Friday, 2 August 2013

Staggering Into View

The end of The Open golf championships and the Tour De France normally means one thing, it’s not long until the Football season starts to remind us that winter is on it’s way.  At least this summer there was no endless sagas hogging the back pages when there were other things to report.

Instead the build up to the start of the season has been bubbling along in the background – with Le Tour and the Ashes garnering headlines & plaudits.  Indeed, the only time Scottish Football seems to have broken into the news was with the merger between the Scottish League and the Scottish Premier League finally being ratified. In the finest traditions of Scottish Football thought, the ability to turn a golden opportunity into shit has not been wasted – as the new body (don’t laugh now, The Scottish Professional Football League) has appointed Neil Doncaster (above) as it’s Grand Fromage.

On the field, things may be looking up.  Scotland had their best result since beating France when they won in Zagreb in June, while last week St Johnstone eliminated Norway’s Rosenberg from the UEFA Cup.  We will see whether this represents a genuine upturn in international results, in the meantime the new league season begins this weekend.

Celtic start as huge favourites to retain the championship that they won pretty much at a canter last year.  They have however lost both Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama, both to lower ranking English Premier League sides.  While Hooper’s goals will be missed domestically (and Wanyama’s presence in midfield will be missed more in Europe) the departure of both won’t really impact on the final destination of the Scottish Championship.  However, in the event of a big shock, who would be best placed to capitalise.
Champions-elect Celtic perform a guard of honour for League Cup winners St Mirren
Motherwell may have lost Ranolph and last years Scottish Player of the Year Michael Higdon, but have brought in Vigurs & Lawson as well as two familiar names to the Tartan Army – James McFadden & Stephen MacManus.  Not good enough for the championship, but good enough to finish best of the rest.  Aberdeen, Dundee United & St Johnstone have new managers coming in, so will start with squads not entirely to the liking of McInnes, McNamarra & Wright’s liking.  Whoever gets their squad to bed down quickest will finish just behind Motherwell.

Of the others, Ross County may fall down the table as a result of second season syndrome, but will be there or thereabouts for a top six place, probably fighting it out with the teams mentioned above and Inverness.  If I’m being honest though, any four of Aberdeen, Dundee United, Inverness, Kilmarnock, Ross County or St Johnstone could finish in the top six such is the much of a muchness of the middle of the top flight. With one team going down and a play off place, the places at the bottom of the league will be interesting.

Favourites to go down will be Hearts, who start on minus 15 points.  It will be such a tall order for Hearts to claw back the 15 points with such a depleted squad.  That’s not to say that Hearts predicament is impossible, just that it’s highly unlikely that they will overcome this obstacle.  Fighting it out to avoid the playoff places will be Hib’s, Partick Thistle and St Mirren.

Having lost their goal scoring talisman – Leigh Griffiths – Hibernian find themselves looking for someone to step into the void that has been left.  If last week’s Europa League tie is anything to go by, the omens are not good for the Scottish Cup finalists.  I rather suspect that Partick Thistle will find life much more difficult in the top tier of Scottish Football, though how much trouble they will find depends on how much of a promotion bounce there is. As for St Mirren, while some of last season’s League Cup winning side have moved on, key will be whether St Mirren strengthen in the key areas in defence and in defensive midfield areas.  Having said that, the fact that Paul McGowan is staying for next season will be a boost for the Bud’s – now all Lennon needs to do is to play him in his optimal position (in the playmaker position behind the striker).

For the first time in three or four years, the Scottish Football season does not start on the back foot.  However the arrival of BT Sport on the scene has reminded us firstly how far behind the English Premier League the newly merged Scottish Professional Football League is, and secondly how badly those behind the scenes have failed Scottish Football.  We may have a new league body (with names which bear an uncanny resemblance to the names given to the English Football League’s divisions) but the likes of Neil Doncaster and Stuart Regan remain at the top of our game.
In the meantime, it falls to the footballers to build on last season’s successes.  I think that Celtic will win the championship by a smaller margin than last year and will reach the group stages of the European Cup.  Picking who goes down with Hearts though is a close call, I think that Hibernian might be in for a hard season this year.  With that, let the madness commence…