So here we are. We are now looking through the other end of the telescope. This is it, this is the top of the mountain: it does not get any better than this. There were several weeks of heated debate which, at times, bordered on violence – the discussions nearly descended into a fistfight when one writer campaigned for Stenhousemuir defender Ross McMillan to appear in third place – but we finally got there. And so (subjectively speaking, of course!), after previously discussing numbers 25-16 and then 15-6, we present to you the five best players in the Scottish lower leagues.
These five warriors have thoroughly merited their place at the top table, bringing unmatched talent, skill and combativeness to the proceedings. Throughout their careers in the lower divisions – no matter how brief or how lengthy they have been – their ability and courage has routinely brought crowds to their knees as supporters marvel incommensurately at their feats. Perhaps the basement leagues are just a stopping point until something better comes along; perhaps this is as good as it will ever get. No matter: they fully deserve the acclaim bestowed upon them.
This final article includes an appendix detailing a number of players who narrowly missed inclusion – it is important we make some attempt to explain ourselves in these instances. But that can all wait – pour yourself a hot bath and pile in. As always, it is by no means definitive and nor should it be treated as such. Do not come here looking for truth for there is none.
5) BILEL MOHSNI (Rangers)
Of all Rangers’ problems last season – and there were many – one of the most concerning aspects of their general performance was their brittleness in central defence. When Lee McCulloch was pushed into attacking positions, he was often deputised at the back by Emilson Cribari (obviously capable but completely unsuited to the shock and awe of the Scottish Third Division) or Ross Perry (just plain horrible). With the club clambering back up the pyramid, such soft-centeredness would not do: a big hard bastard that could play a bit of football was immediately required; and Bilel Mohsni was subsequently recruited.
Eighteen months ago, the very notion of Mohsni playing in the third tier of Scottish football would have seemed ridiculous. Having began his career in the backwaters of French football, the centre-back joined Southend United in 2010 and immediately showcased his excellence as a defender and, when called upon, an auxiliary striker. Six months into his spell at the Shrimpers, Mohsni was the subject of a failed £250,000 bid from Blackpool and his subsequent development was stunted by injuries and ill-discipline. His hot-headedness continued to undermine his 2011-12 campaign, with his manager Paul Sturrock losing patience and transfer listing the centre-back, before eventually making a retraction. West Ham United attempted to sign the player in August 2012 but their approach was rebuffed, and Mohsni’s season was spent trialling at a number of rival clubs in between a brief loan with Ipswich Town. His release from Southend was inevitable.
Mohsni spent four weeks on trial with Rangers before eventually signing a two-year agreement; watching him in action makes one wonder why it took Ally McCoist so long. The player meets Rangers’ requirements exactly – he is a wiry, ball-playing centre-back and is equally as capable of playing delightful 50-yard passes as he is clattering through an opposition striker. In terms of pure defending, he appears to thrive in the physicality of it all and although not the most imposing of centre-backs, Mohsni is lean, muscular and capable of dealing with the most robust of opponents. Alongside McCulloch, the pair have formed a hardy partnership and the concession of seven league goals is emblematic of their stability.
It is his skill with the ball at his feet that sets Mohsni apart from the majority of his peers. As well as a centre-back and a striker, the player sometimes operated as a winger during his time with Southend, such is his control in possession. As Rangers tend to face sides who attempt to contain them, having a player in their ranks who can come out of nowhere to find space and open up stubborn defences is vital. Although his concentration can sometimes waver – recent cup performances against Stenhousemuir and Falkirk were below the standards he has set – this is the exception rather than the rule.
And, of course, there are his goals. Six for the season so far is a fine return, and the quality is as impressive as the quantity – his overhead kicks against Stenhousemuir and Ayr United were wonderful and immediately won him favour with his support. Piling into a crowd of soldiers to celebrate after their 8-0 win over the Warriors certainly helped.
Does Mohsni view Rangers as a stepping stone, or does he wish to remain at the club beyond their inevitable spell in the second tier? Any player who has been courted by English Premier League clubs will no doubt harbour aspirations of proving themselves at the highest level, but it is difficult to tell how he will develop after two years in the Scottish backwaters – as impressive as his ambles from the back are, they would surely be punished by better, more tactically astute opponents. Such concerns can be addressed in the future – in the meantime, Rangers can benefit from Mohsni’s talents in both defence and attack. CGT
4) PETER MacDONALD (Dundee)
Having played the vast majority of his career at St Johnstone (some of which at First Division level), Peter MacDonald joined Allan Moore’s Greenock Morton in 2011-12 along with Andy Jackson. Generally regarded as the most natural finisher during his time at McDiarmid Park, “Peaso”‘s ten years with the Perth club was only the prelude to the most prolific spell of his career.
