Just in time for the new season, kicking off at lunchtime today, here’s the last of twohundredpercent’s pre-season previews: the SPL.
Daft as it might sound for a league with only twelve teams, there are four separate battles or mini-leagues going on within the SPL these days. The title race which has long since been restricted to the big two; the battle for third, which I almost think of as the real Scottish Championship; the chase for any remaining spots in the top six, which might sound pretty trivial but it’s about extra revenue post-split as well as the chance to chase a European spot; and lastly the struggle to avoid the single relegation spot. There is a fair amount of fluidity between these groups of course, particularly the bottom two, and a good run post-Christmas can alter the targets for the season. But by and large it’ll be reasonably clear which battle each team is fighting before we’re very far into the season.
For some clubs, you do sometimes wonder what the attraction is of being in the SPL at all. Why would you want to spend year after year in the lower reaches of the table, losing more games than you win and battling against relegation all the time? It’s not as if you hear many SPL fans expressing themselves appreciative of being more highly entertained or able to watch a significantly higher standard of football. Can’t help thinking relegation would be a boon for some teams, as it was for Inverness who must have enjoyed last season more than any other for a little while. Of course, all that supposes that your club is financially sound enough to cope with relegation without too much fall-out. If you’re Kilmarnock, it might not be such a good idea.
There’s a fighting chance of this being academic in any case – discussions about increasing the SPL to fourteen teams are ongoing, and if it does happen there will be no relegation this season. Which will make for a very dull season for some clubs. But for now of course they will have to assume everything is at stake.
As normal, teams are placed in predicted finishing order.
Last season: 2nd; Manager: Neil Lennon
There seems to be an assumption in some quarters that because Celtic had a bad season last year and have now missed out on the Champions League wedge, they msut be in some sort of semi-terminal trough. I don’t see any reason for such thinking, they still have more clout than Rangers in the transfer market, and in Efrain Juarez, Gary Hooper, Daryl Murphy and – especially – Joe Ledley they’ve made some pretty useful acquisitions which will more than make up for the departure of Aiden McGeady (who, incidentally, I expect to be a disaster in Moscow and I shouldn’t think it’ll be long before we’re seeing him again). True, Neil Lennon has everything to prove as a manager, but he couldn’t ask for better circumstances in which to prove it.
Last season: 1st, Manager: Walter Smith
Walter Smith in contrast has absolutely nothing to prove to anyone, and has performed miracles already, but he’s being asked to perform more. In James Beattie, they’ve just signed their first player for two years, and there may be a couple more to come before the window closes, but given the small size of the squad it’s hard to see this being enough – not so much in quality but in sheer numbers – to make up for the departures of Nacho Novo, Kevin Thomson, Danny Wilson, Steve Smith, DaMarcus Beasley and – especially – Kris Boyd. You just can’t keep taking that much away from the squad and expect to stay at the top, and if I’m wrong and they do win the league again I’ll be more impressed than ever and will start to believe that Smith is employing witchcraft. Not that there’s any danger of them being caught for second place, mark you – some gaps are too big to bridge.
3. Dundee United
Last season: 3rd; Manager: Peter Houston
United were comfortably the third best side in the country last year and topped off a successful season with a cup win for good measure. Staying there might prove tougher – it’s a few years since anyone managed to hold on to third place for successive seasons – particularly without Andy Webster, who played such an important role last season in his loan spell from Rangers. But thus far at least they’ve hung onto the rest of their squad, with a batch of cracking young players from their own set-up (David Goodwillie, Jon Daly), from the club over the road (Scott Robertson, Paul Dixon) and from lower divisions (Craig Conway, Danny Swanson). There are more coming through the ranks too – Johnny Russell might be next after a successful loan spell at Raith (like Goodwillie a couple of years earlier) and further ahead Ryan McCord, already earning plaudits in a current loan spell at Airdrie. There’s a very sound base for the future.
