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August 2004
2004-05 kicks off











“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 in Paris.

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 place.

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 26th.

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 at Ibrox.

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 their seeding.

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 with it.

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 grim.

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 news.

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 League Cup.

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 worse.

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 for consolidation.

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 eleven.

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 lie ahead.

Otherwise we may find ourselves at the end of the season quoting Ian Dury after all:





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