MacDonald hit the ground running at Cappielow. Although it was Jackson who took the initial plaudits in the early season thrashings of lower league opposition in the clubs, MacDonald’s spurt of seven goals in eight matches in all competitions took Morton to the top of the table. The team quickly plummeted down the table as their form and confidence fell away, while all the goals scored by a forward seemed to come from Archie Campbell. Still, 12 goals in all competitions in his first season was a good return for a team who finished only four points ahead of the relegation play-off spot, despite leading the league going into the autumn.
MacDonald’s second season at Morton was even better, with the club making a title challenge. He suffered a recurrence of the foot injury that affected his time at St Johnstone and although he didn’t make his first start until the beginning of 2013, his 13 goals in 15 matches kept Morton apace with Partick Thistle until the two sides met at Firhill that April. MacDonald’s double in Morton’s earlier comeback from two goals down at home to the Jags was probably his most important in his time at the club. He had a goal for less than every two starts in his couple of seasons in the second tier; a feat unmatched by anyone else in the division over the same period.
Dundee supporters are now enjoying the most of MacDonald’s expertise in front of goal. Whether he is chosen to take penalties or freekicks from just outside the box, or to attack a glancing header towards the far post or attempt his signature low snapshot into the corner, the player is always a goal threat. Nine goals from 15 starts so far this season keeps his strike rate since returning to the First Division at over 50 per cent and despite not being able to out-pace defenders any longer, at 33 years old he still has the craft to be among the top goalscorers in the lower leagues for a few years yet. JAM
3) DAVID McGURN (Raith Rovers)
Any debate surrounding the best part-time footballers in Scotland will tend to include a discussion as to whether or not the players in question could perform at a higher level. In David McGurn’s case, the goalkeeper has consistently performed to the highest standards in the second tier with Raith Rovers; on some occasions, one can only wonder why he didn’t move up even further.
McGurn’s credentials have been discussed in detail elsewhere, but it is important to consider his brilliance once again. A full-time college lecturer, the player has always been comfortable with football as his secondary form of employment but it is surely a career choice which has hindered his opportunities in the sport. In recent years, a number of players have left Starks Park to play in the top tier – some, admittedly, have enjoyed more success than others but have Iain Davidson, Gregory Tade, John Baird or even Brian Graham done more to warrant a move to a bigger team than the Rovers goalkeeper?
McGurn has achieved a rich list of triumphs during his six years with the club. He helped secure the Second Division championship in his debut season, keeping 17 clean sheets and conceding just 27 goals over the course of the campaign. Their return to the First Division was a struggle – a run to the Scottish Cup semi-final aside – but McGurn was nothing short of sensational: his triple save against Ayr United is perhaps the finest example of his ability. The goalkeeper has a habit of making the astonishing seem routine and can pull off remarkable stops with regularity.
The current season has been derailed by an achilles tendon injury picked up against Greenock Morton in October. An initial prognosis suggested that McGurn would be available at the beginning of 2014 but a recent appearance at Stark’s Park – on crutches and in obvious discomfort – hints that a return in January may be overly optimistic.
If Raith Rovers are to maintain their form and challenge for promotion, then a place at the top table is the very least a player of McGurn’s talent deserves. SM
2) LEE WALLACE (Rangers)
In many respects, Lee Wallace should not be playing in the third tier of Scottish football. A full-back of his excellence should, at the very least, be operating in the English Championship or beyond, flying down the left flank in his trademark cavalier fashion to toss in a cross or attack the goal himself. Rangers fans, though, should not bother themselves with such concerns: he is their best player and the best left-back in Scotland.
A skinny, waif-like Wallace began his career with Heart of Midlothian, making his first-team debut in 2004. Over time, he developed into a fine player and his game was characterised by his ability to operate as both an orthodox full-back and as an ultra-modern defensive winger. Although his time at Hearts was pockmarked with the usual moments of off-field idiocy that seem to befall all the capital clubs’ young players, Wallace’s performances were always of a good quality.
A move elsewhere was inevitable and the player transferred to Rangers in the summer of 2011 for around £1.5m. When the club entered liquidation in 2012, the player could have easily joined Steven Naismith and Steven Davis in refusing to transfer his contract to the newco and seek his fortune across the border. But with a young family and a comfortable home life in Edinburgh, he chose to remain at Ibrox; the decision immediately lifted him to the status of an exalted deity among the support.
