Friday, 22 July 2011

SPL 2011/12: The Earliest Start To A Season Yet...

9 weeks after the Scottish Cup Final brought the curtain down on season 2010/11, the madness is about to descend once again as the curtain is about to go up on Season 2011/12.  A season one hopes will finish with the national team taking part in the finals of the European Championships in Poland & Ukraine.

Way before that though, the domestic season begins with Rangers unfurling the league championship flag before taking on Hearts at Saturday lunchtime.  New season, same old rubbish scheduling of matches by television companies.

Rangers have had the most interesting close season.  A new owner in the shape of Craig Whyte, who has wasted no time in trying to dispose of the old Rangers board, and a new manager in the shape of their former striker Ally McCoist.  While we haven’t seen the revolving door that accompanied the first days of Graeme Souness, Dick Advocaat or Paul Le Guen’s appointments, McCoist has set about making some changes.  The Spanish winger Ortiz has been brought in as has Hearts Lee Wallace, while McCoist is hoping to bring back Carlos Cuellar.  However key to McCoists bit to emulate Souness, Smith & Advocaat in winning the Championship in their first season in charge may well be the new contracts signed by McGregor & Davis.

Celtic’s close season could have been interesting, had the players supposedly agitating for improved terms not been placated.  As it is Celtic start on Sunday at Easter Road with essentially the same squad that came close to the Championship, but won the Scottish Cup.  Defenders Wilson (from Nottingham Forrest) and Matthews (Cardiff) were pre contract signings made in January, while the only close season signing to date is the midfielder Wanyama, they have lost Forster – his loan spell coming to an end.  With a years experience together in the bank and Neil Lennon actually turning out to be a surprise package as Celtic manager, I think Celtic will win the league by between 4 – 7 points.

Hearts should be favourites for third, they have added to their third place squad, John Sutton & Taouill have come west from Motherwell & Kilmarnock respectively, while options at the back have also been added with the acquisition of Hamill & Granger.  Dundee United have lost key men, and may still lose prised forward David Goodwillie before the transfer deadline.  They should be good enough to finish in the top 6 but not usurp Hearts for 3rd, even though they were not good enough to stay in Europe until the season stared properly.  I suspect that Hibernian & Aberdeen will make up the top six, Brown’s experience will help Aberdeen to go in the right direction, while Hibernian may well be boyed by the return of old boys O’Connor & Sproule.  So far so last season.

The tightest battle over the past few seasons has been the battle against the drop.  Last season however, Hamilton had an appalling season, finishing 7 points behind St Mirren.  Danny Lennon has taken the hint and reshaped his attacking options.  Paul McGowan is now a permanent player at St Mirren & has been joined by Nigel Hasselbaink & Steven Thompson, joining his boyhood heroes from Burnley.  Those three, plus the additions of Teale, Tesselaar & Carey, who impressed on loan at St Mirren during the second half of the 2009/10 season should mean that St Mirren finish out of trouble, so long as defensive options are strengthened. 

So who will go down?  Dunfermline are the favourites, though they have added experience in the shape of John Potter & Paul Gallacher from St Mirren.  They start on that coveted Monday night slot against St Mirren,  probably harbouring thoughts about their relegation from this league in May 2007.  Motherwell maybe look vulnerable as Stuart McCall begins his first full season in charge at Fir Park.  Inverness might suffer from second season syndrome, while St Johnstone will need to gel quickly.  Kilmarnock will need to arrest the poor finish to last season.  These teams have their own achillies heel, but have that quality that will keep them up, experience.  I think Dunfermline will finish between 5 - 9 points behind Motherwell.

By the end of last season, Scottish football was in the dock.  No one particularly covered themselves in glory, not Celtic, not Rangers and certainly not any of the fans who rose to the bait provided by Neil Lennon, pantomime villain (compared to…  oh take your pick of any of the board members of the Old Firm).  This season, those guilty parties need to show that lessons have been learned & that we can move on.  More than most, Scottish Football needs to turn the corner, and garner positive headlines rather than continue as the sick footballer of Europe.

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