Over the years there have been some truly world-class football players who have represented Scotland internationally. Scottish football might not be as strong as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, but there are signs of a resurgence, with the Tartan Army set to make their presence felt at the 2024 Euros. They also qualified for the previous edition of that event and in Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney and Scott McTominay, they have some top players.
Good as that trio and other members of the current Scottish squad are though, none would be classed alongside the very best Scottish footballers ever (though some might consider Robertson a contender for the top 10). And that is our focus here, as we take a look at Scotland’s greatest-ever footballers.
Jimmy Johnstone: Entertainer a Class Act
Jimmy Johnstone only played for his nation 23 times but we’re a sucker for a maverick and “Jinky”, as he was known, pretty much defined the term. Other players may have had a better attitude and approach to the game, and perhaps performed at a higher level more consistently for a longer period. But on his day, Johnstone was simply unplayable, and even when not on song his ability to mesmerise defenders was matched by his capacity to have fans out of their seats, equally spellbound.
Jinky was a Celtic youth product and played for the Bhoys between 1962 and 1975, playing over 500 games for the club. In fact, in 529 games for the Hoops, he scored an impressive 135 goals from his outside right position. He is famously remembered as one of the Lisbon Lions that became the first British side to lift the European Cup (now Champions League) and he scored twice in the competition that season (1966/67).
He also helped Celtic win the Scottish title nine years in a row and was part of the team that lost the European Cup final in 1970. His exploits for the club in the 1966/67 campaign saw him land third place in the 1967 Ballon d’Or awards and in total he won 19 major honours with Celtic.
As said, he made relatively few international appearances but scored four times for Scotland, including a brace against England shortly before the Auld Enemy would go on to win the 1966 World Cup. A true entertainer and a legend for Celtic and Scotland, Jinky was much-loved by fans of both.
Jim Baxter: Another Mesmeric Entertainer
Jim Baxter played as a left half (essentially a left-sided central midfielder) at a similar time to Jinky but “Slim Jim” played on the other side of Glasgow’s football divide, for Rangers. He played for a number of clubs but appeared more times for Rangers than any other team and spent two spells there.
His first spell lasted longer and saw him help Rangers to three league titles, three Scottish Cup wins and four League Cup successes. As more of a central player than Johnstone, he was more of an all-round footballer but he still had the capacity to entertain. This could be through his sense of humour on and off the pitch, his famous hip swivel to beat a man, or his seemingly effortless style and the swathes of time on the ball he seemed to be able to create.
Sir Alex Ferguson, who surely knows his Scottish football as well as anyone, said that the Rangers man was “arguably the best player to play in Scottish football” and that will do for us. Sadly injuries and off-field issues meant his peak years were all too few but boy was he good while they lasted.
King Kenny: Best of the Lot?
Far be it from us to suggest that Fergie might have had a bit of a blind spot in ranking Scots so closely linked to Man United, but many pundits would certainly put Kenny Dalglish as the best footballer Scotland has ever produced. Two obvious stats leap out that go a long way to backing this up: he is both Scotland’s record scorer and their most-capped player.
But 102 appearances and 30 goals do not do justice to Dalglish, who also came second in the 1983 Ballon d’Or. Dalglish was a real winner, who was a legendary figure at both Celtic and Liverpool, winning silverware north and south of the border as player and as manager (he also guided Blackburn Rovers to the PL title in 1995).
On the pitch, King Kenny was a prolific scorer, notching almost every other game throughout his career but those stats are even more impressive as he generally operated as a deep-lying forward. His brilliant passing, anticipation and football intelligence meant he was a provider of goals too, while his work ethic and selfless nature were second to none. It is hard to argue that Dalglish was not his nation’s finest-ever player and indeed it is not an argument we would take on!
Lawman Rivals the King
We said that Dalglish was Scotland’s record goalscorer but that is actually an honour he shares with Denis Law. Whilst Dalglish was a second striker, Law was very much a goal poacher and he netted his 30 international goals in around half the games (55) it took the former Liverpool man. Law had two spells with Man City but was a legend at Man United, despite infamously scoring the goal that relegated them (even if it technically didn’t!).
Law banged in 303 club goals to add to his 30 for Scotland, those strikes coming from just 602 games. He helped Man United win the league twice, FA Cup once and was also part of the famous team that lifted the 1968 European Cup. On a personal level he remains the only Scottish player to have ever lifted the Ballon d’Or (in 1964). For that reason there are those who would put him above Dalglish but thankfully for us, this list is in no particular order, so we can swerve that issue!
Souness Steel Sees him Among Greatest
Our list of Scotland’s best-ever footballers has included players blessed with skill, flair, intelligence and goal-getter instincts, but to round out those creative talents we have a destroyer: Graeme Souness. He played 54 times for his country and scored four goals and his ability to control midfield made him so important for all the sides he represented.
Known as a football hardman, his game had so much more to it than that, and as well as great anticipation he also boasted a decent passing range and the ability to dictate the tempo of a game. 100 career goals was also a very solid return for a fundamentally defensive midfielder. Souness won just about everything on offer with the great Liverpool side of the 1970s and 1980s, including three European Cups – incredibly he was the competition’s Golden Boot winner in 1980/81.
A born winner and fighter, his determination saw him win silverware in three countries. More relevant to this discussion is that he also helped Scotland qualify for the World Cup on three occasions (as did Dalglish).