A change in division won’t dim the rivalry involving Hibs, Hearts and Rangers, writes Paul Forsyth
AT THE end of last season, when Hibs followed Hearts through the Premiership trapdoor, it was portrayed as another of these tiresome Armageddon scenarios. The promotion of Hamilton Academical to the top flight was a “disaster” for Scottish football, the relegation of both Edinburgh clubs even worse.
It comes as something of a relief to emerge from the distraction of a busy sporting summer and find that the national game is still with us. The only difference is that its best bits are now to be found in the Championship. For all that this is a strange, slightly disorientating state of affairs, it is an enthralling prospect.
It brings to mind the old Morecambe and Wise sketch in which Eric tells Andre Previn that he is playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. While the Premiership will be the weaker for the absence of its capital clubs, they are not lost to Scottish football and its loyal entourage of fans and media.
Contrary to popular opinion, Hibs and Hearts will kick off in the same old colours, in front of the same old fans, commanding the same old space in the national newspapers, just as Celtic would if they upped sticks and “moved south” in search of more TV revenue. All you have to do is look elsewhere for their results in the smallprint.
Hibs’ relegation wasn’t such a bad thing. While it meant that the top flight would be without an Edinburgh club for the first time in history, it also served to salvage the city derbies, at least four of which will rage on in the Championship this season. Neither of these proud clubs will benefit from league games against Celtic, but are they really so starry-eyed that they cannot, for one season at least, do without two, probably fruitless trips to a soulless Parkhead?
Each club has a new manager, a new strategy, new players to execute it, and the chance, at last, to meet Rangers for the first time since the Ibrox club were banished from the top flight. A dozen mouth-watering matches involving those three clubs, many of them broadcast live on television, will shape the outcome of a Championship season so competitive and unpredictable as to make a mockery of Celtic’s Premiership procession.
This, they say, will be the first proper test of Ally McCoist’s managerial credentials after successive promotion campaigns in which he has used his sledgehammer to crack a nut. He has once again acquired players who ought to be operating at a higher level, most notably Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd, but so have his counterparts in the east.
Hearts have brought in eight new faces, including Morgaro Gomis, Prince Buaben, Osman Sow and Neil Alexander. “The philosophy so far is to aim for the stars and try to sign the best players possible for the money we have,” said Craig Levein, their director of football. “You can spread the money over a great number of players or you can look for quality and we decided that the best approach is to look for quality.”
Despite signing Scott Allan, the former Dundee United player whose move to West Bromwich Albion did not work out, Hibs have been less active in the transfer market. Alan Stubbs, their manager, admits that, with less time than their heavyweight rivals to prepare for the season ahead, his team could be the outsiders.
“I think everyone sees us as the third team – and I am quite happy with that,” said Stubbs. “If people want to say Rangers and Hearts are the two teams who are going to go up this season, then fine, but I think we’ll be right in the mix come the end of the season. We’ll be judged at the end of the season, not the start, but the players have an opportunity to put right what was wrong last season.”
With Falkirk out to complicate the race for two promotion places – only one of which is automatic – the spectacle should be compelling. The name of the competition is irrelevant. Whether it is the Premier League, the Championship or the East of Scotland First Division, the unusual circumstances that have brought these clubs together adds to the fascination.
Not everything about football is measured in medals, trophies or money. Those prizes don’t beat moments, memories and experiences, which is why Mark Oxley, the goalkeeper on loan to Hibs, chose to further his career in the Scottish Championship. Robert Snodgrass, his Hull City team-mate, told him it was the league everyone was talking about.
The punters are likely to turn out in what, for second-tier football, will be record-breaking numbers. Hearts, Hibs and Rangers are already three of the five best-supported clubs in the country, a statistic that is unlikely to be altered this season. As relegated clubs have often shown us in the past, supporters are less excited by quality than by the momentum of a winning run.
When the three promotion favourites are not playing each other, they will be encountering new opponents at new venues. Cowdenbeath and Alloa Athletic are unlikely to be big at the box office, but Raith Rovers, Falkirk and Queen of the South will be refreshing alternatives to the likes of St Mirren, Kilmarnock and Ross County.
And there are subplots aplenty for the media, such as John McGlynn, sacked by Hearts, now in charge of Livingston. Or Ian Murray, late of Hibs, managing Dumbarton. Marius Zaliukas, the former Hearts captain, will return to Tynecastle in a Rangers shirt after his ill-fated spell at Leeds United.
Stubbs, of course, will arrive at Ibrox with the baggage of a playing career that included five years at Celtic. The Englishman, who was appointed in the summer, will be given an early taste of what to expect when Hibs travel to Glasgow for a Petrofac Training Cup tie on Tuesday night.
“I’m sure I will get a good reception from the Rangers fans,” he said with more than a hint of sarcasm. “But I won’t be shirking the issue. I’ll be at the front of the technical area, right behind my players.
“I’m probably more excited now than I was as a player. Every player wants to play at great stadiums. They want to play in front of huge, loud crowds. And, for me, I want to be the manager of a big club going to places like Ibrox and coming away with results and leaving there with people impressed by how my team can play.”
Only the financial consequences are a worry. While the Championship minnows will make a small fortune from the season ahead, the economic impact on the big three remains to be seen. If their sponsorship, hospitality and crowds – compared to last season – are not significantly down, they certainly will be a year hence, when the novelty has worn off and at least one of them is forced to stay put.
That, though, is what makes this season so intriguing. The Championship is enhanced by a desperation to escape it. With so much at stake, there is nothing else for it but to soak up this unique and gloriously bonkers campaign.