Last season: 6th; Manager: Jim Jeffries
Some improvement is expected of Hearts this season, mostly because they’ve cleared out some deadwood and signed a couple of forwards who might actually be quite good. In my preview this time last year I doubted that Kevin Kyle would maintain his form for Kilmarnock for last season, but I was wrong – he did so, and has now moved to Hears on a free, where he’s been joined by Stephen Elliot, once of Sunderland. There are players who can supply chances too – if he’s not sold this month we’ll hopefully see more of Andrew Driver this season after an injury-ravaged year, while David Templeton is blossoming into a very lively player. Defensively, they’ve also made the very useful acquisition of Darren Barr from Falkirk. There should be enough there to suggest an improvement on last season.
Last season: 4th; Manager: John Hughes
They must be a maddening side to follow at times, Hibs. Last season they made a bright start but were frustratingly inconsistent for most of the season. You would have guessed, even if you didn’t know about that extraordinary game against Motherwell, that if a team were going to draw a match in which they’d been 6-2 ahead then it would be this lot. They did cling on for a place in Europe, but have already surrendered it tamely even before the league season is underway, and you sense that fans are steeling themselves for another season of underachievement. Of the new signings, midfielder Edwin de Graaf (NAC Breda) is the one they’re pinning most hopes on. But mostly they’ll be heavily dependent on the players who blew so hot and cold last year, particularly Anthony Stokes and Derek Riordan. Sadly, Merouane Zemmama will be injured for a good chunk of the season. He’s still around though and will hopefully play some part, and David Wotherspoon looks a prospect. They’re not to be taken lightly, but I think they’ll drop below their city rivals this season.
Last season: 7th; Manager: Billy Reid
Billy Reid has rejected overtures from at least one club who could have offered him a more lucrative contract during the summer. Which is both a noteworthy expression of loyalty and perhaps an indication that he still feels there is more he can achieve yet with this Hamilton side. My initial thought was that it’s quite hard to see what. They’ve lost another of their gems in James McArthur, who has followed his near namesake James McCarthy down to Wigan, and that’s a big loss, but they’ve picked up Gavin Skelton and Jack Ross, slightly surprinsingly released by Kilmarnock and St Mirren respectively, as well as dipping into the lower leagues for winger Jim McAlister (Morton) and Stirling Albion’s classy right-back Andy Graham. Hard to be sure but it looks like reasonable business – the money from the players heading south has eased their situation a bit compared to teams around them, and I ended up revising my assessment upwards in the course of writing this article.
Last season: 5th; Manager: Craig Brown
Motherwell surprised me last season by finishing fifth, but they’re going to be hard put to follow that up, with several of their better players off to try their luck in the English leagues – Lucas Jutkiewicz (Coventry) Jim O’Brien (Barnsley), Giles Coke (Wednesday). But Craig Brown is a canny old bugger, and there are still some good players – John Sutton and Jamie Murphy up front, Tom Hately, son of Mark, and a very good and still quite young centre-back in Mark Reynolds. If they have a lucky season with injuries the first team would be good enough to challenge for at least a top six berth again, but they probably lack the strength in depth to maintain it at present. Worth noting that they’re only one, maybe winnable, tie away from a Europa League group spot which would be a big boost to the coffers, so they may yet be able to strengthen during the season
8. St Johnstone
Last season: 8th; Manager: Derek McInnes
Last season was a very successful one establishing themselves back in the SPL. By and large their most critical players have stayed – captain Jody Morris has been on very good form, while Murray Davidson alongside him has the makings of a fine player – but a good number of the fringe players have moved on, so whether they’re able to improve from here (or even stand still) may depend on how the new signings fit it. Only one of them has come from another Scottish club – Jamies Adams from Killie – and he was promptly loaned out to Dundee for the start of the season. The others have all come from further afield and are accordingly more difficult to assess, but I’m looking forward to seeing Marcus Haber, a big striker on loan from West Brom who’ll be leading their line to begin with, while at the other end of the field former Villa keeper Peter Enckelman has been signed and will strengthen what’s been a problem position for them. They have enough about them to stay up, even if they get some second season wobbles.
