I’LL never understand why some observers get so worked up about footballers being “played out of position”.
The topical one which is causing no end of consternation among supporters at the moment is Lewis Stevenson being deployed at right-back by Hibs manager Pat Fenlon whenever Fraser Mullen seems to be finding the going tough.
Right-back is certainly not Stevenson’s strongest position; he is either a left-back or a central midfielder primarily. However, he is one of those players, a bit like former team-mate Ian Murray and ex-Hearts man Eggert Jonsson, who are comfortable in more than one position.
While Tim Clancy, the first-choice right-back, is injured, Mullen is still finding his feet as a first-team regular and Alan Maybury, signed primarily as a coach this season, is some way short of speed and match fitness. With that in mind, surely Stevenson is as good a bet as any to fill in at right-back.
The only other options would be Paul Hanlon or Ryan McGivern, as they both know how to play full-back. Yet they would be hindered by the same handicap as Stevenson in that they are both left-footed, which limits their effectiveness if and when they get forward and want to whip in a cross. Defensively, however, Stevenson knows the position of full-back well, is quick enough to deal with troublesome wingers and can put in a tackle. It’s no different to Steven Whittaker, a right-footed full-back, playing left-back for Scotland in their last two games.
Hibs are in no position to carry five specialised right-backs on their books. Managers need to plug gaps and often have to improvise by trying players in positions that might not instantly spring to mind. Players then have to respond by being adaptable, as Wayne Rooney does when dropping back into midfield. Is it really too much to ask a professional footballer, who ought to have all the fundamentals of the game in place, to operate in a slightly different area of the field when required? Of course not.
There’s also a feeling among Fenlon’s critics that Liam Craig should be playing central midfield because he did well there for St Johnstone last season. He also did well playing wide left for Saints in previous seasons, while he’s been known to fill in at left-back in the past. He is an adaptable footballer and, with Hibs missing wide players Alex Harris and Paul Cairney through injury, Craig is as good an option as any to fill the void on the flank. Would these Hibs fans rather see Kevin Thomson or McGivern deployed in left midfield?
Critics used to moan at the former Hearts manager, John McGlynn, for playing Callum Paterson in attack. He’s never a striker, they cried, despite the fact Paterson, another admirably versatile player, had played in attack, among other positions, for the youth team. With John Sutton struggling for form, Paterson’s speed, strength and mobility made him one of the next-best options to be tried up front. He was very much a rough diamond last season and, by his own admission, was still learning the position, but he scored a few good goals and got himself in some good scoring positions. Early indications this term are that Paterson just might have a long-term future as a striker after all.
McGlynn had to deal with similar cat-calls when he experimented with Ryan McGowan as an attacking central midfielder in an effort to fill a glaring void in his squad. Given McGowan was primarily a central midfielder as a youngster and arguably the most energetic and athletic player in the team, was it really such a ridiculous idea to try the Aussie there? Despite the perception that it didn’t work, we’ll never truly know because the manager came under heavy pressure to shelve it after just three competitive games.
One of McGlynn’s predecessors, Csaba Laszlo, was initially subjected to scorn when he moved Christos Karipidis from centre-back to central midfield. “Why are you playing a defender in midfield?” they moaned. By the time the Greek left Scotland, he had become one of the most accomplished anchormen in the country. Gary Locke, the Hearts manager, is currently using Dylan McGowan, a specialised centre-back, at right-back, which isn’t even his second-favourite position. It doesn’t seem to be doing Hearts too much harm at present, though.
Paul Paton, the Dundee United holding midfielder, used to operate at right-back for Queen’s Park and Partick Thistle. Likewise, Darren Barr, who was also tried out at right-back in the past, is back playing central defence at Kilmarnock after a successful couple of years as a midfielder at Hearts. Jon Daly, the Rangers striker, was regularly used as a centre-half in his Tannadice days. Go through every team in world football and you’ll find players accustomed to operating in more than one position.
It’s high time we stopped pigeon-holing footballers in one particular berth and trashed the wearisome phrase, “played out of position”.