Saturday, July 23, 2011

SPL: Hibs v Celtic

The first of Sunday's two SPL games as Celtic travel to Hibs to give a green tinge to the opening weekend.

The Game

For a variety of reasons, some of which are explored below, this is an away win for me. End of.*


Well, what a swell summer it's been for Hibs. Managerial uncertainty has swirled, training ground punches have been hurled and transfer deals have unfurled.

There's still no guarantee that Colin Calderwood will remain in place with Birmingham's interest not yet completely cooled.

The close season, so hot on the heels of a dismal season, has been a series of calamities for Hibs. The result is an apathy that will translate into empty seats this afternoon.

I'm told that I am too negative. Perhaps. But don't waste your breathe on a broken old pessimist like me. Send your vibes of positivity to the manager whose press conference on Friday carried all the joy of a doctor diagnosing the local vicar's herpes.

Either Calderwood owns the greatest poker face of all time or he's as convinced as a number of fans that Hibs are going to start this season much as they finished off the last one.

Asked to sum up the club's transfer activity over the summer I offered "insufficient."

I stand by that. The signing of centre half Sean O'Hanlon will strengthen a defence that stuggled last season, bring experience to a young backline.

The arrival of Garry O'Connor and Ivan Sproule must both be seen as gambles. Time will tell but there's a hell of a lot riding on them rediscovering what once made them tick at Easter Road.

There's no room for brief flurries of form, heroic and well timed cameos. They have to deliver consistently and act as senior members of a young squad that lacks real depth. Big ask, big risk.

Certainly most supporters might have expected Hibs to strengthen more than they have. Junior Agogo awaits international clearance, Cillian Sheridan has found his way to St Johnstone in another of Hibs' summertime PR accidents.

Elsewhere cover is provided by youngsters. Promising youngsters but often untried youngsters. Youngsters who would no doubt impress if introduced sensitively to a settled, successful team. But who might just feel the pressure in a struggling team with supporters getting increasingly edgy.

So it would be a good idea for Hibs to avoid being a struggling team this season. Easier said than done.

A lot depends, as I think it does for many clubs, on how well they start. Celtic at home and Inverness away are either horrible opening fixtures or a fantastic opportunity to deliver a real statement of intent and banish thoughts of last season and this unsatisfactory summer.

Start poorly, especially with restless natives in the support, and the pressure builds and the chances of last season being repeated increase.

Twitter tips: Victor Palsson, Callum Booth, Matt Thornhill


A quiet close season by Celtic's standards. In come Adam Matthew and Kelvin Wilson but Celtic have been happy not to rush into anything when in possession of the SPL's strongest squad.

The window still has a way to run but Celtic's transfer activity, both in and out, seems to have been restricted more to the rumour round-ups than the realm of truth.

Which leaves Neil Lennon with a squad that impressed a lot in falling so agonisingly short last season. And now they have the added experience of that bitter disappointment.

A healthy enough combination for the manager and one that has seen any number of pundits (this one included) naming them as favourites for the SPL.

Which for many of us is a revisiting of old failures. We predicted Celtic would win the title last season, possibly the season before, maybe even the season before that. And they came up short. Each league was lost in a different way. But each league was lost.

That can't happen again. The cards once more seem stacked in Celtic's favour, to lose a fourth title in a row would raise questions. Questions about the manager, questions about the direction of the club.

The good news is that this was a team which often impressed last season and which should, really, really should, have learnt from the mistakes and lapses that somehow rendered a total of 92 points good enough only for second place in the league.

I would be surprised if a goalkeeper doesn't arrive before the transfer window closes but it's at the other end where Celtic are to be feared. They have options, they have speed and they have cunning in attack. That's a combination that will make many an SPL defence quiver with fear.

So, the title is Celtic's to lose? It might be more apt to say the title is Celtic's to win. But we've been in this position before, indeed there were times last season when they looked as if they had won the league.

Being the most ruthless team when you're on your game, being the most flamboyant team on any given day, being the most incisive team when you're in the mood. All of that is wonderful, at times thrilling, but it takes more to win a league title.

Having come up short last season Celtic will be well aware of these lessons. If they've managed to learn them then the trophy might just be heading to Celtic Park in May.

