Enjoy the ride: Scottish football is back upon us - new Rangers, Celtic return, Scottish football's Odd Couple

A new league season is upon us and the SPFL marketing team have sprung into action. An email was circulated earlier this week rightly spotlighting the remarkable supporter loyalty all four leagues can count upon.
Celtic hold the upper hand on Rangers but there have been changes at both clubs this summer.Celtic hold the upper hand on Rangers but there have been changes at both clubs this summer.
Celtic hold the upper hand on Rangers but there have been changes at both clubs this summer.

“The return to league action follows a strong 2022/23 season, when a record 5,087,400 supporters attended SPFL matches – and Scotland again recorded by far the highest attendance per capita in European football across the season,” part of the missive states. It goes on to mention that the SPFL recently hit a new milestone, with 40 million supporters now having passed through the turnstiles for SPFL matches since the new organisation was formed just over ten years ago. “There’s been a lot to celebrate in Scottish football over the last 10 years, and we want to grow the game even further in the next decade and beyond,” said Neil Doncaster, SPFL chief executive for every one of those 3,500 plus days.

Of course, Scotland does not have a franchise on passion. Anyone see that clip from the recent River Plate v Internacional Copa Libertadores clash? There were 86,000 home fans in attendance, the majority of whom were involved in a mega-bouncy that shook the Estadio Monumental to its very foundations. Nevertheless, there’s still much to commend the game here. We might pretend to complain that the new season comes round quicker every year, and there’s not been sufficient time to recover from the stresses and strains of such a long, gruelling campaign – I mean, there was a World Cup in the middle of it, remember?

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But there’s nothing like the return of league football to stir the juices. That said, it does seem like only yesterday that Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou was shifting uncomfortably in his seat as he downplayed reports he was set to head south imminently. Somewhere a rooster crowed. Now Postecoglou sports a cockerel on his chest as manager of Tottenham Hotspur. A year ago yesterday Dundee United posted another of their famous results in Europe to see off AZ Alkmaar, temporarily at least, on a rousing night at Tannadice. On Friday night they helped kick off the SPFL campaign with a trip to Arbroath in the Championship. Life comes at you fast.

Frankie McAvoy and Steven Naismith are part of the management team at Hearts.Frankie McAvoy and Steven Naismith are part of the management team at Hearts.
Frankie McAvoy and Steven Naismith are part of the management team at Hearts.

And so it is in the case of Brendan Rodgers, Postecoglou’s replacement at Celtic. Not so very long ago it seemed like it would be a cold day in hell before he might be welcome to attend a game at Parkhead, never mind return as manager. Well, like The Eagles, who reformed against the odds in 1994, Rodgers embarks on his own Hell Freezes Over tour at lunchtime on Saturday against Ross County, his first competitive game in charge of Celtic since a 4-1 win over Motherwell in February 2019.

Traditionally, returning Celtic managers tend to ride a wave of emotion with conspicuous success, although it remains to be seen whether Rodgers enjoys the wholesale approval of the most recent second spellers, Billy McNeill and yes, Neil Lennon. It remains to be seen whether he can enjoy their (initial) success too. McNeill won the double in his first season back at the club after leaving Manchester City. Even if Rodgers achieved this it would represent a drop in standards. It sums up his sizeable task this season. He can only match his predecessor in terms of the domestic scene, which is why Europe represents such a crucial frontier. Having a go against the crème de la crème but falling well short – as happened last season under Postecoglou – probably won’t cut it this time around. Celtic fans are understandably uneasy about the relative lack of incoming transfer activity.

Not so at Rangers, where the apprehension perhaps principally stems from the fear Michael Beale’s rebuilding efforts have been comprehensive to the point of foolhardy. Danilo, one of the most recent additions, could well be the striker they have been looking for since Alfredo Morelos decided to clock off from top level footballing activity. If the Brazilian fails, Beale has other striker options. Around seven at the last count.

Given Doncaster’s attempts to talk things up, perhaps now isn’t the time to mention we are nearing 40 years (1984-85) since the last time a non-Old Firm side lifted the Scottish league title. In a rich period of competitiveness involving the east coast of the country in the early-to-mid-1980s, Dundee United and Aberdeen (twice) passed the old trophy between themselves before Hearts were overhauled on the final day by Celtic.

Newly-promoted Dundee have a new manager in Tony Docherty.Newly-promoted Dundee have a new manager in Tony Docherty.
Newly-promoted Dundee have a new manager in Tony Docherty.

Asking who might finish third has now become the natural question on the eve of a new campaign. It could be argued that the rest are as far away as ever. It could also be argued that Rangers and Celtic hog the agenda as much as ever. Sky Sports are starting as they likely intend to continue. Live Celtic and Rangers games – the Ibrox side travel to Kilmarnock – bookend the first full day of fixtures.

All eyes will be on Scottish football’s new Odd Couple. No, not Chris Sutton and Kris Boyd, Sky Sports' choice of pundit dream team, but Steven Naismith and Frank McAvoy, the rather awkwardly assembled managerial partnership at Hearts. Aberdeen look best set to finish best of the rest, while Hibs are as imponderable as ever. VAR, which made its Scottish football debut at Easter Road in October, will be in place for its first full season in the top flight, which means regular 100-plus minute games. Amend plans accordingly.

The two Dundee teams passed each other at the end of last season. Not on Tannadice Street, as might be expected of such near neighbours. But in the twilight zone between the Premiership and the Championship. Of course, it would surprise few if these journeys were reversed at the end of this season, although it’s guaranteed there will be many twists and turns in store in the coming weeks and months. Strap in tight and (try to) enjoy the ride.