Neil McCann still seeing hope for Scottish game

Neil McCann: Looking on the bright side. Picture: Contributed
Neil McCann: Looking on the bright side. Picture: Contributed
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One club will be starting on minus 15 points while the champions have lost two of their biggest stars. Another club have just established a new record for the worst aggregate defeat by a Scottish club in Europe.

While there is a World Cup to come next summer, Scotland won’t be ­involved – although there are still three dead rubber qualifying games to come in the Autumn. Some might feel that these help make up a set of unpromising ingredients as we sit on the cusp of a new league season.

However, Neil McCann would beg to differ. He remains infectiously upbeat as he contemplates the campaign ahead, his fifth as an analyst for Sky Sports. He describes himself as a “glass half-full” kind of guy.

“I am always excited by football,” he says. “I know Scottish football has been revamped, with new logos. But we now have one body and the biggest thing is that there is now another route into the top league through a play-off. It gives an added dimension.”

Now also working as a coach for Dunfermline, he knows the excitement – and the heartache – involved in such do-or-die encounters. The East End Park side were relegated to the Second Division – now League 1 – after losing over two legs to Alloa Athletic last season. “I am well placed to know what it is like,” says McCann. “There was a different ­dimension to it for us – we were ­dealing with administration, and we had to throw in kids.

“It was maybe an unfair position ­because of the points deduction, which I still don’t agree with. But now there is one body, it might help – there should not be any grey areas.”

The top of the Scottish Championship and the bottom of the Scottish Premiership may be reinvigorated as competitions, but what about the title race in the top tier – another procession?

Like Graeme ­Souness, who was in Scotland last week on promotional duties for the Scottish Professional Football League, McCann, who played at Ibrox for five years, says he cannot pretend that Rangers’ absence has been anything but a blow to prestige. “100 per cent – regardless of what other clubs feel, the league has suffered,” he admits. “And the opinion of it has suffered ­outside ­Scotland.

“Without being disrespectful, Celtic could afford to take their eye off the ball last season. One of the things you did as a Rangers player when you came in after a game, whether you had won, lost or drawn, was ask: ‘how did Celtic go?’ You knew the Old Firm were breathing down each other’s necks. Celtic definitely lost an edge last year. The sooner Rangers work their way back the better.”

As for credible challengers this time around, McCann mentions Motherwell – “they have had a big turnaround of players, and it is going to be a test for Stuart McCall working with a lot of new faces” – as well as Aberdeen and also Dundee United, who are managed by his friend and former international colleague Jackie McNamara. They have all brought in several new players and ­McCann believes this will bring some freshness to the league, which can only be a positive.

“I think the ones who will be really looking to improve their position are Aberdeen,” he said. “Derek [McInnes] has brought in a couple of players who will go and improve that team. But the ones I would cherry pick are Dundee United, I know they have lost Johnny Russell and Jon Daly, but I really like some of Jackie’s new signings, and ­obviously David Goodwillie has come back. I think United and Aberdeen will really push on.”

McCann’s match-day duties with Dunfermline won’t be too affected by his television commitments, although he misses this weekend’s clash with East Stirlingshire because he is at Celtic Park, where Celtic kick off their defence of the title against Ross County. McCann was also missing from the dug-out for the win over Cowdenbeath at the weekend due to a one-match ban picked up after being sent off following a spat with ­Forfar Athletic manager Dick Campbell in last season’s play-off semi-final. McCann knows that his television work means he is a target for those who might take umbrage with his views, ­although he is committed to his role as an analyst, and he is prepared to deliver his opinion without fear or favour.

“I do feel comfortable doing that,” he says. “I love the job I have. I have been doing a lot more co-commentary stuff, so I have been mixing it up a bit. But I feel quite comfortable in that ­environment.

“I always felt that, if I did my ­homework properly, and my ­knowledge of football is improving all the time. You need to make sure the points you are making are not only valid to football people, but also to ­people who spend their hard-earned cash on a Saturday watching the games.

“And now that I am coaching as well helps, and I love it when the season comes around. I have not changed since I was a player. After two weeks off I was always buzzing to come back.”

• Sky Sports will show 30 matches from the SPFL and all Scotland’s home internationals as part of an unrivalled schedule of live domestic, European and international football in HD and on the move.