Friday, August 13, 2010

SPL 2010/11: Looking Ahead

You might, were you to spend six months somewhere that Scotland’s amber nectar wasn’t readily available, find yourself craving a pint of Tennent’s Lager.

Straight to the pub on your return, down a pint. And think: “On reflection, that’s really not that great.”

We fall into the trap of missing things because we’re used to them. Like a soldier writing letters to an ugly sweetheart at home, we pine for things we can’t have because we can’t have them not because they represent a true measure of quality.

All of which runs through my mind as I sit and contemplate the return of the SPL. The Best League In Scotland. Possibly.

Had I written this preview on Tuesday I might have been a bit more eager for things too get started. But then I saw some of our “finest” players turn in very bad impersonations of top class footballers and the joy of anticipation was replaced by more familiar feelings of gnawing despair.

Am I confident of a great season in the SPL. Nah, I’m really not. Not at all.

There is an argument to be made that things might be exciting because we’re not quite sure of how Celtic and Rangers will fare. So I suppose you have to make a choice and decide if you’d rather have 12 bad teams or 10 bad teams and two not-quite-as-bad-but-still-hardly-brilliant teams.

One side of the Old Firm will win the league and one will finish second. I can’t see any other outcome.

I’m not going to predict which will take the championship though. There are still questions. Rangers, threadbare but experienced. Celtic, another new look, another new manager and an apparently still leaky defence.

Transfer dealings that have not yet been finalised will play a part for both teams. Too soon, for me, to say with any confidence who will come out on top. Tony Mowbray was the SPL’s Manager of the Month in August last year. And that hardly set the tone for the season ahead.

Third place? Dundee United will look to build on last year. That won’t be easy but nor would it be an outlandish prediction to say they’ll challenge for the “best of the rest” tag.

Jim Jefferies will ensure Hearts pose more of a threat this season. But has the squad been greatly enhanced? Will Kevin Kyle stay fit and will Hearts become over reliant on his physical presence. If they do who will feed off him? Kyle has rarely proved himself a prolific goalscorer in the past so Hearts will still need goals from somewhere.

Hibs’ pre season form and European misadventure suggests they are unlikely to get off to a flier this year. Given their normal travails after January it’s difficult to see when exactly they’ll be able to piece together a sustained challenge for anything other than a solid top six finish.

In signing Paul Hartley Aberdeen have pulled off something of a coup. His experience should help a young squad improve on last year. It couldn’t be much worse.

Motherwell look to be responding well to Craig Brown and his methodical approach to preparing his team. Can they last the pace of a full league season?

What strides have St Johnstone made in improving on their solid return to the SPL. A top six finish would represent another step in their encouraging development.

Further down I can see four teams being involved in the relegation battle. Kilmarnock’s financial struggles continue and, much as I expect them to be a stuffy and obstinate side, I fear they might leave it late to escape the financial blackhole of relegation yet again.

Inverness will look to start well, build from there and make sure they pick up points at home. They’ve stuck by Terry Butcher and he’s got them back up. If he can now keep them up then they’ll have had a decent enough season. Don’t expect fireworks though.

Hamilton again impressed last season but as players leave it becomes harder and harder to repeat that success. Could be a long old struggle.

All the clubs in the bottom half of the table might just be saved by St Mirren. I don’t want that to happen, I want to see Danny Lennon succeed. But I fear that things could go badly. Very badly.

A tentative table prediction. Tentative because I think United will finish third and I think St Mirren will probably go down. Other than that, it's anyone's game:

1 Rangers/Celtic
2 Celtic/Rangers
3 Dundee United
4 Hearts
5 Motherwell
6 Aberdeen
7 Hibs
8 St Johnstone
9 Kilmarnock
10 Hamilton
11 Inverness
12 St Mirren