Anybody who has ever tried to use a Scottish bank note on the wrong side of the border will be familiar with the level of scrutiny and suspicion it tends to provoke. It’s kind of the same with Scottish goals. Everybody knows what the value of one should be, it’s written right there in cold, hard digits. But there remains a scepticism. A sense that this may, in fact, not be worth quite what we are being told.
Still, the Scottish Premier League remains a vital hunting ground for big clubs for a variety of reasons. Even as the days in which Scottish clubs were truly competitive on the continent seem to be drifting ever further out of sight, there remains a lasting sense of pedigree to Scottish football thanks to the status of its biggest clubs and the fabled history it holds.
It’s proximity to England, combined with the cultural similarities both on and off the pitch, make it a natural place for the Premier League and Championship, given the financial disparity between the leagues in recent years, to scout, safe in the knowledge that anyone recruited should have no trouble adapting to the greyness of the weather or the roughness of the tackles.
Players who pride themselves on goalscoring are, theoretically, the easiest to track. After all, they trade in the main currency of the game, and their figures are etched out for all to see. Their influence upon games is nowhere near as nebulous as a holding midfielder or a full-back given that it has a clear numerical value.
But when buying across national boundaries, the question of exchange rate arises. No-one could have said for sure whether Alfredo Morelos’ 27 goals in the Finish top-flight would translate into Scottish success. It turns out they did, and his 17 strikes this season now have a host of clubs across Europe and beyond weighing up the same question: would he find the back of the net over here?
To try and shed some light on that question, here’s a look back at the past ten top scorers in the SPFL and how the rest of their careers panned out.
2018/19: Alfredo Morelos, Rangers (17 at the time of writing)
This list should probably begin with an admission that it can be reductive to try and boil a player’s season down into a single number. To tell the story of Morelos’ 2018/19 campaign, it definitely requires two: 29 and five.
Twenty-nine goals and five red cards – or 17 and 3 in the league – this season. This is the yin and yang of Morelos, the mad duality which has seen him dominate news cycles all season for one reason or another. Either he’s Dr Jekyll, sweetly slipping finish after finish beyond hapless goalies with the precision and consistency of a true man of science, or he’s wild-eyed, scowling Mr Hyde, torpedoing his team’s chances with a flailing leg or elbow.
He has been Rangers’ most important player by far this season, the razor-sharp edge to an attack that looks distinctly blunted when he is missing from the team. But he is so often missing, and largely for the most exasperating of reasons. The ease with which he can be provoked into lashing out has become so apparent that pretty much every side now aims to cajole him into surrendering his place on the park rather than trying to neutralise the threat he poses. Five red cards speaks for a shockingly high success rate.
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It has become equally apparent that he will be moving on in the near future, most likely this summer. A host of clubs from a range of countries have been reported to be sniffing about the hardy Colombian forward since his arrival in Glasgow. So how likely is he to succeed once he moves on? Hard to say.
On one hand, he has already shown his adaptability by blasting in goals in double digits in two different countries, both far from his homeland and its style of football. Speaking of which, he has also recently earned a call-up to a national side full of talent. A powerful forward who excels at rolling defenders off his back, his physicality would likely make him a useful attacking option wherever he went.
On the negative side, there are disciplinary issues to be reckoned with. At only 22, there remains the chance that he will mature beyond them at some point, but nothing about his on-pitch demeanour at the moment makes that feel likely. Beyond his tendency to see red, he also has a habit of fluffing open goals and going missing in big games. His most recent Old Firm outing saw him sent off after half an without a shot registered, and also saw him achieve as much as he has in every other Glasgow derby that he’s played in.
Because it focuses on the present rather than the past, this entry was always going to be more speculative, and Morelos makes for a particularly enigmatic figure to speculate on. It would be no surprise if he goes on to rack up goals in whichever country next catches his eye and even on the international stage. Equally, if his hot temper and big game nerves see him struggle to rise above the level he’s already hit, it won’t come as a shock.
2017/18: Kris Boyd, Kilmarnock (16)
Having eased comfortably into his 30s by the time the 2017/18 season came about, Kris Boyd also bucks the intention of this list’s format slightly in that any discussion of him has to look back from this award-winning season rather than beyond it.
Boyd is one of the true Scottish football heavyweights of the modern era. The big battering ram centre-forward has scored more goals in Scotland’s top flight than any other player with a staggering 167. His league tally has soared above 20 on four different occasions. He has finished as its top scorer on five.
The basic facts of the matter are about as subtle as Boyd’s brutish style of play: the man knows how to score goals. He was, and maybe even on his day still is, one of the greatest strikers of the Scottish game’s modern era. His value within Scottish borders really cannot be overstated.