Last season: promoted; Manager: Terry Butcher
Inverness won the First Division in some style last season, with a 21 match unbeaten streak that’s still current. It was the first thing Butcher has ever won in nearly twenty years of management, so it’ll be interesting to see how he can maintain it. He’s kept faith mostly with the squad that’s come up, with a very experienced defence – the signing of Chris Innes (St Mirren) does nothing to reduce its average age – while further forward the Irish trio of Richie Foran, Adam Rooney and Johnny Hayes look to have more quality about them than many existing SPL teams can boast. If these players in particular can maintain their form of last season then Inverness should find survival is reasonably comfortable.
Last season 9th; Manager: Mark McGhee
Last season was a miserable one for the Dons, the nadir being that (wonderful) night when my boys horsed them out the Scottish Cup at Pittodrie. And though I have a lot of respect for Mark McGhee (rather more than many Aberdeen fans do) such are their straitened circumstances these days that it’s difficult to see them mounting much of a challenge again this season for what ought to be their rightful place in the top six. This summer they’ve lost one club captain in Charlie McGrew (to Celtic) and gained another in Paul Hartley (from Bristol City) – now 33, but playing as well as ever. It’s hoped he’ll be influential in helping young players come through, and that may well be so but it’s clutching at straws a bit, given the lack of quality through the squad – particularly up front where their top scorer in the league last season was the on-loan Steve MacLean, with five. McGhee has scanned the bargain basements down south and will be hoping Scott Vernon or Josh Magennis can rectify this most obvious deficiency. Hope springs eternal, but I don’t expect them to have much to cheer again this season.
Last season: 11th; Manager: Mixu Paatelainen
Many are tipping Killie for the drop this season and it’s easy to see why. They’ve been kept up in good part by the goals of Kevin Kyle for the past two seasons and now he’s left, along with a bundle of players released to bring down the wage bill. And they’ve appointed another new manager in Paatelainen, whose record is …. let’s say mixed. If captain Craig Bryson also joins Kyle in following former manager Jim Jeffries to Hearts (they’ve had one bid turned down already) then I mgiht revise my prediction downwards. So far there’s been very little inward movement of players- David Silva (not that one clearly), James Dayton, Kyle Letheren. This leaves them starting the season with no forwards of any repute, and you would think there will have to be several signings yet before the deadline passes. Otherwise, they really are in trouble.
12. St Mirren
Last season 10th; Manager: Danny Lennon
St Mirren are an interesting one, and have taken a big gamble this summer. Gus McPherson had improved them enormously over his years as manager, and if last season saw a slightly disappointing slump in form (and a very disappointing cup final defeat) then it still case as a surprise, at least to outsiders, when they parted company with him in the summer, and appointed Danny Lennon in his place. Lennon has had only two seasons in management, with Cowdenbeath, and was promoted in both of them (though only by the back door on the first occasion, having lost in the play-offs). I suspect he’s been as much lucky as good, but fair dues nonetheless. In place of a host of experienced players who have left (Chris Innes, Jack Ross, Allan Johnston, Andy Dorman, Billy Mehmet – to name a few) he’s brought in some of his proteges from Cowdenbeath. Paul McQuade has the talent, maybe Darren McGregor, but many eyebrows were raised when Gareth Wardlaw joined them. Wardlaw is a good honest pro and, by all accounts, a top lad and believe me I’d love to be wrong on this, but he’s essentially a journeyman lower league striker who’s just had a good season in Division Two – if he’s able to step up to the SPL at the age of 31 then I’m going to be very surprised, and my opinion on Lennon’s judgement will have to be revised radically. But at the moment, I’ve got a bad feeling about the whole thing. He, and they, are going to find it tough going.