Andrew Smith: As a competition, the Premiership isn’t one

Celtic are the consensus pick to win the top flight title for the seventh season in succession. 
Photograph: Bill Murray/SNS
Celtic are the consensus pick to win the top flight title for the seventh season in succession. Photograph: Bill Murray/SNS
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For the tasty scenarios in Scotland’s top flight this season, you’ll have to look beyond the league’s title race.

When it comes to titles, the months ahead will see a titanic struggle between competing factions exhibiting adeptness, passion and doggedness to achieved their desired outcome.

Not a description you could apply to the SPFL Premiership campaign that gets under way on Saturday, alas. No, the battle royal in question will involve a legal challenge over the declarations of the game’s governing bodies that they can do nothing about Rangers getting away with retaining an official legitimacy for championships earned as they ran tax avoidance schemes.

In an interview with our sister paper The Scotsman recently, outgoing SPFL chairman Ralph Topping, pictured, admitted the debate over honours Rangers won between 1998 to 2010 will never end. And it feels as if you could say the same about Celtic’s current title hegemony.

As a competition, the SPFL Premiership isn’t one. It isn’t because we know Celtic will win the league for the seventh consecutive season in the campaign almost upon us. With Brendan Rodgers’ wiles and the ability to spend £5 million on a 21-year-old prospect – as they did with Oliver Ntcham – the likelihood of any team finishing within 20 points of Celtic appears mighty slim. It is 16 months since the club – under Ronny Deila – lost a meaningful game on Scottish soil, and of course it is inconceivable the treble winners can remain entirely untouchable for another campaign.

Right now, though, Celtic’s remarkable achievements of last season do make them genuine Scottish invincibles. Rangers, meanwhile, are the imponderables. It seems extraordinary that a year ago they were being talked up as possible title contenders. Now, Pedro Caixinha’s men – despite his signing spree that has brought nine new faces to Ibrox – hardly have a soul that will champion them for even edging Aberdeen out for second place.

Bruno Alves and Graham Dorrans are players who look as if they could be transformative. We said the same about Joey Barton and Niko Kranjcar last year, though…

When it comes to Aberdeen, manager Derek McInnes exudes a confidence – and not of Caixinha’s kiddy-on brash variety – and competence, and injects this into his side, in a manner capable of setting them apart once more from their better-resourced Ibrox counterparts.

The flakiness of the latter was painfully exhibited by their Europa League first qualifying round loss to Luxembourg side Progres Niederkorn that made for the worst exit ever by a Scottish club in continental competition – the one title Rangers will claim this season.

The Aberdeen-Rangers rivalry may be the juiciest, most intriguing, at the top-ish end of the table, but there could be shades of it in the capital skirmishing too.

The return of Hibernian bolsters the entire top flight. For the first time in six seasons, the five best supported clubs are once more ensconced in the country’s top league.

And Hibs rejoining the fray with Neil Lennon as manager is a guarantee of fascination. Indeed, whatever else Scottish football lacks, it never seems to want for tasty scenarios, tales worth telling and tantrums. All three surely will be packaged in a bow thanks to Lennon’s face-offs with Ian Cathro. The Hearts head coach, like Caixinha, has to demonstrate he has substance to match the style. Lennon, like McInnes, has been backed by his board and looks to have a squad that will be in tune with the rigours of the Scottish game. The one o’clock gun could be sounding for a changing of the football guard in the capital. The doubted Cathro and his team always appear to be in a state of flux – the defeat to Peterhead in the Betfred Cup in midweek the latest example. Add the redoubtable St Johnstone and, probably, the fresh-from-an-unprecedented-top-six-status-last-term Partick Thistle to the above five sides and you have the seven teams unlikely to be drawn into the relegation scrap. As for the rest, really it appears a pure game of chance.

Kilmarnock, Ross County, Dundee, Motherwell and Hamilton Accies all had dark nights of the soul last season. In the closing weeks of the campaign, with the exception of the Rugby Park side, they could all have been sucked into the play-offs from where Hamilton – just – emerged with their top-flight status intact.

At times in the final stretch of last season, they seemed like little hamsters spinning on their wheels of fortune, pounding away to move upwards with a couple of results, only then to fall back where they started with a couple more. It would be advisable for them all to have plenty of sawdust to hand over the next 10 months.