Disproving evolution: The Scottish centre back conundrum

Main photo credit: Heart of Midlothian FC

By Thomas Duncan

Darwin’s theory of evolution posited that species arise and develop through natural selection, which increases one’s ability to survive and compete.

In short, the monkey becomes the man through a battle for survival, a fight against similar specimen drives improvement, which secures victory.

This was the case with Scottish centre-halves once. The seventies and eighties saw Willie Willer, Alex McLeish, Alan Hansen and Davie Narey among others compete for the starting berth in the heart of defence.

Men with medals galore, in a straight fight to represent their country. Heck Alan Hansen was even left out of the 1986 World Cup squad, three European Cups and six English First Division titles not good enough, apparently.

Only, contrary to Darwin’s theory, survival of the fittest has resulted in regression. Since the eighties the Tartan Army have seen progressively worse players all over the pitch, but perhaps nowhere has it been more stark than at centre-half.

Miller and McLeish to Calderwood and Hendry, Dailly and Weir to Hanley and Martin. The man has well and truly become the monkey.

Willie Miller: the type of world class defender Scotland used to produce

Such is the downward spiral that Mark Reynolds, despite having a distinctly average season with Aberdeen, has fallen into the squad. Survival of the fittest no-more.

That much has been clear for some time, but the key issue is, will it change anytime soon? Is there any hope of a stronger Scotland rearguard in the next 5 years?

Our hopes it seems are firmly pinned on two players in particular, Liam Lindsay and John Souttar.

Lindsay has had an outstanding season with Partick Thistle. He has been the key component in a defence which, before heading for the beach after the split, was one of the meanest in the Premiership.

An athletic and towering 21 year old, Lindsay has all the qualities to suggest he could go far in the game. He combines the traditional no nonsense play with composure on the ball and the ability to start attacks from the back- a hallmark of Partick Thistle’s positive tactical approach.

He’s also a threat from set-pieces, scoring a remarkable seven goals, an asset priceless in any team never mind Strachan’s rather slight Scots.

Of course like any young defender Lindsay’s decision making and positional play needs improvement, particularly if he is to step up to the often tactic-heavy international stage.

But should those improvements be made, and his current trajectory is maintained then the Tartan Army will have a centre back to savour.

Liam Lindsay’s performances for the Jags earned him a place in the Premiership team of the year

Then there’s John Souttar. The centre-back come midfielder come centre-back again has cast a confused figure at times in the last two seasons.

A tendency to be caught in possession after rampaging forward in the wake of repeated changes of position, the Dundee United academy graduate began to gather a reputation for being error prone.

Luckily, a transfer to Hearts and Robbie Neilson’s conviction in playing him at centre-back seemed to instil Souttar with some belief again, and before long he was living up to the previous hype with consistently impressive performances.

A ruptured achilles in February stole our chance to monitor his development further, but at just 20 his chances of a full recovery are strong, and if he adds some bulk and brawn to his technical ability, he will be crucial going forward.

The fact that just two fledgling defenders have been identified takes us to the crux of the problem- depth.

Even if these two develop in the way we would all like them to, there remains a distinct lack of options behind them.

A concerted effort needs to be made to coach and nurture the next generation of Willie Millers and Alan Hansens.

For god’s sake, I’m sick of monkeys.

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