Kim Little: Scotland’s Midfield Maestro

For Chris Marshall there is one standout candidate from his time following the Scottish women’s national football team as the SFA search for the greatest 50 Scotland international’s of all time. Here he explains the choice he’s made and the impact she has had on the national side during a twelve year and counting international career.

What conditions opinion when discussing an all time great? Is it an emotive response to a style of play? The exquisite way that Caroline Weir stops, pivots and threads through ball after through ball to her attacking colleagues. The pride swelling tenacity that Erin Cuthbert shows as she harries her opponents before flipping the switch to become a dynamic attacking force?

Is it tenure? The old adage form is temporary, class is permanent holds true for a reason. Former captain Gemma Fay had accumulated 203 caps as Scotland’s No. 1 before calling time on her international career post-elimination from Euro 2017. She may be the only double centurion but there are another thirteen players to have crossed the turf over a hundred times with the lion rampant close to their heart.

You can’t win a game without goals. Is that the most important? Julie Fleeting scored at a rate of nearly a goal a game netting 116 times in 121 appearances. The Ayrshire born striker is one of just two female players in the current Scottish Football Hall of Fame and the image of Fleeting bulleting home headers still endures. Not that she wouldn’t face competition for her starting spot today. Jane Ross has been the pivot of Scotland’s attack during our nation’s most successful era amassing 60 goals from 132 appearances.

Moments are important. In the age of digestible content and digital time-stamping the ability to produce something that we can watch on repeat shouldn’t be under-estimated.

Cuthbert wheeling away in ecstasy at Hampden as she opened the scoring against Jamaica was Scotland’s Goal of the Year in 2019, the note from her father crumpled in hand. Lee Alexander’s penalty save against Poland in World Cup qualifying the catalyst for the run that would lead Scotland all the way to the finals and what of the goals from Weir and Claire Emslie at championship finals. One sealing a first SWNT victory at a major tournament the other bookmarked in the pages of history as Scotland’s first at a Women’s World Cup.

In truth all carry their own levels of significance, and those levels within are subjective. Any conversation about the best can never truly be definitive and each opinion when backed up with reasoned logic is valid, and so it is with this is mind that I present the case for Kim Little as being Scotland’s greatest SWNT player.

Let’s get the basics out the way first. In a twelve year and counting international career the current Arsenal captain and national deputy has been capped 137 times scoring 59 times from midfield. She has participated at a World Cup and was one of two Scots to be called up to the Team GB Olympic side in 2012.

On an individual level personal accolades have never been far away. She is the only Scot to be crowned both the PFA Women’s Players Player of the Year (2013) and BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year (2016) awards that have been won by the likes of Ada Hegerberg and Vivianne Miedema in recent history.

Having started her international career at the age of 16 the Aberdeenshire born midfielder plays with a presence that enlarges her diminutive stature, weaving attacking tapestries and fraying the threads of opposing defences before putting them back together in knots. The middle of the park a sprawling canvas which she splashes with colour in all manner of ways. The long brushstrokes of a sweeping cross field pass, the drawing out of asymmetric triangles and acute angles to wear down a defence before using fine precision to deliver the final flourish on her latest masterpiece.

On raw numbers alone she will go down as an all time great for SWNT but much like the great artists of our time it is her ability to cast an eye over a landscape and create new and lasting imagery time and time again that really sets her apart from the rest.

My first recognition of her art was in 2012. Scotland had come through qualifying to secure a Euro 2013 play-off against Spain. Little would not just once but twice have Scotland in the driving seat although ultimate heartbreak would be felt along the way.

It was a tie that was too close to call as both sides began their rise to prominence during the 2010’s. In the home leg at Hampden Little’s calmly dispatched penalty nestled snugly in the corner to put the Scots 1-0 up with 25 minutes gone. It would be a lead that would last for just five minutes as Adrianna would level the score as the squad headed to Las Rozas on the outskirt of Madrid for a finely poised second leg.

With 90 minutes gone of the second leg the score would again be balanced at one a piece as the tie headed into extra time. Scotland, and in particular Little, would seize the initiative. On the 98th minute she would use her strength to win the ball on the edge of the centre circle before slaloming past two Spanish defenders. In what is now somewhat of a trademark of these forward thinking runs her head remained on a constant pivot. Seeing space on the left she would cut away from goal before sliding an angled effort in off the base of the home side’s post.

Adversity soon returned as Silvia Meseguer would equalise with seven minutes to go before a Vero Boquete strike two minutes into added time of extra time would see the Spanish dugout spill across the pitch leaving Scotland to wait another four years for their major tournament bow.

