We’ve already had the advantage of seeing most teams play a couple of cup games, but the SFL proper starts this Saturday. The SPL (which starts next week) are still talking about possible expansion for next season – if that happens the First Division promotion race changes somewhat, but at the moment it remains the toughest league to get out of with just that single promotion spot. I’d be reasonably confident the winners will come from the top three sides listed, maybe Dunfermline would be the only other side capable of mounting a challenge. You could probably throw a blanket over the teams in 5th to 8th, while – trite a prediction though it is – I really do think the two part-time teams at the bottom will be having their own battle. Unless one of them can pull off a miracle or unless Partick turn out to be even worse than their fans currently fear. Teams are listed in predicted finishing order.
Dundee blew up rather embarrassingly last season having invested heavily to achieve promotion, and with doubts remaining about where that leaves the club financially, this year no such war chest has been provided for Gordon Chisholm to stengthen his squad. Nonetheless, last summer’s big purchases – Leigh Griffiths and Gary Harkins – are still around, and a smaller, tighter squad might prove to be a good thing. They might not be quite such heavy favourites as they were twelve months ago, but they’ll still be the team to beat.
Inverness overturned received wisdom last season by returning straight to the SPL at the first attempt – and Falkirk should be better-placed than some previous relegated sides to attempt the same. Scott Arfield has left for Huddersfield, but the fee has helped soften the blow a bit, and Steven Pressley has kept the core of a side that should look good at this level – Tam Scobbie, Marc Twaddle, Ryan Flynn, Burton O’Brien. Their problem will probably be the same that beset them at the higher level – who’s going to score the goals? Here they’re looking to new signings. Kenny Deuchar was much sought after but it’s a few years now since he was at his prolific best, while they seem to be getting rather excited about a young player called Kallum Higginbotham. About whom I can tell you nothing except that he seems to have scored nine goals in sixty odd games for Rochdale up to now. It doesn’t sound like an awful lot to pin your hopes on, but we’ll see.
3. Ross County
County have made steady progress under Derek Adams over the past two or three years, culminating in last year’s win over Celtic in their run to the Scottish Cup final. Some were expecting some big moves in the transfer market this summer, but it’s been pretty quiet – they only major departee is Alex Keddie (to Dunfermline) and besides replacing him they’ve strengthened the squad on the wings with Mark Corcoran (from Partick) and Darren Smith (from Motherwell). I’m not necessarily convinced by either of those – Corcoran has flattered to deceive over the years while Smith has had injury troubles – but last season’s heroes are still there and it may be there’s enough money left to bring in players through the season as they need them. They’re not favourites, but a reasonable outside tip for title contention.
The Pars played the best football I saw in this division last season. Apparently I kept seeing him on his good days, but Willie Gibson looked superb (except for the time he got sent off) and with Davie Graham, Joe Cardle, Andy Kirk and Steven McDougall they had an impressive frontline even before this summer’s acquisition of Pat Clarke. But then every time I turned my back I’d find they’d lost tamely at home to somebody rubbish, and the title challenge never materialised. I don’t really know what the problem was, but my hunch is they’ve got the wrong man in charge – Jim McIntyre just doesn’t seem like a very bright bloke, and last season’s multiple cock-ups with player registration issues didn’t inspire you with confidence either. It’ll be another season of blowing hot and cold.
5. Queen of the South
Queens keep defying predictions – not least mine – that they’ll struggle, and are now starting their ninth straight season in this division. The squad has been pared back a bit from last year though, and while they spent some of last season thinking about a title challenge, they’ll do well to muster one this season. They still have Willie McLaren who’s been showing fine form in midfield, and Derek Holmes to knock some goals in. If they can keep hold of left-back Bob Harris – currently the subject of much transfer speculation – and keep them all fit then the first eleven is still pretty good. Once injuries start to bite, I’m not so sure.
