LEIGH GRIFFITHS and Johnny Russell are widely considered the SPL’s two hottest Scottish strikers at present, and if they are able to continue their excellent scoring form for Hibs and Dundee United respectively, talk of moves to more illustrious pastures will be inevitable in the near future.
However, if these two are to take their respective careers to the next level in the long run, they will have to buck the depressing – and perplexing – trend which tends to afflict our top marksmen when they leave the relative sanctuary of Scotland. One which we were reminded of earlier this month, as David Goodwillie’s bid to make it big down south took a further turn for the worse.
While we have had a steady flow of Scottish goalkeepers, defenders and midfielders doing well for themselves after migrating from the impoverished SPL to either the English Premier League or the Championship, our strikers have generally failed to kick on as expected. Steven Fletcher, the £12 million Sunderland man, is very much the exception in this regard. Just two seasons ago, Kenny Miller and Goodwillie were tearing SPL defences to shreds and looking like world-beaters. Yet, since leaving Scotland, although their bank balances will have swelled significantly, their stock has fallen.
Miller, of course, proved himself a fine Championship striker with Wolves in his early-to-mid 20s but struggled when given his chance in the English top flight. However, after hitting a remarkable 50 goals in just 80 games during his successful second spell at Ibrox, his subsequent forays to Turkey, Cardiff and Vancouver haven’t been quite so fruitful.
His plight has been nowhere near as demoralising as that of Goodwillie, pictured. The 23-year-old has endured a wretched time of it since Blackburn Rovers, then of the English Premier League, pipped Rangers to his signature 14 months ago. At almost £3m, he was the costliest Scottish striker to leave the SPL since Duncan Ferguson moved from Rangers to Everton 18 years ago. Yet, now, he is seemingly worthless, deemed not good enough for either Blackburn or Crystal Palace, where he was recently sent out on loan.
He cut his loan deal short in South London after failing to settle, but is unable to be considered for Rovers until January under the terms of his contract with Palace. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be for a boy who, despite his off-field troubles, was leading the Scotland attack against Lithuania and banging in a penalty away to Spain just a year ago. Goodwillie, however, is far from the first promising Scottish striker who has toiled at a higher level. If recent history is anything to go by, it is almost as if there is a glass ceiling for Scottish forwards spawned by the SPL. Before Miller and Goodwillie, it was Kris Boyd who couldn’t stop scoring in Scotland’s top flight, but he subsequently failed to set the heather alight in the Championship with Middlesbrough.
Where Fletcher kicked on rapidly after leaving Hibs, Garry O’Connor struggled, scoring only 20 goals in the five years between his two spells at Easter Road and becoming a figure of ridicule by the end of his time at Birmingham. Even James McFadden, the closest thing Scotland have had to a 21st century talisman, has scored only 23 goals in his nine years since leaving Motherwell. Despite the esteem in which he is held by the Tartan Army, injuries and inconsistency ensured he was never considered in the same elevated bracket down south as, say, Nikica Jelavic, a foreigner who hit the ground running after leaving the SPL.
Of the others to head south from Fir Park, Ross McCormack has been a fine Championship striker but nothing more so far, while David Clarkson, capped by Scotland just a few years ago, is now operating in League Two with Bristol Rovers. Even Griffiths himself has already endured the pain of not getting a look-in at his parent club, Wolves.
Indeed, aside from Fletcher, the last Scottish striker to leave Scotland’s top flight and make a big splash down south was Ferguson, while Scott Booth did well after heading abroad from Aberdeen in the late 1990s. The general toils of our hitmen on the bigger stage suggests they either lack some key ingredients, or they are simply not deemed as glamorous as those from more illustrious shores and, as a result, are not given a fair crack at the bigger clubs.
Either way, the largely dispiriting exploits of the SPL’s top hitmen have disproved the old adage about natural goalscorers being able to operate at any level.