7 reasons why this season's Scottish Premiership is actually worth watching
Last week, my colleague Craig Fowler wrote about the Scottish Premiership and how it is actually a poor season. Now, a number of his points had me nodding along like the Churchill Dog. Yet, there were aspects where it was more 'Oh, no no no no no'.
The standard of football largely hasn't been great. There have been a raft of drab encounters, often featuring the the same handful of teams. There are reasons for it but mainly it is due to certain clubs not having the necessary quality in forward areas and others whose attacking game plan centres around long balls and hope.
But there is still plenty to be intrigued and excited about...
It has been nine years since Scotland has had a genuine title race in the top flight. One where any slip up can have a significant impact on the destination of the trophy. This is the first time the Ladbrokes Premiership has been in a position where there is a real to and fro. Both Celtic and Rangers have been in the driving seat, winning an Old Firm derby apiece. The latest was at the end of December with Rangers winning at Parkhead. It presented them with a situation where they still trailed by two points but had a game in hand.
Then came Sunday. The Ibrox side went down 2-1 to bottom-of-the-table Hearts at Tynecastle. It handed the initiative back to Celtic who are now five points clear at the top, albeit having played a game more. Such a gap can have a psychological effect on Rangers who, unlike Celtic, haven't been there and done it as a squad.
There is a 'well done, he's 13' aspect to the title race with the Old Firm dropping points in just five of the 39 games they have played against the 'other 10' combined. Yet, that number should more than double over the coming four months. Firstly, the pressures and stresses of a title race will likely affect nerves and decision making. Neither side have looked particularly clever since returning from the winter break. In addition, both will - and certainly should - see the Europa League as an opportunity to do really well in Europe. Progression in that tournament will surely have consequences.
Battle at the bottom
Hearts' 2-1 win over Rangers on Sunday didn't just have ramifications at the top of the table, it also was huge in the shake-up at the bottom. Going into the encounter, Hearts had won just two league games all season and were four points behind Hamilton Academical. Another defeat and the picture would not have looked pretty for the Tynecastle men, in fact it would have been an assault on the eyes, as the football has been for much of the last 12 months. The three points were huge, as was the nature of the performance. The win really turned the screw and tightened up the relegation battle. The bottom six are now separated by just six points.
There is every likelihood that each week, between now and the end of the season, there will be a proverbial six-pointer at the bottom of the table. There is going to be peaks and troughs, praise and concern, teams safe and teams in danger. This weekend sees Hearts travel to St Johnstone and Kilmarnock host Ross County, while St Mirren and Accies have tough fixtures on paper.
For the next four months, fans of those teams are going to be updating the scores of relegation rivals as much as they will be watching their team on the field, such is the pressure.
There have been three managerial changes this season so far with Alex Dyer replacing Angelo Alessio at Kilmarnock, Daniel Stendel taking over from Craig Levein at Hearts and Jack Ross being appointed in place of Paul Heckingbottom at Hibs.
All three are compelling for different reasons. The Easter Road hotseat presents Ross with his first taste of management in Scotland's top tier. After a fine job at Alloa Athletic and an excellent one at St Mirren he was offered the chance at Sunderland where it didn't quite work out. Now he has one of the biggest jobs in Scottish football, and certainly has the personality to succeed. At the moment he is working with Heckingbottom's squad but in the coming months we should get an idea of what he wants from his Hibs team before he can bring in his own players during the summer.
Alessio was a bold appointment in the summer to replace Steve Clarke at Killie. It never seemed to settle down at Rugby Park despite a good run of form under the Italian, and it was no surprise when he eventually did leave. His replacement is an interesting one. Alex Dyer was Clarke's No.2 and stayed on under Alessio. He seemed the natural fit but things have not gone well at all under the Englishman as he attempts to make the case to get the job permanently in the summer.
