The summer is over, World Cup fever has passed and the return to the domestic campaign is just around the corner.
Champions Rangers unfurl the league flag at Ibrox on Saturday afternoon when they take on Kilmarnock on the opening day. Walter Smith’s side have yet to add to the their squad this summer, and haven’t done for nearly three years now. The Gers are still waiting on a few minor creases to be ironed out in the deal to bring Nikica Jelavic to Ibrox and a flurry of transfer activity is expected in the last few weeks of August.
Across the city, Celtic have appointed Neil Lennon as their new manager and the former Celtic midfielder was quick to add new faces to the squad. Most notably, Joe Ledley, Efrain Juarez, Gary Hooper and Daryl Murphy join the hoops for this season along with Du-Ri Cha, Charlie Mulgrew and Biram Kayal. Lennon’s new-look side have already suffered disappointment this summer, losing to FC Braga in the Champions League qualifiers.
Despite the signings at Celtic Park, and proposed signings at Ibrox, the gap between the Old Firm and the rest has narrowed significantly over the past few years. Outside Glasgow, there is a buzz amongst fans of other SPL clubs that this year could in fact be the time when the Old Firm domination is broken.
Dundee United won many plaudits in the second-half of last season when Peter Houston replaced Craig Levein as manager. Houston led United to third place and a Scottish Cup triumph in that time, but his major challenge was keeping hold of star players like Craig Conway and David Goodwillie.
So far, the Arabs have remained untacked and go into the new season with basically the same squad as last season apart from Andy Webster who returned to Rangers after his loan spell at Tannadice. United were in touching distance of 2nd place last season, but were out-done by Robbie Keane’s goals at Celtic which ultimately secured Lennon’s side the runners-up spot.
Alongside United, other challengers include Motherwell, Hearts and Hibs. Craig Brown’s Motherwell have been in competitive action for a few weeks now after being involved in early Europa League qualifiers and are looking in good shape for the new season. The Steelmen have lost three key players, John Ruddy, Lukas Jutkiewicz and Jim O’Brien which has weakened them from last season.
Hearts on the other hand have strengthened this summer with Kevin Kyle, Darren Barr and Stephen Elliot joining Jim Jefferies’ side. The Tynecastle club finished in poor 6th place last season and will be aiming to finish ahead of their Edinburgh rivals this season.
John Hughes’ Hibs suffered a European defeat to NK Maribor and pressure is beginning to build on Yogi after a shocking demise in the second-half of last season after the Hibees held their own for the first six months in the title race. Not many new faces have arrived at Easter Road, with Edwin De Graaf the notable new addition from NAC.
We have been round this debate for over 20 years, and still, we haven’t seen a title winner outside Glasgow. Based on the transfer activity so far, Dundee United, for me, look a team which could be capable of giving the Old Firm a real run for their money this season.
In all honesty, I think the best we can hope for is a tight and competitive battle for 2nd place between Dundee United, Hearts, Motherwell and, in my opinion, Celtic who have spent rashly this summer like they did last year under Tony Mowbray. For sure, a full season under Peter Houston for United might see an improvement on what was a very successful half-season for the Arabs.