Lightning indeed strikes twice in the same spot, but this still remains a less reliable proposition than seeing the Old Firm finishing one on top of another in any given Scottish Premiership season. Despite this, the engagement of a new campaign in the Scottish top flight prompts enough questions in need of answering that makes the competition worth a mention. It might be a bit cliché, though, to consider this new season as one where the league and its clubs find themselves on the brink, for the same could be said about so many years of football north of Hadrian’s Wall.Also, with so many topics surrounding Scottish football taking seemingly an ice age to be settled, the questions to focus on instead should be ones that can be resolved more easily at the parks. For it is there, where the drama unfolds on those grass pitches that soon turn to dirt patches and later to soggy snow bogs, that attracts fans to this game. It is there, about a silly game in which players kick a ball around that dreams are dashed, hearts lifted, voices roared silent, and sometimes noses bloodied, where these answers will be found.
How Will The Referees Fare?
Last season, the life of a referee in the Scottish league was unpleasant at times. When a manager was not publicly questioning your decisions after a match, your colleague was giving your profession a bit of a black eye by being less than forthright about the calls he made during one of his own. Midway through the season, you and your fellow officials were absent for a spell, opting to strike after the regular chorus of boos raining down on you turned to an almighty torrent of jeers and actual personal safety became a concern. As head of the Scottish FA’s Referee Department, John Fleming met with the captains of SPL clubs along with their managers prior to the start of this season to improve upon communications between the players, coaches, and referees under the guise of the SFA’s “Focus on Football” campaign. A key aim is to engender a heightened level of respect between officials and club representatives and return a bit more integrity to the game that was lost during the war of words and careers last season.
Dougie McDonald–the referee caught in a lie regarding his decision to rescind a penalty to Celtic in a match last season against Dundee United–is no longer around. Celtic manager Neil Lennon walked away from that meeting with Fleming impressed and saying all the right words to assuage SFA and league fears he might return to his loose-lipped ways. Should he or any other coach rekindle memories of the 2010/11 season, the Scottish FA pushed through tougher sanctions. Regular meetings with respected referees Craig Thomson and Steven McLean have been pre-arranged with the clubs during the season to keep up a running dialogue and facilitate goodwill. And though the referees did not get the requested £1000 per match fee, the SPL did agree to bump up the standard fee to £840, placating their representatives and giving them a bit more pocket change to purchase new whistles and cards. So for now, the clubs are satisfied the SFA has responded to their cries of a desire for more professionalism from the referees, match officials are content they are getting more money, and Neil Lennon has yet to criticise a bad call.
Then again, it’s a fair sight easier to be chummy with each other when three points are not on offer. Let us hope the slightly farcical situation where referees were having to be brought in by plane, train, and automobile can be avoided.
Can The Pars Avoid Immediate Relegation?
Dunfermline return to the top flight after a four year absence and will be looking to continue the recent trend of newly promoted clubs beating an immediate drop. Jim McIntyre certainly has a tough job ahead of him to accomplish this, however, as most observers of the Scottish game have already penciled in his Pars squad for the 12th spot, citing the club’s recruitment of numbers alone rather than any depth of quality for McIntyre to employ. Perhaps the best thing going for Dunfermline, though, is not their relative weaknesses but those of the clubs they will likely be battling with near the bottom of the SPL table. Inverness Caledonian Thistle saw Adam Rooney depart for English Championship club Birmingham City, taking his fifteen goals with him down south. Caley have replaced Rooney with Frenchman Grégory Tadé, but he has yet to be proven at the Premier League level. Also, St. Johnstone could give the Pars some assistance in staying up if they are unable to improve last season’s low of 23 goals scored, which were actually fewer goals scored than relegated Hamilton. With ICT already off with a 0-3 loss to Motherwell and the Saints seeing no goals against Aberdeen at Pittodrie in opening matches, early indications point to both sides enduring some barren spells in front of goal this campaign.
