EVE OF CONSTRUCTION?
And you tell me over and over and over
and over again my friend,
Ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.
Those doom-laden lyrics from the Barry McGuire
song of 1965 may seem singularly appropriate for Scottish
football but at the onset of a new season we're doing our best to
put a positive spin on things, in the hope that 2004-05 may
finally be the term when our game turns the corner.
Though even a cursory glance at the state of our game as it kicks
off once more shows why no one will be welcoming the new campaign
by quoting Ian Dury's Reasons To Be Cheerful.
Before a ball was kicked in anger Hearts were rocked by suggestions
that they had to have a buyer for Tynecastle in place by
the end of August if their credit facility at the bank was to continue.
Still, it made a change from the headlines which have been dominating
football recently. At least Scottish football hasn't produced anything
as farcical as the ongoing comedy show at the English FA.
Nor anything as pompously ludicrous as the 're-branding' of
the Football League in which the division formerly known as three
is now League Two.
How daft can you get? It's still three stages away from the top
league so it's still in effect the same as it was from 1958-1992
- Division Four.
OK, so there are a few cheap laughs to be had at the
expense of the neighbours but what are the prospects for our own
game in the coming season.
First off, it's make or break time for Berti Vogts and the
national side. By mid-October we'll have a good idea of our chances
of reaching the World Cup finals in 2006.
Berti has done well in arranging friendlies v Hungary at
home and Spain away. These games will be rehearsals for the
visits of Slovenia and Norway and for our trip to
Italy in March. We really need to be unbeaten going into
that latter game. Slovenia at home will be no pushover but the Slovenes
have gone backwards from the team that surprised many by qualifying
for the last World Cup. Like us they finished second in a poor group
in the Euro 2004 qualifiers, losing out to Croatia in the play-offs.
But it's worth pointing out that they drew in Zagreb
and the only away game they lost in the qualifiers was a 5-0 humping
We know how that feels!
The Slovenes will be happy to leave Scotland with a draw. It's up
to us to make sure they go home empty-handed.
After that it's a double-header in October with Norway coming to
Hampden and a trip to Moldova four days later. The Norwegians
too don't look to be as powerful as before. They were well beaten
at home by Spain in the Euro play-offs and they only got that far
thanks to a good start in their section.
The second half of their campaign was dreadful. Only a laboured
1-0 home win over Luxembourg enabled them to scrape into second
We also have the evidence of our own 0-0 bore draw with the Norwegians
to take into account.
Then it's Moldova. The form book suggests someone will take a tumble
here. In the Euro qualifiers both the Czechs and the Dutch left
it late before securing victories and Austria were
beaten in Tiraspol.
Even so, all these games are eminently winnable. Much will depend
on whether Darren Fletcher can avoid picking up an injury
and Barry Ferguson is properly recovered from his but the
chance is there to go to Italy in March with nine points in the
bag and the rest cutting their own throats.
Over-optimistic? Well, it's the start of the season, the
time for optimism. We shall see what happens.
On the domestic front, the money-saving measures clubs have belatedly
implemented are kicking in. It's true that there will be a continued
downturn in imported star quality. The Laudrups and Gascoignes departed
long ago and with the going of Henrik Larsson the last true
international star the Scottish game possessed has also bid us adieu.
It would be fair to say that Celtic - who have
known for almost two years that Larsson was leaving - will not have
over-enthused their fans by replacing him with a player on loan
from a club that was relegated last season.
Henri Camara has little experience of the expectations Parkhead
will place on him. A career spent at Neuchatel, Grasshoppers, Sedan
and Wolverhampton is no preparation for what lies ahead. Sure, he'll
cope with Livvy and Motherwell. But it's Rangers and Europe where
he needs to prove himself.
But Martin O' Neill has dabbled shrewdly in the transfer
market in the past so it's only fair to reserve judgment for now.
