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August 2005

Celtic dumped out of Europe. Predictions for 2005-06











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 long ago.

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 season.

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 unsettling period.

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 least.

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 time.

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 Queen's Park.

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 are nondescript.

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 entire league!

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.



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