Continuing what we hope will be the most comprehensive pre-season previews of the season that you will be able to find anywhere on the net, we’re heading north of the border tonight for the first of a gargantuan two-part look at what we can expect in Scotland. Gavin Saxton is your guide to the 2009-10 season in the SPL and the SFL Division One, with The SFL Divisions Two and Three to follow tomorrow.
Updated (6th August): Since this was written, the SFL have, on Wednesday afternoon, relegated Livingston from the first to the third division. Although this possibility was anticipated in my preliminary comments the other day, it was nonetheless a surprise to most of us that they took such a severe line, particularly with just three days to go before the start of the season. Airdrie and Cowdenbeath, the respective play-off runners-up, have been promoted to the first and second divisions and predictions below adjusted accordingly.
The Scottish Football League (Divisions One to Three) kicks off this Saturday, with the Premier League starting a week behind on the fifteenth. It’s been a difficult close season, the collapse of Setanta causing big holes in the budgets of the SPL sides. With a (lesser value) replacement being obtained from Sky and ESPN, it seems the worst case scenario of three SPL clubs going out of business is not going to come to pass, but the straitened circumstances are still having an effect on clubs. Extended squads and youth teams have been cut back in some quarters, with the result that entry to the SPL Reserve League has now been made optional for the first time.
Lower down the leagues, this has meant there are more players than ever kicking around looking for a club. Pretty much everything in the lower leagues is done on year-to-year contracts and transfer fees are a thing of the past anyway, but it’s even more obviously the case now – with the notable exception of Dundee, bankrolled by a new benefactor, whose six figure fees for two players means they’ve comfortably outspent the rest of Scottish football bar Celtic. For everyone else it’s time to tighten the belts, with Clyde, Stranraer and Stirling Albion in particular having had their survival threatened in recent months. The lower leagues look very tight and squads are so small that a couple of key injuries might make all the difference between a good season and a bad one.
So anyway, onto the football. For the lower league teams we’ve already had the benefit of seeing them play a couple of cup games, and I admit I have revised my predictions slightly in one or two cases as a result, but – in predicted finishing order – here’s how I expect the various leagues to pan out. For the record, I’m a Raith fan.
I’m in the camp that doesn’t much care which way round the big two finish. One of them will be first (Celtic are favourites, having more money available), the other will be second, one will win one cup, the other will win the other – probably by beating Dundee United on penalties in the final. Whatever.
3. Dundee United – I’m backing Dundee United to be the team most likely to challenge, in both league and cups, even though they let me down with the same prediction last season. I suppose that’s more because I rate Craig Levein such a good manager than because of a detailed assessment of their squad. As far as that goes, they look a bit light up front, particularly in the early part of the season where they already have something of an injury crisis, but behind that they have a more settled team than most and in Scott Robertson one of the best midfielders in the country.
4. Hearts – I was all set to say Hearts had finally found a bit of stability and kept themselves out the headlines for a while, and then the HMRC go and issue a winding up order the other day. I doubt this’ll come to anything, and meantime things have been going pretty well on the pitch: Csaba Laszlo has achieved what was previously thought impossible by apparently having the confidence of both owner and fans. But if they’re to follow up last season’s third place they really need to find a goalscoring forward – Bruno Aguiar topscored from midfield last season with seven, and even he’s left. Maybe one of the youngsters, Calum Elliot or Gary Glen, will step up to the plate but it remains their obvious weakness.
5. Hibernian – One of several teams with a new manager, John Hughes arriving from Falkirk in place of Mixu Paatelainen, and bringing with him Falkirk’s duo of Patrick Cregg and Kevin McBride to stengthen the midfield. Against that they’ve lost a couple of big players – the loss of Steve Fletcher to Burnley might not be so keenly felt with Zemmama returning and Riordan and Nish still around, but Rob Jones at the back will be a bigger hole to fill. If they can sort that and give Zemmama the opportunity to show off his best then they might do well.
6. Aberdeen – If Dundee United and Hearts are probably assured of top six finishes, I’m not sure the same is true for Aberdeen: Jimmy Calderwood has finally gone and Mark McGhee arrived in his place, which to me that sounds like it ought to be an improvement, but so far Aberdeen have struggled to make any additions to their squad to replace departing players Scott Severin and Lee Mair, and while there are a couple of perhaps promising youngsters around in Chris Maguire and Michael Paton, it’s hard to see them making progress at the moment. And of course last week’s 5-1 home defeat in the Europa League to some team I’ve already forgotten the name of was hardly an encouraging start.
7. St Mirren – Gus McPherson has done very well to keep Saints on a fairly even keel in the lower half of the SPL, after taking them up there three seasons back. He continues to make small adjustments to the squad, Paul Gallacher in goal being the pick of their summer signings. They’ll be wanting to hang on to Andy Dorman in midfield, and it would be handy if one of the forwards could back him up with a few more goals, but they look to have enough to keep them out of relegation trouble, at least.
