FOR SO long regarded as the hardest league to escape from, now the Championship is being viewed as the one to be in. The abject manner of their relegation made it seem as if Hibernian were desperately trying to join neighbours Hearts in the second tier.
Here they now are, preparing to meet their old rivals in a first lower division derby at Tynecastle next weekend.
This will be shown live on television. Tomorrow’s Rangers v Hearts clash at Ibrox is on television. Next Friday’s Rangers v Falkirk clash is being shown live on television; three games in seven days, all on television. When was the last time even one all-First Division/Championship league clash was broadcast live?
It shows where the broadcast companies think the interest lies, and it will be interesting to learn which game newspapers and radio stations judge is game of the day this afternoon – one of the three Premiership clashes at Dundee, Hamilton Accies and Motherwell, or Hibs v Livingston?
With three clubs likely to average gates in five figures, the Championship will certainly be as well-supported as the division above. Remarkably, Hearts have sold more than 12,000 season tickets. It means that games against Rangers and Hibs are already guaranteed sell-outs, and even the fixtures against so-called lesser teams will be healthily attended.
The Hearts supporters are rightly clearly relishing the prospect of a season in which they can challenge at the top end of the league after many miserable months last season, when they were left stranded at the bottom. A late revival in the last weeks of the campaign means anticipation on the morning of the league season kick-off is as fevered in Gorgie as anywhere else in Scotland.
Hearts’ trip to Ibrox tomorrow hands them a chance to lay down a marker and encourage people who regard Rangers as the clear favourites to think again. Rangers have reunited Kenny Miller, who, less than a year ago, was scoring a wonder strike at Wembley for Scotland, with Kris Boyd. At Kilmarnock, Boyd spent last season establishing himself as someone who, while still able to supply more than his fair share of goals, can create them as well.
If Miller and Boyd click again, then it really could be a matter of which teams are able to secure the play-off places below. But if they do not start to gel again quickly – both are older and less mobile – then the second-tier can prove an unforgiving environment for seasoned veterans of top-flight football; neither, remember, has been involved in Rangers’ lower league odyssey.
Now that he is operating in a reasonably competitive environment again, Rangers boss Ally McCoist has remarked that he is looking forward to being a football manager once more. However, he knows he will now have to be judged as one as well. It is imperative that his team make a bright start. They have the chance to do so with three of their first four matches at Ibrox, though scrutiny from the stands will be fierce.
The lack of a title race worthy of the name was one of the major complaints of what was once know as the First Division. Because only the league winners gained promotion, there were no play-off places. If there was one particularly strong team, then the title race tended to be over long before the end of the season, with those directly below having little to play for.
This hasn’t been the case for the last two years. Morton and Partick Thistle were neck and neck in 2012-13, while it so nearly came down to a matter of goals between Dundee and Hamilton Accies last season. This year is set to be yet more fiercely-contested.
It is this potential for drama that sets the Championship apart from the Premiership.
Hibs’ narrow loss to Rangers in the Petrofac Training Cup was evidence that they have started a recovery process after recent traumas. Yesterday’s capture on loan of Everton’s Matthew Kennedy is a positive consequence of Alan Stubbs’ appointment as manager and another indication that they are endeavouring to develop a young team designed to play bright, attacking football.
This has been Falkirk’s modus operandi for some time now. Peter Houston’s young side will relish being discounted from the promotion fray. Queen of the South, meanwhile, are battle-hardened veterans of a division that can provide a shock to the system of those not accustomed to its sometimes robust charms.
But that’s not to say there is not a lot of football played here as well. Dumbarton were a breath of fresh air last season under Ian Murray, whose presence is another reason to keep note of what is happening in the Championship; he is one of Scottish football’s brightest managerial prospects, perhaps the brightest. Livingston have made some shrewd signings and will savour the presence of two Edinburgh clubs in the same division, with their crowds having dipped to a seriously low level.
Raith Rovers have responded with ambition to the new reality of life in the Championship with a spate of new signings, including Christian Nade from Dundee. Alloa Athletic and Cowdenbeath look set to be relegation battlers, although both are more than capable of springing shocks, particularly on their own grounds. Their reward for surviving last season is knowing they will be operating in a division that is under a spotlight.
The top league cannot simply expect to command the attention. Perhaps it says it all that, on this first weekend of the new league season, the game being broadcast live is not from Scotland’s supposedly elite league. Rather, it is a clash from the one below.