Excitement over the opportunity offered to others on account of Rangers’ continued absence from Scotland’s top flight has once again been offset by harsh reality.
The Scottish league scene gets under way over the weekend with European competition having delivered its latest stark reminder of where the country is as a footballing nation. It is to Aberdeen’s credit that they defeated FC Groningen and at least made a game of it in defeat to Real Sociedad.
Otherwise, the week supplied a tale of woe; issues of ineligible players aside Celtic were a clear second best again to Legia Warsaw, and St Johnstone were bundled out of the Europa League at the qualifying stage by the Slovakian minnows Spartak Trnava. Starjan, of Iceland, had already seen off Motherwell. It was a familiar story but still a depressing one.
The overly simplistic – and incorrect – explanation for this is that the lack of Rangers in the Premiership has harmed the rest. Scottish football was deep in decline long before Rangers’ demise; two clubs dominating the Premiership scene is of no more benefit to others than if there is one, as is currently the case with Celtic.
In highlighting the routinely curious business that is the Scottish Professional Football League, the champions will not be seen in this opening weekend. Nor, on account of the ludicrous knock-on effect of the Commonwealth Games, will their planned opponents Partick Thistle.
Another key absentee from the SPFL is a title sponsor, with those in charge of the country’s national sport displaying their ineptitude for a second season in a row by failing to deliver such much-needed revenue before a ball is kicked. It is a sad indictment of Scotland’s leading clubs, never mind the game’s administrators, that this situation remains unresolved.
Celtic will again win the title, of that there is no question, with the margin of their success the only matter for debate. The relative ease of the domestic situation should at least give Ronny Deila an opportunity to rebuild a team which has been in decline for almost two years. Celtic have also underperformed in home cup competitions in recent years, a matter Deila will be keen to address.
Aberdeen’s improvement under Derek McInnes leaves the north-east side well placed to finish as the best of the rest. Aberdeen’s touch was routinely overstated last season on the basis they had chronically underperformed for years; McInnes at least is moving his club forward and has rekindled interest in the city.
That said, the impressive work carried out by Stuart McCall with precious little resource at Motherwell means it would be folly to ignore their chances of a second successive runners-up placing. Tommy Wright’s work at St Johnstone has been equally eye-catching, with the Perth club worthy of success such as last season’s Scottish Cup on account of a solid business plan over many years.
At the other end of affairs, newly-promoted Dundee look to have recruited smartly enough to dodge a relegation battle. The last campaign culminated with four teams within five points of Hibernian, who fell into 11th place and a play-off, in hinting at how tight that area is likely to prove again. Onlookers occasionally confuse such closeness and excitement with footballing quality.
The weekend’s marquee fixture will arguably be in the second tier and at Ibrox, where Rangers host Hearts . With that pair, plus Hibs, in the Championship this promises to be a division worthy of regular attention. It would be disrespectful to label it the best league in the country but, given the unknown pre-season element attached to the winners, it could well be the most intriguing.