8. Hamilton – Hamilton defied everyone’s predictions of relegation last season, and having now lost two of their young starlets in Brian Easton and James McCarthy to the English Premiership they could be facing that “difficult second album” syndrome. There was more to them last season than those two players though, they were a pretty solid unit, and if they can free some of the money up to sign replacements then it could be that the cash will prove to be more useful to them. Rumours are that various bids are being made at the moment. I fancy them to consolidate.
9. Motherwell – I know he’s only just arrived in the managerial hot seat, but I’ve taken an instant dislike to Jim Gannon. Maybe it was the way he publicly criticised his own captain after his first game – do managers really learn nothing from years of watching Wenger and Fergie handling players? Still, that’s no basis on which to judge their prospects – of more concern to them will be the loss of a few players such as Paul Quinn, Stephen Hughes and top scorer David Clarkson. That looks like quite a lot to take away from the side, and at this stage they seem to be relying mostly on youngsters to fill the void. I think I’d be a little bit nervous, if I were them.
10. Kilmarnock – Killie are one of those most affected by financial troubles following the Setanta collapse, so more squad cuts and no money available for replacements spells for another unpromising year. Towards the end of last season they were kept out of trouble by a spell of eight goals in eleven games from Kevin Kyle; he’ll be the big hope again this season but no one who’s been following his career will be holding their breath for him to maintain that kind of form, while the signing of Mark Burchill is hardly one to set the pulses racing either.
11. St Johnstone – General opinion was that St Johnstone were the weakest winners of the first division in recent years, if only because they won it with fewer points than usual. That’s hardly a scientific measurement though, and while they will of course be in the thick of the relegation battle it should be noted that we all thought Hamilton would go straight back down last year. And some of their new signings look decent acquisitions – Danny Grainger, Murray Davidson, Fiipe Morais. They might still go down but it’s not like they’re going to be cut adrift at the bottom and relegated by February.
12. Falkirk – Saved from relegation only by a last day win at Inverness last season, and it would be a brave Falkirk fan to put much money on an improvement this season. With both McBride and Cregg off to Hibs, new manager Eddie May has also seen the departures of his only two goalscoring strikers in Michael Higdon and Steve Lovell. There may be some signings still to come – at least they’d better hope so – but at the moment they look seriously short of quality.
Some players to watch:
David Goodwillie (Dundee United); after a loan spell at Raith the season before last, Goodwillie scored a couple for United towards the end of last season, and pre-season form this year suggests he might be on the verge of a breakthrough. At any rate he seems to be their only fit striker at the moment, so he’s certainly going to get his chance in the early part of the season.
Scott Arfield (Falkirk); Goal-scoring midfielder, only 20 but with a Scotland B cap to his name. It’s asking a lot for him to prosper in a poor side but he certainly has potential.
Andrew Driver (Hearts); A left-winger but not exactly a left-field choice this one, Driver has already been the subject of multi-million pound bids from the English Premier League (well, Burnley), as well as prompting a debate on eligibility for the home nations. Driver was born English but raised in Scotland, and since that mirrors my own situation I’m following the debate with interest. I’ve still got my football boots and tartan wig at the ready.
Jamie Murphy (Motherwell); David Clarkson leaves a big pair of boots to fill at Fir Park, but 19 yeard-old Murphy might stand a chance of filling them. He scored a hat-trick in a Europa League qualifier the other week, prompting inevitable comparisons with James McFadden who also started his career here.
Merouane Zemmama (Hibs); Difficulties in obtaining a visa for his young wife meant this Moroccan winger spent last season on loan in the UAE. She’s now 18, the visa is sorted and he’s back at Easter Road. Fast, lively and on his day just a terrific player to watch. They missed him last season.
1. Dundee – There are those who are a bit uneasy about Dundee flaunting their new-found wealth so soon after writing off the last of the debt occasioned by administration in 2003, but under new benefactor (and lifelong Aberdeen fan) Calum Melville they’ve laid out six figure transfer fees for young striker Leigh Griffiths (Livingston) and midfielder Gary Harkins (Partick). Griffiths joins a large squad of forwards which should make team selection interesting, but the defence is unchanged and they’ll still be beatable. Nonetheless they should win the league; it’s certainly going to be embarrassing if they don’t.
2. Dunfermline – The Pars have finally shipped out most of the ageing heroes of the Premier League days, and Jim McIntyre has been assembling a younger and hopefully hungrier squad. The loss of goalkeeper Paul Gallacher to St Mirren is a blow, but there are goals in the Graham Bayne / Andy Kirk partnership, and if Joe Cardle can get his act together to supply the chances then they could be Dundee’s closest challengers.
3. Partick Thistle – Ian McCall is a terrific manager at this level, with (mostly) excellent results at a series of clubs on tight budgets over the last decade or so. So I don’t really expect Partick to skip a beat despite the loss of Harkins to Dundee and Marc Twaddle to Falkirk; they’ve got a couple of promising signings to set against it in Marc Corcoran and Chris Erskine, and the prospect of a fit-again Liam Buchanan after an injury-restricted season in which he only scored seven. They’ll be up there, but nonetheless I suspect thaty’ll lack that real bit of quality and consistency to mount a serious challenge.
