When Danny Wilson made his debut for Rangers, I bought into the hype about him. Rangers were the reigning league champions at the time, and were a club not exactly renowned for giving youth a chance, so a 17-year old centre-back who managed to force his way into the team must have been very highly regarded. Wilson looked the part too, strolling through matches and showing an ability to read the game well and bring the ball out from the back. He played in the Champions League at the age of 17, then won a move to Liverpool and scored on his Scotland debut at the age of 18.
However, in retrospect, perhaps people were getting carried away about him. His Champions League games came as part of an ultra-defensive Rangers side, and they didn’t keep a clean sheet in either game. His Scotland debut came in a less than challenging match against the Faroe Islands, and when he did face better opposition a few months later in a qualifier against Czech Republic he was caught out for the first goal and then gave away a crucial penalty. It’s true that Wilson was thrust into an unfamiliar left-back role, and that the penalty came as a result of a dive, but he looked less than assured.
Most of his games for Rangers came alongside the vastly experienced David Weir, and in most of those matches he didn’t really have much actual defending to do since his side spent the majority of the game on the front foot. A similar pattern emerged in his performances for Hearts this season. He looks composed and in control against the lesser sides in the Championship, but in some of the bigger games this campaign, including Sunday’s loss to Rangers, he’s outperformed by his centre-back partner Alim Ozturk.
Such performances were commonplace for Wilson last season at Hearts. He couldn’t cope with the physical duels against guys like John Sutton and Kris Boyd, was flummoxed by the movement off the ball of the likes of Nadir Ciftci and Billy Mckay, and couldn’t cope with the direct running of Stevie May. If you’re struggling against basically every type of striker there is, then something is going wrong. Wilson’s nadir came in the 7-0 defeat to Celtic at Tynecastle, where numerous individual mistakes contributed to the size of the thumping. Some leeway can, of course, be granted given the then situation Hearts found themselves in last season, but a potential international quality centre-back would have still shown a lot more.
The good news for Wilson is that he is still only 23 years old. He has gained invaluable experience at Rangers and Liverpool, and has learned through adversity at Hearts. He still has plenty of time to go on and make a very good career for himself for both club and country. Centre-back is not Scotland’s strongest position, and if he is playing well for a Hearts side in the top half of the Premiership in a year’s time then there will no doubt be a case for him returning to the fold. As of right now, though, he isn’t even the best central defender at his club.
Craig Anderson is the man behind the well cited SPL Stats on Twitter. Follow him here.
This season Danny Wilson has been excellent. Not once has he been overrun, overwhelmed or overawed. Under Robbie Neilson he is developing into the cultured centre back that many expected him to be by now when he broke through at Rangers. However, the caveat, a big one at that, is that this is taking place in the Championship.
Arriving at Hearts after his move south to Liverpool had failed, there were big expectations for the Scottish internationalist. He played games at left-back so not to disrupt the Andy Webster-Marius Zaliukas partnership then in the centre. But as time wore on it became clear this wasn’t the player that many thought the club was signing. This was one who was needing game time and time in general to develop. However, come the start of season 2013/2014 he had signed permanently with the club and had been rewarded with the captain’s arm band. With a transfer embargo in place Wilson was one of the leaders of a very young team with a large points deduction to make up.
His reputation took an even greater nose dive at a time when, if his career progressed another way, he should have been establishing himself as a Scotland internationalist. He looked like your run-of-the-mill Scottish Premiership centre half, lazily chipping the ball forward rather than stepping out with it from the back with little midfield options. He was tasked with holding together a young defensive quartet who themselves were having problems. What he needed was an experienced centre half alongside him to guide him back on path following the Liverpool set back. Instead he had to take on the role of experienced centre half when playing with Jordan McGhee or Brad McKay.
But from the evidence so far, last season may have been a key stage in his development. He has struck up a relationship with Alim Ozturk, has the added experience of Neil Alexander behind him and is in a system which brings out the best in his ability. His anticipation and composure are his greatest qualities but he still falls into the trap of aimlessly knocking the ball forward and can be ragdolled by opposition strikers. The 2015/2016 season is a crucial stage in his development, back in the Premiership playing against better quality on a weekly basis. His reputation has been dented in the seasons preceding 2014/2015 but at 23 years of age he should add to his five Scotland caps.
Joel has an interest in Scottish and writes for and appears on the Terrace Scottish Football Podcast.
Wilson may not have covered himself in glory during his first 18 months at Hearts, but given the overriding circumstances surrounding Hearts, and the state of the first team at the time, his fall from grace should be taken with a pinch of salt as he looks to recover the qualities and consistency which saw Wilson join Liverpool.
As a captain of the ill-fated 2013/14 season he was admirable in his duties. He didn’t scream and shout, but as the leader of his peers he led by example and it may not be just a coincidence that a number of those Hearts young players, far from being traumatised, have actually become better players for the experience and having Wilson in the side.
Wilson retained the captaincy for the current season, despite the recruitment of many more experienced players, though he still hasn’t reached the performance levels his early potential suggested. He began the season as the calm ball-player in a central defensive partnership with the erratic Alim Ozturk. However, these roles have since been reversed and Wilson, more often than is desirable, can easily be forced into attempting long, inaccurate passes, thus increasing the chances of his side surrendering possession.
Even though the 23-year-old may yet become a regular international, given the early potential shown – he represented Scotland at various levels, including senior, the last of his five caps coming three years ago – and his subsequent failure to fully realise it I’m sorry to say that, for now, Danny Wilson is a tad overrated.
Craig Cairns is the man behind tactical blog Three At The Back and he has been known to tweet Scottish football on Twitter.
Nobody is clamouring for a Danny Wilson inclusion in a Scotland squad right now – and if they are, these type of people aren’t to be taken seriously. However, there is little doubt that he’s still very highly thought of, and say Hearts finish fourth next season there will be a ground swell that comes up quicker than the one which saw Mark Reynolds finally earn some recognition at a higher level.
That perception makes him a little overrated at present because he’s still got a lot to prove. There’s no guarantee he’ll come back to the Scottish Premiership and be one of the six best centre backs, because he certainly wasn’t one when he left. At present he’s like the second tier’s Virgil van Dijk. There’s no doubt he’s one of the best players at his level, though shaky performances in some of his bigger games makes you wonder whether all the potential will be realised.
Final verdict: Overrated
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