Scottish football has long been in a state of decay. Neil Doncaster’s league reconstruction is a small step away from our ingrained, infamous archaic bureaucracy, but the national team continues to tread water. Scotland were the first team in qualifying to be denied access to Brazil 2014, while fate has landed yet another tough group in lieu of France 2016.
One place largely exempt from blame for this situation is Scotland’s up and coming youngsters, showcased weekly in the SPFL. The following is a light-hearted summary of some of the brightest talents (outside of Celtic) looking to make the next step in 2014.
The age has arbitrarily been set at 22 for the first eleven, though on the bench there are one or two edging over this limit. The goalkeeper is a conspicuous absentee – considering Scotland’s history there is a strange shortage of top class young goalkeepers at the moment. None of the Scotland under-21 goalkeepers play in Scotland, albeit it’s the nature of the position that players develop and mature at a later age.
The youngest first-choice goalkeeper in the SPFL (outside of Fraser Forster) is former Celt Scott Fox of Partick (26) and Jamie MacDonald of Hearts is 27. In the Championship, there are younger ‘keepers like Alloa’s Scott Bain and Livingstone’s Darren Jamieson, and elsewhereTottenham have Jordan Archer (20). By virtue of having never seen any of these players in action, the spot is up for debate in the comments!
Here is the tictactic young team:
Aaron Taylor-Sinclair – 22, Partick Thistle
Jags manager Alan Archibald is already resigned to losing Taylor-Sinclair in January, with the left-back’s contract up in the summer. As Partick’s most capped player this season with 22 appearances, it’s a huge blow for Archibald.
For this exercise the left-back spot is hotly contested with Graeme Shinnie of Inverness and Andrew Robertson of Dundee Utd also two of the players with the most club appearances this season.
But Taylor-Sinclair gets the nod – at 6’0″ a more able defender perhaps than either Shinnie or Robertson and possessing a decent left-foot. But as the oldest of the 3, 2014 will be a key year for the man who might not be at Partick for much longer.
Joe Shaughnessey – 21, Aberdeen FC.
If left-back is the most hotly contested area, then right-back is the opposite. Joe Shaughnessey’s form hasn’t been exceptional of late, with some Dons fans hoping that someone like young Craig Murray can bring competition.
Honourable mention to Aberdeen team-mate Ryan Jack (21) who played right-back under Craig Brown and for the national under-21s, and Dundee Utd’s Keith Watson, who is 24.
Shaughnessey himself is a centre-back turned full-back, though doesn’t necessarily have the physique to suggest a preference to either position. This history partly explains his lack of assists, managing just the 1 in all competition in the past 2 seasons.
At 21 Shaughnessey remains one of the SPFL’s most promising full-backs, and with Aberdeen enjoying an excellent season his form should return to his early-season best.
Danny Wilson – 22, Heart of Midlothian
24 appearances for the old Rangers, SPFA and Football Writers’ Young Player of the Year 2010, a lucrative move to Liverpool and spells at Blackpool, Bristol and now Hearts. It’s amazing to think that Danny Wilson only just turned 22. This experience is starting to tell, Captaining a devastated Hearts side, and despite the set-backs a huge future lies ahead.
John Souttar – 17, Dundee Utd
Making his debut at 16 years and 99 days, John Souttar is Dundee Utd’s youngest ever first-team player. What makes this more surprising is that he’s a centre-back – a position normally associated with experience and composure – so this underlines the regard ‘Soapy’ holds with the Utd management team.
Like Danny Wilson, he’s not the tallest centre-back but makes up to an extent with his positioning and timing. His main assets are strength and pace, and reminiscent of Virgil Van Dijk or Efe Ambrose at Celtic, looks to play the ball from the back and take steps forward if nothing is on.
The question is whether Souttar can hold his own defensively, but at only 17, Utd’s first-choice centre-back and with Sunderland and Everton already interested, he appears to have the brightest of futures.
John McGinn – 19, St Mirren
Keeping the likes of Gary Mackay-Steven (23), Callum Paterson (19) and team-mate Kenny McLean (21) out of the side, John McGinn’s place is fully justified.
