The first season of the newly rebranded SPFL (formally the SPL and SFL, or something like that, who knows…anyway) will be kicking off this weekend. To say that Scottish football isn’t that good would be a bit of an understatement. However as the newly reformed Rangers slowly climb through the ranks it will soon be a two team top flight again.
It is unfair to say that the Scottish leagues are boring, after all the race for 2nd (was once 3rd) is one of the most unpredictable races in football. What was the first division (now Championship) was one of the world’s hardest leagues to be promoted from (often teams won it and then didn’t get promoted for various silly reasons, such as having too small a stadium).
What the Scottish league does however suffer from is that its top tier is dominated by two teams every season. This has turned into a one team league since the liquidation of Rangers and last season was possibly one of the most exciting seasons ever.
Basically this post is about predictions for the upcoming season and will cover mainly the SPFL but will also cover to a lesser extent the other 3 leagues.
Scottish Premiership Champions
It will be Celtic; I guarantee it will be Celtic. If it is anyone else then the world may implode. Last year Celtic made almost no effort to win the league, yet still managed to win it by 16 points. It does say a lot about the SPL without Rangers, that any team could not pay attention to the league for half the season and still win in a stroll.
The real competition in the SPFL this season will be over who finishes second, last year it was Motherwell in 2nd place (and 3rd the year before when Rangers were in the league), with St. Johnstone in 3rd and Inverness Caledonian Thistle in 4th.
This year however Motherwell will have European football to potentially contend with (to play first leg of qualifier prior to season starting) as will St. Johnstone (under same circumstances). If either team were to make it through to the group stages of the Europa League, it would create a distraction that would likely take them out of the running for second.
One of the great things about the SPFL is that almost any team could potentially finish second, and I will hence make a case for each team I believe has an outside chance:
Motherwell are unlikely to finish 2nd if they make the group stages of the Europa League, however if they didn’t the gap between them and the rest has closed this summer.
St. Johnstone are in the same boat as Motherwell, but I think it is even less likely that they will finish 2nd, and last season they very much over achieved.
Inverness are an interesting team and are probably the dark horse to finish 2nd. They have one of the better managers in the league in Terry Butcher, and also have one of the hardest away grounds to visit (due to it being so far north). However ICT lost their best player this summer in Andrew Shinnie and that could have an adverse effect on how the team performs. It is also noteworthy that when ICT put themselves in a position to finish 2nd last year they bottled it and somehow managed to finish 4th.
Ross County took the league by storm last year with an impressive record against Celtic (5 points from 12) and looked very much like they belonged in the top flight of Scottish football. An impressive 5th position was well deserved for the boys from Dingwall, but it is unlikely that they will build on that to the extent of finishing 2nd.
Dundee United are one of my two picks that I think are likely to finish 2nd this year. Although they lost one of their best players in Johnny Russell this summer, they have a good crop of young Scottish talent at the club, and it looks like they have a bright future. Players like Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong look especially good and seem ready to take a step up, and could help propel the Tangerines up the league. The introduction of Jackie McNamara near the end of last season had the impact required as Dundee Utd snuck into the last spot in the top 6. McNamara’s other team that season (Partick Thistle) also had a really good season, playing exciting football with a young crop of players, expect Dundee United to do the same this year and make a real challenge for 2nd place.
Aberdeen is my other pick to finish in 2nd place this season. Aberdeen were poor again last season and this led to the retirement of Craig Brown and the insertion of replacement Derek McInnes. Aberdeen has a squad mixed with youth and experience, with Ryan Jack being the stand-out player in the squad. There are also goals in the squad with Niall McGinn and experience in the middle with Barry Robson and Willo Flood. I imagine that the biggest change between this season and last is the change in management; at times Craig Brown looked lost last season and seemed slow to react to changes in games, the belief would be that McInnes would be able to better utilise the squad.