However, his ventures abroad have yielded less success. Championship spells at Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forrest brought about small handfuls of goals but never anything approaching the kind of numbers he put up back home. His journey across the pond to join up with Portland Timbers resulted in roughly the same.
So what to conclude? Perhaps in part that Boyd’s unrivalled success said something about the Scottish game during his tenure. Without looking to diminish his abilities or achievements, there is something undeniably old school about his type of forward play. An all-out number nine without too much in the way of mobility, range or link-up play, Boyd was a product of a time in which a striker had two jobs: be near the goal and score.
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He wasn’t expected to track back, get involved in short passing moves or take his man on. He was to act as a Whomping Willow planted in the centre of the penalty area: a big, thick tree with enough agency to thwack anything and anyone that came near it and deep enough roots to make itself utterly immovable. Essentially, he was the polar opposite of anyone’s idea of a modern footballer. And he has thrived in Scotland like no other.
2016/17: Liam Boyce, Ross County (23)
The first entry which feels like a true piece of pub trivia. Ask anyone about the what they remember about the 2016/17 SPFL season and their answers will most likely gravitate towards Brendan Rodgers’ debut season and his Celtic team’s Invincibles run, the return of Rangers to Scotland’s top division after years in the wilderness, or Aberdeen’s successful overcoming of them in the race for second place. These were the dominant narratives of the season, taking up so much room on that page of SPFL history that Liam Boyce’s incredible 23-goal haul is reduced to something of a footnote.
His feat becomes all the more sensational when you consider that he performed it as part of a side that failed to make it into the top side of the split and which scored a total of 48 league goals all in.
So what is the story of Liam Boyce? In short, it could be said that the 2016/17 season found him at the peak of his powers in every sense. He was no stranger to double-figure goal returns, having unleashed hell on to the Northern Irish Premiership with Cliftonville in the two seasons preceding his 2014 move to Ross County, bringing home 29 and 21 goals respectively. He kicked on pretty well from there, reaching double figures in both of the campaigns before his award-winning exploits.
But that has proved to be his peak. He earned a move to the English Championship with Burton Albion but struggled to find the net much as they were relegated into League One. His fortunes there proved a little better, hitting nine in 32 appearances. That Scotland’s top scorer then struggled in the second tier of English football would appear to give a fairly pessimistic vision of the “real” value of an SPFL goal.
2015/16: Leigh Griffiths, Celtic (31)
Thirty-one goals in 34 games is a pretty astonishing return by any calculation. The mercurial wind-up merchant with the most cultured left foot Scottish football has seen in some time, Leigh Griffiths has often defied analysis. While his technical ability is beyond question, his fitness, work rate and behaviour have left many observers exasperated. None more so than Brendan Rodgers who, unmoved by Griffith’s incredible goal return the season before his arrival, quickly moved to phase him out of the team in favour of those who matched his vision of a modern footballer.
Prior to his move to Parkhead, Griffiths lit up the Scottish First Division with Livingston and Dundee, earning a move to Wolves who quickly farmed him out on loan to Hibernian. He continued his scoring form into the Scottish top-flight, snagging 23 league goals in his second season in green, taking home the Young Player of the Year award and seducing Celtic into bringing him to Glasgow.
As a result of both the off-field problems, which this season saw Griffiths remove himself from the team and which contributed to Rodgers’ decision to do the same on his behalf in the two before, it is hard to get a handle on how good Griffiths is, was or might have been. At 28 it feels harsh and even insensitive to talk about his potential in the past tense, but it also now seems unlikely that Griffiths will ever play at a higher level than Celtic. At this point, it is more a question of whether he will find his feet at this level again.
So how good is Leigh Griffiths? His 215 professional goals tell a story all of their own, one of a striker with that innate, predatory sense of how to prowl a penalty area to lethal effect game after game. But the moments which will live longest in memory will be those which occurred outside the area, where Griffiths was able to display the full extent of his sharpshooting skills.
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Of the many sublime free-kicks he has scored, the twin efforts he seared past Joe Hart to earn Scotland a 2-2 draw with England will surely go down as his career highlight, the moment when he most firmly, if only fleetingly, suggested that he might be a player made for the highest level.
2014/15: Adam Rooney, Aberdeen (18)
In some ways the most damning name on this list, at least in terms of which level of English football to which the SPFL can be said to be comparable. Prior to this award-winning season, Rooney had spent most of his career tumbling around Leagues One and Two. He had some goalscoring success but not fully found his feet south of the border.
He scored goals for fun in Scotland’s First Division for Inverness Caley Thistle in their 2009/10 campaign and even put up some respectable Premier League numbers the following year with them before returning to England to continue hitting single figures in its second and third tier for a few more years.
Having spent years wandering, he found a real home at Pittodrie and quickly settled into a highly efficient rhythm. Sixty-six goals across his five seasons in red represent easily his most successful spell, which made it all the more galling when he announced his decision to leave for … Salford, of the National League, the fifth tier of English football. Fifth.