Twitter tips: Gary Hooper, Kris Commons, Anthony Stokes

* Of course my ability to get predictions wrong is amazing. Even this pessimistic Hibs fans accepts that you can never really know. Even when you probably do know.

SPL: Motherwell v Inverness

Completing the triangle of opening Saturday fixtures, Stuart McCall's Motherwell host Terry Butcher's Inverness.

The game

Terry Butcher says his team aren't ready. Brutal honesty or bluffing banditry? We'll find out soon enough.

Motherwell lost a Scottish Cup final in their last competitive appearance. Even a shortened summer is a long time to wait to exorcise those ghosts. Who's more ready, who's pre season has left them better prepared to hit the ground running?

Motherwell for me. Home win.


Stuart McCall is the sort of no-nonsense chap who wears shorts whatever the weather and has stuck with the same hairstyle, through thick and thin, since he visited a barber near Valley Parade in February 1982.

No surprise then that his time at Motherwell has so far been marked by dogged determination rather than fireworks. Quietly dogged not loudly flash.

Which, as a footballing creed, could well reap dividends in what looks to be a tightly packed SPL.

John Sutton has departed for pastures maroon but McCall looks to have done well to land Michael Higdon whose 15 goals last season hinted at a striker finally discovering his eye for goal at the age of 27.

McCall will hope, and Higdon will have to prove, that such goalscoring form was a statement of intent rather than a flash in the pan.

Jamie Murphy and Chris Humphrey have proved themselves in the SPL and need to do so again this season while the addition of Nicky Law from Rotherham looks astute.

The departure of Craig Brown and the arrival of McCall proved a major disruption last season yet a top six finish and a cup final were duly delivered.

Sutton's departure apart I don't feel this squad has been much weakened over the summer. Injuries and suspensions will cause concern if McCall is left struggling for players but I'd imagine he's quite happy with what he sees going into the new season.


"We're off and running again on Saturday and we are three weeks ahead of most other leagues and teams and countries.

"I think it's a little bit farcical and it does short-change the public and our fans because our fans want to see our squad complete."

So said Terry Butcher on 21 July 2011.

But wait, what quote is this we find as we rewind through the archive?

"Start earlier so the teams in Europe get an easier chance"

So said Terry Butcher in January 2011.

Which is it, Terence, good or bad?

The contradictions of their coach aside, this is an interesting season for Inverness. They cut quite a dash as they bamboozled the SPL with some excellent form before the New Year last season.

They even went a calendar year without an away defeat, a record that won them both promotion and SPL safety.

But all this was BRBO. Before Rooney Buggered Off. Even with the impressive Adam of that ilk in the squad their form dipped, as it often does with newly promoted clubs, and what looked like a hell of a chance to make the top six ended up only a comfortable seventh place finish.

Could we now witness the Butcher's boys consumed with difficult second season syndrome?

There's a chance. Gregory Tade's impact is crucial. Apparently coveted elsewhere in the SPL and rated highly by many Tade will bring something different to Inverness.

But he's not Adam Rooney. Will goals suddenly become as rationed as they were in St Johnstone's second season back in the top flight?

Will Tade as the team focal point demand a different style of play that doesn't suit the strengths of the rest of the squad?

Unanswered questions, big questions. Given those conundrums it's no surprise that some are backing Inverness for the drop this season.

I disagree. The plaudits of last year might not be forthcoming but another reasonably comfortable season should be within reach.

Butcher himself also divides opinion. Is he a great manager, even a very good manager? Probably not but he's Exhibit A in my theory that in a lot of cases picking the right manager requires a healthy dash of luck.

Maybe he'd be an absolutely dreadful manager anywhere else in the league. But Inverness seem to suit him and I expect him to keep them up again this season.

SPL: Aberdeen v St Johnstone

The second of Saturday's three games and a look at what's in store for Aberdeen and St Johnstone.

The game

I've a feeling both these sides will have been quite happy with the opening day's fixtures. A home game for Aberdeen and an away trip that won't overly scare St Johnstone.

