Stephen Halliday: Glamour friendlies take priority as SPL schedule is put on hold

FOR some years now, the close season in Scottish football has been something of an abstract concept. Later finishes and earlier starts to domestic campaigns, along with European tournaments kicking off in June, have added to the sense that the country's national sport never really takes time off.

But in 2011-12, the Scottish Premier League will muddy the waters even further. This will be the pre-season which extends beyond the start of the competitive action itself.

To facilitate a 23 July kick-off for the championship campaign, which it is hoped will assist clubs participating in Europe to attain full match sharpness sooner, the SPL has agreed to allow its members to opt out of one of the first three rounds of fixtures to play money-spinning friendly matches instead.

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So far, Celtic, Rangers and Hibs have all played that joker. Neil Lennon's Scottish Cup holders will travel to Dublin for the Super Cup tournament on 30 and 31 July, where they will take on Inter Milan and a League of Ireland select, a week after they begin their SPL title challenge.

Defending champions Rangers will play their first two SPL games under new manager Ally McCoist before taking a break on 6 August when they will welcome Chelsea to Ibrox for a lucrative friendly. On the same day, Hibs will also entertain English Premier League opposition when Sunderland are the guests at Easter Road.

The 2011-12 league fixtures will be released next Friday, providing a sharp reminder that the resumption of competitive action is not far away. Kilmarnock, in fact, will be the first SPL club to begin pre-season training when they report back the day before the fixtures are published. They will then head to Northern Ireland, homeland of soon to be confirmed management duo Kenny Shiels and Jimmy Nicholl, for three games at the start of July before returning to take on Preston North End in a yet to be formally confirmed friendly at Rugby Park.

St Mirren will start training next Friday when manager Danny Lennon puts his squad through their paces at their Ralston complex. The following week, the Paisley squad will head to Portugal for a six-day training camp, one of several clubs who will leave Scotland for part of their preparations.

Celtic, as has become customary in recent years, will be the furthest travelled as they spend two weeks in Australia at the start of July.

They will criss-cross the country with stops in New South Wales, Western Australia and Victoria for matches against A-League sides Central Coast Mariners, Perth Glory and Melbourne Victory respectively.

Rangers will be closer to home, spending nine days at a yet to be confirmed location in Germany where they expect to play two friendly matches. So far, a fixture against Bundesliga 2 outfit VfL Bochum on 9 July has been arranged. On their return, the Ibrox squad will travel to Belfast to face Linfield at Windsor Park on 16 July in a match to mark the 125th anniversary of the Northern Ireland champions, while yesterday a visit to npower Championship side Blackpool was confirmed for Tuesday, 19 July.

Hearts will return to manager Jim Jefferies' favourite pre-season haunt, the spectacular Il Ciocco complex in the heart of the Apennine Mountains in Italy, for a week-long training camp on 25 June. They have just one friendly arranged for their return so far, a visit to Gorgie icon John Robertson's East Fife on 5 July.

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Aberdeen will go Dutch for their training camp at the start of July, crossing the border into Germany for matches against VfL Bocum and Borussia Moenchengladbach. Dundee United and St Johnstone both have two-game trips to Dublin as part of their plans, the Tannadice men crossing the water at the end of June as they build up towards their opening Europa League fixture on 14 July. Inverness Caledonian Thistle hope to embark on a three-match tour of south-west England with yet to be confirmed matches against Yeovil Town, Bristol Rovers and Plymouth Argyle.

Motherwell and Dunfermline have confined their preparations to Scotland thus far. Motherwell manager Stuart McCall will welcome his home town club Leeds United for an eye-catching fixture on 16 July, while SPL newcomers Dunfermline have only announced two low-key games at Livingston and Brechin City.

As well as the visit of Sunderland in August, Hibs have arranged matches against Berwick Rangers, Livingston, East Fife and Falkirk. Colin Calderwood's squad will also follow Rangers in taking on Blackpool at Bloomfield Road - three days after the SPL season starts.

Rangers clear to face Blackpool

RANGERS have been given the go-ahead from police to play Blackpool in a pre-season friendly at Bloomfield Road. Ally McCoist's men will face Blackpool on the evening of Tuesday, 19 July.

Blackpool revealed their visitors had been allocated an initial 1,750 tickets and sales would be "constantly reviewed by both clubs and the police".

The npower Championship side will also host another Clydesdale Bank Premier League club next month, with Hibernian visiting for a second successive summer on 26 July.