Once Scotland secured a berth at this summer’s European Championships, it felt like the reclamation of Scotland as a serious footballing nation.
An important landmark for a country that has seldom seen progression let alone success in the past few decades.
This has been mirrored in Scotland’s domestic circuit with a recent surge up the UEFA coefficient rankings. This is, in part, due to the resurgence of Rangers under Steven Gerrard, supplemented with a helping hand from Celtic and their consistent appearance in UEFA group stage football. Scattered contributions from other clubs outside the ‘old firm’, has seen the profile and reputation of Scotland’s clubs steadily improve and the validity of it is a market for clubs higher in the food chain to graze upon.
Sporadically, a talismanic figurehead emerges from Scotland. Traditionally this has occurred at a semi-decadal rate. Contemporarily, for the national team, this appears to be a pick of John McGinn, Kieran Tierney, or Andrew Robertson, whilst for the SPFL, you cannot look further than the emergence and sequential dominance that has followed Virgil van Dijk since he left Glasgow.
Members of the current crop have Scottish CVs to rival Van Dijk, with Alfredo Morelos and Odsonne Edouard appearing to be the next-in-line to test the waters of a top-5 league. This piece will profile youngsters who are relatively unknown outside of Scotland, for those unfamiliar with the Scottish game. This is no way an exhaustive list, with players like Jamie Robson, Andy Irving, Lewis Smith, and more all deserving of attention.
Club: Hibernian FC
Position: Left Back
The idea that Scotland have two players trending towards the top of the EPL is ideal. However, when both play in the same position, it becomes slightly annoying, but beggars can’t be choosers.
When a potential third comes along, you just have to laugh and think, is it perhaps Scotland’s tap-water that creates top left-backs? Josh Doig is neither Tierney nor Robertson. However, his performances at nineteen compare well with the two.
Though not a mirror image of either, Doig is similar to Tierney, so much so that it was speculated that Arsenal have tried to bring him to the Emirates to deputise. Like Tierney, he has the necessary physical qualities to play at the highest level, standing at 1.89cm with good stamina and pace. He is also able, if needed, to deputise at centre back or at wing-back in a five, though in his short career he has yet to be tested extensively outside his usual position.
Doig extended his contract at Easter Road in February 2021. However, it is unlikely that he sees out the contract, with Hibernian likely setting themselves up for an appropriate sum of compensation. He has droves of commitment and determination, which occasionally cover-up for his technical ability, which isn’t poor but what you would expect from a young Scottish defender.
Importantly he is never found hiding and constantly offers himself as an option in the build-up. With quality crossing, Doig offers a threat when he finds himself close to the opposition goal. Like his club, Hibernian, Doig’s best football was played at the beginning of the season, with a cool-down since the new year. His national team future is questionable as he finds himself in the best-stocked area of the pitch. What is certain is that Doig will leave Hibernian for pastures new, whether it be down south to the EPL, to one of the Old Firm, or perhaps like cross-town youngster Aaron Hickey to continental Europe.
Club: Raith Rovers (on loan from Rangers)
Position: Left Wing
Amidst a highly publicised contract dispute, Kennedy was linked with a host of superclubs, including Roma, Bayern, and Man City. At that point, Rangers fans had seen little of the diminutive winger as he had limited first-team minutes. However, a mix of the transfer rumours and dialogue from the club meant that the Ibrox faithful knew they had something.
Kennedy is tiny, standing at 169cm and weighing in at 59kg. However, he should simply look to the likes of Papu Gomez, Jesus Navas, and teammate Jermaine Defoe. Kennedy does make up for his shortcomings with pace and close control; a small stride pattern and a magnetic quality to his dribbling make him reminiscent of pint-sized magicians found across the continent.
With a tendency to drift centrally and pick up short, Kennedy yearns to be involved on and off the ball. In that respect he is much like his Rangers teammate Ryan Kent. When on the counter, if not in possession, Kennedy stretches play and adds width by occupying wide positions. Luckily Kennedy retains his appetite when out of possession; he is a willing runner and though often overmatched, does engage in duels across the pitch.
While running or dribbling, Kennedy appears the real deal. Notably however, he lacks a tangible end product when close to the goal. This is not exclusive to Kennedy as many of his age peers across the continent have yet to develop a consistentcy in front of goal.
Kennedy has youth and playing time on his side. On loan at Raith Rovers this season, Kennedy has and will continue to be involved with the playing eleven. At this point in his career, nothing will suffice like playing time, so it will be interesting where he plies his trade next season. The most likely options being a rotation option at Ibrox or a loan switch to a Scottish Premiership or English League 1 team.
Position: Centre Midfield
David Turnbull is, without a doubt, the premier Scottish talent in the domestic game. He provides an impressive equilibrium of style and substance. The central midfielder has been used in a plethora of roles and positions this season: a ten in a 3-5-2, part of a double pivot, and ten in a narrow 4-1-2-1-2.