Last season saw Morton slump rather alarmingly towards the bottom end of the table, but they’ve been having a bit of a clear-out over the summer. By far the most important of the new arrivals is manager Allan Moore, highly regarded after proving himself over a period of years at Stirling Albion. It’ll be more than a one season job for him to turn Morton into a serious force, but there are already some signs of progress, with Marc Smyth a useful acquisition (from Airdrie) to strengthen the defence. Keep an eye on young midfielder Michael Tidser as well, they seem to be quite excited about him. They look a bit lightweight up front though.
7. Raith Rovers
Raith had a successful season back in this league last season and are now thinking about turning their attentions to something more than just survival – though their flying start a year ago and their cup run in the spring shouldn’t deflect attention from the fact that their league form post-Christmas was a pretty ropey. John McGlynn has addressed their most obvious weakness – lack of a goalscorer – with the signing of John Baird from Airdrie, and they should have enough to stay clear of any relegation trouble, but will be happy with mid-table consolidation.
8. Partick Thistle
Partick are a club I have a lot of time for, but there are bad vibes coming from that way at the moment. Their form was woeful from about November onwards last season, and with little money to play with there have been few signs of any improvements to the squad over the summer. Instead they’ve re-signed a number of the veterans they released at the end of last season. Of course a few wins early on will change everything, and they still have one of the division’s best strikers in Liam Buchanan, but if they should get off to a bad start Ian McCall will find himself very quickly under pressure.
The Blue Brazil surprised everyone last season with a second successive promotion, but it was achieved in spite of financial difficulties, and with manager Danny Lennon having left for St Mirren taking several key players with him (Darren McGregor, Paul McQuade, Gareth Wardlaw) they now face life in the higher division with very little in the way of resources. On the plus side, the capture of Jimmy Nicholl as manager was a minor coup, and of course there’s only one automatic relegation spot to be avoided ….
10. Stirling Albion
Football is rarely that simple, of course, but the expectation among most fans is that Cowdenbeath and Stirling will have their own mini-league to avoid that last place. Stirling are in a remarkably similar situation, promoted in spite of off-field troubles, and having now lost Allan Moore as well as a number of important players (Andy Graham, David McKenna, David O’Brien). The new Trust-run club and rookie manager John O’Neil are going to have a battle on their hands – I’d like to see them succeed, and to be honest I could have just tossed a coin to decide which way round to place the two clubs. I think the more experienced manager might just give Cowden the edge.
Again, just the single automatic promotion spot, this time with three play-off spots behind. A slightly unusual situation this year, in a mostly part-time league the full-time team (Livingston) has come up from the league below rather than dropping from the league above as often happens. Again, I wouldn’t be looking outside the top four teams here for league winners – and below that, anything could happen and no one is safe from relegation.
Livingston will start among the favourites this season despite just having come up from the lower division. They still have a full-time squad, a very good midfield organiser in Lian Fox, a couple of good strikers in Robbie Winters and Iain Russell, and a number of good young players coming through the ranks. Like most of the rest of Scottish football, I’m not going to pretend I like it – it sticks in the craw to see them living beyond their income again so soon after a (second) administration, and it’s hard to get straight answers as to who’s funding it (and why). It stinks.
Alloa seemed to have the title in the bag with a few weeks to go last season, only to implode and allow Stirling to pip them at the post. This year Alan Maitland strengtened their promotion credentials by signing a number of players who were playing in the first last season – most notably winger Darren Smith from Raith. And with a bit of luck they might even have Dougie Wilson back again after long-term injury. So while Scott Buist (off to Stirling) and David Crawford (Ayr) will be losses from the defence and in goal respectively, they’ll be promotion contenders again.
A very attractive side to watch, on a good day, Brechin lost out in the play-offs last year under the now-departed Jim Duffy and should be in the shake-up for them again. Left-back Willie Dyer has moved on to play full-time at Raith, but most of the rest of the side is still there, most importantly Charlie King and Rory McAllister – the latter scored 26 goals last season – and new manager Jim Weir has made a couple of tidy signings in Andrew Cook (from East Fife) and David McKenna.(Stirling). They won’t be far away.