As I have already said, I believe that 2nd will be either Aberdeen or Dundee Utd. If I were to pick one it would be Dundee Utd, I love their potential in terms of both the young talented squad but also McNamara’s potential. I’d like to think they could maybe challenge Celtic for the league, but that would be wishful thinking.
Hearts are starting the season on -15 points, they are not able to sign any players above the age of 18 until they exit administration, and have lost a large chunk of their squad from last year. That would be the same squad that took them to a very respectable (sarcastic) 10th position. If Hearts weren’t to be relegated, it would be an absolute shocker, a great escape, it is however very unlikely. Think about it like this; Hearts finished on 44 points last season and with their -15 they would have finished on 29. 11th (St. Mirren) finished on 41 points, now in the 3 seasons prior to this the team finishing 11th had 33 points. That means in theory Hearts will need to achieve a minimum of 48 points to not finish bottom, however whoever finished 11th will probably finish on higher than 33 due to the lack of Rangers. I think Hearts will have to achieve somewhere between 50 and 60 points to avoid finishing bottom, and even then they will still probably finish 1tth (play-off). With the squad that Hearts have (a worse one than last year) it is unlikely that they will be able to score more than 40 points, and will have to hope that another team is just abysmal, I can’t see it happening.
Kilmarnock finally managed to rid themselves of the (how can I say this nicely?) nutjob Kenny Shiels (if you really needed another reason to dislike Kilmarnock). It seemed that Shiels was more interested about preaching than football at times when he managed Kilmarnock, and was often a distraction that was not needed when he came away with wacky claims which were obviously fabricated by him. Kilmarnock won’t threaten 2nd place, because they aren’t a good enough team and are more likely to be challenging for relegation.
What can I say about Hibernian? They have made the past two Scottish Cup Final’s, and improved on last season league position (11th-7th). However in both finals they got battered, including an especially embarrassing 5-1 beating by fierce rivals Hearts. If that weren’t bad enough, Hibs also managed to get pumped 7-0 by Malmo at Easter Road (9-0 on aggregate), very embarrassing for Scottish football and especially for Hibs. Pat Fenlon keeps slating the team after these performances but maybe it isn’t the teams fault and rather the manager’s. If it weren’t for Leigh Griffiths last year, who knows where Hibs would have finished, it is going to be a long season for Hibs and their supporters.
St. Mirren are somehow still in the top flight of Scottish football; it almost feels like every year they either finish 2nd bottom or are in the relegation scrap. It must be rubbish to be a St. Mirren fan because they never really improve; they always sort of stay the same. That would be fine for most clubs, but when your club is always fighting against relegation it isn’t so good. I expect St. Mirren to have a similar year again this season, and they are lucky that Hearts are in the predicament which they are in, because otherwise they would be my favourites for relegation. However this season I expect St. Mirren to finish 2nd bottom (like so many years before) and to fall into the first ever top flight play-offs (well since the last top flight play-offs, maybe 15 years ago).
Partick Thistle took a 10 year hiatus from the top flight of Scottish football; however after storming to the top of the 1st division they have made their long awaited return. The third team in Glasgow (or is it now 2nd?) won the 1st division last season with high energy youthful football under the management of Jackie McNamara. However McNamara left the club towards the end of the season and was replaced by Alan Archibald. It will be interesting to see how Partick do this year; they will either do a Ross County and crack the top 6 in their 1st season or do a Dundee and make a right mess of it (not that it was necessarily Dundee’s fault, they budgeted for a 1st division team and then got promoted to the SPL, they were always getting relegated).
