The 20110/2011 Scottish Premier League season will be remembered north of the border for years to come. After all who is able to forget weather playing havoc with the season’s calendar, referees going on strike all the while chairmen of the 12 clubs and the games leaders bickered and disagreed over the set-up of Scottish football?
Then there was the bomb and death threats towards Neil Lennon compounded when he came under attack in his technical area at Tynecastle as a Heart of Midlothian ‘fan’ evaded police and stewards! Yes, if you have not batted an eye-lid towards Scottish football over the last year or have been living it up under a rock you have read correctly, bomb threats and a manager coming under attack.
However if we move on to the field 2010/2011 is, erm, easily forgettable. The Old Firm occupy the top two positions? Check. The ‘other’ 10 do their ‘thing’. Check. Who would have ever thought?
So what does 2011/2012 have in store for us? More of the same? Yes and no.
Already off-field issues have plagued the start of the season as Heart of Midlothian and their defender – or is that Ukio Bankas defender? – Craig Thomson have became a prominent feature on the front pages and in news bulletins online and on television. Again if you have only just emerged from that rock (it must be comfy) then you won’t have known that Thomson was put on the sex offenders register and fined £4000 after pleading guilty to indecent behaviour.
Only after pressure from fans, sponsors and other forces did the club renege on their decision and announce he wouldn’t play for the club again; even after the infamous statement posted on the official site where owner Vladimir Romanov attacked the Scottish football ‘mafia’ and Hearts legend, now agent, Gary MacKay.
As that issue appears to be solved focus can be shifted to the kick-off of the new SPL season this Saturday and football. As in football that is played on a field, 11 guys versus 11 guys – just in case anyone had forgotten.
With an early start to the season build up has been low key with other sports grabbing headlines in the sports pages. However when analysing the ins and outs this summer there have been interesting
moves in terms of players and management up and down the league, from Rangers to St Mirren, which adds intrigue to the first weeks of the season.
We may as well start of with the Old Firm. After all who are we kidding, they will finish in the top two places again, right? Most likely.
The rivalry between the two giants of Scottish football no longer bears witness to the clashes of experienced football stalwarts in Martin O’Neil, Alex McLeish, Gordon Strachan and Walter Smith.
Instead the first Old Firm derby will see the most inexperienced management head-to-head in the long running feud of the Old Firm.
Neil Lennon enters his second full season in the job having managed Celtic for barely a season and a half after taking over from Tony Mowbray, while Ally McCoist is in his first managerial job after serving his apprenticeship under Walter Smith.
McCoist’s past as coach at Ibrox will not have prepared him for this summer where he has had to try and add not only quantity but quality to the Rangers side with time an opposition as crucial
Champions League qualifiers approach. Even under new ownership McCoist has suffered the frustrations of a more stringent budget as he has seen top targets Craig Conway and Tomer Hemed
opted against joining the Ibrox side leaving versatile Juan Manuel Ortiz as the sole summer signing. Although the club have done well to secure new contracts for Steven Whittaker, Alan McGregor and Steven Davis.
Yet moves are still pending for ex-Gers duo Carlos Cuellar and Kenny Miller. A double signing which would raise spirits and expectations in the blue half of Glasgow. Both know what it takes to enjoy success at Ibrox and both possess the necessary qualities to raise Rangers to another level.
If the two arrive before the end of the transfer window and are supplemented by continued growth within the youth ranks of Rangers it may negate McCoist’s lack of experience and drive the side on to a 4th successive league title.
If not then Neil Lennon and his Celtic side, labelled as pre-season favourites, have more than enough quality and desire to end Rangers three year dominance of the SPL.
A shrewd 2010 summer transfer window means Lennon only has to tweak his squad adding one or two players of true quality; the number one position being priority after Fraser Foster departed. Although capable doubts still surround Polish goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska.
New signings Kelvin Wilson, Adam Matthews and Victor Wanyama add depth and promise to an already impressive squad with two of last season’s revelations, Beram Kayal and Emilio Izaguirre, remaining despite rumours of moves away from Celtic Park. And if they remain fit for the majority of the season Celtic have a foundation which will be hard to break and conquer.
Defensive solidity, midfield flair and steel as well as goals. And with Gary Hooper, Anthony Stokes and the excellent Kris Commons there should be a lot of them, even if fans would like to see a stellar signing for the forward positions.
The experience gained from last season could prove vital to this Celtic squad who will look to overcome the naivety shown in Inverness which all but cost them the title last season.
For a period before and around the new year fans and press entertained the thought of Heart of Midlothian putting up a challenge to the Old Firm as they embarked on an unbeaten spell that lasted 11 games pulling them to within touching distance of the Old Firm; only to fall away like teams so often do when they begin to get close to the Glasgow duo.
Many Hearts fans would point to an injury to Kevin Kyle which ruled him out for the second half of the season as the moment an unlikely league challenge became improbable. The reliance on one focal point in attack has been rectified with the signing of John Sutton who has been joined by Jamie Hamill, to fill the troublesome right-back position, and Mehdi Taouil from Kilmarnock while Danny Grainger signed as competition for Lee Wallace at left-back.
