Even before a ball is kicked in this season’s Scottish Premiership, Celtic find themselves standing alone.
The gulf between the six-in-a-row champions and their putative challengers hardly needs to be reinforced – but the elimination of the country’s three other European club competition representatives before the domestic league campaign commences simply underlines that our top flight has become the footballing equivalent of a one-party state.
Not since Celtic won the first of that sequence of six back in 2011-12 has there been a season when the “title race” in Scotland would have borne scrutiny if placed under the terms of the Trades Description Act.
The domination of the Parkhead club was taken to another level altogether last season by Brendan Rodgers and his treble-winning “Invincibles” who finished a record 30 points clear of their closest “rivals” Aberdeen. The 39 points which separated them from third-placed Rangers was also a landmark gap in the history of Old Firm league conflict.
But if the Premiership has become one of the least competitive top divisions anywhere in the world, in terms of the chasm between its leading club and the rest, that’s hardly Celtic’s problem. Certainly, the notion that even they might ultimately suffer from the lack of a genuine challenge at domestic level is dismissed out of hand by Rodgers.
“Others need it, but we don’t,” is the Celtic manager’s response. “Our measure is that we want to be the best we can be. We know what it takes to compete in European football. That’s our measure.
“Some people will say we need a strong Rangers, strong Aberdeen, strong Hibs – but that’s no good if you’re not strong. We can’t weigh it. Our standard we set ourselves, no-one else helps us set it. That was my approach last year when I came in and it was exactly the same throughout the season. For people on the outside looking in, there’s maybe not so much to write about when the gap is 20 points or 39 points.
“I don’t know [if there will be a closer challenge this season]. I don’t need to worry about that. I’m not crying for it. It’s great if it’s there. But it can’t define us. It’s great for the game if you have that, one team a point ahead and helicopter Sunday and all that stuff. But it’s not going to define how I work every day.
“I always try to work at a world-class level and that’s the demand for the players. With all due respect, I don’t need to know what Rangers, Aberdeen, Hibs, Hearts or St Johnstone are doing to motivate me. I’m not going to have a lazy day because we are winning by 20 points or whatever.
“My worry is to make us the best I can. Do your talking on the pitch. There are lots of squads, lots of talk, lots of theorists – lots of things that go around. Time will tell. You show your strength on the field. You play your games, you get your points, get your wins and get your performances consistently.”
If seven-in-a-row appears a formality for Celtic, it is left to the battle for Europa League qualifying places and the fight against relegation to provide the only elements of uncertainty of outcome the Premiership can expect to offer over the next ten months.
For Aberdeen, retaining Derek McInnes as manager was a significant boost during a summer in which they lost the services of players such as Jonny Hayes, Niall McGinn and Ryan Jack who were instrumental in their “success” as runners-up to Celtic in all three domestic competitions last season. McInnes will relish the challenge of maintaining the Pittodrie club’s status as the best of the rest for a fourth successive year.
Supplanting Aberdeen in that second spot will be a minimum requirement for Pedro Caixinha at Rangers. In the aftermath of the humiliating Europa League exit to opponents from Luxembourg, the Portuguese coach needs to hit the ground sprinting, never mind running, in the Premiership.
Caixinha’s radical summer overhaul of the squad he inherited from Mark Warburton in March will have to produce instant indications of improvement if he is to meet the expectations of the Ibrox club’s board and dispel the doubts about his suitability for the job which still linger among many of their supporters. The recruitment of Bruno Alves, Graham Dorrans and Jack should enhance his prospects in that regard.
The return of the Edinburgh derby to the top flight for the first time in four years is welcome and much intrigue surrounds how the capital city rivals will fare. Hearts kick off in a state of flux following the failure of the Ian Cathro experiment and the appointment of his successor is one of the most important decisions the club have faced in some time. By contrast, Hibs have momentum and stability under Neil Lennon, who will fancy his chances of gatecrashing the top four this season.
This may be the year when St Johnstone finally find it impossible to maintain the remarkable standard of top-six consistency they have set under Tommy Wright but along with Partick Thistle should stay comfortably clear of the relegation equation. A case can be made for any of Ross County, Dundee, Kilmarnock, Motherwell and Hamilton becoming embroiled in that struggle to avoid the drop.
As ever, the New Douglas Park outfit are the favourites to finish bottom of the pile but it would be no great surprise if Martin Canning’s men again found the cussed resilience which has become their trademark in proving the pundits wrong in each of the last three seasons.