July may not yet be out, but the Scottish Premier League is with us once again. So what can we expect from this new season?
Firstly we will see a rather chaotic opening month. With Celtic and Rangers committed to friendlies before the early start to the campaign was announced, both will postpone an early league match. Add in European qualifiers and an early Scotland friendly and you have a crowded schedule ahead.
There will be considerable attention on matters off the field this year. The SFA’s new disciplinary procedures will be in place and we hope for a fairer and more transparent application of the sometimes byzantine rules.
A new law may well come into force during the season outlawing certain types of songs. The behaviour of fans will be something that will receive considerable media attention and even at friendly matches there have already been reports of sectarian behaviour from Rangers fans in Stirling and Blackpool.
On the field, referees will be under scrutiny too. After events that included their supervisor’s dismissal, the admission that one ref lied to a club manager and an ill judged strike, they will be hoping to avoid so much bad publicity this year. Referees somehow won themselves a pay rise on the back of this chaos!
The fight for the championship will surely be a two horse race once again. Both Celtic and Rangers are still in the process of conducting transfer business which makes it difficult to compare the two squads.
But perhaps the biggest factor will be the two managers. Neil Lennon is back at the helm at Celtic, despite the disgusting sectarian attempts to drive him from Scottish football. He will have learned a great deal from his first season in charge and has shown he can play good football with a young and talented squad that will also have benefited from a year together.
Ally McCoist on the other hand is a complete managerial novice, unless you count his time as a captain on Question of Sport, which one newspaper managed to cite this week. The loss of Walter Smith, who got more than he really should have been able to from a threadbare squad last season, will be huge. Even in cup games where McCoist was nominally in charge, Smith appeared beside him in the dug out when tactical changes were needed. He won’t have that assistance any more.
It won’t surprise too many people to know that I’m going with the favourites Celtic to win back the title this season. Celtic are the better footballing side, there’s no argument there. But they need to show that they can win when not playing to their best, which is often cited as the mark of champions.
Last season Celtic took more points from Glasgow derbies than their bitter rivals. The league was lost on dropped points to lesser teams. That is what Celtic must avoid.
For those who like a bet, the SPL top scorer is a favourite. Gary Hooper and Nikica Jelavic will both hope to win the crown after scoring goals in injury hit first seasons with their clubs. But if you like a gamble, Kris Commons may be worth an investment at 14/1 or so – not bad odds for a man who bagged 11 in 14 games last season after joining Celtic in January.
What can the rest of the SPL sides expect from the new season?
Hearts look likely to be the best of the rest once more. They should have enough quality to beat their rivals more often than not and should pip Dundee United to third spot. My tips for the others in the top six come the ridiculous split are Motherwell and Inverness, who have improved considerably under Terry Butcher.
In the bottom half, Aberdeen, Hibs, Kilmarnock and St Johnstone should be strong enough to stay clear of the relegation battle. That leaves St Mirren and new boys Dunfermline to fight it out for the right to remain in the top league, and I think that St Mirren will be the ones to prevail.
So, here’s the order I expect the teams to finish in. Come back in May and see how I did!
Celtic, Rangers, Hearts, Dundee United, Motherwell, Inverness, Aberdeen, Hibs, Kilmarnock, St Johnstone, St Mirren, Dunfermline.
It’s going to be a long season. But at least the football is back.
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