x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Time to forget Scottish football's controversies as SPL season starts afresh

Despite the turmoil in the 2010/11 season, the standard of football across the league improved, but can any team break the Rangers and Celtic duopoly?

Ally McCoist has stepped up to become the new Rangers manager. He was the assistant manager under Walter Smith.
Ally McCoist has stepped up to become the new Rangers manager. He was the assistant manager under Walter Smith.

The last Scottish Premier League season was described by many as utterly forgettable. Which is strange, as the events of the 2010/11 campaign will be remembered for as long as football is played in that country.

What those critics meant, of course, was that it would have been better to consign those shameful 10 months to the dustbin of history.

Among the many controversies that dominated league news last season: death threats; a manager, Celtic's Neil Lennon, attacked during a game; referees going on strike after accusations of bias.

However, as the league begins again today, with the first match between champions Rangers and Hearts, who finished third last season, some hold out hope and belief that Scottish football does have a bright future.

"If you forget about all the nonsense that happened last season, I actually thought the standard of football improved," said Craig Levein, the Scotland national team manager and a man with a vested interest in the SPL. "Rangers were a better team, despite them winning the league by less points than they had a year previously, and Celtic were night and day under Neil and, certainly in 2011, played some cracking stuff."

Levein said he expects the level of play to improve even more this season.

"I see no reason why the standard won't get better," he said. "The average age of the teams has come way down and I see a lot of kids who have a genuine chance and who will now get their chance to play.

"It got a bit crazy for a while, however, I hope we are in for a season of good, entertaining football."

The greatest certainty about the new season is that the league will be won by Celtic or Rangers - just as they have for the SPL's previous 13 seasons. Hearts, and maybe Dundee United, will harbour small hopes of a second-place finish, yet even their own fans will not spend much time thinking about it.

At the Old Firm, as Celtic and Rangers are known, second is never good enough.

Lennon vowed to "bring the thunder" back to Celtic last season and he did, but they began to play well only from January, and by that stage had dropped too many points: they lost by a single point to Rangers in the championship race.

Lennon has been given this second chance because he signed exciting players and won a Scottish Cup, which was a vast improvement from the previous campaign, the brief and ill-fated reign of Tony Mowbray.

Lennon conceded: "If I don't win the league, then it might be the case that I won't be here for much longer." Few would argue, especially as Celtic are heavy favourites.

And what of the team who have won the last three titles?

Rangers now have Ally McCoist in charge and a new owner, the businessman Craig Whyte. But there is next to no money and the best the Glasgow club's all-time top scorer can do is keep last season's team together, which he has done, more or less, and hope the bargains he picks up hit the ground running.

The signing of Carlos Cuellar back to Ibrox from Aston Villa could be crucial. The Spaniard was important in Ranger's run to the 2008 Uefa Cup Final.

As for the rest, Hearts are the third-best team as long as their eccentric owner, Vladimir Romanov, allows the manager, Jim Jefferies, to get on with his job.

Dundee United lost their best players, such as Craig Conway and David Goodwillie, but this is a club that seems to cope with such setbacks season after season.

Motherwell will look to improve on their top-six finish and Scottish Cup Final appearance, as will Kilmarnock on their excellent fifth position. The newly promoted Dunfermline are looking at just staying up and will likely compete directly against Inverness Caledonian Thistle and St Mirren, who bought well in Stephen Thompson (formerly of Burnley) and Gary Teale from Derby. Both have spent time in the English Premier League.

St Johnstone need to start scoring goals; they got only 23 in 38 league games last time. They play an adequate passing game and are strong in defence.

That leaves Hibernian and Aberdeen, two of Scotland's most famous and successful clubs. For the SPL to flourish, it needs these teams to make a contribution. Hibernian have been going backwards under Colin Calderwood, who desperately needs a good start to the season. Aberdeen's 9-0 defeat last season to Celtic, a result which all but ushered then-manager Mark McGhee out the door, was just one of the latest in a very long line of disappointments.

"People are always talking about the death of Scottish football, but it will never happen," said Levein, who has a job on his hands in his attempt to take the Scotland national team to their first major tournament since 1998.

"There is too much passion for the game in this country. I'm not quite sure what we would do without it."

Five players to watch in the SPL

Shaun Maloney, Celtic

He returned to the club three years ago as a hero. But all he’s done since then is hobble. Maloney, pictured, now claims to be fit, and if that is true then he’s probably the SPL’s best player. If he plays all season, then chances are good that Celtic will win the league.

Gregg Wylde, Rangers

The teenager possesses a sweet left foot and outstanding football brain. He was an excellent substitute in the League Cup Final win over Celtic, and superb in the final game of the season when Rangers won the title. Wylde will get his chance this season.

Fraser Fyvie, Aberdeen

He was expected to take Scottish football by storm last season. It is why so many English scouts had booked flights to watch him. But he injured his knee a year ago and never kicked a ball. Still only 18 and now fully recovered, the playmaker may be the only reason to watch Aberdeen.

Paul Hanlon, Hibernian

Some good performances in preseason have hinted that, at last, the centre-half is ready to show his worth as a classy, commanding and skilful defender. And even if he is not quite up to that mark, then heis an international in the making.

John Sutton, Hearts

This is the time for him to be known not as the little brother of Chris. He was a regular scorer wherever he has played in his career. He is good enough to handle this step up. He could get 20 goals for Hearts this season and set up just as many.


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