ALTHOUGH strictly speaking we are not yet at the halfway point in the season, the Scottish Championship already looks like it is shaping up to provide the title drama that Scottish football might sorely lack in the remaining months of the campaign.
It seems that Celtic, after the valiant efforts of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Aberdeen and Motherwell, are pulling slightly further away at the top of the Premiership with each passing matchday. Their lead was extended to ten points last weekend, and then to 11 points on Boxing Day.
In the league directly below the Championship, meanwhile, it is a similar tale. Rangers are 11 points clear at the top of League One and are homing in on a second successive promotion. This could be one reason for the scramble at the top of the Championship, as clubs seek to activate their strategies to escape the league before the Ibrox side’s inevitable arrival, as well as the high likelihood that Hearts will join them in the second tier.
Gary Holt, the Falkirk manager, yesterday admitted that the knowledge that Rangers could well be making elbow room for themselves in the Championship next season has provided an extra edge for those teams currently vying with each other at the top.
“I would be lying if I said it does not have a bearing because it has,” he said. “It is one of those things. If Rangers come up and Hearts come down it could be quite an exciting league next year. But we want to achieve promotion. That is what we are aiming for no matter what is happening next season. I want to get there, the players want to get there and it is something we share as a target. And we are doing everything possible to hit that target.
Falkirk take on Alloa Athletic this afternoon as the spotlight is trained on the Championship and Leagues One and Two. Like the Championship, the latter is proving tight to call at the top – just five points separate the top four sides and there is only an eight-point gap between leaders Peterhead and Montrose, in eighth position. The stakes are slightly higher in the Championship, however, as clubs jostle with each other to avoid the ultra-competitive scenario that awaits next season, even if compensation is also sure to arrive in the form of healthy gates.
Even Alloa, who are currently in fifth place, are very much looking up rather than down. “Everyone is looking up,” pointed out Holt, who is the reigning manager of the month after Falkirk’s strong run of results in November. He is in line to win the award again this month following two further victories, against Raith Rovers and Morton, which have moved his side within five points of the leaders, Dundee, over whom they have a game in hand. Raith Rovers and Hamilton Accies are above Falkirk, with Hamilton having suffered after posting three defeats and a draw in their last four outings.
“Anyone can go on a run in this league,” Holt added. “I would rather be playing well in February going into March and be said to be in contention then. But don’t get me wrong. If we can go on a run from now until the end of the season, great. I want to be in the mix come the end of January and into February, and then we can see where we are. It’s good to get results over the Christmas period but it’s not about being up there in December.
“We have grown as a squad,” he added. “We know we are a young team and won’t win every game but, as long as we put in effort and commitment, I cannot complain. It is pleasing where we are at right now, but we also know we could just as easily turn up on Saturday and get turned over.”
This last comment references the dog-eat-dog nature of the Championship. One lurking danger, as far as Falkirk are concerned, is the opening of the transfer window, when several of their highly-rated youngsters, including Connor McGrandles and Jay Fulton, may well attract interest from elsewhere. Holt can console himself with the thought that there are more where they came from. Seven teenagers started Falkirk’s win over Morton last weekend.
Leaders Dundee are likely to be the ones doing the recruiting when the transfer window opens next week. The need for the Dens Park side to re-strengthen has become more urgent following news that striker Craig Beattie will be absent for a period of up to three months after undergoing a knee cartilage operation last week. As favourites to return to the top tier, Dundee must cope with the extra pressure of occupying pole position going into the last round of matches of the year.
The addition of promotion play-offs this season has lent an extra frisson to the second half of the season, as almost every club in the division now has something to play for.
In the past, those trailing the leaders were often left with little incentive, particularly when – as was the case in recent seasons prior to last year’s tussle between Partick Thistle and Morton – the leaders have been of the runaway variety. This is certainly not the case this time around.
Only six points separate Dundee from Alloa. The narrow 1-0 win achieved by Dundee at Recreation Park last weekend underlines how nothing can be taken for granted. Dundee have not beaten Falkirk in two meetings this season and yet posted one of their most convincing wins of the season at Hamilton Accies, who were then top of the league. Dundee have also succumbed at home to Cowdenbeath, who are undergoing a revival under new manager Jimmy Nicholl.
Everyone is capable of beating everyone else. With no Premiership fixtures scheduled, attention can today fall on a league that will likely provide much of the interest when the promotion dog days of spring arrive. With no fixture commitments in midweek, all ten Championship teams should be in top shape today and raring to go, having had the luxury of a week to prepare in what is usually such a hectic period for footballers.
“It’s been great, it has been a normal week,” said Holt. “We have been able to prepare properly. It’s just been a case of going from one Saturday to the next. It’s given the players a chance to recover from knocks.
“Christmas Day fell on Wednesday, which is the players’ day off anyway, but they were given a wee run to do,” he added. “It worked out well. They enjoyed their ‘day off’ like everyone else. Now it is time to go to work.”