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Dec 1, 2010

Diminutive wingers playing a big role

The thrilling sight of Jimmy Johnstone flying down the Celtic right wing characterised a once golden era for the Scottish game. Jinky might have stood at just 5' 1" tall but he was a giant in the eyes of his Hoops colleagues as he played a huge role in the club's domestic and European success.

His electrifying performances inspired generations of diminutive wingers to follow in his formidable footsteps although until recently, most vertically challenged professionals were met with short shrift in Scotland. However, there's been something a renaissance north of the border following a recent re-emergence of small, skilled players.

Perhaps the success of Spain on the international arena has had a major influence with Andres Iniesta and Xavi, who both measure 5' 7", proving you don't need to be a six-footer to rule the world stage. Their Barcelona club colleague Lionel Messi has added further weight, albeit a little more than ten stone, to the argument that you don't need muscle to win medals.

Hearts manager Jim Jefferies, who has in the past been labelled as a boss who favours the physical approach, now fully backs style over substance. The Tynecastle chief has watched on from the sidelines as prodigy David Templeton has quickly made his mark at the capital club with a series of sizzling displays on the flank.

"The Scottish game was criticised a few years ago because it was all about power, strength and big boys," Jefferies said. "You still have to have that because the majority of teams have a few tall players you have to deal with at set plays.

"But thankfully people like Templeton are coming back into the game which is great because the Jimmy Johnstones and the Willie Hendersons were wonderful in their day. If that brand of player is now coming back into the game then I think it can only be a good thing, because we need players who are good to watch in the modern era.

"Templeton has lots of skill, and the more skilful players you get into the game the better and he has been terrific for us this season. It's good we're getting guys like him into the game in the SPL and Sone Aluko at Aberdeen is a handful when he's fully fit and on his game."

Ironically Templeton, who stands 5' 9", reckons he was knocked back by the Dons for being too small following a trial when he was with Ayr United before eventually moving on to Hearts. Aberdeen deny Templeton was rejected because of his lack of inches, pointing to the fact 16-year-old Ryan Fraser is only 5' 4" but has been able to force his way into the first team this season.

Pittodrie pair Peter Pawlett and Fraser Fyvie are also now recognised first-team members although they measure in at a moderate 5' 7". Aberdeen manager Mark McGhee is an advocate of giving players with class a chance before those with size and stature.

He said: "If a player is a good enough footballer then he will get a chance here, no matter what height or build he might be. What good is it having a big bruiser in your side who can't pass a ball five yards? Spain have proved you don't need your team to be full of six-footers to compete and succeed at the highest level of all."

Celtic's Shaun Maloney, another 5' 7" player, has been leading the modern march for all the mercurial mini-maestros for years. The Scotland international might have suffered when he moved to the English Premier League but there's been a clear policy change at his former club.

The tide is turning in England, where one small yet gifted midfielder is walking tall among a land of recognised giants. Scotland smash hit Barry Bannan, who would stand shoulder to shoulder with Pawlett and Fyvie, feared his career at Aston Villa was in danger of being cut short after Martin O'Neill dismissed the midfielder as too small.

But the Airdrie-born ace has proved size doesn't matter since O'Neill left Villa, going on to establish himself under Gerard Houllier before winning his first international cap against Faroe Islands.

"Martin O'Neill had a problem with my height. I had a few meetings with him and the size issue always came up," Bannan said. "When O'Neill left Villa, I hoped someone would come in and give me a chance and trust me and the last few weeks have been a breath of fresh air for me. Obviously, it has been a big change in fortunes for me.

"Gerard Houllier has come in and has shown great confidence in me, I'm playing in the Premiership for Villa and now the Scotland gaffer has given me a chance."

Bannan will surely inspire others to believe that if you are good enough then you're big enough to cut it at the highest level. One thing is for sure, Jinky would be certainly proud that players like Bannan are doing all they can to keep his memory very much alive.

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