What separates a good footballer from a great one? It is a question that comes up again and again in endless forms.
‘Where do Messi’s stats come from?’ ‘Why do England always lose on penalties?’ ‘What made the original Brazilian Ronaldo Il Fenomeno?’
Equally as often, the question pops up as a form of lament. ‘Why did Francis Jeffers fail to fulfil his potential?’ ‘Whatever happened to Adriano?’ or ‘What are some things that lower league players know that top stars don’t?’
The answer to this question is deceptively simple. What separates the best from the rest is consistency – the ability to deliver under extreme pressure again and again and again. That’s in all conditions, in every kind of adversity.
What would probably surprise most fans is just how good every pro player is without pressure. So much so, that when you barrack them from the stands as fans, or belittle their talents you show them a massive disservice.
Most players at all professional levels can do one or two things exceptionally well but they are undermined by a physical or mental flaw that means they don’t make it. Luck, injuries, lifestyle choices can all have a bearing too.
The best players in contrast, maintain a level of steeliness that is undimmed by context. They literally stretch time and space on the park because their unfailing technique and the ice in their veins let’s them do so.
And that steeliness, the ability to almost stop time in the heat of a game, to deliver, can’t be taught, learned or faked. It is a fixed attribute virtually from day one. Hard work augments mental bravery which in turn allows skill to flourish. But hard work can’t ever be a substitute for true class on the football field.
Honestly, I’ve seen countless world class pretenders in training, even at lowly part time clubs. Their touch is sure, their technique crisp as they unerringly find their man with laser-like passes, arced through the night sky in training exercises and bounce games. But put a crowd and opponents in front of them and these same players become literally a shadow of their shadow. A fraction of the player their technical qualities suggest they should be.
I’ve been trawling through pictures of games I’ve scouted this season for an illustration of what is a very important point, a point that is fatally misunderstood by fans. It is this: the fact is that even the lowliest players you are likely to see, relative to the gilded cage life of the Champions League, are very good footballers, players that at one stage really ‘could have been a contender’.
Their story is always one of ifs, buts, maybes, the vagaries of luck and the vanity of human wishes.
I’ve decided on this snapshot below from a game between Forfar Athletic and Ayr United on 21st October 2017. The primary reason for choosing the pic is proximity.
Having just seen two of Ayr’s most recent Scottish League One games, the strengths, weaknesses and biographies of these players are uppermost in my mind.
A one-sided, wind-afflicted game in bitter, wintry conditions on a plastic park is about as far as it gets from Ronaldo, Messi and the race for the Ballon d’Or.
Station Park, Forfar is no Camp Nou and even the famous Forfar Bridie (a sort of proto-minced beef and onion pie encased in shortcrust pastry) was way off its game on this occasion. But this is all important context, in the process of showing the provenance of the players. Whatever it looks like these are good players that on a going day can be, and have been, real star turns.
Ayr are in the yellow shirts and shorts. They are this game’s 5-0 winners but a side that could still fall just short of the title this season if their primary rivals Raith Rovers can keep the pressure on. So, let’s be clear, there’s no sense here that I am picking an outlier, a moneybags runaway winner, to make some skewed point about provenance.
The Ayr United players you can see in the picture are from front to back Robbie Crawford (8), Michael Moffat (7), Lawrence Shankland (17) and right at the top of the pic Brian Gilmour (4) (though his number is obscured).
So let’s look through the football CV’s of these four Ayr teammates and as you’ll hopefully see a pattern emerge.
Robbie Crawford (8)
After starring for Ayr’s academy sides, Robbie Crawford signed his professional contract in November 2010. Bright things were forecast for the 19-year-old in his debut season, and the player made his first team debut in Ayr’s opening fixture, a Ramsdens Cup tie at East Stirlingshire.
He made his first full start against Forfar Athletic at the end of August 2012. And Crawford would go onto enjoy a 16-game run in which he would play every minute.
His initial displays as a composed and dynamic midfielder attracted a number of scouts from English clubs. Brighton, Charlton, Leicester and Wolves were all credited with an interest. Crawford is best seen in the middle of the park and this is where he has featured most under manager Ian McCall.
His former boss at Ayr, Mark Roberts has compared his style of play to ex-Rangers’ and Scotland skipper Barry Ferguson and while that was a strange comparison of a player who appeared to lack the strength to cope with the physical side of the game, Crawford has come into his own in the last two seasons as he has found his mature strength.
The result is night and day as he’s transformed himself from being essentially a lightweight, attack-minded free spirit to a tough, technical box to box midfielder with good touch, pace and a right footed shot from distance.
Composed in possession, the midfielder allies good balance to control which allows him to quickly turn away from opponents whilst retaining the ball. It is this same technique that also gives him the ability to glide beyond players when making late runs into the box. Crawford’s willingness to make himself available to collect the ball and move it into advanced positions is a trait that belies his young age and has probably led to him being overrated initially, before he was quite ready for a step up to a higher standard.
The problem is though, that the scouts have already taken a look and passed Crawford over. And he is a player they’re unlikely to revisit – such is the choice of recruits on offer. That is available players literally from every corner of the globe.
