The 2005-06 season was set for a staggered start.
The Inter-Toto commenced in June followed by early European qualifiers
in mid-July. The SPL and the French League got under way at the
end of that month followed by the SFL, the Football League and the
Bundesliga a week later with the English Premiership and the Dutch
League a week after that and other top leagues like Spain and Italy
waiting till the end of August.
But it was more of a staggering than a staggered start
in Scotland. Especially for Celtic who were dumped out of
Europe by the unheralded Artmedia Petrzalka. Forget any hard
luck stories emanating from Parkhead about the second leg. Any team
which gets humped 5-0 away from home doesn't deserve to progress.
It's hard to credit now that just over two years ago Celtic lost
in extra time in the UEFA Cup Final to Porto and had several
notable successes en route to that game in Seville, including a
memorable triumph at Anfield.
Since then Porto and Liverpool have both been crowned champions
of Europe while Celtic have gone back each season. UEFA Cup quarter-finalists
the year after reaching the Final, they flopped again in the Champions
League last season, failing to even reach the UEFA Cup. Now they
have been eliminated from continental competition while the serious
contenders are all still on summer tours.
It's worth noting that the only reason Celtic were playing at this
stage of the tourney was down to their last-minute title collapse
at Fir Park in May. Victory there and they would have entered at
the third qualifying round stage as Scottish champions.
Gordon Strachan has his work cut out for him. Whether the volatile
Celtic support will give him the time needed to turn things round
is another matter entirely.
Celtic's worst ever night in Europe
But there should be no gloating elsewhere. Celtic's
early elimination will have disastrous knock-on effects on the Scottish
co-efficient. And our other European entries have yet to have their
mettle tested. Rangers could hardly have picked a better
draw than Cypriots Anorthosis as they strive to reach the
Champions League. But it's worth remembering that a far better Rangers
side than this one struggled to get past the same side not that
Dundee United face Finnish team My-Pa 47 in the UEFA
Cup. The Finns once eliminated Motherwell from Europe and since
United reached the UEFA Cup Final back in 1987 the only teams they
have beaten in European competition have been from Northern Ireland,
Iceland, Malta and Andorra. This is United's first season in continental
competition for eight years and while they are the seeded side this
looks like a difficult tie for them.
Hibernian have yet to find out who their opponents
will be but Scotland's European pioneers - it's 50 years since they
took part in the inaugural European Cup - have no recent pedigree.
They've participated just three times in the past quarter of a century
and haven't won a tie since 1989. They will be unseeded in their
bid to reach the UEFA Cup group stages.
The outlook - even if Rangers do as expected and reach the Champions
League - is not promising.
And so to domestic matters. A quick glance at some
of the players in that Rangers team that scraped past Anorthosis
ten years ago - Goram, Gough, McCall, Gascoigne, Laudrup, Hateley,
Durie - should be enough to convince most people that Scotland's
current champions are nowhere near as good as they once were. They
didn't so much win the title as have it handed to them on a plate.
Yet it is difficult to see any other side stopping them from securing
the crown once again.
Celtic's problems are well chronicled and many are hopeful that
this will be the season that another club mounts a challenge, if
not for the flag then at least for the runners-up spot.
Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibs and Dundee United
all have their eye on so doing. And that in itself may be enough
to prevent any one of them from making the breakthrough. Historically,
the most effective challenges to the Old Firm have come when one
- at most two - other clubs have risen above the pack. It's asking
too much for this to happen when there are four such challengers.
What may be happening is that, just as the Old Firm have been head
and shoulders above the rest for the past decade, that what may
be described as Scotland's natural second tier is beginning to forge
ahead of the others. For there can be little doubt that the sides
from Scotland's largest cities outside Glasgow are best placed to
challenge and have support and resources far greater than those
from the provincial towns.
We may well be in for a period when 3rd-6th places are disputed
between these four clubs. For what it's worth, this site tips the
Dons to have the best chance of splitting the big two. They have
strengthened their team with acquisitions like Lovell and
Nicholson and appear to be more settled than the other challengers.