Chris Sutton will relish the chance to 'take
over' from Larsson and the Swede's departure also opens up opportunities
for domestic talent such as Craig Beattie and, once recovered
from injury, Shaun Maloney.
Even without a host of new signings Celtic should still have enough
in reserve to dominate domestically but their European prospects
won't be clear until the draw for the Champions League on August
It's likely Celtic will be in the third group of seeds. In the unlikely
event of three of the seven sides ranked above them who have qualifiers
to play losing then they would go into the second pot.
Rangers may join them in the third group. If the Ibrox side
can negotiate their qualifier with CSKA Moscow they are provisionally
ranked in the lowest group for the Champions League but they need
just two of the twelve teams ranked above them to lose out to move
up to the third pot.
Alex McLeish has offloaded several of last year's under-performing
squad and brought in seven new faces. As many of those who walked
through the exit door were also his own signings this time last
year, McLeish's judgment is under the severest scrutiny of his time
Much is expected of Dado Prso and Jean Alain Boumsong.
Yet Prso has never been a prolific striker and Boumsong failed to
dislodge any of the ageing defenders from the French team at Euro
2004. Of the others, Alex Rae is surely for this season only
and we suspect Scottish football has already seen the best Marvin
Andrews has to offer.
Where McLeish looks to have done well is in securing the services
of Nacho Novo. Since his days at Raith, Novo has looked a
class act. Now he has the chance to prove it.
But the Rangers new boys have to gel quickly as a unit. Even if
they do, the title looks beyond them this season.
Every year we hope and pray that this is the season when the gap
between the Old Firm and the rest begins to narrow.
The bare figures suggest this may be happening. Hearts were
30 points behind Celtic last season but that was an improvement
on the term before and a great deal better than the 45 point
gap between 1st and 3rd in 2002. The 68 points the Tynecastle
side amassed is also a record for third place and - believe it or
not - the thirteen points difference between Hearts and Rangers
in second is the LOWEST since the inception of the SPL.
Unfortunately this may be as good as it gets. With the doubt over
the stadium and the loss of several players, Hearts appear to be
going back the way. They may be looking in turn at protecting the
fifteen point gap between themselves and the rest rather than catching
up the Old Firm.
One crumb of comfort for the Jambos is that, like last season, they
will probably be seeded in the UEFA Cup first round. It would
need five of the seeded sides in the Champions League qualifiers
(including Rangers) to lose and drop into the UEFA Cup to cost Hearts
Further good news is that if they do as last year and make the second
round they will benefit from the new format for the trophy and will
be guaranteed four further games.
The second round this season will consist of eight groups of five.
Teams will play each other once for a total of four games (two home,
two away) with the top three progressing.
That's where the good news ends. If they get through, Hearts will
almost certainly be in the fifth group of seeds.
But that's better than Dunfermline. Playing in Europe for
the first time in 35 years, the Pars have been forced to take their
home game to McDiarmid Park on account of their Icelandic
opponents refusing to play on the East End plastic.
If Dunfermline get through (and it would be a major shock if they
failed) they will be unseeded in the first round.
Dunfermline will have to quickly get over the loss of their management
team to Aberdeen as well as missing key players, chiefly Stevie
Crawford. Each year we predict the Pars will fail to reach the top
six. Each year they confound us. This time, with the experienced
Davie Hay in charge, we reckon they will do enough to keep
their top six place but not as well as last season.
Dundee United did well under Ian McCall and we expect
them to be the main threat to Hearts for third place. They too have
lost key players and it's an indication of the way the Scottish
game is that James Grady, at 33, is expected to be the lynchpin
of United's season.
It really is guesswork trying to identify the last of the top six
sides but when push comes to shove we'll go for Aberdeen.
A Dons revival has been awaited for a long time and we'd be happy
to see it provided they don't bring any associated eighties baggage
The two Jimmys - Calderwood and Nicholl - presided
over incremental improvements at Dunfermline, gradually moving the
side up to fourth and reaching the Scottish Cup Final. After several
traumatic years in the fruitless pursuit of restoring the glories
of the Ferguson era, Aberdeen may finally have the patience to settle
for the same.