Michael Moffat (7)
This will be a game forever remembered by 32-year old Ayr striker Michael Moffat as a hatrick finally got him to the 100 career goal landmark. This is a great achievement in any standard of football.
Another local boy, like Robbie Crawford and Brian Gilmour, Moffat spent six seasons in Junior football with Girvan before signing for Ayr in January, 2011. His relative late arrival on the scene can be explained not by a lack of ability but by a lack of ambition and a personal preference for watching Celtic’s games on a Saturday.
The mobile striker went on to bag 68 goals in three seasons at Ayr United before winning a move to full-time football with Dunfermline. A 21-goal haul marked three seasons with The Pars that never quite worked out and specifically so during a notable goal drought.
No surprise then that Moffat was delighted to return to the ‘home comforts’ of Ayr on a two year deal in the summer. Another four goals quickly followed taking him to the brink of the 100 club and he crossed the line in some style with his three goals here against Forfar.
Moffat is a constant pest and a player who never gives up a seemingly lost cause. His energy and movement, allied to quick feet mean that he can make his own chances and also play-in others. Moffat does not look especially quick (above average pace) with the ball but he is lightning fast chasing it down and has a quick football brain. He is both a fox in the box and also a player who can recycle possession or hold the ball up in wide areas. He is very dangerous latching onto upfield headers and clearances, reacts quickly, and reads the game exceptionally well as the play unfolds.
Moffat is where he is largely on account of his late start and his ‘wrong club at the right time’ move to Dunfermline not working out. Which is a pity. He’s also not especially easy on the eye as a player. And sadly, football is a ‘beauty contest’, whether people, fans included, choose to acknowledge that fact or not.
Lawrence Shankland (17)
Lawrence Shankland is a former Scotland U21 international who came to prominence during a live TV appearance for Scotland Schoolboys v England on Sky at St James Park in April 2011.
A product of Gardner Speirs’ superb talent factory at Queens Park, which also included the Scotland left back Andy Robertson of Liverpool and Wolves’ Barry Douglas, Shankland announced himself with a series of stunning goals for The Spiders including a stunning 30 yard effort v Partick Thistle in August 2012.
After finishing the season as QP’s top scorer, Shankland signed for Aberdeen in a summer where Queens Park lost players with over 1,000 first time appearances between them to full-time and higher-ranked clubs in Scotland.
Shankland was initially placed in the Aberdeen under-20 squad, as he adjusted to full-time professional training and made his debut appearance for Aberdeen in September 2014, in a 3–2 victory against Inverness CT. Continuing his progress at Pittodrie, Shankland signed a new contract which ran until summer 2017, however he was loaned to lower-division clubs for the vast majority of its duration as enthusiasm for him appeared to wane.
At the end of the 2016–17 season, Aberdeen confirmed that Shankland would be leaving the club and a player who’d scored twice on his debut for Scotland U21s was forced to start again. A trial with Swansea in England’s Premier League didn’t lead to a contract either and Shankland finds himself looking to resurrect his career at Ayr where he’s sure to score a decent haul of goals.
A reliable, self-confident finisher, Shankland’s fatal flaw is probably just a slight lack of pace for the top level. Certainly, his effort and commitment can’t be faulted.
Brian Gilmour (4)
Now 30, Irvine-born Brian Gilmour started life at Rangers as a highly youngster. He represented Scotland at youth level, including at the European U19s finals in 2006 where Scotland progressed all the way to the tournament final v Spain.
Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Kevin Mirallas and Arda Turan, the young Scots blazed a trail all the way to final with an encouraging draw against Portugal and stunning victories against Turkey in the group stages and Czech Republic (featuring nine future full internationals) in the semi-final.
That set the stage for Scottish Final heartbreak as Gilmour’s Scotland U19s, that also included Robert Snodgrass, Graham Dorrans and Steven Fletcher, pitted their wits against Gerard Pique, Juan Mata, Mario Suarez and Javi Garcia in a 2-1 defeat.
You can read what happened to that 2006 side thereafter here: How Scotland U19s reached the Euros Final.
Brian Gilmour left Rangers in 2006, signing for Clyde and was part of the Scotland squad at the 2007 FIFA U20 World Cup before moving on to Queen of the South at the end of the tournament. Spells in Finland with FC Haka, English League 2 side Lincoln City and Icelandic side KA followed before he returned to Scotland.
At his best, Brian Gilmour is a composed midfielder with great vision, as demonstrated by the goal he scored from within his own half against Dunfermline at Somerset Park in December 2013. Mostly though he is a square peg in a round hole in this Ayr side – a player still to find his ideal role and position 11 years after his initial breakthrough.
Gilmour is best seen as a no. 10 with no defensive duties, but that sort of role is a luxury, fraught with problems at this level. He’s been tried as a second striker and a deep-lying playmaker, even as an emergency wing back, but more typically he features in a wide role or as an impact sub against tiring defenders.
Brian Gilmour’s story demonstrates the role of luck and other’s judgement in career management. Had he been spotted by the right club at the right time earlier in his career, say in Spain, Italy or Portugal, then we might be looking at a very different player now. As it is, Brian Gilmour has never quite been able to consolidate upon that early potential.