Predicting who would become champions of Scotland in any given season used to be as testing as a particularly complicated number sequence.
Perhaps, for example, something along the lines of 20-16-29-17-15-30-9-9. If you can work out the next number in that sequence, then it may provide the answer as to whether Scottish football is about to witness its first genuinely competitive top-flight title race for almost a decade.
Those eight numbers represent the sweeping points margins by which Celtic have romped their way to the crown from 2012 to 2019 inclusive, imposing their current and unprecedented level of dominance on the domestic game and effectively eliminating the need for even a moment’s hesitation when forecasting the title winners.
While their advantage has been cut to a single digit in each of the past two seasons, first by Aberdeen and then by Rangers, there has seldom been even a hint of a credible and sustained threat to the Parkhead club from any of their putative challengers.
In their first campaign under Steven Gerrard, Rangers did very briefly flirt with the possibility of overthrowing their Old Firm rivals. But the Ibrox side simply flattered to deceive their expectant supporters, failing to capitalise on their home victory over Brendan Rodgers’ side last December which tempted many to believe they could last the pace.
With Neil Lennon almost seamlessly picking up the baton from Rodgers in February to guide Celtic to their third successive domestic treble, Rangers were found wanting. They lacked the resolve and consistency necessary to win a title, only putting together a run of victories at the end of the season when Celtic were already out of sight.
Lennon’s squad will unfurl the championship flag again this afternoon before kicking off the campaign at home to St Johnstone when they can be expected to lay down an early marker of their intent to justify their fully merited status as odds-on favourites to retain the title.
Rangers are as short a price as they have been since their last success back in 2011, the bookmakers’ odds of as little as 15-8 in some places perhaps reflecting the renewed optimism of those Ibrox followers who feel Gerrard has moulded a squad finally capable of returning the club to the winners’ enclosure.
But for all of the undoubted improvements Gerrard made in his first 12 months in charge of Rangers, the pressure is now firmly on the former Liverpool and England captain to prove his managerial credentials. While his maiden season didn’t exactly constitute a free pass, there will be no hiding place for Gerrard if he is unable to deliver the silverware which both the Rangers’ board and support crave over the next ten months.
The scrutiny will be intense and unforgiving for Gerrard’s side who can ill afford to find themselves playing a game of catch-up again, even on the opening weekend of the Premiership which has handed them a potentially awkward visit to Kilmarnock, opponents against whom they dropped ten points last season.
There will be a different kind of pressure on Lennon as he attempts to maintain the extraordinary standards which have been set at Celtic Park since Rodgers’ appointment in the summer of 2016.
Anything less than another domestic treble will be regarded as regression by some but as long as Lennon oversees a record-equalling ninth title in a row, he will be meeting the expectations of the Celtic board who handed him the job on a permanent basis for a second time in May.
The smart money remains on course and distance winner Lennon. Gerrard, at the very least, must avoid being a too-distant also-ran.