the season might have been a factor in his exclusion). After replacing the suspended Alex Neil in October for their 2-0 win over Livingston, however, he has become an integral part of the Accies’ team and has added an extra dimension to their attack. Andreu has scored four times so far this season and contributed one assist (although this relatively low figure could perhaps be attributed to Hamilton lacking a prodigious finisher than any failure on Andreu’s part).

There is little doubt that Neil has been among the Championship’s better midfielders this term, but such is the prowess made by the talented Frenchman over the last few months that the player-manager will have to think long and hard about his own playing position when he is available again. Andreu will certainly play a major role in the manner in which the second half of the Championship season unfurls. SM

 

6) MICHAEL McGOVERN (Falkirk)

michael mcgovern two

 

As the Championship plays host to an abundance of talented goalkeepers this season, Falkirk’s Michael McGovern is surely one of the division’s best. Since joining the Bairns, the Northern Ireland international has been almost ever present in his team’s starting XI – it’s just taken him so bloody long to get there.

After turning professional at Celtic in 2004, he found himself as fourth choice behind Rab Douglas, Magnus Hedman and David Marshall. A loan move to Stranraer for the latter part of the 2004-05 campaign was mutually beneficial for all parties – McGovern took advantage of their offer of first-team football and Stranraer benefitted from a series of excellent performances. As the Blues’ bid for promotion looked as though it was beginning to come undone, the goalkeeper did his best to hold their defence together and five wins from their final 17 matches saw them stagger into second place and into the First Division.

A shorter loan spell at St Johnstone followed the next year before the player left on a permanent basis for Dundee United in 2008. The transfer was not successful, and McGovern failed to make an appearance under Craig Levein. After one season, he headed north to join Ross County.

The 2009-10 season proved to be a vital season for the goalkeeper. Having only made a handful of appearances throughout his career, McGovern immediately applied himself and kept nine clean sheets over the course of the year as his side finished fifth. For the first half of the season it seemed as if he was invincible, claiming every catch and repelling most shots that fell his way. While the league campaign was indifferent, their Scottish Cup run was memorable – they defeated Celtic in the last four, earning a final appearance against Dundee United. McGovern had already collected two winners medals in 2004 and 2007 as an unused substitute with Celtic, but there was to be no hat-trick as United triumphed 3-0.

On a personal level, McGovern’s 2010-11 season was quite excellent. County ended the year having conceded the second fewest goals in the First Division, a record that included 14 clean sheets. The team’s inability to score, however, saw them conclude the year in eighth. The goalkeeper’s form won him a call up to the Northern Ireland squad, with his solitary cap coming during a second half substitute appearance in a 0-1 defeat to Chile. He has been selected for other teams since. His spell in the Highlands also saw him develop a reputation as a penalty expert – to date, McGovern has saved 15 of the 52 spot kicks he’s faced – but his greatest strength lies in narrowing the angle and saving when a striker gets behind a defence.

His aspirations to cement a first-team place in the top tier saw him make a sideways move and join Falkirk in 2011 (ironically, the same season that would see County win the First Division) and McGovern’s form over the last two-and-a-half years has seen him develop an affinity with the Bairns support. His general goalkeeping ability and constant communication with his defence (to the point where centre-backs like Alex Keddie and Darren Dods probably still go to bed with “Away..! Away!” ringing in their ears) have proved to be a factor in his team’s recent successes, although frustratingly, much like his time at County, a lack of match-winning goals at the other end have precluded his side from maintaining a push for promotion.

As Falkirk sit on the cusp of the play-off places, there is a thought that if they’re not in the Premiership next term, the goalkeeper just might be. SM

Tell Him He's Pelé

Tell Him He's Pelé

If Tell Him He's Pelé were a boy band, they would probably be the much-missed One True Voice, both in terms of appearance and musical output.

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