Having missed the majority of last season if Lee Wallace stays put and fit Hearts will be given an extra dimension from left back as they possess the strongest squad out with the Old Firm and look more than capable of finishing 3rd for consecutive years and closing the gap to Celtic and Rangers.
Not taking into account problems caused by off field issues manager Jim Jefferies biggest problem comes in deciding what shape the team will take up. A traditional 4-4-2, the 4-3-3 used at times during pre-season or the lop-sided 4-2-3-1 which brought the eleven games unbeaten.
A conclusive look at the SPL squads should suggest that Heart of Midlothian will take up 3rd position far enough ahead of 4th position which to feel comfortable yet not too close to the Old Firm to mount a serious challenge on the top two positions.
Yet no team has managed to record back-to-back 3rd places since the Jambos done so under Craig Levien in seasons 2002/2003 and 2003/2004 but at the same time no other team has strengthened significantly to warrant expectations of a 3rd place finish.
Dundee United, who have been one of the best sides in the SPL for the past 3 or 4 years have lost three components of their recent success. Midfield maestros Prince Buaben and Morgaro Gomis have made roads to the Championship along with the lively Craig Conway.
At the time of writing they have managed to hold on to the services of David Goodwillie in the face of much speculation over his possible departure. With Goodwillie ably supported by Danny Swanson, Jon Daly and Johnny Russell the Arabs have more than enough goals in their side. In midfield they have lured back Willo Flood who should partner Scott Robertson. If Robertson stays fit United would
have one of the most gifted midfield partnerships in the SPL. Robertson in particular has an imposing aura around him combined with the technical and passing ability to dominate the midfield area.
But with a thin squad and possible advancement in Europe Peter Houston will be relying on a degree of luck if United are too continue fighting it out for European places.
One team who will be expected to improve under the erudite Craig Brown is Aberdeen. Last season under Mark McGhee was an unmitigated disaster until Brown moved north and steadied the red ship leaking goals port side and starboard.
Like many teams the summer prompted a clearout where most departures were welcomed while one, Chris Maguire, was a disappointment to the club as the forward looked to be adding consistency to his game.
Maguire’s departure leaves Aberdeen with only three forwards in which they will rely on for goals; Scott Vernon, Darren Mackie and Josh Magennis. None of whom can be labelled as a ’20 goal a season man’. The Dons will be hoping that Brown’s signings are more effective than those brought in the previous summer and that Peter Pawlett the highly rated Fraser Fyvie continue to improve and give the team another dimension if aspirations of getting back into Europe are to be fulfilled.
The side Craig Brown left during last season, Motherwell, are another team who have experienced European football of late and caught the bug. The man charged with getting them back there is Stuart McCall who has seen top goal scorer John Sutton move on but more importantly has kept hold of the burgeoning talent in his side including combative midfielder Steve Jennings and striker Jamie Murphy.
The latter will have the support of new signing Michael Higdon who will take the knocks as the young forward drops deep and drifts out wide causing trouble for defences.
A young team who look to play football needs experience and in new signing Nicky Law from Rotherham as well as veterans Keith Lasley and Steven Craigan the Steelman have that in abundance.
Motherwell could be a surprise package with talent in the shape of Steven Saunders, Darren Randolph, Tom Hateley, Ross Forbes and Chris Humphrey.
Like their capital city rivals Hibernian’s pre-season has been plagued by off field issues with a ‘will he or won’t he go’ scenario as Colin Calderwood has drawn overtures from Nottingham Forest and Birmingham City to fill their assistant manager post. For most it is clear Calderwood wants to go and for most Hibs fans they are happy to see him go but chairman Rod Petrie has dug his heels in, content with Calderwood as Hibs manager unless a suitable offer his made from either club.
This has left Calderwood with the unenviable task of replacing a dozen first team players. So far only three have came in including ex-Easter Road favourites Ivan Sproule and Garry O’Connor as Hibs
continue to work with a strict budget. Previously Hibs were able to fall back on the individual talent of Derek Riordan and his goal threat. However with the forward moved on reliance is put on the two
players rejoining the club to reach their previous heights in the green jersey. If not the Hibees could be in for another season of misery, especially if the management situation is left to fester.
With no stand-out team prime for relegation the Edinburgh side will hope they are not pulled into a fight to stay in the SPL. St Mirren, more than any team, highlight the jump in quality at the bottom of the league. An 11th place finish should be bettered with the Paisley side busy in the transfer window. Scottish internationalists Gary Teale and Steven Thompson have been added to a side which has lacked players who have played at the highest level. They are been joined by astute free signings Paul McGowan, Graham Carey and Nigel Hasselbaink.
Manager Danny Lennon has his sights on a possession based game where they will build from the back similar to Kilmarnock last season. And with the attacking talent at their disposal as well as the highly impressive Darren McGregor the Buddies look like they could transfer the manager’s philosophy successfully onto the pitch.