Opening games often have a tentative, feet finding atmosphere and this one seems set up to be exactly that. A scoring draw, a pleasant handshake and everyone will be reasonably happy with their day's work.


Apparently Craig Brown said the week that people are too hung about his age. Maybe he's right. But it is surely worthy of some comment that he's still mustering such enthusiasm for the trials of an SPL season at the age of 71.

It's impressive and should be applauded. All hail the Pittodrie Methuselah, the only man in Scottish football old enough to be David Weir's grandad. More power to his (hopefully not arthritic) elbow.

I detect a quiet confidence about Brown though as he approaches his first full season in charge of Aberdeen. Last term he enjoyed the sort of bounce that many a new manager inspires in the short term before the Dons settled into a rut of mediocrity.

His challenge this year is to find sustained form and, while he's at it, inspire and cajole the supporters back through the turnstiles.

It's a hell of an ask, even for a man so rich in experience that he was born when Colin Firth was king and the Battle of Britain hadn't even begun.

Yet does that quiet confidence suggest the manager thinks his side could surprise a few people this season? As with his recruitment policy at Motherwell his signings have been a mix of the unheralded and the young and hungry. Brown, along with Archie Knox, backs himself to fashion from those signings the team he demands.

It's a formula that's worked for him before.

Two returning players offer experience and tales to tell. Chris Clark is back after a sojourn at Plymouth offering Brown the sort of versatility that will appeal.

And Ricky Foster's loan deal at Ibrox is over. The players seems ready for the challenge although a little local difficulty has already been reported in his relationship with the fans.

That won't bother Brown too much, he'll be confident that if Foster, Clark and the rest can do the job he expects them to do the recalcitrant and the stay away elements within the Pittodrie faithful will come on side.

The top six, perhaps even slightly better, might not be beyond Aberdeen this season.

Twitter tip: Kari Arnasan

St Johnstone

Last season St Johnstone finished eighth in the SPL, and never looked in real danger of relegation, despite scoring only 23 goals. That was one less than relegated Hamilton managed and a hefty 34 less than the Perth Saints managed in finishing eighth the season before.

That consistency of league position despite the wildly fluctuating goal tally is proof of how obdurate Derek McInnes' defence was for him last season.

It must also make St Johnstone fans wonder what might have been had there been a goalscorer in place to capitalise on such strong foundation.

12 players have departed over the close season, a number of those misfiring strikers among them, and seven have been drafted in.

In a summer of Scottish footballing returns 35 year old Callum Davidson is back in Perth after 13 years spent in England.

Another returnee could make a bigger difference though as Cillian Sheridan joins up for second loan stint.

Sheridan's proved himself a consistent goalscorer over the years and McInnes will be hoping that his six month spell can get this season off to a positive start.

There's something admirable about what St Johnstone achieved last year with such a meagre goal return. But it's a risky strategy and one they won't want to repeat.

Depsite some of the departures I expect the defence to remain resolute, the foundation will again be place. Can Sherdian, or anyone, take advantage?

If they can then eighth place might well be the least of St Johnstone's ambitions. If they can't then eighth place would once again look a sound enough achievement.

Friday, July 22, 2011

SPL: Rangers v Hearts

The first of this weekend's six preview posts, starting with the first game - Rangers v Hearts. Quite a match to kick things off.

The game

Championship flag a-flappin' in the Govan breeze Rangers have the perfect chance to dismiss as exaggerations any rumours of their footballing demise. Quite a test though against a Hearts side who will be out to show that we'd be foolish to write off their intention of taking the challenge to the Old Firm this season.

Which might lead me to predict a draw if I didn't think that habit and a sense of occassion will propel Rangers to a win.


Having waited a long time to become his own man "young" Ally McCoist must be feeling some frustration at the moment. Daddy's left him the keys to the house but not the credit card to buy any furniture.

Target upon target seems to have slipped away from McCoist, his football director Gordon Smith and new owner Craig Whyte.

At the time of writing only Juan Manuel Ortiz, Lee Wallace and (just about confirmed) Alejandro Bedoya have arrived.

They could be whoppingly magnficent signings - Scotland fans will hope so in the case of Wallace at least - but they don't at first glance appear to provide the solutions to the questions that hung over the squad even in their moment of triumph last season.