A tenacious and energetic midfielder, McGinn has come through the ranks at St Mirren to establish a starting place in the first team. His manager Danny Lennon succinctly explains McGinn’s strengths speaking to the Telegraph: “He’s brave on the ball and you saw that with the ball he slid in for our first goal. I’ve watched the kid in reserve fixtures and I’m sitting in the stand so I see the full picture. I’ll maybe see the pass I think is the right one but he sees something better.
“That’s happened on two or three occasions this season and he not only recognises the pass, he delivers it as well.”
Peter Pawlett – 22, Aberdeen FC
In his own words he doesn’t classify himself as a young player, and having just passed 100 games for Aberdeen it’s amazing that Pawlett is just 22. An unsuccessful loan at St Johnstone and a spate of injuries curtailed his development
When he first emerged as a youngster at Pittodre his main asset was pace, and was duly deployed on the wing. But since, and this season in particularly he’s excelled in the centre of the park. Picking up the ball in pockets of space his acceleration takes him into dangerous areas of the pitch which helps set up others for the attack.
Aberdeen’s last match is the perfect example, with Pawlett winning a free-kick on the edge of the area after a sharp turn of pace which Nicky Low converted to secure 3 points, and also winning an unconverted penalty with a similar trick.
Stuart Armstrong – 21, Dundee Utd
Jackie McNamara argues that the best thing for his brood of upcoming talents is to stay at Dundee Utd for at least 100 games to develop. Stuart Armstrong had already passed that milestone and is probably the most accomplished player on this list.
Not only is he big (6 foot) and strong, he might also be the quickest player in the team. In this video, on 19 seconds he’s on the centre-spot and 7 seconds later is tapping in a goal. Often found higher up the park, looking to work into the box, his overall technique is excellent.
Currently Captaining Scotland’s under-21 side, some have suggested a move to England is on the cards and Celtic might see him as a like-for-like replacement for Joe Ledley, whose contract expires in the summer.
Ryan Gauld – 18, Dundee Utd
The SPFL prospect everybody’s talking about, Ryan Gauld exploded onto the scene in the latter half of 2013.
Normally playing just off the striker, there are a number of parallels to the great player he’s been likened to with the nickname ‘baby-Messi’. He’s tiny, quick, left-footed and unexpected. While his dribbling is excellent, perhaps the stylistic difference with the real Messi is that he prefers being the starter rather than the all-in-one finisher.
His eye for a pass really is exquisite, threading through the pacy likes of Armstrong or Mackay-Steven to create rather than score.
Chris Johnston – 19, Kilmarnock
With the mainstream plaudits sailing Gauld’s way, Chris Johnston – a very similar kind of player – has quietly been on the rise. He’s usurped (another small and intelligent player) Rabiu Ibrahim to start 9 of the last 10 matches predominantly on the left, making use of a terrific left-foot which is dangerous both at set-pieces and open play.
Like Gauld, clearly the target for 2014 will be to work on his physical side if he intends to compete on a bigger stage, while reaching for another 10 goals this season would be a realistic, tangible target. His performance recently against Hearts (and majestic right-foot curler) was the perfect example of how he can beguile sides while cutting in from the flank.
Stevie May – 21, St Johnstone
Since breaking into the St Johnstone side in 2010, Stevie May’s football education has seen him scoring 19 goals in 22 for Alloa, 25 in 33 for Hamilton in the First Division, and now an impressive 11 goals in 19 for the Saints in the SPFL.
His all-action, hustle and bustle type performances have attracted interest from the relatively cash-rich Peterborough in England’s League 1.
May scored twice and set up 5 to win the November player of the Month award, and this December caught the eye against Celtic – who’ve suffered expensive striking problems of their own.
Despite the healthy goal return in seasons past, detractors still worry that May is more effort and action than goal-threat, so another fruitful half-season in 2014 will easily dispel that.
Jason Naismith – 19, St Mirren, DC
Shaun Hutchinson – 21, Motherwell, DC
Andrew Robertson – 19, Dundee Utd, DL
Graeme Shinnie – 22, Inverness CT, DL
Keith Watson – 24, Dundee Utd, DR
Ryan Jack – 21, Aberdeen, MC
Kenny McLean – 21, St Mirren, MC
Gary Mackay-Steven – 23, Dundee Utd, AMRL
Jamie Walker – 20, Hearts, AMRL
Aaron Doran – 22, Inverness CT, AMC
Alex Harris – 19, Hibernian, AMC
Callum Paterson – 19, Hearts, ST