The Scottish Premier League kicks off its fifteenth – and conceivably its last – season this weekend, after a summer when off-field issues have dominated, and the repercussions of which may yet have major consequences on the season ahead. It makes it similtaneously the most predictable, and in other respects the most unpredictable, season in the SPL’s history.
The predictability is not hard to find. I imagine somewhere, at some point in time, there’s probably been a team that’s started the season in a major football league as a shorter odds favourite than Celtic start this one, but you’re going to have to look hard to find it. To what extent this will affect the level of interest from all concerned remains to be seen. For Celtic fans the novelty is bound to wear off sooner or later, but probably not for the first season. For the rest, who are now playing for second place rather than third, it doesn’t really make much odds. It’s the casual viewers for whom there will be little interest. And if the relegation place is sewn up long in advance (or if – as might happen – league expansion is pushed through in time for next season and relegation is taken out the equation) then, for the marketing men at least, it will be about as uninteresting a season as is possible to imagine.
On the other hand, there’s definitely a feeling of …. something different in the air this summer, now that fan power has – if not for the first time then at least the most significant – won out on a major issue affecting the game. I like to hope that this will be converted into a new feeling of positivity and a rallying round, but – even if I’m not just imagining it – a month or two of watching the same old, same old will probably knock it out of most people.
It’s also possible, of course, that matters might be decided by issues off-the-pitch. While, to no one’s surprise, Neil Doncaster’s worst predictions about the loss of TV revenue have not come to pass, there’s still a not unsubstantial loss of cash coming in from what clubs were originally budgeting for just two or three months ago. That’s bound to have an impact, and some clubs were already skating rather near the edge. Hearts, in particular, were already facing substantial cutbacks now that Vladimir Romanov has lost interest in subsidising them. But despite some of the predictions of armageddon, and despite the sweepstakes on Rangers forums as to who will go bust first, I think everyone will probably just about muddle by, and hopefully we’ll have no further clubs in administration this season.
It will however, mean some tightening of belts, and it’s not necessarily obvious to outside observers which clubs will prove best-placed to cope with it. A number of clubs have lost key players, and it could be – top spot aside – a very open league with chances for more or less anyone to have a good season.
Here, for example, is the BBC’s list of players in and out, from just a couple of days back, and as can be seen, there’s a lot more outs than ins. To some extent this is always the case, as such lists tend to include younger players who weren’t significant squad members. Also, the financial uncertainty of the last couple of months has led to many plans, and planned signings, being put on hold: now that the damage is seen to be not as bad as worst case scenarios it may well be that there’s a relative flurry of late transfer activity during August. But it’s also likely that most clubs will be running with reduced squads, and with more opportunities than usual for young players.
All of which makes pre-season predictions even more of a lottery than usual. I’ll stick my neck out with some predictions anyway.
The title race we’ve already covered, as if there were any need to do so. And I’d love to be able to tell you that, actually, Celtic won’t find it quite that simple. But, they really will. There will be no title race this season, just a procession.
The race for second place
Hearts and Dundee United have been the most consistent (or perhaps, least inconsistent) of clubs in the chasing pack in recent years, and I’d anticipate they’ll be there or thereabouts again at the upper end of the table. But both have lost good players. Hearts have seen Ian Black, Craig Beattie, Rudi Skacel and others leave since their Scottish Cup win at the end of last season, and will be relying mostly on younger players to fill the gaps. To the disquiet of some fans, even new manager John McGlynn is seen as a cheap option. But there is some truth to his much-quoted virtues of working on tight budgets and bringing through younger players – and he knows Hearts’ promising crop of youngsters as well as anyone (watch out for Jamie Walker, incidentally), having had quite a few of them on loan at Raith last season.
Dundee United have also had some big holes torn in their team, with Scott Robertson, Danny Swanson, Gary Kenneth and Paul Dixon all gone to try their luck south of the border. Although they’ve still got their very useful strike pairing of Jon Daly and Johnny Russell, those losses look serious, and it’ll be interesting to see how they cope with them.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Motherwell finished ahead of both of these sides in third place last season – deservedly so – and they should still be up towards the right end of the season again. It remains to be seen, though, whether they can maintain the same sort of form or whether last season was just a good season. Again they’ll be going with a reduced squad and could struggle if they get unlucky with injuries.
