Stephen Halliday: Expectations high as curtain raises on new season

Mark Warburton will lock horns with Brendan Rodgers over the course of the season. Picture: SNS
Mark Warburton will lock horns with Brendan Rodgers over the course of the season. Picture: SNS
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As the 120th season of professional league football in Scotland kicks off this afternoon, the words of the unnamed Scotsman correspondent who chronicled the start of the inaugural campaign perhaps have a fresh resonance.

According to our man on the spot way back in 1890, the teams involved in that very first title race “entered upon the contest for the championship under the most favourable auspices”.

To try and bring the Victorian phraseology up to date, it has certainly been some time since a league season began with as much anticipation, intrigue and enthusiasm as the 2016-17 version has 
generated.

The narrative surrounding the Scottish Premiership has inevitably been dominated by the return of Rangers to the top flight after a four-year absence.

It remains to be seen if Mark Warburton’s team can restore a significant level of uncertainty of outcome to the title race at their first attempt. While the more apocalyptic predictions of how the competition would fare without Rangers unsurprisingly did not come to pass, there is no doubt it has lacked the drama and tension which that vital ingredient of a closely contested battle for the flag provides.

Celtic have been worthy and largely untroubled champions in the past four seasons, despite the best efforts of Aberdeen to provide a genuine threat to their dominance. The Parkhead club cruised across the line with winning margins of 16 and 29 points under Neil Lennon in 2013 and 2014 and were ultimately just as comfortable on Ronny Deila’s watch, enjoying gaps of 17 and 15 points at the top in the last two years.

They start as solid odds-on favourites to stretch their current sequence of title wins to six in a row under new manager Brendan Rodgers whose appointment proved to be a big box office hit as season ticket sales boomed on the back of his arrival.

The former Liverpool manager’s immediate objective in the job is to take Celtic back into the group stage of the Champions League for the first time in three years, a task which has naturally overshadowed the build-up to their domestic title defence as they have successfully negotiated their first two qualifying ties.

With European football now guaranteed for Celtic until December – they will drop into the Europa League group stage if they do not win their Champions League play-off round tie – the task for 
Rodgers will be to balance the challenges faced at home and abroad.

His revamping of the swollen first-team squad he inherited from Deila will continue over the next few weeks, with further off-loading of players anticipated alongside additional new recruits to join his two signings so far, veteran defender Kolo Toure and young French striker Moussa Dembele.

The arrival of the highly-regarded Dembele, who scored his first goal for his new club to win the Champions League qualifier against Astana on Wednesday night, may lift some of the burden from Leigh Griffiths’ shoulders after his 31 Premiership goals in 34 appearances 
carried Celtic to five in a row.

Across the city, Warburton has been intensely proactive on the recruitment front this summer as he tries to forge a side capable of mounting an immediate and credible title challenge. Nine new faces have arrived, recognition that the compact squad which saw Rangers convincingly win the Championship last season required significant strengthening.

The firmest declaration of Rangers’ ambition to return to the summit of Scottish football as quickly as possible came in their startling capture of former Manchester City and England midfielder Joey Barton. If the 33-year-old can be as influential for Rangers as he was in inspiring Burnley to the English Championship title last season, he will be a major asset. The Ibrox 
support have also been 
energised by the arrival of gifted Croatian playmaker Niko Kranjcar as season ticket sales in Govan have also spiked 
dramatically.

The biggest doubts over Rangers’ capacity to mount a title bid revolve around their defence which, by Warburton’s own admission, still requires reinforcements.

For all of the progressive and aesthetically pleasing football they produced last season, their vulnerability at the back was regularly exposed even at second tier level.

If the return of Old Firm fixtures strengthens the commercial appeal and profile of the Scottish Premiership, the prospect of a return to the two-horse race which defined the top flight for so long will certainly be resisted by Aberdeen.

They will look to build upon their efforts as runners-up to Celtic in the last two seasons and manager Derek McInnes looks to have made some decent additions to what has been a settled and solid squad for some time now. Hearts, whose embarrassing Europa League exit at the hands of Maltese side Birkirkara 
re-ignited the grumblings of discontent a section of their support have shown to head coach Robbie Neilson, may find it difficult to emulate the excellent third-place finish secured on their top-flight return last season.

St Johnstone appear a sound bet for the minimum of another top-six campaign under the understated but highly impressive management of Tommy Wright, while there have been promising early signs for Inverness Caledonian Thistle that new boss Richie Foran will revive their upwardly mobile progress which stalled slightly under John Hughes last season.

Survival will be the primary aim for most of the Premiership sides, with Hamilton Accies again filling the role of bookies’ favourites to finish bottom and suffer automatic relegation.

But there are doubts over 
Kilmarnock’s direction under Lee Clark, who must hope that the wholesale changes he made to his squad over the close season soon have a more positive effect than was witnessed in a wretched League Cup campaign.

Partick Thistle’s form in that tournament suggested they can stay out of trouble, while Mark McGhee has enough nous to avoid Motherwell being dragged into the relegation equation. Ross County, having already lost their grip on the League Cup, may toil to match last season’s admirable sixth-place finish. For Dundee, the loss of top 
scorer Kane Hemmings is a significant blow which could see them looking anxiously over their shoulders in the bottom half.

With the Championship once again boasting a strong line-up of sizeable and ambitious clubs, most prominently Hibs and Dundee United, league football in Scotland is not short of attractions. 
Its 120th season most certainly begins under favourable 
auspices.