JUST BEFORE the start of a season there is a great feeling at every professional football club. It is probably best summed up in one word: hope. There might have been a pre-season trip abroad boosting team spirit and even training at home, though hard, will have been endured mostly in warm sunshine and on pristine surfaces.
Players feel this is a new start with a blank canvas where they can impress the boss. Even the arrival of new talent gives good pros a lift, because this could be a player you could strike up an understanding with on the field, even one who could help improve the fortunes of the entire club. Everyone from the office staff to the ground staff seems to be brighter and bubblier, the entire club is in good spirits. It is a magical time when you believe anything is possible. In short, as they say in the game, there is a buzz about the place.
The managers may have a slightly less enchanted attitude in that the pressure has not relented on them all summer as they have planned ahead. The expectation levels at the top clubs seems to get higher every year in the SPL so it begs the question, which manager has the hardest job of all?
Clearly if you are considering great expectations, then it could be argued that Walter Smith and Gordon Strachan have the toughest roles. How can Rangers possibly beat the excitement of their Uefa Cup run last season? A cynic might suggest that adding some excitement to the home ties by attacking now and again might help, but there is no doubt that the former Scotland boss at least wants to be more offensive. Why else would he spend his time and money luring strikers such as Kenny Miller, Andrius Velicka and Kyle Lafferty to the club?
It is already clear that he also needs some quality creativity in his midfield particularly as Barry Ferguson is currently unavailable and Steve Davis still unsigned. There are creative players at his disposal such as Chris Burke and Steven Naismith, but however highly we rate them, and I rate them both, for a variety of reasons they have yet to impose themselves in the first team for long periods.
There is an accepted truth in football that above everything else a manager wants a striker who would guarantee him 20 goals a season, but these are rare beasts indeed. Walter has one sitting on his bench but it underlines the changing nature of the game that it is the men supplying the scorer who are now the most sought-after, just look at the interest Luca Modric and Andrei Arshavin got in the Euros this summer.
The attritional football may have to be back at Ibrox this season, particularly in Europe, that is of course if they are still involved considering the threat of Kaunas next week and maybe Aalborg after that. One thing is for sure, the bears will be growling if the negative football returns and the steady flow of wins evaporate.
Over on the east side of Glasgow Gordon Strachan tells us it is a pleasure to be dealing with the pressure, and I believe him, but that still doesn't make it an easy job. With three championships in a row and two hugely impressive campaigns in Europe he has served only to whet the appetites of the Parkhead faithful hoping to dine at the top table yet again.
Some of them will never love their manager but he has gone a long way to at least being accepted, though you wouldn't always think so by the complaints about the lack of summer signings. The Thomas Gravesen debacle rolls on and other less-than-impressive signings are regularly dragged up. It seems to me rather harsh, just look at any other manager's signings and you will see a catalogue of costly errors of judgment, it comes with the territory.
Gordon has the perfect riposte for his detractors and it is not one of his infamous one-liners, it is to win the league title yet again. If he doesn't, the pressure will be on, but I suspect he can cope, as he himself would rightly suggest he would rather be in his position than that of any other manager in the league.
He could, after all, be the Hibs boss. Mixu Paatelainen's team can't even seem to score a goal in the 'confidence-boosting' pre-season friendlies. Before yesterday's match against Middlesbrough they had shipped 15, scored none and I strongly suspect the manager isn't going to get any money from the sales of the last few years to help him turn it around. On top of this, the fans demand a top-six finish and quality football into the bargain. It is a big ask, as they say in the game.
Tynecastle as ever has its own peculiar set of pressures which I wouldn't even pretend to fully understand, but once again the new coach will be expected to be in the top four if he wants any chance of keeping his job until next month, never mind next year. Maybe Mr Romanov has picked the right man this time – seventh time lucky, perhaps.
The two stand-out managers in the chasing pack last season were Craig Levein and Mark McGhee. The Motherwell boss deserved all the plaudits for building a fine young side that could play good football on the surface of the moon and did so under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I hope rather than believe he can get as much from them this season, but then I felt the same last time round. It is much harder to stay there than to get there so this will be a defining year for him. If successful again, he will surely be snapped up by a bigger club that will allow him to at least afford Celtic reserve centre halves on loan. In reality, top six is still an achievement.
As for Levein, he is my tip to finish as best of the rest after the Old Firm. Once again he has bought well in the summer after a hugely impressive 07/08 season. Had he kept Barry Robson from Celtic in January I think a third-place finish and a CIS cup win would have been likely.
Inverness, Aberdeen and Falkirk in particular believe they can have very good seasons and will battle for a top-six place. After them, belief becomes hope for the likes of Kilmarnock, St Mirren and of course Billy Reid's Hamilton Accies.
The newcomers will add a freshness to the SPL, especially as they have some exciting youngsters. The boss himself might have the odd nagging doubt about this journey into the unknown and the recent failures by other promoted teams. This is however a well-run club who promise to stick by their manager come what may. I hope they are as good as their word as he deserves the time to build a team. The problem is that history shows us that for any manager who wants to keep his job, the most dangerous thing he can do is get promoted.
I hope Billy bucks the trend. He will believe he can just now and will continue to do so until at least next weekend when reality kicks in for them all. At which point they all know which is the hardest job – it's the one they are struggling to do themselves.