A Scottish Premiership season like no other - VAR, title race, manager pressure and surprise package

This season is going to be like no other. Of course, it is. There are new players, new managers and new kits. Just like any other.

But this campaign really is going to be like no other. We break in November for a nonsensical and problematic winter World Cup. By then we could already be introduced to one of the most divisive elements since artificial surfaces. VAR.

Scottish FA chief Ian Maxwell talked about the technology helping refereeing accuracy increase from 94 per cent - which is staggeringly high considering *insert your most loathed official(s)* - to 99 per cent. It is going to be truly wonderful witnessing the Scottish Premiership go the other way. Monitor glitches, hand drawn offside lines and referees having to watch replays back with the quality of a grainy clip found on Nick Hancock’s Football Nightmares.

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Putting a Scotland-less sham of a World Cup and a mid-season introduction of a technology which will damage the match-going experience for fans (not that clubs even bothered to ask their supporters) to one side, this Scottish Premiership season has, as always, plenty of narrative for us to get stuck in about.

Now, SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster may have used 156 words of a 319-word preview to warn about fan behaviour, but supporters up and down the country should be rubbing their hands – some more than others – about what is set to unfold, especially with no Covid restrictions on crowds.

Scorched earth to a beautiful blossom

We’ve had a summer transfer window where the league is getting the respect it deserves as players make big money moves to the Premier League, Eredivisie and Serie A. Funds are being reinvested into squads with Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibs amongst those paying out six-figure fees. In addition, there will likely be three Scottish clubs competing in group stage football.

From scorched earth, a beautiful flower bed is slowly beginning to form.

VAR will be introduced to the Scottish Premiership this season. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

As ever though, it will be about the bread and butter. The week-to-week. The 38-game rat race for the league title, European football, the top six and to avoid dreaded relegation to the Championship.

The title race and the intriguing underperformers

Celtic and Rangers to be miles ahead and compete for the title? Yes. Their fans to moan about the referees being in favour of Celtic/Rangers? Absolutely. The media to be anti-Celtic/Rangers? Yup. Will a VAR decision prompt fans to treat the technology like it has become sentient and broken their seven-year-old son's finger once a decision goes against Celtic/Rangers? You better believe it!

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It is all part of the pantomime. But it should be kept in mind, these are two very good football teams chock-full of talent battling it out for the trophy. Kyogo Furuhashi and Alfredo Morelos. Jota and Ryan Kent. Matt O’Riley and Glen Kamara. James Tavernier and Josip Juranovic. The country is blessed with some excellent talent.

Celtic and Rangers will once more battle for the league title. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

Hearts, who have signed Lawrence Shankland, a striker who has NEVER scored a top-flight goal if you believe some, are in pole position to record back-to-back top three finishes since the early-2000s but how will they handle the balance of competing in Europe? And can they help the most precious of Scottish football belongings, the coefficient, which appears to be wrapped up in cotton wool and followed around by an extensive and intensive security detail?

Perhaps the most intriguing narrative surrounds last season’s underperformers, Aberdeen and Hibs. To say they have had contrasting fortunes in the Premier Sports Cup group stage would be an understatement. The Dons have flitted between competent and scintillating as Jim Goodwin’s revamped side won all four games without conceding. They are well on their way to bettering last season’s clean sheet record of six in 47 games.

The Dons are the team who look the best placed to challenge Hearts, along with Dundee United who have made some very shrewd acquisitions. Perhaps no one more impressive than Jack Ross who can be viewed as an upgrade on Tam Courts. The defining question? Can they finally score more than 38 league goals in a season. With Steven Fletcher and Tony Watt you’d certainly think so!

League Cup pressure

Aberdeen and Hibs will be looking to bounce back from poor seasons. (Photo by Ewan Bootman / SNS Group)

Then there is Hibs. Another new era at Easter Road with the arrival of Lee Johnson as manager and a raft of new signings. Such a dynamic is always going to take time to get up and running but few could have predicted the way in which they stumbled, tripped, and tried to stay on their feet as if they hit a patch of ice but ultimately fell in the League Cup.

Johnson has spoken of how the team needed to return sooner, expressed his frustration and complained about aspects of the League Cup.

He wasn’t the only one. St Mirren’s Stephen Robinson also seemed miffed by the competition with the claim it is "set up against” the Premiership sides. The competition where you play four group games against lower league opposition who can struggle to cobble a squad together. My wallet's too small for my fifties and my diamond shoes are too tight, anyone?

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The League Cup can increase pressure. Getting off to a good start in the league is imperative now. That's the case with Robinson and Johnson, still putting their own stamp on their respective teams. As it is with Graham Alexander following Motherwell’s disastrous Conference League humbling by Sligo Rovers.

Teams who should be looking up the league are all looking over their shoulder and it is St Johnstone who they will see. Another Premiership casualty in the League Cup. Last season was a disaster. Recruitment was a touchy topic amongst Saints fans last campaign and this summer it has been interesting to say the least – they are not short of a centre-back and have finally managed to sign a goalkeeper. The average age at McDiarmid Park has shot up with Callum Davidson noting his desire for experience.

Every iota of that experience may well be required because there is no team who stand out as ‘oh, they are going to be relegated’ in the way Hamilton and Livingston have down the years.

Callum Davidson and Stephen Robinson start the season with some pressure. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

Sizzling Staggies

Kilmarnock, as Championship winners, will be expected to be competitive. The presence of Derek McInnes should be enough to put Killie fans at ease, while Livingston, for arguably the first time in the Premiership, can build on last season’s squad rather than having to replace key players or carry out an overhaul. The signing of Esmael Goncalves adds extra pizzazz and spice to the Livi attack. The forward has already been sent off.

It is very harsh to leave Ross County until the end because they may well be the most intriguing of sides in the top-flight.

The Staggies are a team who are good to watch under Malky Mackay. Instead of being obdurate, stuffy and reactive, they play on the front foot, with pace and directness and energy. Their recruitment has been interesting with plenty of options in attack who fit into the style, while Yan Dhanda could be one of the coups of this Premiership season as the man who fits it all together in midfield.

New players, new heroes, new villains. Joining players of old, heroes of old and villains of old. Managers already feeling the pressure. Fans already getting carried away. Antagonistic statements. The introduction of a technology which should be treated with contempt and suspicion.

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If that isn’t a concoction which screams entertainment, controversy and high-jinks, the Scottish Premiership is not the league for you. When, in reality, it is the only top-flight in world football that matters.

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Ross County could be one of the more exciting teams to watch. (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)

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