New SPFL: Top flight has much to prove

Neil Lennon and his Celtic side are expected to win the Premiership at a canter this season. Picture: Getty
Neil Lennon and his Celtic side are expected to win the Premiership at a canter this season. Picture: Getty
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A fresh name and a shiny logo, but Scottish football’s top flight has much to prove in its maiden season, writes Alan Pattullo

In THE week that the new Scottish football league season kicks off again, it was interesting to read revelations from the national archives about the address the Queen would have given in the event of a nuclear war. While this threat has receded somewhat you would have few fears about Scottish football surviving such a cataclysmic event.

It seems indestructible. Perhaps a cockroach rather than a lion should be featured on the new shiny logo that Graeme Souness and John Collins helped launch 10 days ago, since that creature is also distinguished by its supposed ability to withstand a nuclear explosion.

Somehow, after the prolonged reconstruction talk and fears that last season would apply a death knell to the game, a new league season has already come around. Somehow, we hear reports of season ticket sales increasing at several clubs.

Despite the continued threat to the existence of Hearts, there are some shafts of light. The introduction of play-offs, fairer wealth redistribution and a pyramid system mark significant steps forward. There is also, as was promised a long time ago, finally one league governing body.

Emerging from the rubble has come something called the Scottish Professional Football League and its assorted parts. It is typical of Scottish football’s cussed ways that this ‘new dawn’ should have begun on a Friday night. Partick Thistle and Dundee United kicked off the new era yesterday evening, launching the league that we must now sadly refer to as the Premiership.

Neil Doncaster, the chief executive of the SPFL, explained that this name offers “brand familiarity”. Only in Scottish football could it be felt desirable to be associated with an outdated concept as the ‘Premiership’, which brings to mind Nineties-era bowl cuts, long fringes and baggy shirts with lace-up collars.

Such piggybacking on the back of the English game is hardly what is required when looking to present a new dynamic vision, and encourages some misgivings. Indeed, if anything illustrates how much things have changed and yet how much they are set to stay the same, it is the scheduling programme for this first weekend of the first Scottish Premiership season.

This is an article designed to preview a new season and yet a game has already taken place – sneaked in on a Friday evening. It has hardly helped the drum roll that should accompany what is not only the start of a new season in the top flight, but what has been termed a new beginning for professional football in Scotland.

Champions Celtic - 1-40 with bookmakers to retain the title - will unfurl the flag at the unusual time of around 5pm this evening, and before the kick-off in their match with Ross County. On such a significant weekend, it is one of only three matches to be played on the Saturday.

Television will continue to call the tune, that is clear. It is a particularly vital source of funds since the SPFL is still lacking a banner sponsor. Between 80 and 90 per cent of outside funding comes from broadcasting. Although Rangers’ continued exile from the top flight means the sums that can be negotiated are not what they once were, the income is more vital than ever to the game.

Club officials have noted fans’ concerns about the kick-off times but no one has sounded particularly minded to do anything about it. Hands are tied, as Neil Lennon accepted yesterday.

“TV does dictate it,” the Celtic manager said. “I do have a certain sympathy with the supporters obviously. It’s difficult to prepare a team too [when the kick-off times change]. It’s totally different.

“But, you know, the TV companies are important to us. They do put in a lot of money. We knew what time the kick-off time was going to be a couple of weeks ago so we’ll be ready.”

Scottish football needs exposure. It’s capacity for being dysfunctional is what has seen it receive wider coverage in the recent past. However, this time last year few could have predicted Celtic posting one of Scottish football’s greatest ever results against Barcelona with their victory in the Champions League group stage.

The Parkhead side have started promisingly again in Europe, and for the good of the game, it must be hoped that they can defend a 1-0 lead against Elfsborg in Sweden next week, while St Johnstone are managing to repair the damage to Scottish football’s reputation that stemmed from Hibs’ remarkably one-sided defeat to Malmo last month, a result which has already placed one manager’s future in doubt.

Pat Fenlon is someone who will greet the new season with a heightened determination, although from early evidence, it looks like another uphill struggle for Hibs, who entertain Motherwell, another team suffering from a European hangover after Thursday’s defeat to FC Kuban Krasnodar, tomorrow.

Everything is far from perfect, and Lennon, a fierce supporter of Scottish football, didn’t sound completely convinced by the re-branding of the four leagues. “I have not taken much notice of it,” he said. “I can’t really comment on it. I will leave it to other people. I can’t see it having too much effect on what we are trying to do.”

Optimism must also be tempered in the week that the depressingly long list of Hearts’ creditors became publicly available, although as Doncaster stressed yesterday, this is a problem of legacy rather than something that can be used to decry the new set-up. However, the fact Hearts must begin on minus 15 points is an undoubted early blow to the prestige of the Premiership

Nevertheless, the introduction of play-offs brings the prospect of much needed drama to the end of the season. In the likely absence of a championship race, these high-interest clashes are an especially welcome addition, and will ignite a relegation issue that might otherwise have been moribund, in view of the points penalty handed to Hearts.

However, Gary Locke’s side could well find that this sanction is something that galvanises his side.

At the other end of the league, motivation could be in short supply for Celtic, who seem certain to collect their 45th title. As was the case last season, the intrigue will lie in who might finish runners-up. Aberdeen look better equipped to mount a challenge than they have for a long time. They have appointed wisely in bringing Derek McInnes to Pittodrie. He is a young, clearly capable manager. Better still as far as Aberdeen are concerned, he has something to prove after a disappointing end to his time in England with Bristol City.

Niall McGinn’s prowess in attack is another significant plus for them, as is the arrival of a goalkeeper in Nicky Weaver to offer competition to Jamie Langfield. Tellingly, even Lennon believes Aberdeen could be an improved force. Indeed, he almost welcomed this prospect.

“I see Derek today saying don’t be tipping us for second place because it is a hard thing to do, and he is right,” said Lennon. “But I would like to think that Aberdeen with the size of the club and the resources they have will be there or there about this year, but then again we said that this time last year.

“[But] I am thinking Aberdeen will push us more than anyone else. I think it is maybe their time now.”

If not their time, whose might it be? Could it be St Johnstone, who look to have taken the departure of manager Steve Lomas in their stride? Dundee United, meanwhile, have reversed the trend in players leaving for England by bringing David Goodwillie back from Blackburn Rovers, if only on a temporary basis.

Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle still look like they should be top six material again, while St Mirren and Kilmarnock have also re-strengthened, with the latter club now under the new management of Allan Johnston. The entertaining Kenny Shiels will, however, be much missed. Whatever happens over the course of the months ahead, at least the baffling scenario where some teams would have had points re-set to zero after 22 games has been avoided, and there will be no splitting into three leagues of eight. Onwards and upwards.