x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Scottish Premier League: second thoughts in one-horse race

With the absence of Rangers, Celtic are expected to win the championship with ease, but who will be runners up, asks Iain Hepburn.

Celtic have one foot in the Champions League group stage and should also win the SPL with ease.
Celtic have one foot in the Champions League group stage and should also win the SPL with ease.

A dramatic summer which culminated in one of football's most notorious rivalries being forcibly ended for at least the next four years has paved the way for Scottish football's bridesmaids to have a crack at glory.

Glasgow Rangers find themselves starting from the lowest rung in the Scottish Football League this season, a consequence of financial issues and an unpaid £100 million (Dh580m) which forced the former European finalists to begin again virtually from scratch.

Not since 2005/06, when Heart of Midlothian snatched second place away from Rangers, has the dominance of Glasgow's "Old Firm" been challenged.

But with Rangers now out of the picture few in, or outside of, Scotland regard Celtic as anything other than champions elect. On the verge of reaching the Champions League group stage, and with the impending sale of Ki Sung-yeung to Swansea City, the club's income over the next couple of weeks is likely to be greater than any of their rivals will achieve across the rest of the season.

Despite this, Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, has been unable to significantly strengthen his side during the summer, and they were lucky to sneak a draw against promoted Ross County last weekend. Yet the gulf in resources and personnel between the Glasgow giants and the other 11 Premier League sides still gives the perception of a procession towards the title for the reigning champions.

Lennon still remains hopeful the absence of Rangers will inspire a challenge in the SPL this season. "There's an opportunity there for them, now that one of the big clubs is out of the picture," he said earlier this month.

"It's an opportunity to challenge for the title, or at least for second place."

Rangers, meanwhile, find themselves in the unique position of - effectively - building a brand new club. Their reformation in the Third Division has left them largely free of debt, allowing new owner Charles Green and manager Ally McCoist to recruit SPL calibre players to drop three divisions.

Unsurprisingly, many of the big-name players at the club last season have already left, and with a year-long transfer embargo due to start at the start of September, McCoist is racing to complete a squad capable of securing promotion at the first attempt.

Supporters have been quick to turn out and back the new side - more than 49,000 turned out to see their first home game in the Third Division, a higher attendance than the SPL games on the same day combined. But feelings among the supporters still run high - a mix of excitement and bemusement at their new challenge, and anger at a sense of SPL clubs getting revenge on the club through the punishment handed out.

How long that support can be sustained is key to Rangers' attempts to return to the SPL. And despite the claims of supporters from other clubs, Scottish football remains balanced on a precarious knife edge - a prolonged absence by Rangers will have a serious financial impact on a league already scrabbling about for loose change.

Hearts, Dundee United and Motherwell are seen as the most likely contenders to claim second place. The latter two have gained a reputation for being well-run sides that have challenged for silverware in recent seasons, and placed an emphasis on producing home-grown talent.

Hearts, owned by controversial Russian businessman Vladimir Romanov, have had their own financial problems yet remain a consistent challenger in Scotland, having won last season's Scottish FA Cup.

Indeed, this could be perceived as make or break for Hearts. Romanov is looking to sell the heavily indebted club, which was frequently late in paying players last season. Paulo Sergio, the former Sporting Lisbon manager, was replaced in the summer despite his cup victory by John McGlynn, recruited from First Division strugglers Raith Rovers as the club attempted to cut its cloth in more frugal fashion.

And with little between the three squads on or off the field, the results against each other - and any potential upsets against Celtic - are likely to determine which ends up crowned Scotland's best other team.