THERE will be plenty of positives on show this coming season in top division still without the Rangers brand, writes Andrew Smith
Picture the scene. It is the early years of this millennium and a would-be auteur is pitching his idea for a film about Scottish football’s top flight as it would stand on the eve of a fourth consecutive campaign devoid of the Rangers brand. Of course, he tells producers, the cinematic offering would require to be of the post-apocalyptic genre, set in a bleak and barren landscape.
That very Premiership campaign is now only days away. And apart from Rangers, and Hibernian, not featuring in it, business appears altogether usual, with light and life in all corners. There is a title sponsor for the first time in three years. In Ladbrokes, the much derided Scottish Professional Football League has attracted a decent name. Television deals have been extended with the forthcoming exposure in China. Admittedly, that deal will bring in bawbees. A familiar tale. Yet while all commercial contracts in Scottish football are pretty paltry, they are no worse than those signed in a supposedly prosperous past... And on top of all this, by crikey, thanks to Aberdeen we even have a team capable of putting in some sort of title challenge to Celtic.
Alright, so there is no doubt that this season Ronny Deila will claim his second championship with the Glasgow club. However, just as the Norwegian’s remodelling of Celtic has proved a source of great interest and entertainment, so that is what the Pittodrie men provided in spades with their exceptional league form under the admirably shrewd Derek McInnes.
Celtic had three games left to play when, only in May, they were crowned champions for the fourth consecutive season. That meant the title remained a live issue longer than was true in six of the past seven seasons Celtic ran out winners of a top flight with Rangers in it.
In adding to their squad without taking away, there is no reason why Aberdeen cannot keep Celtic on their toes for the next ten months. Indeed, if the Pittodrie side can find a way to stop losing against Deila’s team – they were defeated in all four meetings last season – then we could perhaps even be treated to a compelling run-in. Mind you, the manner in which Celtic hit their stride in the second half of Delia’s first season might mean that is still asking too much.
What also excites about Aberdeen’s filling of the void created by Rangers’ liquidation in 2012 is that this could extend to the continental arena. McInnes’s team, and Celtic, face hazardous European qualifiers this week. Yet the pair are also presented with possibilities in these winnable encounters. The trek to Kazakhstan to face Almaty for Aberdeen and Celtic’s hosting of Azerbaijan side Qarabag could effectively move them to within one tie of the Europa League and Champions League group stages respectively. If both were playing in continental competition until Christmas this season, that really would be transformative for the game in this country.
Aberdeen’s remarkable 5-2 aggregate defeat of a good Croatian side in HNK Rijeka means they have now recorded more notable wins in Europe in these past two years – Groningen were defeated on their own patch last year – than Rangers did in their last four years in the domain. Their efforts were instrumental in the country’s coefficient points total last season being the second highest in seven years.
Celtic and Aberdeen have distanced themselves from the rest of the top flight, but plenty feel that the next team on their heels will be a Hearts metamorphosised. Their obliterating of all opposition in the Championship has had their supporters genuflecting at the feet of the trinity of owner Ann Budge, head coach Robbie Neilson and director of football Craig Levein.
A first season back in the top flight could catapult them straight back into Europe for twofold reasons. Practically selling out Tynecastle every week affords them a resource base that gives them better buying power than the other teams likely to be vying for third – Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Dundee United, Dundee and St Johnstone likely to be in that cluster.
Having retreated from accenting youth – and that means we really ought to desist from the gushing over the Gorgie club’s player production line – they clearly mean business. Budge patently wants them to barge their way back to their former status without a bedding-in period. As one of the Scottish game’s grandees, it is a delight to have the Tynecastle club back in the top flight. What could potentially hamper Hearts in their rush to reassert themselves is what could prove problematic for the other clubs in their orbit: the absence of a real predator.
It is slightly concerning that so many teams have lost or lack goalscorers. Inverness, following their unforgettable Scottish Cup-snaring, third-place claiming season, no longer have their three main attacking threats from last season with Billy McKay, Marley Watkins and Edward Ofere gone. McKay could yet front up at United, who seem to have had the heart ripped out of them as a result of selling Stuart Armstrong, Nadir Ciftci and Gary Mackay-Steven to Celtic. However, as with natural-finisher bereft St Johnstone, there has been a durability about the Tannadice men that may not yet have been lost. That said, Dundee will scent blood in the pursuit of local bragging rights.
Ross County have their backers when it comes to pushing for the top six. The major surgery that Jim McIntyre performed, both to extricate the Highlanders from a seemingly hopeless position at Christmas and give them a British identity, made him seem like Scottish football’s answer to pioneering heart transplant surgeon Christiaan Barnard. McIntyre’s tremendous efforts provided another indication that, whatever else may be lacking at the top level of Scottish football, the coaching is almost universally of a commendable standard.
We have witnessed this with John Hughes following Tommy Wright in making Inverness and St Johnstone major trophy winners. Meanwhile, Dundee neighbours Paul Hartley and Jackie McNamara have produced attractive football teams for little outlay. Further down the pecking order, Alan Archibald at Partick Thistle continues to squeeze more out of a collection of ordinary players than seems plausible. How long that can continue must remain a doubt. The influence of a commanding coach was never better evidenced than the nose-diving of early pacesetters Hamilton Accies – the very idea still astonishes – once the prodigiously talented Alex Neil had left for Norwich City in January. Mercifully, the Lanarkshire club did eventually stabilise under Neil’s successor Martin Canning. Around about the time that Kilmarnock started to fall to pieces under Gary Locke.
The Ayrshire club, as with Partick and Accies, could find the going heavy this season and it is hard to look beyond that trio for a team that will be consigned to the Championship next season. Motherwell endured that near-demotion experience before whipping Rangers in the play-offs but in those games they demonstrated their position was perhaps false.
The monumental profile of those matches illustrated the clear downsides of having no Rangers in the top flight. Certain supporters, especially those of Celtic, attempt to deny there are any negatives to there being no team from Ibrox in the upper tier. In doing so, they seem to pay little heed to their icon Jock Stein’s mantra that “football without fans is nothing”.
Brutally, it must be stated that last season also demonstrated just what a disaster a 16-team top league would be for the credibility of the Scottish game. At times last season, four of the six games could attract fewer than 4,000 spectators apiece. In the case of Hamilton, who just don’t have a support, the figure was far lower. And that was when they were playing top-of-the-table encounters. It was a similar story at Inverness, if not quite as pronounced. Were these teams, and others such as Partick, to be scrapping it out for ninth or tenth place in a 16-team set-up, crowds of 1,500 could become standard across half the programme.
A certain nothingness, to borrow from Stein, can settle on games which are watched by so few spectators. Were Rangers in the top flight, by contrast, 700,000 more fans would be added to top-flight attendance totals. Throw Hibs into the mix, and if we had an elite ten, or the two 12s splitting into three eights that will be pushed for next summer, you could have any one of four Premiership games playing host to more people than a total of four matches might do in the coming season. The Scottish Premiership is a fine set-up as it stands, but that doesn’t mean to say that bigger clubs wouldn’t make it better.