Today is the Glorious Twelfth – the beginning of the shooting season for red grouse. There’s no equivalent name for the start of the Scottish football calendar – Sensational Saturday? – but this weekend sees the twelve powers of the Scottish Premier League re-align for another smashing season of soccer. Read on for a dozen declarations about the year to come.
1 – Stability might be a good thing for Rangers
Though Walter Smith seems likely to break his 30-month streak of not signing a new player, the Rangers championship-winning squad is likely to remain mostly intact – mostly, but not totally. How big a loss Kris Boyd will be remains to be seen – he reliably scored against the smaller teams but his hit rate against Celtic and in Europe makes me worry for his prospects in England. Kevin Thomson will be missed because at his best he was outstanding, but I see Maurice Edu stepping up this year and if he can avoid injury he will fill the gap nicely.
The general view is that the lack of transfers into Ibrox has been a bad thing, but I take a contra view: having a stable squad is a strength. A team that has played together for years develops an understanding that can provide more benefit than a new player or two, and the contrasting fortunes of Rangers and Celtic in the 2009-10 season demonstrated this dramatically. Rangers have had a decent pre-season and should feel confident in their ability to retain the title.
My guess: first or second
2 – I wouldn’t trust Neil Lennon with ten million pounds
It seems certain that Aiden McGeady is offski to Moscow for somewhere in the region of GBP 10 million, with Neil Lennon claiming that all the cash will come to him to spend – or “re-invest” as football chief executives like to say. He seems to know where he needs his players – at the back – which makes a lot of sense given their softness last year and in this pre-season. But I’m not convinced about Lennon’s signings so far, and I do agree with some of the criticism aimed at him by Andy Walker. He claimed he was going to follow a pragmatic, almost Watty-esque “Buy British/Irish” policy, but along with a few British Islanders he has brought in an Israeli (Eyal Berkovic, anyone?), a Mexican (don’t usually travel so well), and a Korean (might do OK as he comes via the Bundesliga). When he attempted to sign Sol Campbell, I figured he was going to follow a Martin O’Neill “bruiser” policy, and he may still be attempting to do so, and I have no doubt that would be successful for him.
Regardless of who he ends up signing, his biggest task will be doing what Mowbray monumentally failed to do – combining the new and old players into a coherent and functional unit. If he can achieve this, he’ll repay the faith that the Celtic board have put in him. If not, I predict the hoops will be looking for their fourth manager in two years.
My guess: first or second
3 – Dundee United will do well do retain third place
The team in third place rarely repeats the feat – in fact, only Hearts have managed this since the SPL formation in 1998, and then only once. With Andrew Webster returning to Rangers after his loan spell last season, manager Peter Houston will be missing one of the key reasons for last season’s strong placing, and it is possible that others (Craig Conway?) might be spirited away before the end of August. Houston is clinging to the fact that Scott Robertson and Fran Sandaza should feature more this season after missing most of the last campaign through injury, but there’s no escaping the fact that United will be marginally weaker than they were 12 months ago and though Tannadice is still a hard place to visit, teams will be upping their game against them.
My guess: sixth or seventh
4 – Only time will tell if the new stand at Easter Road has its seats facing the wrong way
Hibs have had an absolutely dismal 2010 and it was only their great start to last season – remember the talk of splitting the Old Firm? – that kept them in a respectable position in the table. With hindsight, it might have been better for the Hibees to spread their form more evenly across the year, and had they not qualified for Europe they wouldn’t be starting the league on a downer, having been murdered by Maribor in the Europa league preliminaries. A win over Charlie Adam’s Blackpool has at least given them a fillip, and the opening of the new East Stand at home to Rangers on the 20th of August should also see some sunshine on Leith.
I don’t watch enough Hibs football to understand why Yogi Hughes’ team underperformed so drastically in the second half of last year – with the likes of Riordan, Stokes, Miller, Bamba, and Zemmama, they should be clear in third place – but I reckon if Yogi doesn’t arrest the post-yuletide slide, he won’t be signing the Hibs Xmas cards again.
My guess: third or fourth.
5 – Motherwell have a statistician
It’s well known that former Motherwell chief executive Pat Nevin has a degree and – heaven forbid! – visited museums when travelling overseas with Chelsea. However, according to captain Stephen Craigan the boffin-loving Lanarkshire club also employ a statistician – one who told them their recent Europa Cup opponents scored the majority of their goals between 40 and 50 minutes.
I have little doubt that this innovation is a result of having Craig Brown as manager. Similarly, having some decent results in Europe is probably testament to Brown’s skills, and though the ‘Well have missed out on a traditional pre-season, having played two rounds of competitive fixtures in July may give them a wee edge in the early weeks of the season. Brown’s kids will be one year older and wiser, and I think they’ll do well this season and will be tough to beat as Broonie always favoured a strong defence with Scotland and he’s following the same philosophy at Fir Park.
