The Hidden Gems of the Scottish League

For many years the SPL clubs overspent, and an influx of highly paid foreigners left our game in a terrible state. From Rangers breaking the Scottish transfer record to sign Tore Andre Flo, to Hibernian spending the best part of one million pounds on Ulises de la Cruz, for a time our clubs were spending money that, ultimately, was not within their means.

The collapse of certain TV deals, coupled with dwindling attendances and the impending UEFA financial fair play regulations, mean that the current climate is one of harsh realism and financial prudence. And it comes not a moment too soon.

The pessimists among us may view the situation as a negative one, in which we probably won’t see foreign talent such as Mikael Arteta or Stiliyan Petrov grace our game again. But one of the positives surely has to be that we can all now concentrate on developing local talent, and rather than looking south of the border, or to foreign shores, we can look within our own youth setups, our fellow SPL sides and, of course, the lower divisions.

It is the lower divisions that interest me in particular, and I think too many of our clubs have neglected them when searching for new talent. So, just to prove there can be success stories found within the Scottish League, I’ve taken a look at some of the players currently plying their trade in Scotland’s top flight who transferred from lower down the ladder.

Andy Webster (Arbroath)
Broke into the Arbroath side, then playing in the Second Division, in 1999 at the tender age of 17. I actually unwittingly saw the Dundee-born centre back in his early days at one of my trips to Gayfield, as my father and I liked to take in local lower league games when we weren’t watching Hearts. At just 18 it seemed he would join Dundee United, as a ‘five figure sum’ had been accepted by Arbroath. However, Webster rejected the offer and instead joined Hearts for £75,000. Craig Levein has developed a reputation for spotting talent in the lower leagues (fitting, since he himself moved from Cowdenbeath to Hearts as a player, and manager) and Webster is one of his most impressive finds. I still remember the terrible drubbing Hearts received at Falkirk in the Scottish Cup, when we were 3-0 down in under 20 minutes, against a First Division side! Webster was brought on and quickly helped steady the ship, and from then on Canadian Kevin McKenna was no longer a mainstay in the defence, and the Steven Pressley and Andy Webster partnership was formed. Although has had his ups and downs since his time at Tynecastle, due to both injury and ill-informed transfer decisions, he looks like he is back to his best now back at Hearts. Strong and determined, he is uncompromising in the air and reads the game brilliantly. Has won an impressive 22 caps for Scotland to date.

Barry Douglas (Queens Park)
Slipped through the net at Livingston after being branded ‘too small’, ended up playing at the amateur side of Queens Park in the Scottish Second Division. The left-back became a regular at Hampden, and was already attracting interest from other clubs even though Queens were relegated to the Third Division. Managed to finish the following season as the club’s top goalscorer, even from his defensive position, with a total of 9 goals. Championship side Watford had expressed an interest, but Dundee United manager Peter Houston did enough to convince Douglas to sign a three year deal at Tannadice. He’s made a name for himself going forward down the left flank, and posing a danger from set pieces, and was soon in the Dundee United first team, making over 20 appearances in his first season.

Danny Swanson (Berwick Rangers)
Another Levein capture that really defines the term ‘meteoric rise’. From playing for East of Scotland side Leith Athletic in 2005, to the SPL with Dundee United in 2008, Swanson has burst onto the scene and is now one of the league’s most technically gifted players, with international honours surely not far away. His time in the lower leagues was spent with Berwick Rangers in the Second Division, where his performances caught the eye of Levein. Has a tendency to go down a little easily at times, but apart from that always looks very comfortable on the ball, with a great range of passing and eye for goal. Hearts and Hibs will be scratching their heads as to how this one slipped through the net in the capital.

David Templeton (Stenhousemuir)
Failed to earn himself a contract at both Celtic and Aberdeen due to his slight build, and ended up making his senior debut for Stenhousemuir, who were in the Third Division at the time. Is named after the Rangers’ legend Davie Cooper, and has this surname as his middle name. Fittingly, it would seem Templeton’s style is similar to that of the late Scotland international, as he has developed a reputation for his quick feet, repertoire of skills and ability to run at opposing defenders. Signed for Hearts for an initial fee of just £30,000, and although it took him a couple of years to break into the first team, became a mainstay in the side last season, chipping in with his share of goals and assists – leading to him being nominated for PFA Young Player of the Year. If he can find a level of consistency, and keep improving, another possible Scotland star of the future.

Frazer Wright (Stranraer)
A late bloomer, signed by Kilmarnock at the age of 25 on a one year deal from semi-professional Stranraer. He had spent 7 seasons at the then Second Division side, gaining a reputation as a versatile defender. Choosing to introduce a player to the full time game at 25 was a risk for the Rugby Park side, hence the short deal, but Wright impressed enough to earn himself an extension, and has since moved on to fellow SPL side St Johnstone. Has always appeared to be a very solid and hard working defender when I’ve seen him, excellent in the air and a useful target for attacking set pieces. Now 31 and still in the SPL – showing that it’s never too late to make the step up.

Murray Davidson (Livingston)
Prised from First Division side Livingston in a double deal for himself and defender Dave Mackay, worth a total of £50,000, to move to St Johnstone in 2009. Was just 21 at the time, and a player who came through the youth system at Almondvale. Settled very quickly in the top flight, and has since been called into the full Scotland squad on more than one occasion, although still waiting to earn his first cap. A midfielder with a great engine, and another one to keep an eye on if his impressive development continues.

Ryan Stevenson (Ayr United)
After a relatively quiet January transfer window in 2010, safe to say I was not exactly thrilled when our ‘big’ signing turned out to be a 25-year-old from a struggling First Division side. The £30,000 (I believe that’s how much it was) transfer fee didn’t put much pressure on the midfielder though, and through hard work and no shortage of ability he has earned himself a significant following at Tynecastle. At times not the most technically gifted player, but he puts in one hell of a shift and loves driving forward from midfield. Very strong on and off the ball, extremely versatile and an integral part of the Tynecastle squad. Earned himself a contract extension just this week, and will now get the chance to play in Europe next season, if only very briefly…

L Dunsire

Hearts supporter and film enthusiast from Musselburgh. Follow me on Twitter @lauriedunsire