Anthony Brown: The SPL still has some reasons to be cheerful
Scottish football may be at a low ebb at present, while the SPL this season has been depressingly bereft of the excitement that comes from a riveting title race or a four-way relegation dogfight.
However, in spite of the understandable lack of fanfare surrounding the game in this country these days, it doesn’t mean our top-flight teams merit widespread criticism. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Considering the constraints across the board and the negativity that is so prominent in our national game, there is no shortage of SPL teams who can be proud of their efforts this season. Motherwell and St Johnstone, for starters, have both enjoyed sensational campaigns.
Third-place Well have already earned more points this season than they did when they finished second in 1995, while they are just six points shy of their memorable campaign four years ago when they finished third under Mark McGhee.
St Johnstone fans haven’t had it this good since 1999 when they finished third under Sandy Clark. With six games to play, the Perth men are only eight points short of their points tally from that stirring campaign 13 years ago. Further evidence of the relative strength in the Europa League-chasing section of the SPL can be found in the fact that Dundee United, the form team in the country since the turn of the year, still languish five points off third.
This is attributed mainly to a slow start to the season as Peter Houston built a new side on a shoestring following the departure of several key men. Had the season started in November, the vibrant Tannadice team would be well on course for second place.
Celtic have also had their best season since the early part of Gordon Strachan’s reign. The fact they are still on track to break the 90-point mark despite a poor start to the season underlines how relentless Neil Lennon’s side have been since October. Indeed, it was a fright against another prospering side that sparked them into life. Kilmarnock remain arguably the best side in the league to watch on their day. Their performance in the first hour of that 3-3 draw with Celtic at Rugby Park in October highlighted how devastating Kenny Shiels’ cheaply-assembled team can be and they proved this again by beating Rangers home and away and then defeating Celtic in the League Cup final a few weeks back. Lack of consistency in their results has let them down, but the fact a side of this calibre has been unable to make the top six suggests the SPL is slightly stronger than it is given credit for.
Likewise, St Mirren have morphed from stodgy to stylish this term and, despite a recent form slump, this is the first time for a while they haven’t been concerned by the spectre of relegation. Danny Lennon and his team merit credit as they glide towards their highest-ever finish in the SPL.
At first glance, Hearts, with the third-strongest squad in the league on paper, look to have underachieved. However, it says much about the relative strength of the SPL’s mid-section this season that even if Craig Beattie had arrived earlier to provide some much-needed firepower for away games, or had the late wages issue not reared its head, there is no guarantee Hearts would have finished third.
Of course, there is no suggestion our clubs are suddenly ready to go out and take Europe by storm, but credit where it’s due to those who have been able to provide shimmers of light amid the gloom.