Stephen Halliday: Top-flight title race back on agenda

No matter how hard Derek McInnes and his Aberdeen players tried to play it down, 2015 was the year Scottish football was re-introduced to the concept of a top-flight title race.

Graeme Shinnie holds the Scottish Cup aloft after Invernesss 2-1 final win over Falkirk at Hampden. Picture: Michael Gillen

Celtic may have ultimately cruised over the finishing line to claim their fourth successive crown by a 17-point margin, but for the first time since Rangers’ financial collapse in 2012, there had been more than just a nominal challenge to their domestic supremacy.

Aberdeen’s consistency delivered an intriguingly fresh narrative to the Scottish Premiership, one they are currently maintaining as 2016 beckons.

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At one stage back in January this year, the Dons led the table by four points and appeared to pose a genuine threat to Ronny Deila’s prospects of fulfilling the most basic requirement of his first season in charge of the champions.

That element of uncertainty remained until 1 March when the two sides faced each other at Celtic Park and a 4-0 win for Deila’s men ended Aberdeen’s 13-match unbeaten run, moving them six points clear at the top with a game in hand.

The title was eventually clinched with three games to spare, confirmed by Aberdeen’s 1-0 defeat at Dundee United on 2 May, while Celtic were inactive.

It handed Deila his second piece of silverware as Celtic manager, following success in the League Cup. A much-hyped semi-final in February saw Celtic saunter to a victory over Rangers at Hampden which was far more one-sided than the 2-0 scoreline illustrated and simply underlined the decline in standards at the Ibrox club since the old rivals had last crossed swords three years before.

Dundee United provided more robust opposition in the March final, but the Tannadice club had been weakened by the January sales of Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven to Celtic. Goals from Kris Commons and James Forrest, either side of United captain Sean Dillon’s red card, gave Celtic their 15th League Cup triumph and their first since 2009.

But Deila’s regularly stated ambition of winning the domestic treble in his debut campaign was thwarted at the semi-final stage of the Scottish Cup. In a pulsatingly dramatic and controversial contest at Hampden, Celtic lost 3-2 in extra-time 
to Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

The match officials failed to spot a clear handball by Inverness defender Josh Meekings when he blocked a netbound Leigh Griffiths header on the line when Celtic were already 1-0 up. When Craig Gordon was sent off in the second half, conceding the penalty from which Inverness equalised, the tide turned in favour of the Highland side who traded extra-time goals with 10-man Celtic before David Raven netted their 117th-minute winner.

It set up an unlikely final pairing with Falkirk who had written the latest chapter in Hibs’ unrivalled history of Scottish Cup failure with a 1-0 win in the other semi.

On an historic afternoon at Hampden in May, Inverness claimed the first major honour of their mere 21-year existence when they edged past Peter Houston’s side 2-1.

It also earned Inverness a place in Europe for the first time in their history but they would experience what has become an all-too-familiar early exit for Scottish clubs. John Hughes’ men lost 1-0 on aggregate to Romanian side Astra Giurgiu in the second qualifying round of the Europa League. St Johnstone had already been eliminated in the first qualifying round, going out on away goals to Armenian opponents Alashkert, while Aberdeen made it to the third qualifying round before losing 3-2 on aggregate to Kairat of Kazakhstan.

Celtic’s European campaign at least extended into the group stage, although not in the tournament they value most. Deila suffered a second successive Champions League qualifying failure, losing 4-3 on aggregate to Malmo in the play-off round.

Unlike the previous season, when a last-32 appearance against Inter Milan brought him some credit, there was no consolation to be found in the Europa League this time. Celtic failed to win a group- stage game for the first time ever, finishing bottom of the pile behind Molde, Fenerbahce and Ajax.

It was a year also notable for the emphatic return to the top flight at the first time of asking for Hearts, winners of the Championship by a 21-point margin. They left Hibs and Rangers trailing in their wake and both of them also failed to secure promotion through the play-offs.

Dave King’s success in forcing boardroom regime change at Ibrox in March was broadly welcomed by their supporters, but significant challenges remain on and off the pitch before Rangers can hope to reclaim their previous status in Scottish football.