With hindsight, maybe promotion in 2009 came a bit too quickly for Ayr, and having come straight back down Brian Reid now has the chance to prove himself by building a promotion-winning side for a second time. And I rather like the look of what he’s put togther so far, Crawford in goal is an good signing, along with a couple of Airdrie’s better players in Stephen McKeown and Alan Trouten. Goals might be the sticking point, it’ll be interesting to see whether Andy Rodgers can make the step up from the third division, where he’s had a couple of good years with East Stirlingshire.
Airdrie have been bouncing around a bit between the first and second divisions over the past few years, but full-time football was always going to be difficult to sustain on their gates, and with last seson’s bad weather accentuating the problems, they’ve now accepted the inevitable and gone part-time (as well as installing an artificial pitch – of which there will now be three in this league). So, other than long-time servant Paul Lovering, it’s a very young side and very difficult to know how it’s going to fit together. Keep an eye out for Ryan McCord, a young midfielder on long-term loan from Dundee United.
Peterhead have been kicking around in mid-table for a few years now, either just missing out on or just scraping into the play-offs. Despite the addition of another experienced forward in Dennis Wyness, it’s hard to see much improvement (or deterioration) in the squad again this year – it’s still based around Martin Bavidge up top and Bobby Mann / Callum McDonald at the back, as it has been for a few years now. Decent enough players all, but I don’t see them being ready for The Great Leap Forward.
Stenny just stayed clear of the relegation zone last season and survival will be the principal aim again this season. I’m far from sure about their defence but they look to have some goals in them – Simon Lynch and the mercurial Alex Willliams makes for an intriguing front pairing. Also worth watching is pocket dynamo Stevie Murray, a cracking little player on his day. And I do mean little, the internet is claiming him to be 5’4″ but I’m not having it. I think they’ll be safe again this season anyway.
8. East Fife
The jury is still out on player-manager Steve Crawford, but he kept them up last season when I have to admit I suspected he might not, so fair play. This summer he’s added to the ever-growing role of former Raith players with the addition of Robert Sloan in midfield and Steve Hislop up front – both could be reasonable signings but again they’re probably in for a tough season. They’re heavily dependent on Bobby Linn for creativity, but at least they’ve still got him and there’s always hope while he’s around.
The Sons didn’t do too badly on their arrival in the Second Division last season, but with teams around them improving their squads I’ve got a feeling this season is going to prove more difficult, and the departures of Dennis Wyness and David Winters leaves you wondering where the goals are going to come from. They can’t keep relying on Scott Chaplain to chip them in from midfield – good player though he is. Winters, incidentally, has gone off to play in Vietnam. As you do.
Forfar only came up through the play-offs last season, and haven’t made many changes to their squad for the higher league. Indeed they’ve lost one of their sharper players in Bryan Deasley (who was on loan from Dundee). Against that, they’ve added Paul Lunan from Arbroath and Michael Bolochoweckyj from East Stirlingshire, and will hope to have Darren Brady back in midfield following a long term injury. But it looks like a relegation battle. Much may depend on whether Ross Campbell can show the same sort of form that saw him score 19 goals last season.
I see less of the Third Division than the others, and my predictions here come with the disclaimer that last season I tipped Montrose for promotion (they finished bottom). This league is a tighter one anyway, I would think any of at least the top six listed here could make a run for promotion with luck and a following wind. However, while it doesn’t often work this way, I reckon the teams to beat in the third this season will be the ones who have just come down.
Following financial meltdown and back-to-back relegations, Clyde fans are hopeful that the club has now bottomed out and can start to turn their momentum back the other way. They ought to have every chance – Adam Strachan is a talented midfielder, Marc McCusker knows where the goals are and Kevin Finlayson might prove a useful signing dropping down from Morton. If Alan Lithgow re-signs in defence they’ll have the strongest squad in the division, at least on paper.
