HERE WE GO
With scarcely a backwards glance to acknowledge 2002-03's
passing, the 2003-04 season is upon us. And it wasn't long
before it all seemed very familiar. Less than quarter of an hour
had been played in Celtic's Champions League qualifier in
Lithuania before Henrik Larsson's name appeared on
the scoresheet. Celtic went on to stroll to a 4-0 victory over FBK
Kaunas that virtually booked their place in the next round.
This will be Larsson's last season in Scotland. No matter who you
support, if you have the opportunity to see this man play then take
It may be a long time before a striker of his ability graces our
Back home there was a more modest start to the domestic season when
the League Challenge Cup began with a total of just over
12,000 supporters attending the fourteen ties. More than 44,000
attended a friendly at Parkhead the same day to see Celtic even
though Larsson, Sutton and Hartson were all missing draw with an
Arsenal team denuded of big names like Henry, Pires and Bergkamp.
That is the reality of the Scottish game and one which will not
change in the foreseeable future - certainly not in the new season.
Once again the title seems set to be go to either Rangers
Neither club has really strengthened their squad in the summer and
both have lost key players. We expect another close race between
them but feel Celtic's proven strike force means they are marginally
better equipped than their rivals. Much will depend on how the pair
fare in Europe. The more successful in that arena the likelier there
will be a price to pay at home. We wish both clubs well in the Champions
An easy opener for Celtic in Europe
The bookies seem to agree with Celtic priced at 8-11
and Rangers at evens. Hearts are next in the betting at a
massive 125-1. Hills are offering betting without the Old
Firm and here the Jambos are 11-8 favourites with Kilmarnock,
Aberdeen and Dundee United all available at 11-2.
At this juncture we depart from our odds-making friends. Scottishleague.net
reckons the best of the rest this season will be Dundee United.
Ian McCall's managerial abilities, coupled with owner Eddie
Thompson's chequebook should allow United to flourish. And while
we don't expect any serious challenge to the big two, we do think
the gap wont be quite as gargantuan as last season when Hearts were
34 points behind the pair. Here we find the bookies in agreement
with Hearts given 'just' 26 points of a start in the handicap odds.
The Tynecastle team should be good enough to compete for a place
in Europe again but picking two others to finish in the top six
is more difficult. While Aberdeen and Hibs should
make progress we reckon they will just miss out to Dundee and
Kilmarnock. We don't expect Dunfermline to make the
top six but we were wrong about them last season. At any rate the
Pars should be in no danger of the drop.
Livingston have adopted a bold approach with the appointment
of a Brazilian coach. Genius or gimmick? We shall see but
our bet is that Livvy will struggle this term along with Motherwell
and Partick Thistle. Last season we called it correctly -
Motherwell to finish last but escape relegation because of Falkirk's
ground problems. This time round it looks like it will be Thistle
praying for an administrative escape.
Whoever finishes last, we hope they go down. Our game is not in
such good health that we can afford two successive seasons without
relegation. Of course the surest way to avoid that is for the First
Division to be won by a team with an SPL-compliant ground. This
season there will be four clubs who have a suitable ground. Falkirk,
playing at Ochilview until their new stadium is ready, St Johnstone,
St Mirren and promoted Raith Rovers.
We think that losing key players to former boss McCall at Tannadice
along with having to ground-share will take its toll on the Bairns
chances. St Johnstone are our tip for the top. But this could be
an anxious time for the Perth Saints. Failure to reclaim their SPL
place could well result in part-time football at McDiarmid Park.
Both Clyde and ICT should be in the running too. But
whether either of these clubs has the necessary ambition to reach
the very top is open to question. In both cases it wouldn't need
a massive upheaval to bring their ground up to SPL standards but
the suspicion lingers that the will really isn't there.
While St Mirren and Raith may both have grounds good enough for
the SPL, neither has a team capable of getting there though both
should be untroubled by relegation. It's perm two from four at the
bottom in this division. After two successive promotions Brechin
will struggle at this level and we take them to go. Ross County
only escaped on the last day last time and Queen of the South
will find it hard to replicate their comparative success.
But Ayr United is the name screaming out as we search for
the team to accompany Brechin. Forced to let go of almost all their
high-earners and experienced players, with prospects of a move to
a new ground seemingly stalled, ending last term with just two wins
in their last eleven games and being willing punchbags in their
pre-season games, Ayr have relegation stamped all over them. Campbell
Money may well be bringing through some talented youngsters
but they are being pitched in en masse and too soon.
The Second Division loses 40% of its personnel each season
and is always the hardest to call. Even with less than a handful
of games to play last term there were teams who could still either
win promotion or end up relegated.
Airdrie United did well to go as close as they did and they
should go one better this time. Morton are on a roll and
after getting out of a difficult Third Division, we wouldn't be
surprised if they won promotion again. Alloa came back from
the dead to take the fight to the last day before succumbing to
the drop and they should be involved in the promotion race too,
as should Hamilton. After that its more difficult as the
old adage of any team beating any other on its day really does apply
in this division. If pushed we would take Dumbarton and Stenhousemuir
to go down but we wouldn't advise staking any substantial sums on
In the Third we can't look past Peterhead who narrowly
missed out last time. Gretna have invested heavily, acquiring
players like David Holdsworth (who must surely be the
first former million-pound buy to play at this level) and they
should be up there. Albion Rovers and Stranraer should
also be thereabouts. The hard-nosed would say Gretna but the sentimental
vote must go to Rovers who have been knocking on the door for a
few seasons now and were only deprived last season thanks to an
East Fife goal in the last minute of the last game.
Perhaps the easiest bet in Scottish football outside the Old Firm
taking the title is to back East Stirling to finish last-
Right, that's it. We'll stand or fall by these words in the months
to come. As for now,
'LET THE GAMES