Scots Premiership ready to live up to top billing

Aberdeen are ready to challenge Celtic this season after a strong showing in Europe. Picture: SNS
Aberdeen are ready to challenge Celtic this season after a strong showing in Europe. Picture: SNS
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Were the Premiership a music festival, its promoters, sent reeling by major acts dropping out one by one from an already sponsorless event, would surely have checked into rehab by now. Several headline acts have not simply called off. Worse, they have joined the bill at another, supposedly inferior festival.

The music can be heard drifting over the glen. And hard though it is to admit, it does sound quite fun over there.

As it seeks to maintain its elite status, all the Premiership can do is try to ignore the noises emanating from the division below. The show must go on.

Welcome, then, to another big kick-off, one which some would argue has been undermined not simply by the absence of teams we would normally expect to be in the top league, but also by another staggered start. Celtic, the champions, are not even in action.

There will be no unfurling of the league flag this weekend. Even though the reason is preferable to jetting off to play a lucrative friendly elsewhere – Celtic are not playing because their ground is still out of action, after hosting the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony – the situation helps harden the belief that this is the lowest-rent top tier in Scottish football history.

There are only six Premiership teams in action today, four more tomorrow, before a properly inclusive, all-in-it-together lift-off on Wednesday, when Aberdeen fans are being asked to embark on a long trip to Ayrshire to see their team play Kilmarnock. Dundee fans who work and wish also to see their team’s first away fixture back in the top tier must somehow make it to Inverness for 7:45pm.

Better, of course, to have to cope with these journeys now than in winter. And perhaps better to cram in games in these burnished days of late summer, before what many see as the inevitable happens and Celtic stretch away at the top of the league. It is then that the absence of certain well-supported clubs could begin to be sorely felt.

Of course, it isn’t as if we have not had time to come to terms with the idea. Rangers have been absent since 2012. This is the third and possibly last season in which the top tier will not include the Ibrox club. Hearts, meanwhile, will not feature either, for the first time since the early 1980s. But this absence has been anticipated since the opening weeks of last season, when Hearts, after an initially promising start, were brought low by the need to keep turning to young, inexperienced players, as they sought to overcome a 15-point deduction for entering administration.

Confirmation that Hibs would not be present at the party came at much later notice. Their absence can be explained as being due to “unforeseen circumstances”. Few, certainly, foresaw the Easter Road side conspiring to slip from the edge of the top six to second bottom place in the space of a few weeks. Fewer still could have believed they would then blow a 2-0 first-leg lead in the play-off against Hamilton Accies.

So what is it we have been left with? A top-tier where you can get odds, in some places, of 1-100 on Celtic retaining their championship crown. It’s barely worth debating the destination of the league title. This is not only a blow to those attempting to write scene setters on the eve of a season, but is also deflating news for Celtic themselves, since the promise of drama is what attracts crowds and sharpens their own competitive instincts. Their headache is not how to win the league, but how to fill their stadium.

From the first weekend in October to the end of the year, Celtic have a run of successive home games against Hamilton Accies, Kilmarnock, Inverness, Dundee, St Mirren and Ross County. With the best will in the world, it is hard to imagine the ground being even half-full, which the Celtic practice of including season tickets sales in attendance figures cannot hope to disguise.

They are also now without the man who vowed to bring back the thunder. Neil Lennon’s departure has robbed the Scottish game of one of its most compelling personalities, and someone who was always quick to talk up Scottish football. In his place has arrived Ronny Deila, whose attempt to make his mark has not got off to the best of starts. For all his bright-eyed Norwegian charm, Deila does not have Lennon’s box office appeal, though following the events in Nyon yesterday, it is possible he possesses another enormously helpful quality – luck.

So it isn’t all doom and gloom, far from it. The league season has not yet started and Aberdeen have already played at a sold-out Pittodrie. Despite playing home fixtures in a rugby stadium in a different city, Celtic still managed to attract over 70,000 fans to two Champions League qualifying games.

Dundee United are now firmly back in the black and had already bought wisely even before Andrew Robertson and Ryan Gauld made their big-money moves to Hull City and Sporting Lisbon respectively; Jackie McNamara’s side could push Aberdeen and Motherwell harder than last season in the race for second place. St Johnstone can continue building from a firm financial base provided by the Scottish Cup win and the likely loss of Stevie May, for a near reported £800, 000.

John Hughes will look forward to showing what he can do in his first full season as Inverness manager, while Tommy Craig, at the age of 63, will also feel he has something to prove with St Mirren. Ross County’s signing policy continues to intrigue. Manager Derek Adams clearly believes his foreign cadre provides better value for money. It will be interesting to see whether they can prove him right on the pitch.

The less exotic Partick Thistle entertain thoughts of establishing themselves in the league after staying up with something to spare last season, while Kilmarnock, whose long run in the top tier was placed in such grave danger last season, could struggle having lost Kris Boyd, their principal source of goals. Hamilton Accies, meanwhile, will want to show that they are worthy additions to the league, as will the new-look Dundee.

Asked earlier this week by Radio Scotland’s Rob MacLean to give listeners a quick run through of the squad he has assembled, Dens Park manager Paul Hartley replied: “How long have you got?” It is a different story to when Dundee last featured in the top flight. Then they were bustled in, their identity initially hidden by the “club 12” handle as the Scottish Premier League dealt with its first so-called “Armageddon” scenario.

It will now be even more challenging for the Premiership to live up to its glitzy rebranding of a year ago, particularly when there is the suspicion that a livelier party is happening in a room on the floor below.