Hearts were impressive in their opening day win at Rugby Park and
their newcomers gelled well with the rest of the team. But Hearts
haven't finished signing players yet and those that come in will
do so on the say so of the club owner rather than the manager. It's
risky expecting future signings to all adapt as quickly as the likes
of Jankauskas and Bednar appear to have done and the
potential for dispute between management and owner is obvious.
We keep expecting Dundee United, with the players at their disposal,
to do better and they should join the Dons and the Jambos in the
top six. So too should Hibs, despite losing Ian Murray and
with doubts over their ability to retain Derek Riordan. But
while the other city clubs have added to their strength Hibs have
at best stood still and we don't expect them to do as well as last
One benefit from the renewed optimism in the north
and east of Scotland is in increased support. Aberdeen and the Edinburgh
pair report record season ticket sales, all nudging the 10,000 mark.
And for as long as they are doing well at least these clubs will
all carry large travelling supports this season too.
It is going to be difficult for any other side to break into the
top six. Motherwell have managed it for the past two years
but it's asking a lot for them to do so again though Terry Butcher's
side should be in no danger of going down. Nor, despite massive
cutbacks, should Kilmarnock who have enough players of proven
SPL quality to keep them hovering on the edge of the top half. The
Ayrshire club's biggest battle is with the bank and if they lose
top scorer Kris Boyd their league hopes may take a nosedive.
Inverness Caley Thistle would be delighted
to do as well as last season but the second year up is always harder
than the first and we think they will struggle. But we reckon the
experience of Craig Brewster ON the park as much as
off it will help them stay in the SPL.
Paul Lambert is an intriguing choice as the latest in a succession
of short-lived Livingston managers and he will have to keep
them up or face the same fate as his predecessors. But Lambert has
a shrewd football brain and he has prepared himself well for his
first management job. He won't say so but it's obvious to any fan
that should he do well in West Lothian and Strachan struggle in
Glasgow that greater things may beckon. He wouldn't be the first
player to join Celtic comparatively late in his career, go on to
captain them to domestic glory, leave to go into management elsewhere
and make a triumphant return to rescue a club in the doldrums. A
certain Mr J Stein did precisely that forty years ago.
That leaves Falkirk and Dunfermline of
the four we think will struggle. There's not much to choose between
these two and no love lost between their supporters either, which
should boost crowds further. But having waited so long to get there
we can't see Falkirk giving up their SPL place that easily. Turning
once again to Jim Leishman in their hour of need smacks of
'Lambie syndrome' at East End Park and we reckon
it will have the same result. Shorn of their best players, not least
by former boss Jimmy Calderwood, Dunfermline were lucky to
escape relegation last time. Although it promises to be an entertaining
four-way fight at the bottom we think this is the year their luck
will run out and that they will go down.
That said, Dunfermline are the one team whose eventual
league position we consistently get wrong each season. So don't
be too surprised to see them challenging for Europe and/or winning
a domestic trophy now that we've handed them the black spot!
Hearts' new signings impressed at Rugby Park
Dundee will be hoping for a quick return to
the SPL but history is against them. Just four clubs have been relegated
from the SPL since its inception and only Dunfermline, in 2000,
made it straight back. And they only did so because two teams were
promoted that year. You have to go back to the last pre-SPL season
in 1997-98 to find a relegated club - Hibs - that won the First
Division championship the next season.
St Johnstone will hope to enter the equation with Owen
Coyle performing the Brewster role of player-manager and top
striker for the Perth club. Hamilton have gone full-time
and will expect to put in a challenge as well.
But while the three above teams should all do well we tip St
Mirren to win what should be a close-fought race. Defensively,
Gus MacPherson's side look a level above their rivals. If
they had a genuine striker in their ranks we'd be even more positive
about their chances
Airdrie, Queen of the South and Ross County should
all survive comfortably without threatening at the top but the great
unknowns this term are Clyde. New boss Graham Roberts
has the unenviable task of building a team virtually from scratch.
We can see Clyde struggling to avoid a play-off spot alongside Brechin
City. The Glebe Park team are one of Scottish football's yo-yo
clubs and this season should be no easier than previous terms in
the First though goals should be more plentiful than before thanks
to the presence of Paul Ritchie and Steve Hampshire.