My guess: fifth or sixth
6 – Romanov is an enigma
Jim Jefferies has always struck me as a bit of a gruff bugger and he hasn’t wasted much time putting his mark on his beloved Jambos. Out have gone some players he sees as pains in the arse or who he just doesn’t fancy (Kingston, Nade, Stewart) and in have come promising youngster Darren Barr and Jefferies’ favourite son at Kilmarnock, Kevin Kyle – no doubt happy to be reunited with JJ after calling his Rugby Park chairman a liar.
Quite how Hearts are not yet in administration is beyond me – their debt of #35m is larger than Rangers’ but their turnover is a fraction of the Ibrox club’s. I had long expected Romanov to leave the Gorgie club high and dry but he seems to be sticking it out, although Jefferies will have a very limited budget for as long as his second stint at Tynie lasts. Pre-season has gone reasonably well, with a creditable draw against Blackburn to their name, and I expect Jefferies’ practical style to give some consistency to the unpredictable Hearts, and with Andrew Driver fit and in form they should produce some special results.
My guess: third or fourth
7 – Never look a gift horse in the mouth
Over the summer, Billy Reid turned down the opportunity to manage Swansea. Swansea is a toilet, but then Hamilton isn’t exactly the French Riviera either. What was he thinking? With James McArthur and James McCarthy having left the club in the past year, the Accies will struggle to outperform again and will be embroiled in a relegation battle for sure. I admire Reid’s loyalty, but surely managing the smallest club in the SPL isn’t the pinnacle of his ambition?
My guess: 10th or 11th
8 – Scott Dobie brings back bad memories, and not just for me
Derek McInnes did his reputation no harm by guiding St Johnstone to a solid 8th place last season, and if anything he’s strengthened the team a little with Peter Enckelman in goals and Scott Dobie up front. I predict that Dobie will terrorise the Rangers defence this season – not due to his play, but because he will remind Davie Weir of the horrorshow 4-1 defeat in Busan in 2002, when Dobie scored his only international goal and Weir was part of a defence that was dismantled by the speedy Hangukin.
That will be of little benefit to McInnes who may find it harder in his sophomore SPL season, as he’ll no longer have the benefit of being the new team in town and although he’s strengthened his squad, others have been able to do more.
My guess: 8th or 9th
9 – It’s grim up north
“Someone asked me whether the Scotland job was a poisoned chalice, and I said ‘no’. I think it is a really good job with potential. It did not work for George for whatever reason. George is a good manager but that job just didn’t work for him. Sometimes that happens. Some jobs just don’t work out. George just did not fit into that job. It does not mean to say that someone else won’t be able to come in and achieve more than what George was able to achieve.” – Mark McGhee in the Scotsman, December 2009
Substitute “Aberdeen” for “Scotland” and “Mark” for “George” and you have a ready-made quote for whoever takes over from McGhee. The signing of Paul Hartley is a good one, and maybe the only thing that can keep him in his job, but last year’s events at Pittodrie convinced me that getting rid of Calderwood was the wrong move, for the wrong reasons. At some point the question needs to be asked: why do Aberdeen still employ Willie Miller? He’s the one ultimately responsible for this dud appointment.
My guess: 9th or 10th, unless they replace McGhee in October with Billy Reid, then 8th or 9th
10 – One good interview is all it takes
The Buddies are another club who have taken a risk in replacing a manager who wasn’t really doing much wrong. Gus McPherson was ejected soon after the SPL’s final game, and first-choice replacement Danny Lennon installed after a single interview with the board. Lennon had to deal with a number of out-of-contract players and has brought in almost an entire new team, including four from his old club Cowdenbeath. Given the Blue Brazil had just been promoted into the First Division, it may be a stretch for this bunch to attain the top-six finish he’s targeting, but Lennon talks a good game and two promotions in two seasons in Fife attest to some level of skill at the game of management.
My guess: 10th or 11th
11 – There will be an Ayrshire derby next season, if the Honest Men get promoted
Mixu Paatelainen, eh? I don’t think too many of the Rugby Park regulars were excited at that appointment. Also they’ve lost their top striker, the aforementioned Kevin Kyle, to their old manager Jefferies, who is also sniffing around Craig Bryson. There’s little in the kitty to fund new replacements, so it’ll be a tough season in Ayrshire.
My guess: famous last words, but I can’t see them anywhere other than last place.
12 – Real Valladolid and Rod Stewart now have something in common
I’m not sure if Terry Butcher would have chosen Celtic for his opposition in his first game back in the SPL, but you can bet he will have his boys fired up for it. The Caley squad has been supplemented by various loanees and free transfers over the summer, so whether that is enough to keep them up remains to be seen – but many of them will have SPL experience from their previous stint in the top division, having spent just the one season in the SFL’s top division. That, coupled with the fact that not many teams will enjoy playing at blustery Tulloch Caledonian Stadium, should mean a safe return for Terry’s teuchters.
My guess: 8th or 9th
(Handy list of Scottish football transfers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Scottish_football_transfers_2010–11)
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Photo credit: Disco Dave Barlow