It feels as if the new football season should be heralded by a drum roll and a rotund gent in red overcoat cracking a whip. The circus is back in town. And it doesn’t matter whether you are a Rangers follower, Rangers hater or Rangers denier – which pretty much covers all Scottish football fans in these polarised times – be assured that the presence of the Ibrox club in the top flight is a guarantee of thrills.
Granted, a remaking of the rivalry between our two box-office bruisers in Celtic and Rangers, like any circus, will result in contributions by too many clowns and some animalistic behaviour that has no place. Yet it was ever thus in our national game prior to the liquidation of Rangers in 2012, and the need for them to start again in the fourth tier.
The Premiership without Rangers has proved a more engaging competition than the naysayers suggested was possible. However, in adding around one million to attendances figures, providing a stage that elder accomplished talents such as Niko Kranjcar and Joey Barton are willing to play on, and ensuring the hype goes into, eh, hyperdrive, that fact is that an upper tier with Rangers makes Scotland’s big top simply all the bigger.
It also assures that the rancour that accompanied the old Rangers’ demise – and the refusal by some to accept that the current version can carry the torch and add to the achievements of the club that started in 1872 – will leave some encounters carrying the risk of high-wire acts. That is both a consequence of the Rangers faithful’s attempts to blame everyone except those on the inside for both their crumbling and the settlement that required them to work their way through the senior leagues, and the disturbing level of anti-Rangers sentiment that has kicked up among the supporters of other clubs in the past four years.
We need actual football to draw some of the sting from the poison on frothing forums. Praise be then that, with the genuinely bold capture of Brendan Rodgers at Celtic, the likelihood of pedigree players to follow veteran Kolo Toure in the door at the champions and an upswing in season sales beyond the 50,000 mark, we should have on-field events that will matter to more people and so make more impact. Were Rodgers to negotiate a path to the Champions League there would be real hoopla again after juggling some difficulties.
Not that this season is all about Celtic and Rangers. It’s just an awful lot about Celtic and Rangers because they can spend more, attract more and generate more heat – if often much less light – than all the other clubs combined. The sad fact hasn’t changed in the past four years. For all the confident noises coming out of Ibrox about mounting a title challenge to Celtic, there is no reason to suspect that Rodgers won’t lead the club to a sixth straight championship. They possess far and away the best squad in the country.
Warburton has certainly worked the market well over the summer. However, his team face enormous physical and mental exertions because his team is going to have an almighty target on their back in every away game for this new top-flight era.
Moreover, teams like Aberdeen and Hearts will be in no mood simply to sit back and watch Rangers slip on the challengers crown. In terms of resources thrown at their team, Warburton’s side should eclipse all others outside of Celtic. Yet the Englishman was correct to call it “nonsensical” to believe the jousting for position at the top of the Premiership is the preserve of two Glasgow sides.
Aberdeen’s Derek McInnes simply won’t allow that. Striker additions Jayden Stockley and Miles Storey will add bite to a team that mounted a genuine challenge to Celtic for three-quarters of the past two seasons. Meanwhile, augmentation of the forward line that has allowed Robbie Neilson to add four attackers – among them Tony Watt and Conor Sammon – to his Tynecastle squad should supply a cutting edge that was lacking as they reasserted their place in the top flight last year.
Beyond these four, the scrap for places in the top six will inevitably be between St Johnstone and several others. Tommy Wright’s Perth pedigree – the club have never finished outside the top half in five seasons – will see continuity of his team’s effectiveness, helped by smart signing Paul Paton.
It might be tougher for Mark McGhee to maintain Motherwell’s place among the leading clubs. It was remarkable he claimed them fifth place and the squad changes would not appear to have much bolstered an ageing squad. Yet, the same might be said of a number of clubs in that middle section.
Ross County, after their League-Cup-winning, top-six-securing best season in history had already seen the defence of the trophy ended. It may be that they are on course to suffer the sort of comedown experienced last season by Inverness Caledonian Thistle; a club that appear in decline. The departure of Scottish Cup winning manager John Hughes that led to the untried Richie Foran stepping up seemed a real gamble.
The play-offs have ensured that the twisting, nay contortions, of teams that find themselves pulled towards the foot of the Premiership table have injected energy and excitement to post-split bottom-six fixtures. With all appearing far from well at Dundee, where Kane Hemmings has gone and Greg Stewart could follow, they could find themselves alongside Partick Thistle, where Ziggy Gordon represents an astute signing, Hamilton Accies – random capture Massimo Donati and all – and Kilmarnock. And frankly who knows where it is going for the Rugby Park side, with the combustible Lee Clark having shipped in a team’s worth of young players? It is guaranteed to be a Premiership season like no other.
Roll up! Roll up!