There are three clubs who we expect to be on the fringes of the
top six but well away from the relegation struggle.
Terry Butcher worked wonders with Motherwell last
season and it's asking too much to do the same again. Nevertheless,
now that they're out of administration a huge load has been lifted
off the club's back. And with an enthusiastic and talented crop
of young players at his disposal Butcher should be able to keep
the steelmen away from the danger zone.
Tony Mowbray was a surprise choice as Hibs manager
but if he can get his players to reproduce the commitment Mogga
himself showed as a player they'll do OK. Whether OK is good
enough for the demanding Easter Road fans is another matter.
Again, players have been lost but youngsters are coming through
the ranks. If Derek Riordan can reproduce last season's form
and Scott Brown can learn to control his temper, the Hi-Bees
can surprise a few.
For the second successive season Kilmarnock have shed players
but unlike last season it's old-stagers and fringe men who have
gone. Alan Combe should be a good goalkeeping signing for
a team that had the worst defence in the SPL last year.
But Killie will rely on staying injury-free and on keeping Kris
Boyd. The front man has the annoying habit of missing 'sitters'
but as the old saying goes, you have to be in position to miss them
in the first place and Boyd scores his fair share as well. Fifteen
in the League last season equalled Paul Wright's club record
for the Premier Division and you have to go back more than 30 years
to the days of the great Eddie Morrison to find a Killie
player who scored more in the top flight.
That leaves us with our three contenders for the drop.
Dundee are paying the price of folly. For Ravanelli read
John Sutton. And of the players they've lost, Nacho Novo
and Julian Speroni look the hardest to replace. That's a
20-goal striker and a top-notch keeper down before a ball is kicked.
Jim Duffy doesn't have his problems to seek.
Livingston, like Dundee, are still in administration. Though,
again like the Dens men, they have managed to avoid the threatened
ten-point penalty. It's just as well. They look to have a tough
enough task as it is though how they have managed to recruit new
players while in financial limbo is a mystery. At any rate, a tough
year lies ahead.
And so to Inverness Caledonian Thistle. The first question
is who is going to score for them? Paul Ritchie has decided against
remaining in full-time football and (and what does this say about
the state of Scottish football?) David Bingham has left to join
Third Division Gretna! That puts a lot onto Barry Wilson's shoulders.
Add in the fortnightly treks to Pittodrie plus the even longer distances
for away games and the smallest squad in the SPL and prospects seem
We'd like to see the Highlanders survive but think there's just
too much stacked against them. Without the comfort zone of their
own home ground which would be worth perhaps 20 points it looks
like their stay in the SPL will be short-lived.
Their very presence in the top flight is one of the rare examples
of progress in the Scottish game. Just ten years ago there was no
Scottish League football in the Highlands. Now they have a side
in the SPL (albeit one forced to play their home games in Aberdeen).
Ten years ago there was no League football in any of Scotland's
New Towns. Now Livingston not only play in the SPL they have experienced
European football and are the only major trophy winners - apart
from the Old Firm - in the 21st century.
Clyde have progressed since moving to Cumbernauld, missing out narrowly
on promotion at the end of last season and Ross County are the best
supported side in the First Division.
These are all pluses for a game that desperately needs SOME good
And there's no good news on attendances. Any clubs sitting back
and waiting for extra season ticket sales now that live SPL football
is no longer available on terrestrial television will, as they say
in some of the less salubrious parts of the country, have received
a severe gunk.
According to the BBC, only Celtic and Hibs have avoided a fall in
the sale of seasons. Celtic have a waiting list of over 11,000 so
their sales remain steady while Hibs have shown a modest increase.
Doubtless the Sauzee diehards and the 'ah'll no be back while
a hun's in charge' brigade account for this.
