The SPFL league season begins on Saturday with fans a mixture of excited and apprehensive. No matter what happens between now and May there won’t be a lack of entertainment, writes Joel Sked.
WE GO AGAIN!
It’s the eve of the new SPFL league season opening day, the overpriced meal deal has been left out and excited households are waiting on a visit from a fictitious figure, perhaps Daniel Prodan, to arrive and signal the beginning of the celebrations. Celebrations which will continue all the way until the end of May.
The World Cup has been and gone, a mere filler until the proper football. Yet, eager to get going, Scottish football has already cracked open its bevvy of entertainment. Nearly 100 matches have already been played, whether that be in European competition or Betfred Cup, and we have already witnessed madcap games, great goals and even better gaffes, not forgetting a decapitated pigeon, Darian MacKinnon missing a penalty with a Panenka and some nonsense about ‘bendy water’.
A support act before the main event. Before the bread and butter, which sometimes leaves a taste of caviar and champagne, other times of marmite on mouldy tiger bread. And that is why we all return for more, season after season. The sense of wonderment, the expectation of something surreal, the not knowing.
Maybe this is the year a challenge is put up to Celtic. Maybe this is the year we will win a cup. Maybe this is the year we will make the step to the next level. Maybe this is the year we will stop being a basket case. Maybe this is the year Graeme Murty won’t have to do his best impression of having a faintest clue what he is doing.
On the eve of the league campaign hope springs eternal, unless you support Raith Rovers.
The ifs, buts and maybes will be prominent in conversations as fans head to grounds across the country over the weekend. Foresight is bright, clear and positive, like walking out of work on a Friday evening. Ninety minutes later the distressing and realistic hindsight has set in, as if looking at your outbox on a Sunday morning.
The fear of following your team should be relished. The reason is simple, you are following a team in the greatest entertainment business on earth - Scottish football, from the top to the bottom.
Social media can be a dark place which brings out the worst in people. But other than being lectured in great detail about the intricacies and precise terminology of Rangers’ liquidation and subsequent return to the Scottish football leagues, it acts as a great stimulant for the game, providing a platform for voices to be heard, stories to be told, action to be shown when it would have otherwise gone unnoticed.
Below the Ladbrokes Premiership there is a different world to be explored. One only has to listen to the Pele Podcast where a current or former player from the lower leagues talks in great detail about their career, the characters they’ve encountered, the stuff they’ve seen and therefore can’t unsee. It paints vivid and fascinating picture of the not so glamorous life away from the elite of football.
While fans are readying themselves for another season of excitement, apathy or misery, hundreds of volunteers and passionate fans are preparing to keep these clubs not just ticking over but thriving. Money may be tight but what they do can only be respected and admired. Such as coverage of games with many teams in the lower divisions providing a highlights package, made even more entertaining when every expletive uttered from the crowd is picked up in the finest of detail.
As for their social media channels... a verifiable treasure trove, from blunt honesty to bizarre hacks to individuals forgetting they’re are signed in as the club account.
Then there is the action. The current Championship is shaping up to be one of the best leagues around Europe in terms of competitiveness. Upwards of six teams have realistic ambitions of winning the league. Many eyes will be clasped on Csaba Laszlo and Dundee United, while there is the Highland derby to contend with also.
League One has the four Angus teams, a seemingly rejuvenated Airdrieonains, a Dick Campbell and a Raith Rovers in the midst of their own ‘Banter Years’ era. As for League 2, you can watch a game which involves David Goodwillie and the ‘well-built’ Jordyn Sheerin.
But, of course, most eyes will be on the Premiership. There is intrigue and narrative aplenty, especially with the depth of managers throughout the league.
Celtic and Brendan Rodgers go in search of eight titles in a row, but it will be a familiar foe in Rangers and Steven Gerrard who will be looking to prevent it. If it were to happen and Rangers were to spring a major surprise and win the league, you would have to say it is the biggest blow Gerrard has delivered Rodgers since a certain slippy Anfield pitch in 2014.
While Celtic are blessed with continuation as they look to make progress in Europe, Rangers and Steven Gerrard are a complete unknown. The Liverpool legend has managed to so far avoid any incidents in shrubbery as he’s reshaped the team. He is building a solid spine and the target should be to see off the threat of Aberdeen, Hibernian and Heart of Midlothian.
Every step of the way will be analysed and scrutinised. Neutrals will treat the Gerrard-era like a street fight. Keep a safe distance, don’t engage but definitely don’t take your eyes off it. That won’t be the case for experienced campaigners Derek McInnes, Neil Lennon and especially Craig Levein. In terms of the Hearts boss, it will be captivating to see what shenanigans he has in store for Gerrard.
Celtic may have been quiet in the transfer window but an identity and mentality built under Rodgers should mean they are off limits for Rangers in terms of the title, though the Ibrox side should finally manage to land a significant punch in an Old Firm derby.
With the country’s five biggest clubs in a relatively strong position it should see the other seven teams eventually split into two mini-leagues. Teams aiming to make the top six, such as St Johnstone, Motherwell and Kilmarnock, and those looking to survive, Hamilton Academical, St Mirren and Livingston. Dundee straddle that fine line.
With two new promoted teams in the division for the first time since the 2014/2105 season there is an added freshness. Alan Stubbs has finally left our TV screens to take on his first management job in the top tier. He impressed with his desire to play attractive football at Hibs and could be an astute appointment to carry on the work of Jack Ross.
But it is Kenny Miller who beguiles as player/manager at Livingston, having tried to undertake a similar position at Ibrox. It screams risk and for neutrals it is exactly what you want to see.
These 12 teams will be at the forefront of the coverage of Scottish football with a sweepstake already opened on which team crests Sky Sports will get mixed up. There is also a fine fusion of styles and identities. In the English Premier League, when teams outwith the top six play it is reminiscent of the image where Spider-Man is pointing at Spider-Man. There is generally more originality in Scottish football.
Celtic, St Mirren and Dundee look to play a patient passing style, Hibs are more direct and more exciting in how they pass the ball. Aberdeen have an incredible ability to get the job done. Motherwell are unapologetically direct and aggressive. St Johnstone and Kilmarnock should be used as examples in how to set up a team in an organised and structured way. Hamilton are personified by Darian MacKinnon. As for Hearts, Rangers and Livingston, all a work in progress.
There is so much to be interested in. The signings, the tactics, the storylines, the nonsense. The authenticity.
In a summer where the game was criticised by people who genuflect to the ‘EPL’ and have no idea what they are talking about when it comes to Scottish football, those north of the border are well-versed in the esoteric nature of the country’s sport.
The game is progressing. Fans are engaged and there is young talent emerging across the country. The football may not always be slick but it is entertaining because teams largely play without fear and with intensity which leads to bonkers matches, a glut of goals and mistakes.
There is also the realism in that this season, and the game in general, won’t be perfect. But no one wants perfect. Fans want to see a forward concede a penalty using his neck. They want to see a manager heatedly tell a fan where he should place his phone. They want to hear about a goalkeeper being injured by a runaway cow. Some may struggle to admit it but incompetency is welcomed.
When it’s winter, when the football is turgid and the pervading belief is that life is meaningless, it’s these moments which keep you warm, keep you engrossed. And it will be these moments which, when the final ball is kicked in May, will have you pining for more.
Last season will be hard to top, but if we know anything about Scottish football it’s that it is the greatest entertainment business in the world. And, in the words of Rangers boss Steven Gerrard, it’s a status which DOES NOT F***ING SLIP!