In a second tier featuring so many former top-flight sides, Thistle and County have their work cut out, writes Andrew Smith
Instant bouncebackability so often proves an elusive quality for teams dropping into Scotland’s second tier from the top flight – as no-one need tell a whole host of would-be Premiership sides resident in the current Championship set-up for more than a season. A category into which can be placed Dundee United, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Falkirk and Dunfermline. In the past decade only three teams – Inverness in 2009-10, Dundee in 2013-14 and Hearts in 2014-15 – have limited their exile from the Scottish game’s top level to a single season. Heck, the division even clamped now Premiership leading lights, and heavily financed, Rangers and Hibernian for more than a single season.
Yet, all this might be considered lost on the bookmakers currently speculating on the likely winners of a Championship campaign that kicks off next weekend.
The shortest odds are given for Ross County and Partick Thistle – the two teams banished from the top flight in May. Neither club considered their demise a reason to change their management teams, and so have a degree of continuity going into an unwanted assault on the second tier.
For all the Maryhill side’s myriad flaws as they surrendered their place at the top table they held for five seasons, it would have been harsh on Alan Archibald to have lost his position only a year on from earning a Premiership sixth place that represented the club’s highest finish in the upper tier in 35 years. Yet Archibald, whose team will be dumped from the Betfred League Cup if Hearts win at home to Group C leaders Inverness this afternoon, knows patience will be in short supply over the remedial work he is attempting to perform on his squad. He has admitted they remain “short” in his efforts to reshape his entire side. They can’t afford to betray that in the early weeks of the campaign.
The same might be said of Ross County, who won their Betfred League Cup section to give joint-managers Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson the desired platform for moving into the league campaign.
The Dingwall side are being presented as the team to beat in this season’s Championship, their hand adjudged to have been strengthened by summer transfer business that included attracting Callum Morris from Dunfermline, and further bolstering their defensive options by bringing in Keith Watson from St Johnstone.
Kettlewell and Ferguson impressed with their salvage mission too late in the day last season following the disastrous, short reign of Owen Coyle. The club would seem to have regained its focus.
What can be said with certainty about how the Championship will pan out is that nothing can be offered up with any certainty. St Mirren’s clinching of the title, and Livingston’s remarkable play-off success that allowed them to join the Paisley club in this season’s Premiership proved that. With the Lothian club being no-one’s idea of a possible top -flight side 12 months ago, any one of seven sides will feel that they could pull of a similar unexpected success if finishing among the three play-off places.
That ought to be the bare minimum for Dundee United. However, they seem a team that is rudderless under Csaba Laszlo. It surprised when he was retained following their play-off failure against Livingston that followed some excruciating form dips. The Hungarian has brought in 12 new players and piecing them together appears to be akin to completing a 2,000-section jigsaw. They finished fourth in a Betfred Cup section behind Arbroath and Alloa and few of the Tannadice faithful have confidence that Laszlo can make United click into place.
There is far greater optimism among those of a Dunfermline and Inverness Caledonian Thistle persuasion. Allan Johnston’s East End Park side and John Robertson’s team proved last season they possess the capabilities to trouble any others in the set-up and produce sustained runs of points harvesting. It just wasn’t their time then. In this context, they would appear to have more about them than such as Greenock Morton, Queen of the South and Falkirk. Paul Hartley has acquired a raft of new players at Falkirk and so may need time to bed them in at a club appearing fated to be stuck in the Championship. Ray McKinnon is likely to need more than this season to get it right at Morton he only took over in June, while Queens are experiencing a general lull in their fortunes.
The surprise package could be Ian McCall’s Ayr United. Their free-scoring exploits to escape League One already have been replicated in the Betfred Cup where striker Lawrence Shankland, rejuvenated under McCall, bagged a thumping seven goals. The variety of attacking options that the Ayrshire club possess, and their manager’s willingness to use these, gives rise to the outside chance they could be this year’s Livingston. In terms of outcome rather than style, it should be said, with the West Lothian club taking an agricultural route to climbing from League One to the top flight in successive seasons.
The exertions required of teams in competing in a draining Championship is always expected to bring great cost for any part-time teams. For this reason, Alloa Athletic’s stay in a Championship they hauled themselves into through the play-offs could be brief. One season stays in the second tier are not uncommon in that direction.