Turnbull does his best work up the pitch where his output is similar to the top strikers in the Scottish Premiership. This is thanks largely to a fantastic right foot; best utilised in open play, corners, and free-kicks. Turnbull has a wide array of finishes in his locker; he most often defers to a low drive shot to the corners to beat opposition goalkeepers.
He is also a vital cog in Celtics build-up with a diverse arsenal of passes and press-resistant qualities. Turnbull moved to Celtic in the summer of 2020 but was heavily linked and even photographed in the strip the season prior. A knee surgery saw the transfer break down and left Turnbull on the side-lines for the entirety of the 2019-20 campaign. Once he nailed down a starting spot in December of 2020, Turbull saw himself regain the award-winning form of 2018-19.
Concerns over Turnbull’s knees seem a thing of the past. However, there are legitimate questions over his physical capabilities. Turnbull has only completed ninety minutes three times for Celtic in league action this season. Some of his withdrawals may be tactical, however, his substitution consistency leaves little but to see Turnbull as a physical liability. Turnbull is mediocre at best when it comes to a central midfielder’s defensive requirements. However, his offensive output and tendency to play as a ten render these issues minimal.
Many were surprised to see him omitted from the March 2021 Scotland squad for the first set of World Cup Qualifiers. It will only be a matter of time until we see Turnbull don the blue for Scotland. Turnbull has the technical attributes to be an effective player in a top five league. That said, his physical attributes will decide how far he goes and what sort of legacy he leaves.
Position: Centre Midfield
Even those not so inclined with Scottish Football understand the legacy the name Ferguson holds at Aberdeen. Lewis Ferguson finds himself in one of the great Scottish footballing families. Despite the same last name, the legendary Sir Alex is not a member of this Ferguson family. Instead, Lewis is nephew to Rangers and Scotland Legend Barry Ferguson and son to ex-Rangers and Hearts player Derek Ferguson. The family connections make it seem that all roads lead to Ibrox for Ferguson; however, he will, in all likelihood, have a whole host of offers from Scotland and beyond.
Ferguson follows a lineage of top central midfielders developing in Aberdeen. Most recently Kenny McLean, Graeme Shinnie, and Ryan Jack. Ferguson is the leader and star at Aberdeen, a well-rounded all-action midfielder whose influence extends across the park. Upon his first exposure to first-team football, Ferguson was mainly a destroyer who was used purely to break up play. However, as his game has matured, he has developed a viable, progressive, and consistent passing range that has allowed him to become a key cog in Aberdeen’s build-up.
Ferguson is required to do a bit of everything for an underperforming Aberdeen. He sits atop Aberdeen’s scoring charts for this year’s league campaign, albeit mostly coming from the penalty spot. Physically, Ferguson can compete with the best; he is built-well and has a good engine. This has seen him play 93% of the total available minutes for Aberdeen in the Scottish Premiership. Ferguson’s determination and passion is seen in the number of cards he receives. However, this is a by-product of over-enthusiasm, a trait much preferred to under-enthusiasm.
Aberdeen have recently hired a new manager and are set for a rebuild. Ferguson can either be the centrepiece of the ensuing shuffle or the required sacrifice to fund an institutional shakeup. It most likely that we see Ferguson follow the well-trodden path down to England and attempt to emulate John McGinn and Stuart Armstrong’s successes.
Club: St Johnstone
Nationality: Northern Irish
Position: Centre Midfield
Ali McCann’s recent success and progression in Perth has come to little fanfare, likely due to him playing outside Scotland’s urban hubs or him not being Scottish.
However, his growth both as a footballer and a leader have been exemplary over the past two seasons, and it would be silly to bet against McCann’s trajectory continuing to trend upwards. St Johnstone’s midfield maestro has shown off his credentials as a complete midfielder over the past 18 months. McCann provides an elusive mix of finesse and metal. Heavily involved in anything St Johnstone do going forward, McCann’s efforts often fall on deaf ear as the Saints lack a cutthroat forward prepared to finish chances at a reasonable rate.
Once possession is lost, McCann is stout in his efforts to win it back. He doesn’t run around like a headless chicken, instead engaging in tackles and duels when appropriate with great success. McCann is likened to his international teammate Steven Davis in this regard. The comparison has its merits. Both have metronomic qualities. Calm and composed on the ball, and often tasked with dictating play under immense pressure.
His physical attributes also further the comparison; McCann stands at 1.76m, Davis at 1.73m. Both are not physical behemoths but neither liabilities in a physical game. Despite his age, McCann has been a calming influence in a St Johnstone team who changed hands after Tommy Wright’s eight-year spell in charge, no doubt a period of turmoil.
Already capped for Northern Ireland, McCann should rack up appearances into his thirties. Should his development continues, the possibility of joining the club of international centurions shouldn’t be seen as unreasonable. It is a matter of when not if regarding McCann’s departure from McDiarmid Park. Expect McCann to break the existing St Johnstone transfer record once he departs, with a move south of Scotland or to one of the old-firm looking the most likely.