Saturday, 9 August 2014

Let The Madness Descend

Is it just me, or are the close seasons getting shorter and shorter.  I mean, it was only five minutes ago that Germany brought the World Cup back from Brazil.  And here we are, on the start line for another Scottish domestic season.

Except of course for those teams in the lower leagues who have been competing in the early rounds of Petro-chemical-or-whatever-it’s-called Cup (At least we knew who B&Q were when they sponsored the thing).  Oh and at the time of writing all of our teams will have been, saw and been conquered in Europe – only for Celtic to receive a pardon in the shape of Legia Warsaw’s fielding of an ineligible player.  Still at least the Scotland national team look in decient shape.  Just as well their opening qualifier for Euro 2016 is that team that brought the World Cup back from Brazil…

Conventional wisdom dictates that the Scotland national team will be the only outlet for thrills and spills in the Scottish game.  Conventional wisdom dictates that Celtic will be Scottish champions before tea and the true race is for second & that "The Championship" is where it's at...  baby!  That might be true, but if there’s anything to be learned from Celtic’s cuffing at the hands of Legia Warsaw then it is that there are clearly teething troubles surrounding their new manager Ronny Deila and his assistant John Collins.

Celtic have seen their side that won a League and Scottish Cup double while reaching the last 16 of the European Cup sold without the quality maintained.  Maybe that’s an issue with the scouting, but with the departure of Neil Lennon, Celtic may well be at their weakest since Rangers meltdown.  I suspect that it won’t be a given that Celtic will finish as far ahead as they had been. It is conceivable that Celtic will take time to settle into this campaign.  In the possible event that they falter, who would be best placed to capitalise.

Second placed Motherwell have not added to their squad to date, however have not lost any of their players either.  A top six finish awaits for Motherwell, however there is the suspicion that the two teams that pundits thought were better than Motherwell will finish ahead of Motherwell this season.  Aberdeen will be a year older and wiser, have kept their players and added David Goodwillie to their squad.  This Aberdeen side are favourites to finish second, but given the correct circumstances could topple Celtic.  It’s not that inconceivable.

The other side much fancied last season, Dundee United, have seen Ryan Gauld and Andrew Robertson sold to Sporting Lisbon and to Hull City respectively.  Funnily enough, United’s season hinges not on adequately replacing Gauld but Robertson.  Like Aberdeen, Dundee United will have a years experience under their belt and will be the better for it.  Third for Dundee United it is then.  Motherwell & Scottish Cup winners St Johnstone will be secure within the top six, though who joins them will be either Inverness, Ross County or maybe Dundee.

Next Season's Title contenders? Aberdeen puting Celtic out of the Scottish Cup in February
Unlike last season, there will be competition at the bottom.  My own team St Mirren are something of an unknown quality this season. The release of Danny Lennon and the promotion to manager of Tommy Craig has seen familiar faces leave (McGowan, McGregor & Van Zanten) and unknowns come in.  The highest profile is probably James Marwood, son of the former Blades midfielder Brian, from Gateshead.  Possibly the key signings might be the return of Jerome Tesselar from Doctor Who (Tesselar…  Tesselector…  oh do keep up) and Ellis Plummer from Manchester City, who will be hoping to follow the footsteps of Paul Dummett by coming here on loan and after a spell make his way into the first team – though clearly not the bit that stipulates that he receives hate tweets from Uruguay.  I still think at the moment we’re too light at the back but need defenders to help us get up the table.

So who will finish in the bottom two?  The favourites to go down will be the two promoted teams.  I think Dundee will survive though it will be interesting to see Paul Hartley crowbar Paul McGowan and Gary Harkins into the same team – a feat that Danny Lennon couldn’t achieve.  Hamilton on the other hand may well struggle, though they have resigned Dougie Imrie who last looked good the last time he pulled on a red and white hooped jersey.  I think though that Hamilton will be fighting it out with Partick come the end of the season.  Partick’s squad have been depleated, though they have brought in Ryan Stevenson and  Abdul Osman.  Partick’s problem though is that they were a good team going forward but could not score.  In the annuls of Scottish Football, there have been quite a few teams that were relegated because of their inability to put the ball into the back of the net.

While the top flight has all the exposure, the old First Division (now cringingly called the “Championship”) was always the more interesting league because it was always the most difficult to get out of.  Since 1990 only five sides have been relegated and come straight back up (Falkirk in 1993/4, Dundee United in 95/6, Hibernian in 98/9, Dunfermline in 1999/2000 and Inverness in 2009/10).  It’s this feat that both Hearts and Hibernian have to emulate to return to the top flight.  Falkirk, Queen of The South and Raith Rovers will be the big challengers that were contenders in this division last season.  The added spice will come from last season’s League 1 (or, in old money Second Division) champions, Rangers.

Many people think that Rangers will win this championship, having put their money where their mouths are by bringing back Kris Boyd and Kenny Miller.  Except, that’s the problem – Rangers are sailing close to the wind by making exactly the same mistakes that saw them liquidated in 2012.  Meanwhile Ranger’s problems last year were caused by a lack of grip in midfield resulting in the long ball to Jon Daly.  This worked in the Second Division, but they were found out when the played better teams.  And Albion Rovers.  Nah, I think Heart’s have turned themselves around better than Rangers and will take the automatic slot.  Not that I think Rangers will necessarily get up through the playoffs either.

For all that Celtic were the dominant team of Scottish Football, they suffered surprising reverses that showed how tenuous their grip at the top is.  That Kilmarnock, Hearts, St Mirren, Aberdeen and St Johnstone have won trophies during Celtic’s supposed dominance has shown that they are not that dominant.  With a change in manager, Celtic are maybe more vulnerable than they have been for some time.  I think that how quickly their new management team beds down will be key to them retaining the championship.  If there are still issues around the team come, maybe September, then the other teams may smell blood.  Sorry, I’m just not confident that this Celtic team will be miles ahead come Christmas, but I think experience will see them over the finish line this time.  With that, let the games begin.