England's second tier: now home to Scotland's leading talents

With six managers from north of the border and a fresh raft of SPL players, this season has a tartan tint
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The Independent Online

Since the very beginning English club football has lent on imported labour. When Preston North End won the first ever League Championship the core of their side was made up of "Scotch Professors", as a generation of players from north of the border were known for their educated style of football. For much of the century that followed there was a weighty Scottish presence in their neighbour's top flight but those days, as the song has it, are gone now.

Today the imports flood over the Channel rather than the border. Darren Fletcher is the sole Scot of any consistent standing in the Premier League, but look down a level, to the one that Preston now inhabit, and there is a new wave of tartan immigration.

When the Championship kicks off at Carrow Road on Friday it will pitch Paul Lambert's Norwich against the Watford of Malky Mackay, two of the six Scottish managers in the division, and when the rest of the League joins over the weekend there will be more than 50 Scottish players earning their keep in English football's second tier. "Scotland," says Gordon Strachan, the Middlesbrough manager, "is a great breeding ground." If, he should perhaps have added, you are looking for solid, value-for-money players who are not quite cut out for the highest level.

Last year Eric Black, Sunderland's assistant manger and a former Scotland international who played under Sir Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen, wrote off the current generation populating the Scottish Premier League. The key requirements for a successful Premier League player, said Black, were equal measures of height, pace and power and "so few Scots possess all the required qualities to survive".

Two of the clubs who won promotion to the Premier League last season had Scottish playmakers at the heart of their line-ups. Charlie Adam of Blackpool and West Bromwich's Graham Dorrans – reared at Rangers and Livingston respectively – were both chosen in the division's team of the year and their impact, or lack of it, will be keenly followed this season by Craig Levein, the Scotland manager.

Levein announced his latest squad on Monday and it featured four players from Middlesbrough – and there are another five on Teesside who have been recruited from Scottish clubs by Strachan since he took over last year.

Part of the southern exodus is down to economics. The SPL is in dire financial straits and in the middle of a dramatic downsizing. Rangers and Celtic may still boast huge core supports but they are now both very much selling clubs, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Strachan, a former manager of Celtic, has been a repeat raider on the Old Firm. Among his recruits have been the prolific Kris Boyd and Kevin Thomson from Rangers and Stephen McManus, the former Celtic captain.

Middlesbrough have an academy that has produced some promising players in recent times, Adam Johnson for one, but Strachan believes the most important requirement for this level is "character" and his Scottish recruits provide that, because in no small part of their experience in coping with the goldfish bowl existence of playing for an Old Firm club.

"The SPL breeds players with character," he said. "When you have played with the Old Firm, that is character testing. Anywhere else is like being on holiday."

These are battle-scarred pros, although McManus, who played the second half of last season on loan at Middlesbrough, has already noted the physicality of Championship strikers, a remark that cannot help but add weight to Black's damning assertion.

"If you have played for Rangers or Celtic you develop a real mental toughness," said Boyd. "There is so much scrutiny on you as players, so much pressure every day, that you end up with a skin like a rhino."

Apart from George Burley, who at Crystal Palace has succeeded in finding a job even more challenging than managing his national side, the Scots at the helm in the Championship are of a similar sort; tough men, moulded in the style of the godfather – or father in Darren Ferguson's case – of Scottish management. Today the Scotch Professors are no longer to be found on the field. Instead they have graduated to the bench.

Stars of the Championship season ahead: Kris Boyd (Middlesbrough)

There are few strikers who can produce a record to match that of Kris Boyd, one of Middlesbrough's new recruits. From the moment he replaced Ally McCoist for Kilmarnock at the start of the decade he has scored goals, and plenty of them.

The statistics are impressive. He scored 63 times in 153 games for Kilmarnock – a side that often struggled – and 101 goals in 143 games for Rangers. For Scotland he has seven goals in 16 games. Last season, as he netted five times against Dundee United, he overtook Henrik Larsson as the Scottish Premier League's all-time top scorer.

It is a return that has attracted plenty interest from outside Scotland – Kilmarnock twice accepted offers from Cardiff and Sheffield Wednesday but Boyd turned them down and last year Birmingham had a £4m offer accepted by Rangers only for Boyd to once again stay put. He rejected three offers from Turkish clubs that offered a larger salary before finally agreeing to move south and link up with Gordon Strachan.

But for all his goals there remains a doubt over whether he will be able to succeed in the Championship. Walter Smith, the Rangers manager, would often leave him on the bench when he played one up front in Europe. He is a limited player outside the box and will have to adapt quickly to the greater physical demands in England, where there will be far fewer one-sided games.

Championship Scots

George Burley (Crystal Palace)

Took over at Selhurst Park last month after leaving the Scotland job last year.

Billy Davies (Nottingham Forest)

Former Derby manager is beginning his second full campaign in charge. Led Forest to the play-offs last season.

Darren Ferguson (Preston)

Appointed in January after successful spell in charge at Peterborough.

Paul Lambert (Norwich City)

Brought in from Colchester last August after their 7-1 victory at Carrow Road. Took Norwich up as champions.

Malky Mackay (Watford)

Made permanent manager last summer after brief caretaker spell.

Gordon Strachan (Middlesbrough)

Took over from Gareth Southgate last October following four seasons in charge at Celtic and an FA Cup final appearance with Southampton.

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