The SPL season is upon us after officials moved the start date of the league to this weekend – the earliest Scotland’s premier division has ever begun.
The date has been brought forward to alleviate the amount of midweek games played by SPL teams, whilst also benefitting Scotland’s European representatives by playing competitive football earlier.
Rangers pipped Celtic to the title last season on the last day of the season. However, Ally McCoist has taken over from legendary manager Walter Smith and will have a big job on his hands to replicate his predecessor.
McCoist will again lock horns with controversial Celtic manager Neil Lennon after their spat at Parkhead last season, but Lennon is under pressure to deliver the title back to the green side of Glasgow.
Dunfermline are expected to be the whipping boys of the division, having been promoted from the First Division last season, but St. Mirren and Inverness both look weak this year.
This season has all the makings of a season of transition for the Dons. In the summer they’ve lost their captain Paul Hartley, who has retired after persistent knee injuries, and defensive mainstay Zander Diamond, who opted to join League One Oldham after nine years at Pittodrie.
The Dons were on the receiving end of the SPL’s biggest-ever defeat last season as they were crushed 9-0 by Celtic – resulting in Mark McGhee losing his job. The Dons then snared Craig Brown from Motherwell and coupled with youngsters like Fraser Fyvie and Peter Pawlett – the future looks a lot brighter for Aberdeen.
KEY MAN: Youl Mawene – The Dons need someone to replace Diamond and, if the Frenchman can keep himself fit, he could be the prefect man for the job.
After losing out on the title on the last day, Lennon’s charges will be looking to go one better this season.
Main signing Victor Wanyama will add a lot of energy to the midfield and will be popular with fans after choosing the shirt number 67 – a tribute to the Celtic side that won the European Champions Club Cup in 1967.
Lennon is looking to add some more experience to his young team, but with a years added experience, the likes of Biram Kayal, Emilio Izaguirre and Gary Hooper should all be looking to push on after very impressive first seasons. Izaguirre’s form was supreme and Arsenal and Liverpool are rumoured to be looking at the Honduran full-back, who was named PFA Players’ Player of the Year.
KEY MAN: Gary Hooper – Hooper scored 21 goals last season, taking only 30 shots to do so. With more experience under his belt and an England U21 call-up, Hooper could be the key to firing Celtic back to the top of the SPL.
Despite the season starting early to help Scotland’s European participants, United went out on away goals against Polish team Slask Wroclaw last night.
However, manager Peter Houston was full of praise for the team: “If I get the same effort through the SPL season we’ll be back in Europe next season,” he said.
One big positive for United is they have somehow held on to main striker David Goodwillie. English interest was said to be big in Goodwillie, who Rangers are still sniffing around, and the striker will be a huge asset for United if they can still keep hold of him.
A positive for United is the acquisition of ex-Liverpool prospect Gary Mac-Kay Steven. The winger has great pace and can out in good crosser and Goodwillie and Jon Daly should find themselves attacking a lot of balls this season. He will need to have a good season as United have lost Craig Conway to Cardiff. Conway was integral to United’s European qualification and a massive part of the way they played.
United have also lost Morgaro Gomis to Birmingham and midfield partner Prince Buaben to Watford, so replacing these two will be crucial to Houston. Signing Willo Flood from Middlesbrough will help fill one void.
KEY MAN: David Goodwillie – Providing they can keep hold of him until the window shuts, Goodwillie will be the key man in firing Dundee United back towards the European berths.
The Pars are odds-on favourites to go straight back down again this season, but they have made some shrewd acquisitions this summer and will be looking to consolidate this season.
Nomadic goalkeeper Paul Gallacher and centre-back John Potter were both part of a St. Mirren team that last year avoided relegation and that experience could be crucial this year.
Andrew Barrowman will give them some much-needed firepower up front, and the ex-Birmingham trainee has SPL experience with Inverness.
But biggest key could be retaining the destructive services of Gary Mason in midfield. Mason has a plethora of SPL knowledge and his influence in the middle of the park will be huge if Dunfermline are to stay up.
KEY MAN: Gary Mason – The Pars are planning to cause a few surprises this year and Mason will be integral to how their season shapes up.
HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN
It’s never quiet at Hearts, and this summer was no different. Firstly, midfielder Ian Black has been set a trial date for an accusation of possessing cocaine – the hearing will take place in October.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, Hearts also had to suspend promising full-back Craig Thomson after the 20-year-old was placed on the sex offenders list after pleading guilty to ‘lewd, libidinous and indecent behaviour’.
