Scottish Premiership preview: Top flight of fancy

Craig Gordon is one of the new boys at Celtic - but can anyone stop them? Picture: SNS
Craig Gordon is one of the new boys at Celtic - but can anyone stop them? Picture: SNS
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There’s plenty of intrigue surrounding the new Premiership season but it’s naive to suggest anyone can stop Celtic, writes Andrew Smith

PLENTY will be said about the composition of the Premiership this season. Yet, more relevant is that in the campaign almost upon us intrigue and curiosities will abound. By Jiminy, there will even be a genuine fascination surrounding the league performances of Celtic – and that is a first since the demise of Rangers in 2012.

It’s not that there are direct domestic implications in Celtic’s spectacularly awful 4-1 Champions League qualifying defeat under new manager Ronny Deila away to Legia Warsaw the other night. Not beyond the result surely ending their prospects of reaching the group stage, anyway. Deila will be a league-winning manager in his first season. Any talk of another outcome would be plain silly when the economic differentials make it impossible for Celtic to avoid claiming a fourth straight title.

However, as Deila’s predecessor Neil Lennon discovered in the last of his four full seasons in charge, obliterating Premiership opposition does not inure you from criticism. Lennon also re-established Celtic as a Champions League team, yet there was growing grumbling over his efforts because of poor returns in the cup competitions. It is, then, possible for Deila to post a league success at the first time of asking and convince no one of his suitability for the post.

The Norwegian, despite his notable achievement in leading modest Stromsgodset to the championship in his homeland, has never operated outside of the Nordic nation. He has, therefore, no real pedigree for managing a club with the stature of Celtic. Moreover, owing to a litany of ill-considered calls in Warsaw on Wednesday, he failed in his first major test at the Glasgow club. Inevitably, a change in the man at the helm creates a state of flux, with Deila requiring time to recast personnel and playing style as he desires. If he wants comforted, both Lennon and Gordon Strachan before him did so successfully after exceedingly sticky starts.

The catchline for the new Premiership season might, indeed, be “2014-15: the year of the managerial makeover”. As well as Deila, Tommy Craig at St Mirren, Hamilton Accies’ Alex Neil, Paul Hartley at Dundee and even John Hughes at Inverness Caledonian Thistle – he arrived in the Highlands last December – will all be embarking on their first full seasons in the top flight at their current clubs.

Underlying that, there is an interesting development in relation to the country’s frontline coaching fraternity. Of the 12 managers in Scotland’s most prestigious football set-up, only Motherwell’s Stuart McCall has occupied his present posting for more than two seasons – Derek Adams’ five years at the helm of Ross County were interrupted by the six months he spent as Hibernian assistant in 2010-11.

In what was supposed to be a hideously challenging period for Scottish football at the highest level, there has been a broad sense of renewal and revitalisation. McCall has continued to do his thing at Fir Park despite falling attendances, budgets and, on the surface, standard of player at his disposal. It is at this point in any top-flight season preview of recent times that the writer states McCall can’t possibly guide his team to best of the rest status... again. It would be remiss to disappoint. He just can’t. The loss of defender Shaun Hutchinson to Fulham could prove a real sore one, on that front.

In tandem with dousing expectations for Motherwell, each summer the prospects of Aberdeen’s are routinely talked up. There is no reason to meddle with this orthodoxy either. The ending of a near-two decade wait for silverware with League Cup success notwithstanding, Derek McInnes’s revitalising of the Pittodrie side last season failed to have the legs predicted, with Motherwell pipping them for second place on the final day. Yet, almost alone, Aberdeen appear stable and strong, and have a manager who is utterly convincing.

Dundee United’s development under Jackie McNamara was another of the good news stories last season. But the sales of burgeoning talents Andrew Robertson and Ryan Gauld for a near-combined £6 million, while representing fantastic business, might place a pause on further forward strides. Mind you, latest Queen’s Park acquisition Blair Spittal is considered by many to be the next Robertson-type player in the making.

Scottish Cup-winning St Johnstone, under the ultra-astute Tommy Wright might be in good enough shape to put the squeeze on the Tannadice men and, even, Motherwell. Inverness, with a few road bumps perhaps for Hughes, should be able to plot a path at least towards the top six. The Perth side and the Highlanders can enjoy continued prosperity in the Premiership despite the paucity of financial resources and crowd numbers principally because they have become so adept at doing so. Meanwhile, they could have a new challenger for middle-ranking status, with Dundee offering up the thrill of the new. So often that is a compelling narrative that translates into results.

Hartley has made wholesale changes to the Dens Park squad that mightily struggled to clinch the second tier. He has recruited tried and trusted top-flight performers such as Kevin Thomson and Paul McGowan, but also added a dash of the exotic with German duo Thomas Konrad and Luka Tankulic joining up. Dundee could threaten Inverness, especially, when it comes to attaining top-six status.

Last season, the rebranded top flight provided more thrills and excitement than was considered conceivable because of the introduction of play-offs. The jeopardy created for the club finishing second-bottom turned out to be double-jeopardy. Hibernian’s freefall to end up there both cost them their top-flight status and Terry Butcher a job he had been head-hunted for only six months earlier. The ventilation that the play-off ushered in proved to be not so much a breath of fresh air, as a force-ten gale.

All those teams who were almost blown off course last season, and there was a bloated mass of them stretching right across the bottom six, can expect to feel the chill wind again. Kilmarnock, with a yawning chasm in their goal-nabbing potential created by Kris Boyd’s enticement back to Ibrox, are unlikely to find the going easier just because deposed Hearts manager Gary Locke has been installed as assistant to Allan Johnston. County, equally, can count on wobbles, and the same goes for St Mirren. The peculiar decision of the Paisley club’s board to sack Danny Lennon then turn to his assistant to fill the vacancy seemed to follow little logic. If the team management was sufficiently deficient for Lennon to lose his job, then surely Craig was an integral part of that? In his defence, at 63 and with three decades of coaching experience to call upon, Craig is long enough in the tooth and well enough versed in the cut-throat nature of the trackside game to know what is required.

Alan Archibald, at the other end of the coaching spectrum, performed tremendously to stabilise Partick Thistle in their first season back up after nine years exiled from the upper tier. He deserved greater appreciation for his efforts over his first full season as a manager, indeed. However, history would suggest a second such season in the environment tends to prove more exacting.

That said, Hamilton, by some margin, have the lowest budget of the top 12. The club had no real designs on earning promotion. Indeed, but for Hibs’ hari-kari in the play-off second leg, they would have fallen short, however courageous and commendable it was that the Lanarkshire side were only just pipped for the Championship on the final afternoon. Neil, in his first season directing from the dug-out, demonstrated he has the abilities to mould a competitive side. Yet, he has his work cut out to prevent the monetary disadvantages faced by his poorly supported club being reflected in the Premiership’s final places come next May.

Mitigating against such a gloomy forecast, whatever else Scotland’s top flight might have lacked in recent years, it has retained a wonderfully engaging capacity to surprise. To say it will do so again isn’t a prediction. It is a guarantee.