Stranraer have tried and failed twice previously to survive
at this level. Two successive promotions notwithstanding, we don't
think it will prove third time lucky.
In any other season a side that ran away with the Third Division
like Gretna would be an automatic choice for a further promotion,
especially as there usually isn't a great difference between the
bottom two levels. But this is no ordinary season nor is it an ordinary
Second Division. For a start, only one club will be guaranteed
promotion with the next three going into the play-offs along with
the ninth-placed club in the First.
This cut-throat section will be even more competitive than normal
thanks to the presence of a clutch of clubs accustomed to operating
in a higher sphere. Joining Morton and Ayr United
- both of whose supporters reckon they are slumming it in the Second
- are relegated pair Partick Thistle and Raith Rovers.
Thistle's domestic fall has been as spectacular as fellow Glaswegians
Celtic's European decline. Just over a year ago they were arguing
for the retention of the 10,000 seats rule and against ground-sharing
in a bid to keep their SPL place and keep ICT out. Now they are
preparing to visit Peterhead and Gretna.
After two heart-breaking failures we think Morton will just have
the edge over Gretna who will have to settle for a play-off spot
alongside the Jags. Picking the other play-off position is harder
but we plump for Raith Rovers to begin the road back after a long
Promoted Peterhead look good enough to survive without too much
trouble and Forfar are experienced enough to have what it
takes too. Stirling Albion did a lot better than expected
last time and while that will be hard to repeat they should stay
up without difficulty.
Those who wonder how a junior side would fare in the SFL should
take a trip to Somerset Park where manager Robert Connor
has augmented a young squad with several players from the junior
ranks. However it's two experienced new signings - keeper Mark
McGeown and midfielder Jerome Vareille - who will be
expected to keep Ayr United out of the Third Division at the very
Vareille, incidentally, will be embarking on his ninth season in
the Scottish game, an object lesson to those players (no names,
Bazza) who whinge about being 'unable to settle' when
transferred three hours down the M6. The Scottish Tourist Board
should make Vareille an offer. Five years with Kilmarnock, three
years with Airdrie and still the Frenchman wants more!
That leaves us with Dumbarton and Alloa fighting it
out between the play-offs and automatic relegation but as always
in this division, treat all forecasts with caution.
The Third Division looks the weakest since its formation
in 1994. All the new league entrants since then (bar Elgin City)
have moved onwards and upwards and there's no 'big' team
like Morton or Hamilton suffering an unexpected drop to this level.
Which means that attendances in this section at any rate will probably
hit a new low unless the play-offs can boost gates significantly
while, paradoxically, it should be the most open contest for a long
Indeed, it's a tough one to call. A case could be made for virtually
every club bar last term's bottom two but when push comes to shove
Stenhousemuir look to have strengthened most and we give
them the nod for the title. To go into the play-offs we take the
somewhat unluckily relegated Arbroath, accompanied by two
clubs with fourteen major trophies between them - East Fife and
Cowdenbeath should go close but have been unsettled
by the need to appoint a new manager on the eve of kick-off and
Elgin are finally beginning to get to grips with league status.
Berwick don't look ready to go straight back up and Montrose
But it's not asking a great deal for any club to make the play-offs
here. There are 42 clubs in the four divisions and 36th place secures
a play-off spot. Before 1994 36th place meant third bottom of the
At the bottom East Stirling weren't quite as dreadful last
year as in the preceding two seasons. Faint praise indeed. Albion
Rovers were pretty awful too and these two should fight it out
for the wooden spoon once again. Is it a coincidence that these
are the only two clubs to have spent every season in the Third Division
since the 1994 reconstruction? We think not.
Internationally, the outlook is bleak but the hope
eternal. If Scotland win all their remaining games they will
make the play-offs for the World Cup finals. What are the chances?
Let's just say you won't find much of a queue down at the bookies
punting their mortgages on such an outcome.
One bright note to end on. The opening SPL weekend produced an average
of almost four goals per game. More of the same wouldn't go amiss.