Certainly they don't seem to offer the statement of intent that other rumoured targets who have, reportedly, fallen by the wayside might have done.

On the other hand a number of key players have signed long term deals to provide McCoist with a sense of stability.

But right now Rangers put me in mind of that well known raconteur and good time guy Donald Rumsfeld. Everywhere you look there an known unknowns and unknown unknowns.

We think we know McCoist but we've no idea how he will react to the top job, to the removal of Walter Smith's wise, protective embrace.

And how will the players, so many of whom worked under Smith and know McCoist as assistant and coach, react to him? What will they feel if they disagree ever so slightly with his way of doing things and then find results going a bit awry? We don't know.

More signings, ambitous signings, money to burn? We don't know.

But there is one massively important "known known." We've written Rangers off before, written them off when they've had much the same group of players and much the same coaching staff.

They have a habit of ignoring our predictions and just winning the sodding league anyway.

Declare this a powder puff title challenge before a ball is even kicked at your peril.

Still I can't help but feel that this season might be a struggle, a campaign too far.

Twitter tips: Nikica Jelavic, Steven Davis


I'm delighted to welcome back Craig Cairns, blogger extraordinaire at Three at the Back, to furnish us with this preview of the season ahead for Hearts. You can also follow Craig on Twitter.

In terms of new recruits, Jim Jefferies was the fastest out of the blocks in the SPL, quickly securing the services of Danny Grainger, John Sutton and Jamie Hamill on free transfers before the month of May was out. Zander Diamond was pursued around the same time but negotiations broke down during the former-Aberdeen defender’s medical.

The attempt to sign Diamond, and subsequent trial of Kari Arnason, suggests that Jefferies is still in the market for a central defender to cover for club-captain Marius Zaliukas, who no stranger to a suspension, and the injury-prone Andy Webster. It was mentioned during the unveiling of Grainger that if required he is an able deputy at centre-back but with Lee Wallace leaving for Ibrox, he now finds himself as the first-choice left-back.

It remains to be seen but I expect Jefferies to add to the centre of his defence, and possibly bring in more cover at full-back, before the transfer window ends.

The general feeling going into the new season is that Hearts have strengthened their squad without significantly strengthening their starting eleven. Two full-backs, a winger-cum-second striker and a striker have all been added, bulking the numbers in these positions.

Assuming a central defender is also added then the only area of the pitch that seems to have been neglected in terms of strengthening is the centre of midfield. More specifically, the defensive-midfield band of the 4-2-3-1 Jefferies seemed to favour last season. These positions were mostly filled Ian Black and Adrian Mrowiec during the 2010/11 campaign and it seems that these two will form the centre-midfield pairing when the season kicks off at Ibrox on Saturday.

On their day both are excellent SPL players. During his loan from Kaunas, Mrowiec struggled to perform and it was surprising when Jefferies offered him a permanent deal. The Pole doesn’t offer much attacking impetus but for a sizable amount of last season he offered terrific protection to the Hearts defence and was one of the reasons the side picked up seven clean sheets over a nine match period.

Black, on the other hand, is positioned slightly ahead of Mrowiec and is expected to get on the ball and create while still being expected to close down the opposition and break up attacks, even if he is over-exuberant at times in his execution (although it must be said that he himself is often subjected to reckless challenges from his opponents).

Despite their qualities both struggled towards the end of last season. It should be noted however that the team as a whole slumped and in the end hobbled over the third-place finish line, a target that at one point seemed like a stroll. There is no questioning Black’s passion and commitment, the big problem for Black is his consistency. Some of his performances at the turn of the year were man-of-the-match material; however, he has failed to hit any sort of consistency in his performance.

The lack of cover for these positions is worrying. Rudi Skacel, Scott Robinson and Mehdi Taouil, another player who arrived on a free transfer during the summer, can all play in the centre of midfield but tend to occupy the attacking central-midfield role just off the striker. Skacel is the only one of the three that seems to posses the attributes to move back a position but his future at the club remains uncertain.

