Raiding North of the Border
Kneejerk journalism has suggested Kevin Nolan as the most accomplished performer thus far in the Championship, but as good as the ex-Bolton man’s displays have been, I for one would suggest Alan Smith as having been every bit his equal. A third name, however, might stake a claim for the accolade of the best of the best so far. What sets Graham Dorrans apart is his easy calm in possession, clockwork passing and eye for the odd peach of a goal. A fringe figure last season after signing from Livingston, the Scot has blossomed since the Baggies’ descent, culminating in a first national cap in October.
But Dorrans’ rise is a new exception to a sustained dehydration of Scottish talent in the English game, perhaps best evidenced by Middlesbrough’s recent capture of Barry Robson, Willo Flood and Chris Killen from Celtic. As Mark Clemmit said on the BBC’s Five Live Football league last week, these are the kind of players one associates with Rochdale and Oldham on loan. Only Robson of the three is a Scot of course, but this distinctly underwhelming flurry of business will only serve to cast further doubts over the terribly unimpressive stewardship of Gordon Strachan thus far, as well as the slim pickings to be had north of the Tweed. I saw Flood play a couple of times at the start of his career at Maine Road and lightweight doesn’t even begin to describe him — a kind of Vinny Samways or Mike Fillery without the league appearances.
Despite atrocious results, Scotland’s 1974 and 1978 world cup squads probably provided the most celebrated selection of stars the tartan nation has seen. These line ups included a sizeable proportion of the best British players of the time, with Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Archie Gemmill, Joe Jordan, Billy Bremner, Graeme Souness and Lou Macari all deserving of household name status. Since then, there has been a dramatic downsizing. That Darren Fletcher and Barry Ferguson are the best that the Scots can provide must be wrenchingly disappointing. The former is only now starting to recover from Roy Keane’s contemptuous bewilderment that “people in Scotland rave about him” and the latter misfired badly in a spell at Ewood Park before enjoying an Indian Summer of sorts with the Birmingham City of today.
New national boss Craig Levein epitomizes this lengthy decline. Ignoring the historical precedents set by Craig Brown at Preston and Tommy Burns at Reading, he persisted in raiding north of the border on his appointment at Leicester and ended up with a cluster of players suitable only for the division below, including Mark de Vries and Alan Maybury. He may have signed Matty Fryatt, but Levein did not register that below the Auld Firm, the standard in the SPL is roughly on a level with the lower reaches of League One. Indeed, Ferguson’s travails as well as those of other high profile southward bounders such as Ally McCoist prove that even the gruesome twosome prepare players only for a Championship future at best.
Dorrans does provide hope but for the Tartan Army to truly turn round, they’ll need a talisman of world class quality to emerge — as Hristo Stoichkov inspired Bulgaria and Gheorghe Hagi their northern neighbours, the presence in a side of a player that can hurt any opposition would allow lesser lights such as Fletcher to feed off them and create a formidable unit. Scotland still await that man.