Instead I’m tipping St Johnstone as a ‘surprise package’ this year. Not that much of a surprise, really, since they’ve already finished in the top half last season – and they did so playing some very nice football based on teamwork more than individuals. So although they’ve lost captain Jody Morris and goalscorer Fran Sandaza, they’ve got something to build on, and their new strike partnership of Greg Tade and Nigel Hasselbaink has the potential to be highly entertaining.
I’ll go for Hearts to finish second, St Johnstone third.
The sleeping giants
Aberdeen and Hibs have both been in the doldrums for a few years now, and from an external perspective it’s hard to see that they’ve been doing much more than shuffling the pack each summer, keeping their fingers crossed and hoping for the best.
That is of course unfair on the various managers they’ve had, all of whom I’m sure were working to some sort of plan. And that includes the current ones. At Hibs, Pat Fenlon has had long enough to get his feet under the desk now, and – particularly after the humiliation of the Scottish Cup defeat at the end of last season – he needs to start finding some improvement for a side who only just avoided relegation. It’s good news that he’s retained James McPake and Leigh Griffiths, and Paul Cairney’s arrival from Partick should help – but is that enough to persuade anyone that there are brighter times on the horizon? I have my doubts.
Up at Aberdeen, Craig Brown also needs to start delivering, but it might be that they have greater reasons for optimism. Neil Lennon has tipped them for some improvement, anyway, based on the signings of Niall McGinn and Johnny Hayes. And I hope he’s right, because a genuinely resurgent Aberdeen would be one of the best things that could happen to Scottish football right now. They might at least make a challenge for the top half this season.
The new boys
Two promoted sides this year, and in theory at least Ross County ought to be much the stronger of them. Until Dunfermline’s miserable season last year, promoted sides had mostly been doing pretty well in the first season, and County are the best side to have won the first division in quite a while, winning it by 24 points and having not lost a league game since last August. Football is never that simple, of course, and there’s no way of knowing how well they’ll adjust in the first season in the top flight, but I should think they’ll be fine.
Dundee, in contrast, looked no more than a first division side last season, and spent the first half of the summer preparing for another year at the same level. Only in the last couple of weeks has their SPL status been confirmed, and that can’t have helped. But again, things are never that straighforward, and manager Barry Smith has already proved his ability to get the best out of the squad in times of adversity when he first took over. They’re also promising more signings yet, ad much may depend on them. Nonetheless, they will start the season as relegation favourites – and I’m afraid I’d have to go with that prediction.
Kilmarnock’s League Cup victory last season was richly deserved reward for a club who have been plugging away in the top flight with little to show for it for twenty years now. And it was no fluke, but whether they can improve on last season’s seventh place, particularly after the loss of star striker Dean Shiels, is open to question. I wouldn’t rule it out though, and his replacement Rory Boulding may be unproven at this level but definitely looks to have a bit of quality. They should be comfortably clear of trouble again, but I’d see them finishing in much the same place.
The remaining two teams – Inverness and St Mirren – will probably be happy just to stay clear of relegation bother. That might be unfair on St Mirren, who started last season on fine form that suggested they aspired to rather more than that. And manager Danny Lennon has done better than most of us expected in his two seasons, myself included, defying many previous predictions of doom and gloom. But their form tailed off as last season went on, and it will take a huge effort if they’re not to finish in the bottom half again.
Inverness were much closer to the drop zone than they would have liked, last season, and with the loss of a number of players – Tade and Hayes, as well as Greg Tansey, Ross Tokely and others – they’re going to have to hope the replacements step up to the mark. As usual, Terry Butcher has mostly scoured the English leagues for his new signings, none of whom I can tell you very much about. This has worked well enough for him up to now, so I’d have to trust to his judgement again. But if too many of them don’t make the grade, Inverness might be the side most likely to let Dundee off the hook.
With talk of league reconstruction still (hopefully) on the agenda, it may be that there is as much time spent talking about events off the pitch as on it this season. But with the large caveats given above, that’s roughly how I’d see the season panning out as far as the actual football goes. And I think I just about carried that off without any direct reference to absent friends ….
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