Paul Sheerin is an interesting choice as player-manager, and he’s brought in a few players who, like himself, have a reasonable pedigree in higher divisions – Danny Griffin, Gavin Swankie and the very much veteran Jim Hamilton. It ought to at least make them contenders to bounce straight back up, but then it’s a funny old game innit – and last season I thought they’d do okay in the Second.
3. East Stirlingshire
No longer the joke club of a few years ago, the Shire have been in the play-offs in each of the last two seasons. However the departure of their chief investor Spencer Fearn has seen a reduction in budget this season, and the departure of a few players – Simon Lynch, Michael Bolochoweckyj and Andy Rodgers have all moved up to Second Division clubs. But Paul Weaver and Craig Donaldson have stayed, and new signings Alex Walker and John Neil look useful. They should still be in the scrap for play-off spots.
4. Queen’s Park
The Spiders also lost out in the play-offs last year, and although their highly-rated let-back Barry Douglas has moved on to higher things at Dundee United, they might well have enough about them to go at least as far again. Losing key players is a perennial problem for them as the only amateur side in the league, but they’ve kept hold of some of the more important ones this summer, notably Martin McBride in midfield, and they have high hopes of new striker Jamie Longworth who scored freely for Kilbirnie Ladeside last season.
5. Berwick Rangers
Jimmy Crease is finally restoring a bit of stability after Berwick went through a turbulent time in the boardroom and on the pitch a year or so ago. So there’s a bit more of a settled squad, and they’ve now added Craig O’Reilly and former player Darren Gribben to the forward line – two players who have done it before at this level but then lost their way a bit. If at least one of them can find it again then Berwick will be in with a decent shout for the play-offs.
6. Albion Rovers
And speaking of former players returning, Albion have re-signed one of my favourite lower league players – John Gemmell, following his release from Montrose. He’s a fine player on his day but with a head full of mince, so anything could happen. If they can get him firing then they too will be looking to the play-offs which they have never yet reached. More lilkey, he’ll throw a big hissy fit and Rovers will drift to their usual position in midtable. I actually rather rate the Paul Martin / Todd Lumsden managerial partnerhsip, but they’re working with very limited resources and McCusker’s switch to Clyde is a big blow.
7. Annan Athletic
Annan have held their own, but no more than that, since their admission into the league two seasons ago. They have ambitions to do better and are making noises about play-offs and things, but I think it’s probably beyond them yet. It’s never a good omen when you see Ian Harty signing up – I think that’s his tenth club in four years and I wonder how many of those don’t regret it. He might score a few goals I suppose, if he can be bothered.
This is the first year since 2002 that Stranraer have started a season in the same division as they finished the previous one. It’s probably as well that they get used to the idea because that’s not likely to change in the near future, indeed credit is due to them for keeping the club going at all following a financial collapse eighteen months back. For now then, the focus is on getting the debt down again, making do as best they can, and hoping that their more experienced players such as Michael Moore and Scott Agnew can do enough to keep them out of the wooden spoon battle.
9. Elgin City
I was going to put them last, which is the cheap and easy thing to do, but Craig Gunn swung it for me – he’s a pacy forward who scored 18 goals last season, as well as two last Saturday in the cup win over Ayr. Still, that aside they’re not very good, attracting players to that part of the world is not the easiest thing (it took a car load of the central-based players two days to get back from a game at one point during the winter) and it’s tough to expect much improvement from them this season.
They had a miserable season last year, failing to win a league game until January and finishing adrift at the bottom.Given their two hammerings in the cups already, it’d be a brave pundit to tip them to do much better this seson either, but Paul Tosh at least improved their goals ratio at the back end of last year and I’m reckoning they won’t be quite so awful again. Maybe.
It’s going to be an interesting season anyway – best of luck to everyone, and let’s hope it’s not as affected by the weather as last year.