4. Inverness CT – Teams coming down from the SPL have generally found it hard going back in the first division in recent years, and I don’t see Terry Butcher’s Inverness bouncing straight back up either. Inevitably, they’ve lost some players, released some others, and replaced them with a handful of signings precisely none of whom I’ve ever heard of. A bit of an unknown quantity then, especially in midfield, but they’ve got some experienced defenders still around and the likes of Richie Foran and Ross Barrowman should be capable enough forwards at this level to keep them towards the top end of the table.
5. Morton – They’re not going to be in any trouble and they’re not going to threaten the promotion race. Insofar as it’s possible to finish in mid-table obscurity in a ten team league, Morton will roughly be it. You’d have to ask them whether they regard that as success or not, but despite the very useful acquisition of Neil McFarlane from Queen of the South I don’t see them being ready to kick on to a higher level.
6. Ross County – Last season County left it to the last day before securing their first division survival; this season they ought to be a bit more comfortable, not because they necessarily look much stronger than last season – Iain Vigurs, a young midfielder from Inverness, is perhaps the best of two or three decent looking signings but against that they’ve lost Andy Dowie to Dunfermline, and Richie Hart and Sean Higgins to Dundee – but because there are probably weaker sides in the league this year.
7. Queen of the South – This is Queen’s eighth straight season in the first division, and they’ve comfortably survived many previous predictions of relegation trouble. Nonetheless the loss of key players in McFarlane and especially Stephen Dobbie (to Swansea) is going to be hard to deal with, and while their fans seem to be confident at this stage about the players they’ve signed instead, I’ve got to say I’m not convinced and I think they’ll be battling it out with Raith and Ayr to avoid the play-off spot. (That should be enough to guarantee they give us a thrashing on the opening day of the season.)
8. Raith Rovers – My boys were worthy second division champions last season but a couple of key players have left, in particular Kevin Smith who provided eighteen goals in his loan spell from Dundee United. There’s still the core of a tidy side there but goals will be the problem, and good forwards so hard to come by that John McGlynn has signed Clyde winger Gregory Tadé and converted him to a centre-forward. Early signs are that he has the pace and strength to trouble any defence, and the shooting ability to scuff it wide from any range. It might be an inspired move, it might be a disaster, and Raith’s season may depend on it.
9. Ayr United – In the space of eighteen months Brian Reid has turned Ayr right round from relegation candidates in the second division to promotion winners to the first. If they can keep up the same rate of progress they’ll be well set, but they’re probably in for a difficult season. Like Raith they have a mix and match squad of full- and part-timers, and like Raith the goalscoring looks like it’ll be the problem. There are questionmarks as to whether Mark Roberts can still do it at this level, and whether Bryan Prunty ever could.
10. Livingston Airdrie United – Having been preparing for life in the second division until three days before kick-off, they have to start as relegation favourites but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. With my Raith hat on, I’d have been more confident of staying up with a crippled Livingston still around, with or without a points deduction. Airdrie finished ninth last season, went down initially through the play-offs, and had to release some of their higher earners such as Paul de Giacomo and Simon Lynch – but, they stayed full-time, perhaps with the possibility of being returned to the higher league in mind, and if they can increase their budget a little to sign another couple of players (Lynch himself is still without a club) then other clubs will write them off at their peril.
Some players to watch:
Joe Cardle (Dunfermline); In February last season, Dunfermline put Airdrie out the cup away at New Broomfield. In the after match chat, Dunfermline manager Jim McIntyre happened to mention to his counterpart Kenny Black that he’d already signed two Airdrie players on pre-contract agreements without Airdrie’s knowledge. This didn’t go down too well, but while Steven McDougall was allowed back into the fold to see out the season, Cardle played just one more game for Airdrie, was sent off for throwing a punch at his own captain, and left the club early by mutual consent. This might tell you something of the reason why Cardle has failed to make the most of his talent, having once been tipped for greatness as a youngster at Port Vale, but the talent is real and if anyone can harness it they’ll have a fine player yet.
Chris Erskine (Partick); Young left winger who hit a sackful of goals for Kilbirnie Ladeside last season. The step up to this level is a big one but early reports are promising and the Partick fans sound enthusiastic.
Alan Trouten (Airdrie); I had commented the other day that the return to the second division, with a better side, would suit him, after he struggled a bit to make an impression in the first with Clyde last season. Perhaps he’ll struggle again now, but I still thought he was a cracking wee player in his Queen’s Park days and expect him to come good again somewhere, at some point.
Barry Wilson (Queen of the South); Amidst all this talk of promising youngsters, it’s nice to be able to pay tribute to one of my favourite players from Scottish football over the last fifteen years or so. Famous for once being called up for Scotland by mistake, Wilson is now 37 and still has an eye for a spectacular goal. Go and watch him before his legs give out.