While Rangers’ season in the basement league was tumultuous, Wallace maintained his high level of performance. Playing alongside the club’s widely-derided “Nando’s Generation”, he was, on occasion, dragged down to their levels of torpor – he was dismissed after carelessly conceding a penalty in a 3-0 win over Annan Athletic, while a lack of awareness saw him blind-sided by Montrose’s David Gray the 1-1 draw between the clubs at Ibrox – but these were the rare exceptions: for the best part, his standards did not drop below exceptional.
The summer additions of Jon Daly and Nicky Law significantly raised the standards of professionalism around Auchenhowie and in a more committed, balanced team, Wallace has flourished. Equal parts style and substance, watching him rampage down the wing is, in many ways, reminiscent of Alan Hutton’s halcyon days at the club in late 2007. When he collects the ball – most likely from one of Ian Black’s meticulous shells into the channel – there is a feeling that something glorious is about to happen. For all Daly’s goal-scoring prowess and Law’s daring in the middle of the park, no other player excites at Ibrox quite as much as Wallace. He will no doubt continue to play a crucial part when the side return to the top tier.
The player has also won eight Scotland caps and made his two most recent appearances for the national side in 2013. Although the sudden rise of Dundee United’s Andy Robertson might see him demoted to Scotland’s second choice left-back in the long-term, for the moment at least, Wallace is the finest in the country. Some might crab that an international should be competing against a higher calibre of opposition on a frequent basis, but Wallace’s substitute performance against Macedonia should debunk such notions. Putting personal prejudices aside and looking at the circumstances objectively, there is surely no-one more appropriate for the position (certainly not Steven Whittaker, anyway).
What does the future hold for Wallace? Should the club be forced to cash in on their prize asset or if the player wished to move on, few would begrudge him the move. Still in his mid-twenties, the player has probably yet to reach his peak and might wish to chase a lucrative contract in the English Championship. Of course, it is not inconceivable that Wallace may wish to spend the remainder of his career with Rangers – he is paid a handsome salary and utterly adored by the support, and it doesn’t really get much better than that. CGT
1) STEFAN SCOUGALL (Livingston)
Without doubt, one of the finest aspects about Scottish football is its heritage. From hosting the first international match to the pioneering of the combination play and predominance of Queen’s Park’s passing style in the early 1880s, Scottish football has enjoyed being able to produce short, nippy passers longer than most nations have participated in the sport (and while David Anderson is involved in this list on his own merits, isn’t it wonderful to have a player uphold the method of play that made QP one of the most famous clubs in the sport in the early era). South American and particularly Argentine football was influenced by Victorian Scottish exports, with Alexander Watson Hutton and others proving to be sporting ancestors to the diminutive superstars that light the international stage today.
It is a source of pride that Scotland can still produce players in the mould of the classic inside forward that defined its play before the turn of last century. Stefan Scougall is such a player: a throwback to a time when clever, instinctive football in Scotland was appreciated and valued more than systematic fouling, long balls into channels and the ubiquity of sticking the big man up front to play the percentages.
Scougall might perhaps still fall victim to contemporary Scottish football’s outmoded view of playing the game. It once seemed that Gary Bollan was keen to build his Livingston team around Scougall’s prodigious talents, and John Hughes certainly did when he took over. However, since John McGlynn has been in charge at the club, there is a hint that he might not be utilised to the best of his ability.
When at first McGlynn favoured a 4-5-1 system with Scougall coming infield from the right flank, he is now being used as one of two central midfielders. Although that in itself might be seen as the player’s natural habitat, McGlynn’s style is such that most of his team’s progression occurs down the flanks – instead of the full-backs looking for a free central midfielder, Scougall and his frequent partner Burton O’Brien occasionally have to be content with influencing in off-the-ball play as the two forwards are given service from elsewhere.
That is, of course, to say that when he finds himself in possession in the middle of the pitch, something special invariably happens.
Scougall is one of a rare few in Scotland who can receive the ball with his back to goal and not necessarily have to revert to passing backwards to keep it. His first touch, dexterity when turning and acceleration over five yards are such that he can be beyond his opponent within milliseconds of trapping the ball. Even better is his awareness on the half-turn, like Xavi assessing the space around him, always looking for better passing options for the team. Yet he can be as direct as any other player when he has space to drive into: there is no-one else in the lower leagues with the capacity for getting neutral observers off their seats in excitement as he dribbles at speed towards the opposing “D” with his head up.