On the pitch, things haven’t been much better. Lee Wallace has left Edinburgh and joined champions Rangers.
However, they have managed to sign John Sutton from Motherwell and Kilmarnock’s inspirational Moroccan Mehdi Taouil, both on free transfers.
Reinvigorated by the appointment of Jim Jeffries, Hearts would march on to finish third last season as Kevin Kyle and Stephen Elliot terrorised SPL defences. Jeffries, who switched to a successful 4-2-3-1 system, seems to be able to restrain owner Vladimir Romanov’s unerring desire to get involved and that has so far worked wonders.
A season in Europe awaits, with a tie against Hungarian team Paksi next up, and it will be interesting to see how Jeffries juggles his side.
KEY MAN: David Templeton – The winger was a nightmare for full-backs from both flanks last year and his mazy runs and directness will be key this season too.
The main talking point at Easter Road this summer has been about the manager, Colin Calderwood. Birmingham and Nottingham Forest have both expressed an interest in taking Calderwood on as their assistant manager and the former Spurs defender has hardly been vigorous in denying an interest.
The return of club icon Garry O’Connor was Hibs’ main piece of business this summer and an acquisition that should excite the clubs fans. However, Hibees have lost out to St. Johnstone in the race to sign former Celtic striker Cillian Sheridan after taking him on trial.
Easter Road will also be missing Derek Riordan this season after he agreed a deal with Chinese outfit Shaanxi Chanba.
Hibs fans will be desperate to see performances pick up this season. There was a time when Hibs were in danger of being relegated, a January upturn in form managed to save them, but losses at the end of the season to an already condemned Hamilton was a sharp reminder of what this season could hold for them.
KEY MAN: Colin Calderwood – Hibs have had nine managers since 1996 and the club is crying out for stability. They need to keep hold of him, get the best out of O’Connor and hope Paul Hanlon and Callum Booth can shore up the defence.
Terry Butcher has worked nothing short of miracles since taking over at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium, but faces an uphill struggle this season after losing a raft of players.
11 players have exited Caley in the close season, the biggest of those being Adam Rooney. The Irish striker scored 21 times last season and has earnt himself a move to Birmingham City – something I don’t think any Caley fans will begrudge him.
This loss has been offset by captures of young exciting winger Aaron Doran from Blackburn. The Irish youngster was on loan last season at Inverness and Butcher has secured his permanent services this summer. He is joined by Northampton’s Billy McKay who Butcher claims to have received “excellent reports” on. Gregory Tade has also joined from Raith Rovers, but the striker has a reputation for being inconsistent.
Butcher is livid with the early start date for this season’s SPL and has branded the decision “farcical”, whilst claiming that most squads in the league are “nowhere near complete”
KEY MAN: Gregory Tade – It wouldn’t be harsh to say that Caley’s hopes of remaining in this division rest firmly on his shoulders. Bought to replace Rooney, he needs to fill the Irishman’s boots very quickly to save Inverness.
Killie find themselves in the same boat as many other clubs this summer. They’ve found themselves losing players on free transfers, and they seem to be all the key players.
Alexei Eremenko was up against Emilio Izaguirre for Player of the Year last season, but his loan has expired and he has returned to Metalist Kharkiv (where he has been told he can leave). To rub salt into Killie’s wounds, Celtic and Rangers are both said to be looking at the Finnish star.
Captain Craig Bryson has left to join Derby County, however, Killie managed to bag £350k for him. Taouil has joined Hearts on a free.
Kenny Shiels has therefore had to shop around on a small budget as he prepares for his first full season in charge. He snapped up Gary Harkins from Dundee and he will be tasked with filling Eremenko’s considerable absence after regular goal scoring seasons, albeit a division lower than this.
Danny Buijs has joined from ADO Den Haag and will be a fantastic acquisition to the middle of the park. A real battler he can be a driving force for Killie this season.
Paul Heffernan has joined and will try to replace Conor Sammon, who joined Wigan Athletic in January.
KEY MAN: Gary Harkins – A tough task for someone making the step-up in class, but Harkins has to try and replicate the effect Eremenko had on Killie.
Motherwell were left in the mire last season after Craig Brown jumped ship and joined Aberdeen. Stuart McCall took over and managed to steady the ship.
His task has been made immediately harder by losing top-scorer John Sutton to Hearts, but he has compensated for that by bringing in Michael Higdon from St. Mirren. Higdon scored 14 goals in the league last year and Motherwell will be hoping he can replicate that form.
The main concern for McCall would be that his squad is only 23-men deep. A few injuries could really put pressure on the Well.