I expect Celtic to win the league at a canter, Hearts to relegated without much of a fight back, St. Mirren to fill the relegation play-off spot and Dundee Utd to finish 2nd. If I were to set out a league it would look like this:
1st –Celtic C
2nd –Dundee Utd
4th –Inverness CT
6th –St. Johnstone
7th –Partick Thistle
8th –Ross County
11th– St. Mirren P-O
12th– Hearts R
I wouldn’t be shocked if some of the teams in the middle of the table swapped places from where I’ve predicted (it is pretty unrealistic to think I’d get them all right), but I think the bottom and top 2 will be as I’ve predicted. I would be especially worried if I were a Hibs, Kilmarnock or St. Mirren fan, because they are the most likely to be fighting for 2nd bottom (or bottom if they are abysmal) and any of them could find themselves having play-offs to finish the season. I think that either Ross County or Partick Thistle could crack the top 6 this season, and I also think that there is a good chance that Motherwell will finish higher than 5th but it will depend mainly on how well their Europa League campaign goes (to a lesser extent the same is applicable to St. Johnstone).
This isn’t going to be as in depth at the Premiership preview and will be more of a prediction and maybe a short reason why. I may add that my expertise (if I could call it that) does not lie in the lower divisions.
It is going to be a really competitive season this year (it usually is) and with the introduction of play-offs there is more to fight for than ever.
I think that the three teams that will be fighting for the championship this season will be Dundee, Morton and Falkirk. If I were to pick one, I would go for Dundee because they have the best squad. I would then expect Morton and Falkirk to take two of the three play-off slots, with the final slot going to either Livingston Queen of the South (will be interesting to see how they cope with losing their manager).
The winner of the play-offs will be from the Championship, as it is unlikely that whichever team finishes 11th in the Premiership (I believe it will be St. Mirren) will struggle to beat the momentum of teams which are on the up when they are on the down.
There is no doubt in my mind that Cowdenbeath will finish in the bottom two and will probably finish 10th. The other relegation slot will be taken up by either Alloa or Dumbarton, although I think that it will likely be Dumbarton, because Alloa are a bit of a dark horse; after back to back promotions, it will be interesting to see how they handle being in the 2nd tier of Scottish football.
Scottish League 1
Rangers will win the league; this is hardly a big jump or prediction. Rangers have the second highest wage bill in Scotland (behind Celtic) and if they can’t win this league at a canter then it would be embarrassing. Last year Rangers slumped over the line with a number of mediocre performances against part-timers and amateurs. The only way Rangers will not win the league, would be if a club did a Queen of the South (which could happen) and if one club were to do that it would be Dunfermline. After all Dunfermline have a good young hungry team, which would probably be a decent Championship side. I think that Dunfermline has a slight chance of pushing Rangers all the way, but when it comes down to it Rangers should still win the league. I like the look of Ayr Utd and Airdrie picking up the other two play-off spots, but I think Dunfermline will be promoted through the play-offs (making the Championship look very exciting next year, Rangers and Hearts as well as a number of solid Championship sides).
The two worst looking teams this year are Stranraer and Stenhousemuir, with Stranraer being the more likely to finish bottom of the two. Arbroath could be an outside shout at falling into the bottom two.
Scottish League 2
It will probably be Peterhead this season, they probably would’ve won the league last year if it weren’t for the reincarnated Rangers being there and will probably continue their tendency to bounce between the bottom two tiers of Scottish football once again. I think that the play-off spots will be filled by Queen’s Park, Stirling and Berwick, although there are a number of teams that could fill these slots.
It will be East Stirling with an outside chance of Clyde, easily and most consistently the worst two teams in Scotland.
There you go it looks like another exciting (or as exciting as it can get) season of Scottish football. I’m expecting the champions to be Celtic, Dundee, Rangers and Peterhead, but wouldn’t it be great if an underdog in the Premiership or League 1 were to push the Old Firm clubs to the limit or even to win their respective leagues (unlikely I know but you can only hope). As far as the cups go; Celtic should win the two main domestic cups, but it would be nice to see another club pick up a trophy (maybe an Inverness). Rangers should win the Challenge Cup, but they should’ve won it last year so you never know.
Let me know what you think, and tell me how excited (or otherwise) you are about the upcoming debut season of the newly formed SPFL. Let’s hope it’s onwards and upwards for Scottish football, because after all it can’t get any worse…..hopefully.