Scotland: Same old names favourites for the title
The Scottish Premier League (SPL) returns to action earlier than usual having been brought forward by three weeks. The feeling is that an earlier start to the season will help those clubs who are to represent Scotland in UEFA club competition be more prepared from a fitness point of view as well as make fixture congestion less likely to occur later on in the campaign. This move follows last season’s chaotic finish due to the harsh winter that affected the league midway through the campaign.
Champions Glasgow Rangers are looking forward to a new era under the guidance of club legend Ally McCoist. The former Scotland international striker will be fighting it out, although one hopes not literally, with his counterpart from arch rivals Glasgow Celtic Neil Lennon who, in his second full season, will expect to go one better than last season and win the SPL title. There is no love lost between the two managers who are both strongly associated with their clubs from their playing days. The two almost came to blows after a fiery Scottish Cup match last season with the rivalry between the two clubs reaching boiling point as they met seven times in all competitions. Last season saw Rangers clinch a record extending 54th Scottish championship by just a single point following a last day 5-1 victory away at Kilmarnock.
But now that Walter Smith has finally left the Ibrox club it is hoped by fans of the Hoops that Lennon may just have his turn to win the title for Celtic which would be their first championship in four seasons. But the clubs will have to make do with most of last season’s squads as neither club has had a lot to play with in the summer transfer window. It says much about the parlous state of Scottish football that even the Old Firm clubs are reduced to signing players on a limited budget. Victor Wanyama and Juan Manuel Ortiz, Celtic and Rangers’ most expensive signings this summer respectively, were signed for the modest sums of £1 million and £500,000 whilst all of the other SPL clubs have had to offload players before they can buy or have made the most out of free transfers and loan deals in the summer period.
In the annual race to finish best of the rest the usual suspects such as Heart of Midlothian and Dundee United will be prominent in the fight for third place and maybe one of the cup competitions although both teams have been very limited in adding to their squads thus far. The likes of Aberdeen and Hibernian, both of whom would normally expect to finish in the top six, struggled last season with respective finishes of ninth and tenth. Both Colin Calderwood (Hibernian) and Craig Brown (Aberdeen) joined their clubs as manager in 2010 so have only been at the helm for just over half a year and will hope that their squad changes will herald better fortune. Motherwell have shown some consistency in recent years having finished in the top six three times in the last four seasons and will hope to continue such form under Stuart McCall who replaced Craig Brown at Fir Park last season whilst Kilmarnock hope to progress from their fifth place finish in 2010-11 and compete for a European place.
Amongst the likes of St Johnstone, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and St Mirren the realistic target at the start of the new campaign will be to preserve their Premier League status. All of those clubs finished comfortably ahead of Hamilton Academicals at the end of last season but won’t know what to expect from newly promoted Dunfermline Athletic this time around. Last season’s First Division champions Dunfermline have recruited mainly from the lower leagues but hopes are high at the club that manager Jim McIntyre can surprise a few people and help the club remain competitive throughout the season.
On the opening weekend of the season Glasgow Rangers will perform the traditional unfurling of the championship flag at home to Heart of Midlothian on Saturday lunchtime with Aberdeen meeting St Johnstone and Motherwell playing Inverness CT later that day. Another clash of Scotland’s two biggest cities happens on Sunday when Edinburgh club Hibernian meet Glasgow Celtic at Easter Road with Dundee United having a home tie against Kilmarnock on the same day. The final match of the opening round will take place on Monday night as Dunfermline will unfurl the First Division championship flag at home to St Mirren.