The season may only be four games old but already I can see Rangers and Celtic running away with it once again. Total domination seems likely after Rangers hit seven against Falkirk who managed just two in reply. That was followed up by Celtic hitting Hearts for five the following weekend, this time with no response from a lackluster Gorgie side who look a shadow of their side of two years ago.
Rangers spent big this summer, with David Murray announcing that around £13million was spent with only £2million coming in. With that sort of spending, Rangers fans will be expecting success of some form. Another trophyless season will no doubt be unacceptable for the Ibrox faithful and I suspect they just might have it in them to take the title back from their neighbours. Their signings have impressed, and perhaps more vitally, Walter Smith has managed to dispose of practically all the remnants of Paul Le Guen’s ill-fated tenure. Daniel Cousin and Jean-Claude Darcheville look good up front, DaMarcus Beasley looks lively either up front or on the wing, and Carlos Cuéllar looks class at the back. Add in the Scottish additions of Kirk Broadfoot, Steven Whittaker and Alan Gow, and Smith’s 27-man squad look very impressive.
Celtic have bought well too. Massimo Donati looks like he has the required attributes to replace Neil Lennon in midfield, and Scott Brown has to be one of the most exciting youngsters to come out of Scotland for a long time. His £4.5million price tag may be steep, but I feel he has it in him to live up to the tag and not fade away into the background at Parkhead, like his former Hibs teammate Derek Riordan.
And what of Hearts? Gone from their Scottish Cup winning side are Pressley, Hartley, Skacel and most importantly of all, Craig Gordon. It remains to be seen if Hearts will actually spend any of the reported £7million received from Sunderland, but if they’re going to even match last season’s fourth place finish, they’ll surely have to. It will infuriate the fans if the only reinforcements brought in following Gordon’s departure are another gaggle of Lithuanians who’d struggle in the Scottish First Division. Perhaps most important to Hearts’ hopes is to find a strong leader in the dugout. Coach Stephen Frail has admitted that there needs to be a stronger voice barking orders to his players. And with days till the end of the transfer window it seems unlikely that anyone will be put in place in time to make any kind of impact.
Last season’s third placed team are also struggling. Like Hearts, Aberdeen lost their best player to Sunderland. But unlike their rivals, they were not quite so handsomely compensated. Russell Anderson fetched just £1million. A price that no doubt reflects the former skipper’s inability to fight his way into the Scotland starting XI. Given that Anderson was given a start against South Africa at Pittodrie last week despite hardly featuring for Sunderland so far this term, many Aberdeen fans (myself included) will be feeling that it’s not how well you’re playing, it’s who you’re playing for. And these days, if you’re not in the Premiership or playing in Glasgow or Edinburgh, your chances of making it into the Scotland first team are slim. Craig Brewster had undoubtedly been Aberdeen’s strongest player in the opening four matches, and his return to Inverness means that surely the two Jimmys will need to step up their search for a striker, with just a couple more days left till September.
Hibernian look to be the best bet to finish ‘best of the rest’. Some shrewd summer signings seem to have made up for the fact that they lost the majority of their best players over the summer, with Chris Killen and Scott Brown making their way to Celtic, and Steven Whittaker arriving at Rangers. Former Chelsea ‘keeper Yves Makaba-Makalambay is a giant between the sticks and should provide them with the stability they lacked in goal last term. Much will be expected of young Steven Fletcher, who will be looking to make up for a poor U20 World Cup display in Canada by getting in amongst the goals. Clayton Donaldson is the only major arrival up front and he will have the task of replacing the influential Killen. Despite some major personnel changes, I back Hibs for a third place finish.
As for the rest, Kilmarnock will surely be expecting another top six finish after seemingly managing to hold onto Steven Naismith for yet another transfer window. Their fans will surely be hoping he doesn’t turn into another Kris Boyd, who left the club for a miserly £400,000 in January 2006 as his contract ran down. Naismith is a more complete player than Boyd, and must surely be worth more than the reported £1million or so Rangers et al have been offering.
Dundee United will have hopes of a top six finish too. After an excellent start to the season Craig Levein’s men look better than they ever have in recent years. They were unlucky against Kilmarnock following a dodgy red card shown to Christian Kalvenes and they were very impressive against Aberdeen and Inverness. Expect them to be mid-table and pushing for higher by the end of the season. Motherwell have also had a good start and under new manager Mark McGhee could be the surprise package of the season. McGhee has made some good signings and the side look far more organised than they did under Maurice Malpas last season.
Falkirk, St. Mirren, Inverness and Gretna will no doubt form their own ‘mini-league’ of relegation candidates this season. Of the four, Falkirk and St. Mirren look the most likely to secure their places in the top flight for another year. Inverness will hope the return of Craig Brewster to the dugout, and possibly the pitch, will inspire them to their first victory of the season. But sorry Gretna don’t look like an SPL side. They haven’t bought well and the confusion over who exactly is manager won’t be helping matters any. Providing Inverness sort themselves out, Gretna will no doubt go back down where they came from at the season’s end.
In the first division, Hamilton Academical have made a strong start to the season and have a 100% record so far. The outstanding James McCarthy is surely in his last season at the club, with a number of Premiership sides and both halves of the Old Firm still interested in the teenager. Despite Hamilton’s strong start to the season, SPL old-boys Dundee, St. Johnstone and Dunfermline seem the most likely to battle it out for the sole promotion spot. Dunfermline’s early form has been poor, but expect that to improve once their surely brief foray into the UEFA Cup is over. At the other end of the table, part-timers Stirling Albion will be favourites for the drop, but Livingston and Clyde‘s terrible starts to the season should ensure that it’s not simply a formality.
Lower down, the second division should be dominated by the relegated Airdrie United and Ross County; but Queen’s Park have also made a strong start and could be the dark horses in this league. As per usual, the teams coming up from the third division usually struggle in this division but it’s still early days and in this tight league just about anyone is a relegation candidate. In the third division, perennial last-placers East Stirlingshire have made a great start and sit second with three wins out of four, but are still three points off the early pacesetters, East Fife. At the bottom, Elgin are without a win, a feat only matched in Scotland by Inverness in the top league. With no relegation, Elgin will no doubt have nothing to play for this season.
7. Dundee United
9. St. Mirren
11. Inverness CT
CIS Cup: Hibernian
Scottish Cup: Celtic