Scougall’s weakness is that he is tiny, even for a footballer of his styling. When a Championship match with, say, Cowdenbeath reverts to a game of head-tennis, he can seem out of his depth, something which strengthens the case for a) starting him higher up the pitch, and b) him moving to a higher level, where the action is more likely to be kept on the dancefloor. He is not shy in his workload either, so having him in an area to nick the ball off deep midfielders and defenders and shoot early, as he did so well against Alex Neil last season, makes perfect sense.
Given that Scougall’s contractual talks with Peterbourgh United fell through at the end of the August transfer window, we might expect to see him leave the SPFL very shortly. It will be a shame to not be able to watch him so regularly, but if it improves him as a player then Scottish football can still benefit at national level. JAM
The players who missed the cut
As mentioned at the top of the article, debate raged hard among our four contributors as to which players would make the cut and who would fall just slightly short. The whole process was remarkably lengthy, with more than 40 players on the original longlist. Over time was eventually whittled down to a manageable 25.
Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. Queen’s Park’s David Anderson was the sole inclusion from League 2, but he was very close to being joined by Peterhead’s attacking duo Andy Rodgers and Rory McAllister. The former was dismissed because it was felt his moments of splendour punctuated long periods of laziness (that said, make no mistake – Rodgers is a very capable forward). The latter failed to appear because it was felt that he has regressed since dropping down into the basement tier. While players like, say, Lee Wallace maintained his high standards during Rangers’ penance in Division Three, McAllister’s attitude has affected his career – for all his scoring prowess, his recent indiscretions have badly let him down. Annan Athletic’s David Hopkirk was also considered but is maybe a little too inconsistent at the moment. Of course, he may yet appear in the future, but not just now.
Further up the food chain, the omission of a number of Rangers players might have rankled in some quarters. Jon Daly has made a fabulous start to his Ibrox career but there are better strikers already on this list. Lewis Macleod, meanwhile, will no doubt develop into a Scotland international in the near future and is certainly unfortunate to miss out. No doubt he’ll be crestfallen when he discovers the news.
Elsewhere in the division, there was an argument about who would feature between Callum Morris and Andy Geggan of Dunfermline Athletic, but the young centre-back won in the end. Jamie Longworth was briefly mentioned but a poor 2012-13 season with Queen’s Park perhaps undermined his chances – if the Stranraer forward is able to maintain his current form, there is little doubt he will feature in the future. Ayr United’s Alan Lithgow is widely to considered to be one of the league’s most accomplished defenders, but it was felt that Ross McMillan was the better of the two. Stenhousemuir’s Sean Higgins and Bryan Hodge were also discussed – the latter’s failure to merit inclusion was, for one writer at least, a bitter blow.
It was the omission of a number of quality Championship centre-backs that was the most contentious issue: Ben Gordon (Alloa Athletic), John Armstrong (Cowdenbeath), Declan Gallacher (Dundee), Craig Reid (Greenock Morton) and Chris Higgins and Mark Durnan (both Queen of the South) all have their qualities and, in the cold light of day, it might have been remiss not to have included at least one of them at the expense of someone else. Maybe, in another place at another time, a list article looking at the ten best central defenders in the lower leagues might be published. It would make fascinating reading.
Further upfield, the exclusion of Fouad Bachirou (pictured) might upset some but, after Morton’s appalling start to the season, could it be said that the presence of Michael Tidser masked his failings and made him look like a better player than he actually is? It’s certainly something to think about. Like the Dunfermline conundrum, it was a toss up between Dumbarton’s Chris Turner and Scott Agnew and it was the Ulsterman who prevailed; the same logic applied to Iain Russell and Michael Paton of Queen of the South. Hamilton Academical’s player-manager Alex Neil has enjoyed a fabulous season so far but, against some of the other midfielders in the article, he perhaps lacks the same qualities.
Kane Hemmings of Cowdenbeath, like others previously mentioned, will no doubt appear in the future, although whether or not he’s still at Cowdenbeath when that time comes around remains to be seen. The striker is surely just biding his time at Central Park. Dundee’s Craig Beattie falls into a similar bracket and had it not been for poor fitness precluding him from playing on a more frequent basis, and a dose of idleness to his play when things don’t go well for the team, he would have most certainly been in the upper echelons. Finally, the failure to include Livingston’s Marc McNulty prompted one writer to compose an expletive-ridden e-mail in the middle of the night that lamented his own forgetfulness. By this point, the wheels were already in motion and it was too late to turn back.
But there you have it. The Top 25 Superstars of the Lower Leagues. Stick that oan yer fuckin’ website.