KEY MAN: Chris Humphrey – The pacy winger seemed to regain his best form under McCall last season and he is crucial to Motherwell this year. He’ll have Nicky Law breathing down his neck for a place but Humphrey needs to supply Higdon and Jamie Murphy with all the ammunition they need. If he does, Motherwell could find themselves in the European places.
It’s been a quiet off-season at Ibrox, which was unexpected after the takeover of the club by local businessman Craig Whyte. He promised Ally McCoist funds to strengthen and has been true to his word, yet he refuses to pay over the odds for players meaning only Lee Wallace and Juan Ortiz have joined the Gers. Former fans favourite Carlos Cuellar is in talks with the Gers after having a £2m bid accepted by Aston Villa. However, McCoist has stated he wants the deal wrapped up quickly. Whyte’s shrewd approach meant the club missed out on Israeli striker Tomer Hemad.
On a good note, Steven Davis has signed a new deal at Ibrox and Kirk Broadfoot has returned after eight months out injured.
Alejandro Bedoya will join Rangers in January on a free transfer and the American should be an exciting prospect. St. Johnstone’s Murray Davidson has also been subject of a bid from rangers, but that has been rejected by his club.
KEY MAN: Ally McCoist – No task in Scottish football could be bigger than trying to succeed Walter Smith. A few more signings will be needed if McCoist is to challenge Celtic and juggle a European campaign too. Key to that will be Nikica Jelavic who has shown in his debut season he can tear apart any defence north of the border.
Losing Michael Duberry was surprisingly a blow to Derek McInnes’ team, but he has been replaced by Frazer Wright who should slot into the vacant spot comfortably.
Key player Murray Davidson is subject of a bid from Rangers and the former West Brom midfielder will be desperate to keep hold of Davidson. Another Davidson, Callum, has returned to the club from Preston and the penalty specialist will be looking to make the left-back spot his own after Danny Grainger joined Hearts.
David Robertson joins from Dundee United and he will bring some craft and attacking intent to the St. Johnstone midfield.
KEY MAN: Cillian Sheridan – Providing Murray Davidson stays, the Saints can look forward to consolidating for another year. However, to do this, goals will need to be scored. Carl Finnigan and Sean Higgins have been bought in, but neither have the pedigree to score a lot of goals – meaning Sheridan will be the main man.
Losing Michael Higdon to Motherwell could be a really big blow to St. Mirren as he scored a huge percentage of their goals last season.
They have looked to replace Higdon by signing veteran Steven Thompson from Burnley, Nigel Hasselbaink from relegated Hamilton and by turning Paul McGowan’s loan move from Celtic into a permanent deal.
Gary Teale has been bought in to add some craft down the wings, but the Scotsman has lost the pace that made him so lethal in his younger days.
Dutch defender Jeroen Tesselaar has joined after impressing manager Danny Lennon whilst on trial.
He will compete down the left-side with Graham Carey who was allowed to leave Celtic despite having a year of his deal left.
St. Mirren avoided the drop only due to the ineptitude of Hamilton last season and will need to do better this year as Dunfermline don’t look set to prop up the table.
KEY MEN: Lee Mair & Steven Thompson – A -24 goal difference was dangerous last season so both ends need improving this season. Lee Mair is vice-captain and needs to show organisation, desire and leadership at the back. Thompson will be the most experienced of St. Mirren’s forwards and he still has the ability to bag goals at this level. He will be useful for Danny Lennon’s team both in the air and on the deck.
WINNER – CELTIC – McCoist’s first season in charge, coupled with a slow summer means Celtic should pip them to the title this season. Providing Lennon can keep hold of Izaguirre, Kayal and Hooper before the English transfer window closes they should have too much this season, especially with an extra year’s experience under their belts.
RUNNERS-UP – RANGERS – Nothing should stop the usual two-horse dominance of the SPL.
EUROPA LEAGUE – HEARTS, MOTHERWELL – Dundee United have lost too many players this summer to make a charge again. Hearts should cruise to third spot, leaving 4th up for grabs. A big season from Jamie Murphy and Michael Higdon should ensure enough goals to finish in the last Europa League place.
TOP SCORER – GARY HOOPER – Hooper scored 21 goals from 30 shots last season, showing his deadly finishing prowess. If Celtic can get him the service, he is guaranteed to score goals.
RELEGATED – ST.MIRREN – They will be pushed hard by Inverness this season, but St. Mirren are my tip to go down. They nearly went last season and have lost their top scorer.