2013/14: Kris Commons, Celtic (26)
Though he would never come close to how prolific he was in 2013/14, Kris Commons ultimately scored 64 league goals across 149 games in green and white, which is a very healthy return rate by any standards.
Outwith Scotland, the story is pretty much the same as that of most of the players on his list: he floated about the Championship and League One, achieving a decent level of success without ever doing enough to suggest a step up to the top division.
Notable mention: Teemu Pukki, Celtic (7)
Just a quick aside to testify to the strange alchemy of goalscoring that makes predicting a striker’s success rate almost more magic than science (and which almost completely undermines the purpose of this whole article as well, but so it goes). Teemu Pukki, the man currently wreaking havoc upon the Championship with a Norwich team he is ruthlessly leading into England’s top-flight, scored only seven goals in his lone SPFL season before being promptly dismissed as a “flop”. You never can tell.
2012/13: Michael Higdon, Motherwell (26)
Without wanting to sound glib, and with apologies to Higdon, this entry is pretty much another iteration of the same story. Once again, he began with a couple of good seasons with smaller Scottish teams before finding his rhythm at a middling top-flight side in Motherwell and proceeding to find the back of the net with a very solid level of consistency for a couple of seasons.
He then diverged from the common narrative by making a surprise move to Netherlands and NEC Nijmegen for a reasonably successful season before returning to the model set by the rest of the SPFL goal-meisters on this list and spending the next few years knocking about the likes of Sheffield United and Oldham and fading from relevance.
2011/12: Gary Hooper, Celtic (24)
The enigmatic goal-hound who sparked the idea for this article in the first place, Gary Hooper is perhaps the most illuminative example of Scottish success failing to translate elsewhere, in spite of the exciting expectation it can generate.
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Arriving for a couple of million, Hooper was an immediate success at Celtic, battering in some 82 goals in his three seasons at Parkhead. On top that, he had a talent for showing up with a goal in the big games and seemed to take particular delight in putting Rangers to the sword. This not only made him a favourite with the fans but proved enough to turn heads down in England, with the national team selecting him for their under-21 squad in 2011 and for the senior squad the following year, though injuries prevented him from actually joining up with them on either occasion.
It was also enough to get Premier League clubs sniffing about him and, after both Hull and Southampton had failed to entice him, Norwich eventually succeeded with a bid of around £5m which, while a pittance by today’s standards, was around twice what he had arrived for and so still suggested the idea of a man on the rise.
And then … nothing. Nothing that came close to fulfilling the promise of that early period anyway. He has scored handfuls of Championship goals for Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday but thoughts of him as a Premier League striker have faded into the mist. The idea of him as an aspiring England international now feels like a half-forgotten fever dream.
2010/11: Kenny Miller, Rangers (21)
Some 257 goals and around 780 competitive club games in Scotland, England, Turkey and Canada. He scored his first in 1997; he’s added another seven this season; is 39-years-old and is still running longer and harder than half the players in the league. For much of his career, Kenny Miller was charged with leading the line for his national team and there really could not have been a more appropriate figure to do so: he is the perfect embodiment of all that has been right and wrong with the Scottish game across the two decades he has played.
He’ll chase the ball all across the pitch and chase success across continents. He’ll run until his lungs burst and yell until his throat burns. He is a pure graft machine, running on passion and drive, havering after the ball from dusk till dawn, day after day, year after year. This is what the Scottish game demands, what it prides itself on. It’s a vision of the game built entirely of blood, sweat, heart and balls.
But there was always something unrefined, technically inelegant that kept Miller from the biggest stage, even as he worked himself raw to dry and make up for the deficit. It’s the same deficiency that has seen the Scottish game slide ever backwards, losing ground on the quicker, slicker, more technically proficient vision of the sport being played around them.
It’s maybe easiest to envision as a game of piggy-in-the-middle: other nations have refined their ability to pop the ball between them with precision and ease, while Scotland still stubbornly identifies as the figure running itself ragged in hopeless pursuit. And, for better or worse, there was never a more willing piggy than Kenny Miller.
His lone season in the Premier League yielded little success. For all the success he had since, nothing ever really suggested things would be different if he had returned. A Premier League legend in Scotland and a middling Championship striker in England – it’s a familiar story.
2009/10: Kris Boyd, Rangers (23)
Sunrise, sunset. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The fact that Boyd, already something of an outdated model in 2010, could come back in 2018, after the footballing world has long since fallen under the spell of tika-taka football and when even centre-halves and goalies were now expected to play with some amount of technical nuance, and prove as effective as ever perhaps says everything there is to say about the real value of a goal in the SPFL.
By Ross McIndoe @OneBigWiggle