From SFL to Football League
Our latest scouting report from outside the Football League comes from Craig Telfer, whose website Who the hell is Akabusi? documents the thrills and spills of supporting Scottish Second Division side Stenhousemuir FC. Here, Craig widens his brief to consider those SFL players potentially capable of doing a job in England’s equivalent divisions.
The general perception of Scottish football, both home and abroad, is that the game is at its lowest ebb. The administration of Rangers FC – officially the world’s most successful club side and often described as a pillar of Scottish society – has magnified the problems surrounding the national sport and brought them to the attention of the wider British public.
There are numerous issues for the SFA to address: the national side have failed to qualify for an international tournament in almost 15 years; Scottish clubs now regularly depart from European competition before the summer ends; crowds outwith the Old Firm are continually falling; and the standard of football on show is declining year after year.
In the current climate, most players view the SPL as nothing more than a stepping stone into England. Such is the decline of the Scottish game, a move to the fourth tier of English football seems a far more attractive – and financially lucrative – prospect than playing in Scotland’s premier football competition. There is little to cheer about north of the border.
Beyond the mire of the SPL however, Football League scouts are beginning to discover a small, untapped pool of talented footballers in the country’s lower leagues. English clubs have started to find unpolished diamonds in the SFL and over the last few seasons, a number of promising players have moved from the lower echelons of Scottish football to England.
Graham Dorrans and Robert Snodgrass left Livingston in 2009 for West Bromwich Albion and Leeds United respectively, and both players have become unarguable successes: Dorrans has emerged as an important figure for both club and country, while Snodgrass has developed into one of the Championship’s most exciting talents.
Others such as Andy Halliday, Leigh Griffiths, Chris Mitchell, Mark Stewart and Craig Forsyth, meanwhile, have all joined Football League clubs from SFL sides and enjoyed varying degrees of success. For clubs with a canny and knowledgeable scouting network, there are many gifted players in the SFL still available for relatively modest fees.
Following the club’s relegation to the First Division in 2010, Falkirk manager Steven Pressley was forced to fill his squad with callow youngsters due to strict financial restraints imposed upon him. His young side reached a degree of distinction earlier in the year after defeating Rangers and Dundee United en route to the League Cup semi-final. Despite eventually losing 3-1 to Celtic, Falkirk’s performance was widely acclaimed. Following the match, Kallum Higginbotham and Murray Wallace were sold to Huddersfield Town (the latter immediately re-joined the Bairns on-loan until the end of the season) while several other Falkirk players have attracted attention from English clubs.
One of these, Craig Sibbald, 16, is widely considered to be the brightest prospect in Scottish football. A graduate from the SFA’s performance school programme, the midfielder has reportedly been scouted by Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, amongst others.
Although he lacks the pace to genuinely unsettle defences, Sibbald’s touch and ball control is impressive and he boasts a tidy and economical range of passing. Although predominantly played on the left of midfield, the player is comfortable at coming infield and undoing tight defences with killer through-balls, as he showcased in his team’s victory over Rangers.
The player recently signed a new contract tying him to Falkirk until 2014 but Sibbald is likely to join a Premier League club within the next few years. Recent estimates have valued him at around £200,000.
Alongside SIbbald, striker Farid El Alagui has been equally influential in his team’s strong season. The 27-year-old Moroccan was virtually unknown in Scotland but since scoring 14 goals in 25 games, he has quickly become a cult hero amongst the Falkirk support. A strapping forward who mixes height and strength with intelligence and clinical finishing, El Alagui has already drawn admiring glances from several League 2 sides including Crawley Town. With his contract due to expire in the summer, it seems probable he will be playing elsewhere next season.
Ross County’s Iain Vigurs is arguably the First Division’s most complete player and has been a central figure in his team’s excellent league campaign this season. Equally adept on the left flank and in central midfield, the 23-year-old playmaker would be a canny signing for most upwardly-mobile League 1 sides for a relatively modest fee.
Vigurs does not possess the pace to perform as a pure winger, nor does he have the defensive nous to act as a box-to-box midfielder, but his the technique and awareness allow him to operate in an advanced role, linking with his side’s attackers from an old-fashioned “inside left” position. Comfortable in possession and with an excellent touch, Vigurs enjoys moving the ball through the middle of the park and finding teammates in attacking positions with his keen range of passing. The player also possesses a fine strike and has scored seven goals over the course of the season. At over six feet tall, he also offers a defensive and offensive threat from set pieces.
