Premiership season is all about the ten - and not just in the race for the title
There has been a constant refrain that Scottish football will face a new normal when the Premiership season begins on Saturday and so takes its place among the sports that have emerged from hibernation to operate in this Covid-19 age. The fact is, though, that a new normal has existed in our game for four years now.
It could be no other way when Celtic have gobbled up every single major honour contested during that time. In claiming 11 consecutive trophies – the coronavirus shut-down in March appeared all that was likely to stop them bagging a quadruple treble – they have made the fantastical almost seem regulation. We are about to experience precisely such a feeling in all aspects of how our game operates in the coming months, at least.
This campaign was supposed to be all about the ten; all about whether Celtic could be chased down and overhauled by Rangers in their pursuit of a record run of titles in the Scottish game. Now, it feels that there is a more pressing ten at play: can Scottish football navigate the torturous two-and-a-half months – or ten weeks – it is expected top-flight clubs will require to play their matches without supporters in attendance, while adhering to all the testing players protocols to ensure encounters can go ahead?
The initial signs are not exactly promising. Little that has happened in the orbit of Scottish football since the world was placed on pause by the pandemic has reflected well on the governance and competence of the SPFL powerbrokers, and those who provide them with their authority. Hell, the farrago over curtailing the season and imposing unjust relegations on Hearts and Partick Thistle – principally – means we need to wait for the outcome of the SFA’s independent arbitration that should arrive this week before we even know for absolute certainty the make-up of the top flight.
Pile on top of these concerns the alarming tardiness with the testing procedures that have been witnessed with Hibernian and Rangers in the past week and Scottish football has seemed about as adept at dealing with this profound health crisis as the buffoon Boris Johnson.
Let’s cut everyone some slack because these times have presented challenges that have cut deeply into every aspect of our lives. And acknowledge that, whatever else has gone wrong, so the naysayers may be. These Cassandras maintained all our 42 senior clubs would not survive in the event of mass numbers of supporters only being allowed back within football grounds come the middle of October – which remains the hope, and will be when the other three SPFL divisions resume – but this underestimated the admirable resilience within our national sport.
Such robustness will be required to navigate the choppy waters ahead. The financial implications of empty stadiums will be felt across the Premiership. Squads will be reduced, outlays on acquisitions scant, and the attendant standard likely to be diminished. But any top-flight football is better than none, and the fascination and intrigue will be more intense than ever. There is a whole set of ‘who knows?’ as regards how teams will cope in ghost grounds. Will Celtic and Rangers be less fearsome hosts without the crazed backing of 60,000 and 50,000 fans? Or will the fact that they appear to have been largely inured from swingeing cuts to their playing budgets mean they even more straightforwardly roll over opponents forced to cobble together sides? All considerations even before any thought is given to how the transfer window running till the first week in October might impact on squad reshaping deep into the campaign.
From the outset, little might change when the final placings are decided in the 2020-21 Premiership campaign. And we have to hope those are decided not in boardrooms but on the pitch – following the production of a Covid-19 vaccine rather than a second spike of virus cases.
Celtic have issues with their goalkeeping position and dare not lose Odsonne Edouard to a late bid from an English Premier League team if they want to avoid concerns at the opposite end of the pitch. Neil Lennon’s men, though, proved such a slick machine in the months leading up to the shutdown there is no indication they will suddenly start to fray. Of course, there was no inkling Rangers would come apart at the seams between January and March on the back of Rangers’ second best returns from a first 20 league games in the top flight for 53 years.
Steven Gerrard, with some judicious forays in the market over the summer, ought to be able to avoid a third successive post-Christmas collapse. Not least because there is no winter shutdown in this crammed campaign. Placing real pressure on Celtic in the run-in, as seems firmly within the capability of the Ibrox men, is different from actually besting their bitter foes, though. There is absolutely no evidential grounds for believing that Rangers can prevent Celtic from achieving the fabled, and unprecedented, ten.
Yet as much as those in the bubble as regards this Glasgow rivalry might believe that the ten-in-a-row tilt is the be all and end all over the next, eh, ten months, there are, eh, ten other clubs who would beg to differ. Although the fundamentalist followers in both camps have a struggle recognising as much – as do we often in the media – the rest of Scottish football finds the pair’s scrapping for supremacy wearying. The truth is that fans of the other clubs will be tickled that the big two have been placed on their level with all others over stadium attendance.
Most clubs will be hoping they can make do as best they can in the face of the current crisis. Aberdeen and Hibernian’s major infrastructure may have led them to plead poverty over the effects of Covid-19, but their scale should ensure they take the fight to Motherwell in the jousting for third place. The Fir Park club, after more than dipping a toe in the transfer market over the summer, have strength and strategy instilled in them by Stephen Robinson that means they won’t be pushed aside easily.
The new manager factor will play with St Johnstone and promoted Dundee United, Callum Davidson and Micky Mellon taking up those roles respectively. The Tannadice club may not receive the new-arrival bounce typical among clubs stepping up because of the coronavirus backdrop. Davidson’s inside knowledge of Perth should ensure that the club do not dip sharply in adapting to life after their most successful manager, Tommy Wright.
Livingston are certain to remain competitive and awkward on the synthetic surface. Such as Kilmarnock and St Mirren will also have designs on the top six, but could find themselves struggling to keep United, Ross County and Hamilton Accies fully at arm’s length. Brian Rice’s men have pared back more than any other Premiership side in squad-terms. Even if they could provide David Blaine with lessons in escapology, their reliance on youth could prove a step too far in the drive to retain their upper-tier status yet again. There is no new normal in saying that. It has become merely normal to offer this conclusion every eve of season. And normal for Hamilton to make a mockery of the assessment.
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