Bitterness, intrigue, Gladiators and The Wire - Why you have to play the game as the SPFL returns for season 2021/22

The Premier Sports Cup group stages may be reaching their finale on Sunday evening, while three of Scotland’s five European entrants have played the first leg of their first tie. But it’s this Saturday when the Scottish football season truly gets under way.

The SPFL league campaign begins on Saturday. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)

The 2021/22 season is upon us.

It’s only natural to take those few days or weeks of break from the game in the summer to ponder if you want to return. If you want to play again.

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The advice dished out by Lieutenant Daniels’ wife Marla in the first series of the American crime drama The Wire rings in your ear.

“You can’t lose if you don’t play.”

Scottish football has that ability to torment you every day, every week, every month. Every game. Slowly but surely it eats away and you lose your frustration. Your temper. Your hair. Your sanity.

When it's all said and done in May, few can actually call themselves winners.

Yet, if we’ve learned anything from the past 16 months, it is all part of the game. The bad is still good and the good is absolutely magnificent. The journey, the community, the shared experiences, the last-minute winners, the f*****g short corners, the narrative, the pettiness, the drama, the sounds.

This season is shaping up to be more special than ever. We are back in grounds. Come the middle of August, fingers crossed, stadiums will be full. Cacophonic cathedrals of colour once more.

The dynamic has changed. Football is about to get enjoyable again.

The hunted and the hunters

On top of that, there is so much to be excited, intrigued and, depending on who you support, apprehensive about.

The baton has changed hands at the top of the SPFL Celtic have, in 12 sorry months, gone from the hunted to the hunters.

There is a real feeling that if this was Gladiators, Rangers would be at the travelator before John Anderson has even blown for Celtic to go.

Steven Gerrard has strengthened a side which is already so well tuned. A team with a great understanding, strong relationships across the pitch, but also one which is constantly looking to evolve rather than standing still thinking they have cracked it.

Across the city, it is a fascinating time.

Ange Postecoglou has eventually been able to take over from those sleeping at the Parkhead wheel. Celtic should have built a Scottish football dynasty – yes, one more dominant than nine in a row – considering the advantage they had.

Alas, they found themselves in a position where they played a crucial Champions League qualifier with a back four of Anthony Ralston, Stephen Welsh, Nir Bitton and Greg Taylor.

It is hard not to be impressed with Postecoglou. But he will need to be given time, he will need to be allowed to fail, just like Gerrard was at Ibrox.

The Australian is one of a number of managers who are primed for a captivating season.

Manager movement

In some quarters Stephen Glass was set up as some sort of Dave Cormack stooge. From the safety of Derek McInnes, the Dons fans have stepped into the unknown. That in itself can be exciting for a supporter. On Thursday there was the sense the Glass era had begun for real with an impressive thumping of Swedish side Hacken.

It made a few reevaluate their view that Hibs were set for a waltz to third place. For the Easter Road side, where expectation is kryptonite, that is no bad thing.

Jack Ross, like Callum Davidson at St Johnstone, has so far kept hold of key players. That continuity is invaluable.

It is hard to see any team replicating the success of the Saints next campaign. Perhaps Shaun Rooney, David Wotherspoon and Chris Kane can take Europe by storm.

Then there is Hearts. No doubt back with a point to prove and a score to settle due to how their demotion/relegation (delete as applicable) came about. The Tynecastle side are on an eight game unbeaten run without conceding. But such is the nature of the club’s supporters, and the skepticism an element has regarding Robbie Neilson’s management, a strong start is necessary.

He is not the only one in such a position. Tam Courts ascension to the hot seat at Dundee United raised eyebrows, as did Ross County's appointment of Malky Mackay. Intrigue and narrative everywhere you turn.

After seven seasons, there is no Hamilton Accies which in turn means there is no natural tip for relegation.

And for the first time since the 2004/05 campaign there are three top-flight derbies with Dundee following Hearts back into the newly-named cinch (remember, smaller case) Premiership.

Part of Scottish football’s charm is the parochial, bitter, tribal qualities, for want of a better word.

The lower leagues

You could write a tome on what could happen in the top-flight but there is so much more to stimulate and provoke in tiers two to four.

The Championship witnesses an Ayrshire derby on the opening weekend, while Dunfermline Athletic are now under new ownership and have recruited soundly. Kilmarnock should be victorious but it is hardly that straightforward.

Kelty Hearts are the story in League Two. Kevin Thomson and his band of ‘oh, they could be playing Championship or Premiership football’ players could be great fun. Stirling Albion and Edinburgh City will be looking to write their own story.

The most fascinating title race may well come out of League One. Falkirk, Cove Rangers, Queen's Park, Airdrieonians. In addition, you rule Montrose out at your peril.

Breathless, bonkers, beautiful. You have to play, you have to be part of it.

To quote The Wire's D’Angelo Barksdale, "If anybody ask you if you in this game, you tell ‘em you in for life.”

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