Finally, there could not have been a more drastic change than Hearts going from the one-paced football under Craig Levein to the 100mph, power and pressing of Daniel Stendel. After a difficult start, followed by a clearing of the decks, there are signs of live that the Stendel-era is finally beginning to take off at Tynecastle.
There is a real sense that it is the beginning of the end for Derek McInnes at Aberdeen. Slowly over the last 12 to 18 months Dons fans have been, if not turning against him certainly questioning the direction in which he is taking the club. The team were booed from the pitch as they lost to their rivals for third place Motherwell on Wednesday before the 0-0 draw with St Mirren on Sunday was met with chants of 'McInnes out'.
It would be remiss to suggest he is fighting for his job over the next four months, but there is certainly a case to be made that the Aberdeen managerial position will certainly be under review by new chief Dave Cormack in the coming weeks and months, even more so if performances continue to stink out top-flight grounds up and down the country, especially at Pittodrie.
Cormack is looking to create and develop a culture at Aberdeen with the fans very much on board. Yet, once the support start chanting against the manager, serious considerations need to be undertaken. Watching how McInnes reacts to the fan pressure and trying to get to third place, while integrating the footballing talents of Matty Kennedy and Dylan McGeouch should be fascinating viewing.
Yeah, they get plenty of stick. Meadowbank Thistle, Tony Macaroni Arena, no fans, unscrupulous financial history. But they have, over the course of the past two campaigns, been a great addition to the league. Last season they brought a direct, no nonsense approach from League One via the Championship and bloodied a few noses, while putting some more out of joint. They were great fun to watch.
It can certainly be argued they are even more entertaining this season. Less robust but there are more strings to their bow in a footballing sense. Lyndon Dykes is the type of striker many fans of rival clubs would love leading the line. Big, ballsy, a nuisance but can score goals with 11 for the season. He became the first Livi player to hit double figures (in all competitions) when the club have been in the top flight since 2004 when Derek Lilley managed it. At the weekend, in the win over Hamilton, Steven Lawless became the second Livi player to reach ten goals.
No team outside of the Old Firm have scored more, their defensive record is worse than two teams in the bottom six. They are worth watching and have their sights on Aberdeen in fourth, just six points behind and in good form.
Switch on a game of football in Scotland - it doesn't just have to be the Premiership - and you will likely be greeted with at least one talented youngster who has something about them.
In the top flight there are a number who are making a name for themselves, or simply continuing their development. Mikey Johnston at Celtic has played his way into becoming a regular first-team player for Celtic with a host of impressive displays. As you go down the league more appear. Nathan Patterson could get game time for Rangers after making his debut in the Scottish Cup, while Robby McCrorie has been sent on loan to Livingston and is seen as someone who could be a future Scotland No.1.
Motherwell's James Scott is an intriguing talent. A wide player-cum-striker. He has great technique, is a danger in the air and can be a real threat in and around the box. He will be eager to see the return of David Turnbull who was such a revelation for the Steelmen last season before a move to Celtic fell through due to complications with his medical.
Down at the bottom of the table there are two midfielders to keep an eye on. St Johnstone's Ali McCann has been one of the few bright spots of their season so far. Calm in possession, good positioning and reads the game so well for someone so young. At Tynecastle, Andy Irving has been handed the keys to the Hearts midfield by new boss Daniel Stendel. What he lacks in power, he more than makes up for in awareness, control and vision.
Then there is Accies duo Jamie Hamilton and Lewis Smith. The centre-back and wide player respectively have been trusted by Brian Rice as the latest off the Accies production line.
Those who won't be with us much longer
Alfredo Morelos and Odsonne Edouard. For much of the campaign there has been the discussion as to who is better. Who cares?
The two young forwards will likely feature on the wish-lists of a number of clubs come the end of the season and could easily be prised away with massive offers. So why not enjoy their different qualities and interpretations of the forward role, from Morelos' antagonistic playing style to the smooth dribbling of Edouard. Both are fantastic.