The Away End's search for Scottish football's greatest 100 continues with the Herald's Richard Wilson. Remember you can vote for your choices by clicking here.
Any list of football talent is subjective. How can greatness be defined? What does it mean to be the best? The attempt to quantify or measure the worth of players seems contrary when so much of the response to their deeds is emotional. Football is a game of passion and fanaticism rather than reason.
Some individuals were minor characters in gloriously successful sides, others were wonderful players in teams that did not match their ability. It seems a truer reflection to select from footballers I watched at first-hand, but then how could legendary figures from the early 70s and beyond be left out of a search for the Scottish game’s most significant men?
The decision-making might be flawed, but it still allows exceptional players to be brooded over again. So with a nod to the traditional nature of British football, here is a team of some of the best players to have featured in Scotland, in a 4-4-2 formation.
There were personality flaws in Andy Goram, but even his shortcomings seemed to accept that they could not diminish his ability on the field. His appearance - disheveled, bulky, swathed in knee supports - suggested a imperfect figure, but his agility, his reactions, his positioning, and his sheer cussed refusal to concede goals were exceptional. Other goalkeepers could claim to be as talented, in particular Jim Leighton and Ronnie Simpson, but the former was occasionally flawed in crucial games, while the latter played in an era that was kinder to goalkeepers.
Even the Scotland national team couldn’t choose between Danny McGrain and Sandy Jardine. One was inevitably always played out of position on the left. They were exemplary full-backs, encompassing the defensive shrewdness and attacking instincts that became vital as the old formations were phased out. There became little room for specialists, and McGrain and Jardine were versatile enough to play on either side of the defence and still contribute going forward. Jardine was elegant and poised, but McGrain seemed more typically Scottish. There was a ruggedness to him. For being such a vibrant figure, McGrain gets the nod.
Some defenders look colossal. Billy McNeil was an imposing figure even before he muscled into opposition attackers. It is common to overlook the football instincts of centre-backs, particularly when they are as strong and forceful as McNeil, but he understood the game with an expert’s appreciation. Lifting the European Cup with Celtic in 1967 was the unsurpassable moment of his career, but it shouldn’t eclipse the poise and the uncompromising nature of his defending. Alex McLeish was a modern-day equivalent, mobile, powerful, astute, but McNeil was the more outstanding figure.
Standing next to McNeil, Willie Miller would have appeared inferior. He was not as tall or physically intimidating as other centre-halves, but few could rival Miller’s instincts. He anticipated danger, stole the ball from strikers with his reading of the play, but combined that with such a competitive spirit that no aspect of the game was ever left uncontested. Even referees were subjected to Miller’s desire to be the victor on every occasion. He was not as versatile or as suave as Richard Gough, a natural defender with a limitless work ethic, but Miller was the more formidable.
The way the position is played in contemporary football might not have suited John Greig, but he would still perform there with an adamant expertise. Greig was a dogged player, fierce and aggressive. He led by committing all of himself to the task of defending his area of the field, but he was no cumbersome player on the ball. His all-round ability is often underrated because he was such a forceful competitor, but Greig was so good a defender that he could fill any of the roles in the back four and still be the most impressive. Tommy Gemmell would lay claim to being a more suitable left-back, and no contemporary candidate has been more reliable and consistent than Maurice Malpas, but there was an aura about Greig. He carried himself as though he had no equal.
No other player deployed his skill with such a tormenting genius as Jimmy Johnstone. His dribbling skills were a form of persecution for defenders. The typical response was to kick out viciously, so that Johnstone became the victim of tackles that were essentially assaults. His response was to gather the ball and take on the same defender again. He was irrepressible because he was a virtuoso, but also because he refused to be cowed. There was courage in the way Johnstone sought to mesmerise opponents. In a different way, Gordon Strachan was impetuous and haughty, but he could not match the sense of unbridled joy that Johnstone seemed to express as he confounded defenders.
There may have been no better passer in Scottish football than Bobby Murdoch. He was the soul of Celtic’s European Cup-winning side, a player who could deliver the ball with flair and precision, but who could also read the game with a devastating astuteness. Murdoch was the orchestrator, capable of immediately grasping where the opposition was at its most vulnerable, then exploiting it mercilessly. He was not a natural athlete, but he was also an uncommon footballer. Dave Mackay and Graeme Souness were both better all-round midfielders, and could make sounder claims to greatness, but neither gave their best years to Scottish football in the same way as Murdoch.
If license can be granted to this team only needing to exist in theory, then there would be room alongside Murdoch for Jim Baxter. Together, they might have been conquered by more vigorous competitors, but Baxter was another whose use of the ball was ingenious. He was self-indulgent, but that only added to his allure. Yet even Baxter could be surpassed. Paul Gascoigne was a troubled man, and much of his time in Scotland was volatile. He allowed only glimpses of the best of his game, but even the fleeting moments were peerless. A generation of British midfielders has failed to match Gascoigne’s talent or chutzpah.
The destructive extent of Brian Laudrup’s game was cloaked in elegance. He demoralised opponents with a suave grace. At full flight, with the ball at his feet, the Danish international appeared unstoppable. He could glide past defenders, but he was not restricted to the outpost of the wing. Laudrup was shrewd and capable enough to play anywhere up front for Rangers, and he used his aplomb only when it was necessary. There was never any hint of showboating. Davie Cooper was just as talented, but a more orthodox winger, or at least more constrained by the customary assumption in British football at the time that wide players could not be versatile.
Kenny Dalglish remains an iconic figure in Scottish football, but like Souness and Mackay, his peak years were spent down south. No similar judgement could be made of Henrik Larsson. He combined a ruthless instinct in front of goal with a touch, awareness and fluent movement that meant he often seemed capable of overcoming teams on his own. Larsson racked up goals at Celtic, but that alone does not reflect the extent of his talent. Every aspect of his game was superior.
The same could not be said about Ally McCoist. Other players were more dangerous in the air, like Mark Hateley, and others were more skillful outside the penalty area, like Mo Johnstone and Charlie Nicholas. None, though, could keep up with McCoist’s goalscoring prowess. McCoist possessed the knack of being present whenever an opportunity arose, he could finish with either foot and his head, and he timed his runs adroitly. Mostly, though, he was a courageous striker. Every missed opportunity was immediately discarded. There was only time to dwell upon the next chance that would come. McCoist understood that his finishing would eventually always be rewarded.
McGrain McNeill Miller Grieg
Johnstone Murdoch Gascoigne Laudrup