Tuesday, July 19, 2011

SPL: 2011/12 Predictions

We're now tantalisingly close to the SPL's opening weekend. July isn't yet out but already the sense of anticipation is growing.

The churlish prediction for the season ahead would be that "it can't be as bad as last time." But this being Scottish football we know that's not true. It can be every bit as bad. It could even be worse.

But let us hope not.

Last week I was asked to contribute a brief "state of Scottish football" article for a Polish fanzine as part of their build-up before Dundee United's Europa League qualifiers.

Turning to Twitter I asked for one word summaries of what's wrong with the Scottish game:

I could probably have predicted most of the answers: pricing, lacklustre, repetitive, dominance [by the Old Firm], infrastructure, pitches, bigotry, greed, bankrupt, ethos, Glasgow [the Old Firm again], mentality, money, ignorance, technique, corruption [I'll insert my own "alleged" here], self-interest, bloggers, standards, governance and - most simply - everything.

It's a long list. Another correspondent chose "self-deprecating" and perhaps we dwell too
much on the negatives.


Not the responses of satisfied consumers.

But absence makes the heart grow fonder and now the opening matches stretch ahead over three glorious July days, Rangers flag unfurling festivities on Saturday lunchtime getting things underway before Dunfermline and St Mirren round things off in the highly coveted Monday night graveyard slot.

An odd summer. I've been only lightly blogging and bored rigid with the Colin Calderwood "will he, won't he, should he, would he" saga. The Rangers takeover drama was dragged to a conclusion, Hearts wrapped themselves up in all sorts of public relations confusion over the Craig Thompson case, the SPL's Scottish football "revolution" appears no closer to becoming reality and our modestly talented referees have won a modest pay rise.

On the footballing side we've not yet seen any clubs really capturing the imagination with their transfer dealings.

Rangers are having as much difficulty closing out deals as Rupert Murdoch has answering questions about the dealings of his newspapers.

Hearts fired out of the blocks when the transfer window opened but seem to have put a halt on incoming players for the time being. Hibs imagination stretched all the way back to the past glories of Ivan Sproule and Garry O'Connor.

Dundee United lost Craig Conway and question marks remain over David Goodwillie. But they signed John Rankin. Honest, hard working and full of endeavour, perhaps Rankin will be a hit. But it's a signing that seems to sum up where Scottish football is now operating.

Financial survival means saying goodbye to youngsters and their abundant talent. Thus the search for a brave new world is compromised by a reliance on players like Rankin, players who perhaps best summed up by an old David Cameron line, one that may yet come back to haunt him: "You were the future once."

I'll take a closer look at each team as kick off approaches. For now though, as is the wont of bloggers the world over, I suppose some SPL predicitions are in order.

As ever the title race will become a bunfight between Glasgow's star-crossed rivals. But who will triumph?

The consensus across the land seems to be that Neil Lennon's Celtic will edge out Ally McCoist's Rangers.

It's hard to disagree.

Celtic came close last season, their squad has survived largely intact, battle scarred but more experienced.

Rangers remain something of a work in progress, McCoist enduring both a bad (if essentially meaningless) run of results and frustration in the transfer market. Right now I would say four in a row looks a long, long way off. It's a tricky task for a managerial novice. As another Prime Minister once said: "this is no time for an apprentice."

So Celtic as champions and Rangers as runners-up. Which, and a word of warning here, is pretty much how I've predicted it going for the last two or three seasons.

I'm backing Hearts to finish third again. Will they mount a challenge to the top two? I think Jim Jefferies has been shrewd in the transfer market but it seems to me that he's entrenched their position as best of the rest rather than pushing them closer to the summit.

So a Hearts challenge, a slice of Gorgie meat popping up in an Old Firm sandwich, is likely to depend as much on a lack of form elsewhere than on their own form.

At the other end I expect Dunfermline to struggle on their return to the SPL. Any number of clubs could join them.

Will St Mirren have improved sufficiently from last season to enjoy some comfort away from the relegation zone this season? Has Kenny Shiels managed to lift Kilmarnock from the trough of despair they entered when Mixu left last season? Will Hibs be able to start strongly enough to combat the apathy in Leith? Has Craig Brown finally turned around the fortunes of Aberdeen? Will St Johnstone score any goals?

A failure to answer those questions will cause those teams problems. But, find a solution, and they could see themselves at the right end of the top six.

Right now I'd say Dunfermline to go down but only after a scrap with St Mirren. Dundee United to join Hearts in the top six, and the remaining six places very much up for grabs between some very evenly matched teams.

Oddly, and I might be wildly off the mark here, I get the impression that the early start to the season that was supposed to help our clubs has actually caught them on the hop.

Nobody quite seems ready to get going. That might be a big advantage to any club that manages to hit the ground running. It also makes predictions about the outcome of the season somewhat hit or miss.

But, for now, I'll stick with Celtic for the top and Dunfermline for the chop.

As ever with Scottish football it's how we travel from here to the end of the season that is likely to provide more intrigue, drama, lunacy, excitment and general daftness than the final outcome. I only hope the whole thing is carried with off less arsey-ness and far less criminal idiocy than we saw last season.