St Mirren are not the only side with a determination to play attractive football, newcomers Dunfermline, back in the SPL after a few season sabbatical in the First Division, are eager to showcase their ability under the watchful eye of manager Jim McIntyre.
With the majority of the side still in place from their title winning team McIntyre has not had to overhaul his squad bringing back fans favourite Paul Gallacher to tend goal and Jason Thomson, on loan from Hearts, to fill the right back position negated by Calum Woods. Other new acquisitions have been picked up from teams in the first division and the SPL where Kevin Rutkiewicz, on loan at the Pars last season, and John Potter fill the openings at centre back.
A good omen for the Fife side is that only Gretna have went straight back down from the SPL in 10 years. However it is hard to pin-point a previous season where the bottom of the SPL was so competitive.
This strengthening of squads should draw Kilmarnock back into the bottom six as they look to life after Mixu Paatelaianen and the inventive Alexei Eremenko. Despite a poor run of form towards the end of the last season Kenny Shiels was appointed permanently and has had to rebuild the squad which lost the aforementioned Eremenko along with Jamie Hamill, Mehdi Taouil, Craig Bryson, Frazer Wright and Mohamadou Sissoko.
The ability of the players helped Killie surge up the league last season as they played from the back and through their creative players; a philosophy that has given other teams inspiration. With seven new signings it could take the squad to gel as the Ayrshire side look to continue playing football on the floor.
The pick of the signings are Danny Buijs, who has played in Europe with Feyenoord, and will add versatility and the one of the best players outside of the SPL, Gary Harkins. Harkins starred for Dundee and could take up a pivotal role in the attack, replacing the velvet footed Eremenko. If goals can be found to replace those from Connor Sammon who left in January, Killie may just record back-to-back top six finishes especially with James Dayton back from injury. The attacker showed an abundance of promise early last season before injury wrecked his year and has the ability to obfuscate defenders. Now fit the Englishman could be a revelation.
Talking of Englishman Terry Butcher has overseen a squad transformation with Inverness Caledonian Thistle. After finishing an SPL high 7th place the highlanders are still seeking that elusive top six finish. And in doing so Butcher has moved on four proponents of the club since the turn of the millennium and before. Grant Munro, Staurt Golabek, Roy McBain and Russell Duncan have been joined by a host of fringe players and leading scorer Adam Rooney who, like many exiting Scottish football, has moved to the Championship.
Butcher has headed down south for replacements in terms of free signings and loan deals reducing the average age of the side in doing so. The two signings from other Scottish teams have been Andrew Shinnie from Rangers while Gregory Tade will add power and pace to the ICT attack. However he can not be expected to replace Rooney’s goals. Meaning Butcher will hope the tricky Johnny Hayes and Richie Foran can take the goal scoring mantle or that he has found a diamond in the rough with one of his signings. If not it could be a tough season up north.
St Johnstone are another side who have had an interesting summer of activity with a host of strikers exiting; unsurprisingly considering Saints anaemic return of 23 goals last season as a resolute and solid defence marshalled by Michael Duberry meant there were not too many worries of relegation at McDairmid Park.
It contrasted to their first season back in the SPL when the Perth side couldn’t stop scoring albeit opposition’s attacks often breached the defence. Third time around Derek McInnes will be hoping for an sufficient balance between defence and attack and has responded to Duberry’s and Danny Grainger’s exit by bringing in David McCracken, dependable centre-back Frazer Wright and Scotland internationalist Callum Davidson who returns to the team where he made his name.
Despite the midfield acquisition of David Robertson from Dundee United the problems that hampered the team’s development last season still exist. Sean Higgins and Carl Finnigan have been picked up to add threat to a threadbare attack. Both procured from first division clubs both can be labelled under the ‘not prolific’ category. Sam Parkin will have to improve on last season’s meagre tally of 4. But the squad do possess two of the more bright talents in the SPL in forward Stevie May and Murray Davidson. Like any other team a solid foundation and luck in the injury department could see the side achieve a top six status. But another season of consolidation will be a more reachable target.
The SPL is never going to be able to compete with its illustrious neighbour to the south but on the field there is promise for an interesting 2011/2012 season as teams have worked the free market to supplement a side that allows youth to develop. Okay Celtic and Rangers will realistically occupy the top two positions however there is still more to keep interest as teams move towards a more continental style of play. That in itself can only be a positive for the short and long-term future of the SPL, starting with this Saturday.
Predicted Table/Player to look out for:
1. Celtic – Adam Matthews
2. Rangers – Kane Hemmings
3. Heart of Midlothian – Jason Holt
4. Motherwell – Steve Jennings
5. Dundee United – Scott Robertson
6. Aberdeen – Fraser Fyvie
7. St Mirren – Graham Carey
8. Kilmarnock – James Dayton
9. Hibernian – Victor Palsson
10. Inverness Caledonian Thistle – Nick Ross
11. St Johnstone – Stevie May
12. Dunfermline – Joe Cardle