As McIntyre demonstrated at times last season when Dunfermline were winning the First Division, he is unafraid to adjust his tactics and formations to suit his needs. This unfamiliarity to top flight clubs who haven’t played the Pars in the league for some time–along with the lack of demonstrable strengthening amongst some other sides likely to be challenging near the lower end of the table–just could see the Fife club squeak through.
Which Scottish Side Will Have The Best Showing in Europe?
By virtue of winning the league last season, Rangers have the Champions League spot for Scotland, but face a rather difficult road in the most celebrated of Europe’s cup competitions. First up, the Ibrox side must win over two legs over Swedish champions Malmo just to be entered in the playoff rounds, where another foe stands between them and the group stage. If unsuccessful then, Rangers would join fellow Glaswegians Celtic in the Europa League playoffs, which is the stage where the denizens of Parkhead exited Europe last season at the hands of Dutch side Utrecht. Concurrently, Celtic will be seeking to finally overhaul Rangers in the league to take their shot at the Champions League next year. It would not be surprising to see Neil Lennon focus Celtic’s season on positive league performances over Europa, while Rangers have a mammoth task ahead of them to fight off Celtic and make a respectable showing in continental play.
With Dundee United having already been eliminated in Europa qualification before their SPL campaign even began, Hearts remain the other Scottish representative in Europe. While Hungarian club Paksi have already fought through two qualifying rounds and done so with gusto, the side will still be facing a Hearts squad eager to reclaim Scotland’s wilting reputation abroad. Heart of Midlothian enter the tie against Paks a slight favourite, and as the Edinburgh side might not yet be ready to challenge the Old Firm for league honors, advancement in the Europa League could be seen as more of a season goal than either of the Glaswegian squads. In the opening match of the season, Hearts played Rangers to a 1-1 draw at Ibrox, employing the rather continental 4-2-3-1 formation and looking rather good doing it in the first half. At the end, then, might Hearts be viewed as having the best results on the European stage, considering Jim Jeffries’ side might be purposefully constructed for the job?
How Much Will Rangers Miss Walter Smith?
This has been a question asked ever since it was announced the legendary manager would be retiring at the end of the 2010/11 season and give way to his assistant, Ally McCoist. Most observers of the game concur that McCoist served ably as Smith’s understudy at Ibrox, but die-hard Gers might be nervous handing over the keys to someone who has driven only with a learner’s permit. Others might point to suggestions that Smith allowed McCoist to manage his squads during some League Cup or Scottish Cup matches for experience and how those were competitions where Rangers seemed to struggle with at times. Yet still others look to the number of players allowed to leave the club while being financially unable to replace the lost talent, yet Walter Smith continued to devise ways for his eroded sides to win silverware.
Does the new gaffer have that same ability to rally Rangers as Smith seemingly has done for years? It was early, but an initial test was found in the very first match against Hearts. Appearing unsettled, the defending champions saw Hearts take a deserving 1-0 lead in the first half, McCoist already hearing a few boos from Ibrox heading into the dressing room to regroup. Whatever was said during the break by Ally did a trick, though, as Rangers looked considerably better in the 2nd half while Hearts deflated a bit, scoring an equaliser and beginning the season with a hard-fought draw. Would Smith, though, have been able to work his magic and have seen his squad make one point become three? Unfortunately for McCoist, this will likely be a question asked after every Rangers match, perhaps even those in which the club wins but might not look as dominant in having done so.
Granted, there are many more issues for this new season of the Scottish Premier League to explore, such as when Colin Calderwood leaves Hibernian, how will the Leith side respond? How do Dundee United fare with a weakened midfield? Are St. Mirren set to surprise? Have security measures been improved around the stadiums to avoid scenes such as last season with Neil Lennon being physically confronted by a fan? There are others, but these general questions are the ones that will persist in being asked and are likely those that generate the banter that fills another top flight season in Scotland.
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