SPL preview: Battle for second is welcome source of intrigue

WHILE Celtic are all but guaranteed title in top flight without Rangers, runners-up are hard to predict, writes Stephen Halliday

SO, WHO’S going to come second? As a selling point for the 15th season of Scottish Premier League football, it is perhaps not a question which is ultimately going to have the punters queuing around the block.

But as Celtic unfurl the championship flag this afternoon, more comfortable than ever before in their anticipation of doing exactly the same thing this time next year, the battle to finish as runners-up to Neil Lennon’s men is the only credible target for any of the other 11 clubs.

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Sadly, even second place will be a diminished achievement this season. Due to Scotland’s plummeting Uefa co-efficient ranking, it will no longer earn the reward of Champions League participation, but instead a slot in the second qualifying round of the Europa League as the continental failures of recent years come home to roost.

Yet if the race for the SPL title lacks the kind of uncertainty of outcome upon which professional sport thrives, both commercially and as a form of entertainment, the forthcoming campaign need not be completely devoid of drama and intrigue.

The close season has already delivered more than enough elements of farce, culminating in Dundee’s status as the 12th member of the top flight only being confirmed at 10.08am yesterday morning with the formal transfer of the share which belonged to Rangers.

Having decided they could not live with the Ibrox club among them in the wake of their financial meltdown, the time has now come for the SPL chairmen and chief executives to discover if they can survive or even thrive without them.

That poser, of course, has already been partially answered with the re-negotiation of television deals with BSkyB and ESPN which will see 15 of Rangers’ matches in the Third Division as part of the 60-match combined contracts. The financial Armageddon for Scottish football without Rangers, portrayed by SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster and his SFA counterpart Stewart Regan in their desperate efforts to relocate them in the First Division, was plainly over-stated but dependence on the media values of the men from Govan remains.

The Rangers crisis which unfolded tortuously over the summer has affected every other club’s preparations for the new season to differing degrees. Budgets could not be set until Rangers’ fate was determined, along with the size of the broadcasting contract. The remaining four weeks of the current transfer window should provide a clearer indication of which teams are likely to perform best over the course of the next ten months.

Celtic have kept their powder dry so far, the permanent signing of goalkeeper Fraser Forster from Newcastle for £2 million their only piece of recruitment. The success or otherwise of their bid to reach the Champions League group stage will decide how much more activity Lennon will be permitted. From a domestic perspective, however, Celtic will feel their existing squad is already good enough to retain the title.

There has been plenty of predictable talk that complacency will be the sole threat to Celtic becoming champions for the 44th time, with Lennon’s robust response that he will not allow that to happen just as easy to anticipate. Certainly, unless his team get off to the kind of stuttering start they endured last season, which put the manager’s position in doubt at one stage, then they will surely romp to the title as emphatically and comfortably as the bookmakers all believe.

For there to be even a hint of a challenge, at least one other club will need to find the kind of consistency which has eluded the non-Old Firm sides for so many years now. Motherwell managed it to a certain extent last season, losing only five games to opponents other than Celtic and Rangers. It was the key factor in their third place finish ahead of the more-fancied duo of Dundee United and Hearts.

But Stuart McCall’s men face a daunting task to maintain that standard this time around. Cost-cutting at Fir Park has resulted in the manager’s squad being trimmed considerably over the summer, with the loss of influential midfielder Steve Jennings probably the most significant blow. If Motherwell enjoy decent fortune on the injury front, then another top six finish is not beyond them, but it may be asking too much of McCall to make them the best of the rest again.

Dundee United are tipped by many to stay in closest touch with Celtic, however relative that may be. Despite the now annual exodus of several established first-team players, United manager Peter Houston looks to have re-invented his side to decent effect. If attacking midfielder Gary Mackay-Steven can maintain the exciting level of development he showed last season, and the Tannadice club are able to resist any interest in him before the transfer window closes, then United could justify their status as favourites in betting without Celtic.

Regardless of the downsizing being undertaken at Hearts, there will be expectation on new manager John McGlynn to ensure they are also firmly in the mix for second place. The effectiveness of the Tynecastle club’s much-vaunted youth academy is about to be scrutinised like never before as Hearts embark on a new policy which is largely reliant on their home-grown talent. Midfielder Jason Holt, who has been earmarked by the SFA’s Dutch performance director Mark Wotte as one of the country’s most precocious players, will now have the opportunity to fulfil his potential.

While Hearts will seek to ride the euphoric wave of their Scottish Cup final triumph into the new season, their city rivals must embark on a quest for redemption. For Hibernian and their manager Pat Fenlon, reconnecting with the club’s support after the trauma of the 5-1 derby drubbing at Hampden in May will not be easily achieved. If new goalkeeper Ben Williams and Irish stopper Tim Clancy can repair one of the leakiest defences in the SPL, Hibs should be capable of reclaiming the top six status which is the minimum requirement of Fenlon.

Aberdeen, after three successive ninth place finishes, have also fallen woefully short of their supporters’ expectations in recent years. But there is a sense that this could be a season when they find themselves closer to the summit than the relegation scrap. The summer captures of wide men Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn promise to provide an improved level of service for main striker Scott Vernon. At 7-1, Craig Brown’s squad might offer the best value in the market without Celtic.

St Johnstone, eliminated from the Europa League before the domestic campaign gets going, may struggle to match last season’s admirable top-six finish, with much depending on whether new strikers Gregory Tade and Nigel Hasselbaink can fill the scoring void left by Fran Sandaza and Cillian Sheridan.

For St Mirren, now one of only four west of Scotland clubs in the SPL, survival will again be the primary objective and they have enough in the locker under Danny Lennon’s ebullient guidance to do so. Kilmarnock, despite manager Kenny Shiels’ playing down of expectations, should also avoid any threat of the drop as they try to build on their League Cup winning campaign.

The relegation equation, which may yet be altered by any reconstruction plans, is likely to include both Highland clubs. It will be intriguing to see how Derek Adams, so impressive in leading Ross County to the First Division title last season, fares as an SPL manager. The more established and experienced Terry Butcher has faith that his resourceful recruitment of players from the English market will help ensure Inverness Caledonian Thistle extend their stay in the top flight.

The Highland derby will add spice to the season, as will the return of the Dundee fixture. But for the dark blue half of the city, their late elevation to the SPL on the back of Rangers’ demise could prove a mixed blessing. It is difficult to argue with their status as favourites for relegation. Let’s just hope that whoever finds themselves at the bottom of the pile isn’t cut adrift too soon and that the battle to stay up at least offers the kind of drama which will almost certainly be absent at the top of the table.