Little would miss that debut in 2017 as a result of a serious knee injury, but that didn’t prevent her from stamping her creativity on the qualifying campaign, scoring five goals as Scotland secured the runners up spot behind Iceland. A run that included a hat trick in a 3-0 victory away to Slovenia.

Having returned to Arsenal in 2017 following three successful years in both the USA and Australia, continually honing her craft as she went, Little would soon be back to scoring ways in the dark blue of Scotland as Shelley Kerr succeeded the influential Anna Signeul. She was now the master, surrounded by an exciting and increasingly talented crop of apprentices and the World Cup 2019 qualifying campaign is perhaps her greatest masterpiece to date as she would act as instigator time and time again.

In the Polish town of Kielice it would be her left wing free kick that would start a run of three goals in twelve minutes as Scotland recovered from two goals down to keep their qualification hopes on track. The flight of her dangerous low cross towards Katarzyna Kiedrzynek’s goalmouth deceiving the Poland keeper before bouncing into the opposing corner.

Having scored Little would drop deeper to receive the ball, setting off runners at nearly every opportunity. After Jane Ross had equalised and Little had seen her chance to put Scotland into the lead crash off the underside of the bar her ball to Weir allowed the current Manchester City midfielder to release Lisa Evans who burst into the box to seal victory.

A 1-0 defeat to Switzerland earlier in the campaign meant Scotland knew that victory was a must against the Swiss at St. Mirren Park where a winning margin of two would put the Scots in pole position going into the final round of fixtures. It was a fast start as Little, surrounded by three Swiss defenders, would show nimble feet in tight quarters to start the move that would see Erin Cuthbert blast home after just two minutes. The midfielder would get on the scoresheet herself four minutes later. Combining with Lisa Evans, as the pair quickly drew up another one of those mesmerising triangles, before Little would drive into the area, her deflected effort deceiving keeper Gaelle Thalmann.

A Lara Dickenmann effort one minute later would half the deficit and the score would remain unchanged as Scotland completed a 2-1 victory. A win but it was advantage Switzerland on the final match day with the Swiss travelling to Poland knowing that victory would seal their spot in France as the Scots travelled to Albania.

In what was a nervy display it would be Little that would open the scoring, the ball exploding off her foot as she arrived late to volley home a Lizzie Arnot knockdown. Shelley Kerr’s side having defeated Albania 2-1 had gathered post-match when news began to filter through that the Swiss had only been able to draw against a Polish side that Scotland had scraped past just a few months earlier. Scotland had made it and Little had scored in each of those final three crucial games.

The Scots preparations for France would take them to the familiar surroundings of Pinatar in the south of Spain and it would be here that once again Little would demonstrate her craft against one of the most expressive and romanticised nations in football history, Brazil.

In a closely fought encounter she would start and finish the move that would see her score the only goal of the game as a Scotland side would defeat Brazil for the first time.

Picking the ball up inside her own half she drove forward, biding her time, progressing but always thinking, before funnelling the ball out to the right wing releasing Lizzie Arnot. The former Manchester United and Hibernian attacker turning provider again, heading for the touch line before cutting the ball back to Little, arriving late just as she did against Albania, this time to stroke home from six yards.

Little was coming into the World Cup not only in fine form internationally but also domestically having captained her side to the FAWSL title, her third with the North London club, but in a tough group that saw Scotland suffer opening defeats to England and 2011 World Cup winners Japan she struggled to get her twinkling toes going.

With victory against Argentina a must should Scotland have any hope of qualifying for the knockout stages it looked as if Little had sent Scotland on their way again, poking home the opener from Cuthbert’s cutback as Scotland would find themselves 3-0 up with just twenty minutes to play. Scotland would collapse though, the South Americans salvaging a draw, with their controversial equaliser from the spot still a particularly hard pill to swallow for many members of the Tartan Army. In Scotland we always find a way.

Scottish focus now turns to Euro 2021(2), a tournament being hosted by neighbours England. Any fears around a World Cup hangover were soon blown away as the top seeded Scots would thrash an admittedly poor Cypriot side 8-0 with Little tormenter in chief scoring five for the first time in her career.

As women’s football in the UK starts to stir for Little, who recently turned 30, there is little time for reflection. She may not attract the attention that some of Scotland’s emerging stars do but she remains at the peak of her creative powers. A kaleidoscope of achievements in navy blue allow those that have followed her to see vividly the players that they can become.

Inspiring future generations and attracting new fans to the game, her feet the brushes and the field her canvas. Kim Little is an artist in every sense of the word and we should cherish her while we can.

Remember you can still vote for your favourite SWNT player of all time here:

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