Although the player’s contract expires in the summer, with his side of the cusp of promotion to the SPL, Vigurs will probably remain at Victoria Park for a further season at the very least. A player with his talent and potential would surely flourish League 1 at the very least.
Aaron Sinclair is another player with rich potential available for a small fee. Since joining Partick Thistle from Montrose last summer, the left fullback has established himself one of the most exciting defenders in the SFL and has already been scouted by over 20 clubs. Championship sides Leeds, Middlesbrough and Burnley are reported to have expressed an interest and with Thistle facing financial uncertainty following the administration of a key sponsor, the club may be forced to transfer their most valuable asset before his contract expires in the summer of 2013.
Sinclair certainly possesses the physical attributes to succeed in England – he is tall, direct and strong and offers pace and drive on the left flank. The 20-year-old is also a capable ball player and skilled at taking on and beating his marker. The player is still raw and he needs to improve his passing, both short and long, while his crossing and decision making is often wayward but with better and more intensive coaching, this can easily be improved on.
Sinclair‘s development would benefit from another season with Thistle, but there is little doubt the player will eventually move on, this summer or the next. He would make a fine signing to most upwardly mobile Championship and League 1 clubs.
Further down the SFL pyramid, the Second Division is perhaps the most exciting in Scotland and easily lends itself to the cliché “everyone can beat everyone”. The part-time squads are built around handsomely paid ex-professionals and callow youngsters from their academies and although several players have promising futures ahead of them, Ryan Donnelly is surely the league’s most outstanding prospect.
Currently leading the division’s goal-scoring charts with 18 goals, the 20-year-old Airdrie United striker has impressed throughout the season. Donnelly has risen to prominence in a disappointing Diamonds side that, like Falkirk, were forced to fill their ranks with untested players from their youth squads after severe cost-cutting initiatives.
A deft and instinctive finisher, the player displays intelligent positioning and movement in and around the penalty area. Playing through the middle or on either flank, Donnelly is strong on both feet and a potent threat in the air and over Christmas was reported to have been scouted by a host of teams across Scotland and England. He was rumoured to have been a target for MK Dons and Swansea and earlier in the month, he spent a week’s trial with Wigan Athletic.
Donnelly hasn’t scored since January and has begun to look jaded in recent weeks, but there is little doubt over his ability. It’s difficult to imagine the player securing a transfer to a Premier League club, despite his recent trial, but he would make an excellent signing for most League 1 sides. With full-time training, Donnelly could surely develop into a very fine footballer.
In the Third Division, the quality of football on show is directly proportional to the club’s standings within the SFL. Other than a small handful of clubs who admirably attempt to adopt a more patient approach, most of the football rarely rises beyond kick and rush with long ball after long ball shelled in the general direction of a lumbering target man. Annan Athletic aren’t nicknamed “Annan Agricultural” for nothing.
With the exception of Clyde defender Declan Gallagher and Montrose’s young forward Martin Boyle, two fine players who have a decent chance of rising through the SFL, Third Division squads are assembled from youngsters culled from full-time squads and hard-bitten journeymen who more often than not, move from club to club before disappearing into the murky vortex of Junior football.
Before he joined Peterhead last summer, Rory McAllister was widely considered to be one of the SFL’s most coveted players. Balancing his plumbing apprenticeship with part-time football, the striker scored a remarkable 44 goals in 76 league games over two seasons with Brechin City and quickly developed a reputation as the league’s most clinical forward. McAllister combined his height and strength with intelligence and skill and was comfortable playing as his team’s focal point in attack, or on the shoulder of the last defender.
As his contract with the Second Division club expired, a host of clubs were reported to have made contact with the player, including Charlton, Sheffield United and Port Vale. Having played professionally with Aberdeen and Inverness Caledonian Thistle before joining Brechin, McAllister had stated on several occasions his ambition was to return to full-time football and was widely expected to move to the Football League or the SPL.
It was something as a surprise, then, when McAllister opted to join recently-relegated Peterhead on a two-year contract. He claimed the move would allow him to complete his apprenticeship and secure his long-term future but many observers questioned his motives and felt his chance to return to full-time football had passed him by. With Peterhead toiling and performing below expectations, it seems unlikely there will ever be the same level of interest in the striker that there was last summer. At 24, McAllister is unlikely to develop further as a player, but may make a decent, inexpensive signing for some sides in League 2.
If you like what you see here, then do give Craig a follow on twitter: he can be found at @craiggtelfer.
Special mention also goes to Tom Brogan, whose flickr stream is an invaluable source for Scottish Football and Junior League images.