But elsewhere things are dire. Dunfermline, after their best season
for over 35 years, report a 10% drop. Ominously, there are 3,500
fewer at Ibrox. The number failing to renew is greater than that
as those on the waiting list have taken their chance.
But if the Beeb are right then the worst drops are at those clubs
that can least afford it with sales 30% or more down at Inverness,
Livingston and Kilmarnock.
That doesn't exactly bode well for hopes of a large contingent travelling
regularly to Pittodrie from the Highlands and it's a slap in the
face for Livvy to record such a drop just months after winning the
But Killie must be the most worried of all. Kilmarnock have lost
close to 1,000 fans on average PER SEASON for the past five
years and have offered cut price deals and two-for-one offers to
entice supporters back to Rugby Park. All to no seeming avail.
And when you consider there were gates of fewer than 4,000 for two
League Cup games at Pittodrie last season and under 3,000 at Tannadice
for an all-SPL clash, then the future looks bleak.
Yet south of the border the boom shows no sign of abating. Take
Leicester City for instance. Relegated after just one season
in the Premiership, yet they have sold 16,000 season tickets, 1,000
more than when they were last relegated in 2002.
It can't all be down to slick marketing and TV exposure. The
quality of the product has to come into it too.
And that's something many hope we will see an improvement in this
year in the First Division now that the SPL has reduced its
entry requirement to 6,000 seats.
The chutzpah of the SPL never ceases to amaze. After years
of insisting that the 10,000 rule was covered by law and required
legislation to change, they cut it by 40 % overnight!
Astonishing. Especially when you consider the 10,000 seats rule
was one of the more progressive aspects of the SPL. But like all
the other forward moves it has been abandoned. Where now is the
winter break? Where too the Under-21 League, now a reserve league
in all but name?
The 10,000 seats rule was supposed to ensure spectator comfort and
safety in the modern era and apart from a few troglodytes who positively
revel in standing on open-air terraces in mid-winter, inhaling the
stench of stale urine while exhorting rivals to come and have a
go if they think they're hard enough, no one wants to go back to
the bad old days.
Of course, safety is dependent on more than just numbers. It
would, for example, be much safer to play SPL football in front
of a couple of thousand seated spectators in Inverness than force
fans to make a 210 mile round trip on one of the worst roads in
Scotland in the winter.
At any rate, those relishing the prospect of an old-fashioned promotion
race in the First Division now that the 10,000 rule has gone may
be in for a surprise.
How many additional clubs do you reckon are now eligible for promotion
to the SPL? Six? Five? Four?
Try ONE! That's right. Scrapping 4,000 seats off the entry
rule has had the marvellous effect of adding just one club
to the list of potential SPL members.
And as that club is Clyde, with 8,200 seats, who would have been
allowed to ground-share at Rugby Park if they'd been promoted last
season, you could argue the new rule has made no difference at all.
Of the ten clubs in the 1st this season Airdrie, Partick, Raith,
St Johnstone and St Mirren all have at least 10,000 seats.
That leaves four teams - 40% of the division - Falkirk, Hamilton,
Queen of the South and Ross County who would all fail to meet the
SPL criteria should they win the title next May.
There is absolutely no guarantee we won't go through this year's
farce all over again next summer.
Of these four Falkirk and Hamilton would be able to negotiate ground-share
agreements fairly easily. Though it would be the supreme irony if
Falkirk were to win promotion. For over a decade now this club has
promised a 10,000 seat stadium. They downgraded that to 7,500 last
year. They've now got 4,000 seats in place.
Ah well, after more than ten years, it's a start!
The real problems would arise in the event of either the southernmost
or northernmost team winning the League. The nearest SPL-compliant
ground to Dumfries is Rugby Park, sixty miles away. And you can
imagine the ructions if, as intended, ICT erect 6,000 seats only
to be relegated and the first SPL football to be played in Inverness
is by Ross County!
Once again, promotion is on a wing and a prayer.
