There are three certainties in life. Death, taxes and overhyped Premier League players getting put on their arse in the Scottish Premiership. It has happened again, and Shane Duffy is at the centre of the action. There’s still plenty of time for him to become a very good player for Celtic and it’s perhaps too early to write him off entirely, but he represents an attitude towards Scottish Football that shouldn’t be there in the first place. One Irish pundit even questioned Duffy’s national team future, feeling he wouldn’t be challenged enough north of the border.
They never bloody learn, do they?
The initial criticism of Duffy came not over ability, but because the signing didn’t really make any sense. Not only was it just a loan – an expensive one at that, but he was never going to fit Celtic’s system. They dominate possession in most games and expect their centre backs to both contribute to and start attacks themselves. That’s not Duffy’s thing, and it’s why Brighton began phasing him out the minute they started playing slightly more expansive football.
Whilst he established himself as a set-piece threat in his early games, it was clear he was a complete departure from everything Celtic usually look for in a defender. The areas he is actually supposed to excel in, he doesn’t. He looks out of his depth, completely unable to keep up with the pace and physicality of the league. He hasn’t been helped by his teammates underperforming as well, but the number of individual mistakes and goals he’s been responsible for in such a short period is extraordinary. If he didn’t have the reputation, and Celtic hadn’t been ravaged by injuries/Covid cases, he would already be in the reserves – probably never to be seen again.
“He’s the captain of Ireland though, and one of their best players” was one defence tossed his way when initial scepticism appeared. For starters, Ireland are mince. I’m not sure where the idea has come from that being slightly better than the likes of Daryl Horgan and Glenn Whelan is anything to shout about. Secondly, Ireland play nothing like Celtic either. Duffy is responsible for launching or heading the ball as far as he can for them. That isn’t even a criticism, it’s just a fact. This is where the arrogance and naivety have set in.
Too many people believe that because Duffy has performed at a higher level and racked up experience, how he fits into Celtic’s system doesn’t actually matter. He’ll automatically become one of the best players in the league without breaking a sweat or altering his game even slightly. It’s utter, utter nonsense and I don’t know how many more players this needs to happen to before the league starts getting just a wee bit more credit.
There is a near endless list of footballers that have arrived from England to the same “He’ll stroll it up there” remarks from Barton to Juninho to Carlton Cole, and just not cut it. it doesn’t matter how good they actually are, just the fact they’ve appeared in the Premier League makes them instantly better than the plumbers and taxi drivers they’re apparently up against in the Ladbrokes pub league. Similarly, the likes of Pukki, Stockley, Waghorn and Tyler Blackett (!) have all gone on to stroll it down south after uninspiring spells here.
Albian Ajeti is someone that struggled to establish themselves for West Ham last season but has fared much better at Celtic, so far anyway. Ajeti though had already proven he could score goals at a reasonable level in Switzerland – and now plays in a team that creates chances at a similar rate as Basel did. There are exceptions, but usually when someone performs in one league after struggling in another, there’s a multitude of reasons behind it.
It’s why it makes no sense to arrive at judgments on the quality of leagues after one specific player’s performance. The top two teams in Scotland are in pretty unique circumstances as well. Quality players have struggled to deal with the scrutiny and expectation that comes with playing for the Old Firm. Some players just can’t perform under the constant pressure – whilst others have managed to use it to elevate their game and flourish. It’s a difficult thing to deal with, and when coupled with the speed and intensity of play in the SPFL, so many have been sent back to the Premier League or Championship red-faced.
There’s analysts, scouts and journalists that have worked across both leagues that will happily tell you the Scottish Premiership and English Championship are much of a muchness. Anyone that’s actually watched both of them could obviously tell you that as well, but that level of research goes beyond the typical Football Twitter VL. The amount of ex-SPFL players in that league (good and bad) is pretty incredible, but similarly there are some absolute no-mark, ex-Rotherham stalwarts plying their trade in Scotland too. The point is, it goes both ways.
It happens in both leagues, always has done, and will until the end of time (or until the Sky Bet Championship becomes insolvent in two years). The quality is similar enough that players can jump between both leagues to varying levels of success. Hibs could sign a player that looked like Riquelme for Huddersfield Town and be told by their fans he’ll absolutely boss it, before he arrives and gets marked out of a game by Ross Callahan. 12 appearances and sent back down the road.
At the same time though, Dundee United could pick up a right back not getting a look in at Barnsley who ends up a star player. It doesn’t really make sense a lot of the time, but this is just how it is. In saying that, it’s very rare at this point for an SPFL player to move to England and not make a success of it, whilst those coming the other way seem to be struggling more and more, especially when picked up from the lower reaches of the Sky Bet pyramid.
The likes of Nicke Kabamba and Louis Moult have even arrived from the National League and been successful in recent years, but that certainly doesn’t mean Aberdeen could just go out and buy whoever’s playing at the back for Chesterfield these days and not expect them to be complete gubbins. These players are few and far between. Picking one up every now and then says nothing about the overall quality of the league and never will.
We’re currently a few good European results away from becoming one of UEFA’s top ten leagues and turning one of our two Champions League places into a direct entry to the group stage. Progress for teams outwith Celtic & Rangers into the Europa has been difficult, but so has the opposition. Scottish clubs typically perform to their seeding though – the introduction of the UEFA Conference League next year should allow for deeper European runs for the likes of Aberdeen and Hibs.
We’re a launching pad for players looking to head to Europe’s top five leagues and have sent the likes of Van Dijk, Robertson, McGinn, Wanyama, Dembele and Hickey onto bigger things. Christie, Morelos, Ferguson, Edouard, Nisbet, Ajer and Dembele 2.0 will inevitably join them at some point. For better or worse, the bulk of our national team is made up of domestic-based players, or very recent departures. There’s still a massive connection between our domestic game and the team that represents us internationally – so many other nations are completely without that.
It’s not just Rangers and Celtic either. Considine, Gallagher, Dykes, McGinn, Shankland, Findlay etc have all come in and all made a difference. The Irish and Welsh may have reached tournaments more recently than us, but with guys that had absolutely nothing to do with their own league setups. I wouldn’t want that, and it’s why if we (somehow) beat Serbia, having so many SPFL players integral to taking us to a tournament would make it even sweeter.
We are a decent European football league, and we’re now at a place on the UEFA table that actually backs this up. As much as England’s bald, Carling-swigging population and wee guys with Lacazette as their Twitter AVI would like to argue otherwise, we are not slumming it out with the worst leagues on the continent. For a nation of our size, with some of the challenges we’ve faced in recent years financially, we’re doing pretty well.
Players can’t just turn up here and expect an easy time of it. Even Virgil Van Dijk was made to look foolish by guys that now sell Herbalife for a living. He can never talk highly enough of his time in Scotland, and those that actually do go on to successful careers are the same. They understand the challenge it offered and how crucial it was to their development, and for those that went via the Old Firm, how important instilling a winning mentality in them was. Nobody is guaranteed to “stroll it” in Scotland, not Shane Duffy, and especially not your fucking nan.