If the bookies are right then salvation is at hand. The odds-makers
make St Johnstone the favourites. So do we. But then again
we said that last year too.
It's an open race with Thistle desperate to return, Ross
County keen to emulate their neighbours and Falkirk should
benefit from their new stadium - sorry, new STAND. Their
year at Ochilview had a bad effect on results.
St Mirren, now managed by one of the game's genuine nice
guys in Gus MacPherson, may surprise many by being involved
in the shake-up.
At the bottom not only do we think Raith will go down , we
positively WISH they will be relegated.
It's not that we hold any particular malice towards the Rovers or
the good folk of Kirkcaldy, it's just that Raith have been turned
into a travelling circus in an attempt to make a quick buck by Claude
Anelka. Think Stevie Archibald. Think Airdrie. Think ten times
The worst thing that could happen is for Anelka's band of temporary
signings, continental cast-offs and agent fodder to be successful.
What an indictment of our lower orders that would be.
Neither of the promoted pair from Lanarkshire - Airdrie and
Hamilton - will make much of an impact and both will settle
That leaves either Queen of the South or Clyde to
take the drop with Raith. Both clubs have over-performed in recent
years and both have recently lost their manager.
We think Clyde will have been worst affected thanks to the failure
to clinch promotion when it looked a certainty and the loss of key
players - particularly Jack Ross - as well as boss Alan
Kernaghan who was still turning out for them as a player.
We hope we're wrong but we reckon Clyde will go down with Raith.
As always the Second Division is the hardest to call, containing
four new teams each season. Ayr United appear to have added
some experience to the youthful team that was relegated last season
and we think they'll bounce back.
Morton should run away with it but that's what they looked
like doing last season before their terrible collapse. A lot depends
on how they start out. If they're still affected by that happened
last year and the rumours that surrounded their failure then they'll
struggle. In turn that will provoke a fans backlash.
If they get off to a good start then we think they'll do it. If
not, then Dumbarton who had a storming finish last season
can carry on where they left off. The Sons should be involved in
the promotion race from the start this time.
The other relegated side, Brechin, don't look as well equipped
as Ayr to mount a challenge and it's difficult to see promoted sides
Stirling and Stranraer doing much except survive.
For relegation it's perm two from Alloa, Arbroath, Berwick and
Forfar. These clubs all finished between 5th-8th last year
but were all nearer the drop than the top. Arbroath clawed clear
of the bottom when they looked doomed and that may stand them in
good stead this time.
The other three all had dreadful finishes to the season. Berwick
had a purple patch of three wins in a row but no other successes
in their last 13 games. Alloa won just once - at relegated Stenhousemuir
- in their last eight games and Forfar won only one of their final
We wouldn't advise a gamble on it but if pushed, we'd hand the black
spot to the Wasps and the Loons.
In the Third Division it's hard to look past Gretna who
were third last year and have spent heavily. David Bingham
will score for fun at this level.
To join them we go for East Fife, who were a tad unlucky
to go down, to edge out Peterhead.
These three look to be well ahead of the rest though Cowdenbeath
and Stenhousemuir might flatter for a while.
Montrose, Albion Rovers, Queen's Park and Elgin all
look destined to finish in the lower half of the table.
As for East Stirling the only team they managed
to beat last season were Elgin. This club's continued existence
in the Scottish League is an embarrassment.
Contrast the situation here with the bottom of the English League
with the Conference as a feeder league. Half the teams in the Conference
once played League football, proving there is life after the League
provided there's a way back for clubs that drop out.
The lack of a pyramid system in Scotland and our fractured non-league
system of seniors and juniors has a detrimental effect on our game
and is something we shall return to in the near future.
For now a new season dawns and with it, all the hopes, expectations
and dreams of hundreds of thousands of supporters. Let's hope that
our clubs and the national team can grasp the opportunities that
Otherwise we may find ourselves at the end of the season quoting
Ian Dury after all:
WHAT A WASTE