Ryan Stevenson is another who can sit alongside either Black or Mrowiec but I think even he would admit that no one really knows his best position. Initially Stevenson struggled with the pace of the SPL and only made the odd appearance. During the second half of last season he was used in a number of positions and I think it is fair to say he lacked consistency in any of them. His best spell came as an auxiliary striker in the absence of Kevin Kyle once he was allowed to settle into the role. All things considered it would appear that he is more suited to a more attacking role.

This leaves Eggert Jonsson and Ryan McGowan as possible competition. Jonsson was converted to full-back under Csaba Laszlo and has since played almost every position for Hearts. The few occasions where he has been returned to his supposed natural position he has struggled. Even so, he will be required at right-back for the first two matches of the season due to Hamill’s suspension and will then be required to deputise for either of the first-choice full-backs should they find themselves out of the side for whatever reason.

McGowan’s few chances in the first team have yielded mixed reports. He first broke into the side towards the end of the disastrous 2006/07, impressed and has since undergone loan spells with Ayr United and Partick Thistle, earning favourable reports. His performances towards the end of last season left much to be desired but at 21-years-old this may be the season where he establishes himself as a first team regular.

With Skacel’s future uncertain and the likes of Stevenson and Taouil likely to be used in more advanced positions, along with the Jonsson being required at full-back and the lack of new recruits in this area of the side, this may be the time for the young Australian to make his mark at Tynecastle.

Unless Black and Mrowiec improve on their form from the tail end of last season or else McGowan reaches something near his full potential then I feel that this will be a potential weak-spot for the Hearts side in the all-too-important midfield battles they will inevitably face.

Twitter tips: Andy Webster, John Sutton, Mehdi Taouil, Rudi Skacel

SPL: 12 To Watch - Part One

Part one of an entirely prejudiced, unscientific look at 12 players I'll be keeping track of in the SPL this season. Maybe not the biggest stars but a player from each team whose progress I'm interested to follow.

Steven Naismith, Rangers

Steven Naismith turns 25 this September. No longer a kid bursting with potential but a senior member of a championship winning squad with a five year contract under his belt.

That he was considered among the runners and riders in the annual player of the award festivities last season points at a season of great accomplishment. He also played over 40 games for the first time since he moved to Ibrox.

But here's the thing, I think he pulled the wool over a lot of eyes last season. True he nabbed a player of the month gong in October - the same month he scored his first Scotland goal against Spain - and that was well deserved. But much of his best form was restricted to the opening months of the season.

It's a different Rangers now. And Naismith needs to prove himself as a main man in a squad that is being largely written offer before they've even begun. And he needs to do that in the warm glow of late summer, in the autumnal sun, the bogged down winter and the championship deciding spring.

He also needs to grab his chance for Scotland. Ten caps since 2007 is not a huge return - although injuries have played a part there - but Craig Levein seems keen to give him his chance. Time to repay the faith with a season of disciplined consistency and sustained achievement.

Andy Webster, Hearts

From the inspirational captain of a Scottish Cup winning side to the trembling mass of wibbly wobbly self doubt that saw him relegated to barely even a bit part player with Rangers.

Andy Webster's contradictions and riddles would be better suited to a British Psychological Soceity convention than a profile in a "matchday magazine".

Odd. Odder still that he's so nonchalantly returned to Tynecastle where he earned such plaudits but left amid such rancour first time around.

Scottish centre backs - the rocks upon which Craig Brown built so many of his international achievements - are suddenly a bit thin on the ground. As part of a strengthened Hearts squad can Webster grab his moment? Already known to the international manager, will this be a season of redemption?

And can he silence the doubters in Govan as a pivotal part of a Tynecastle title tilt?

Fraser Fyvie, Aberdeen

A proper Scottish youngster. By which I mean he's actually young in a country almost unique in world football in excusing players for various crimes of crapness and bad behaviour because they're "young" even as they approach their mid twenties.

But Fraser Fyvie is the real deal. He's going to be playing catch up though having just about missed last season in it's entirety.

Given how things panned out for Aberdeen that might have provided just a hint of solace for him, at the age of 17 he was able to avoid any guilt by association as the Dons misfired once again.

A new season and a fresh start. A quick blast of my creaky mental arithemetic suggests that, in Craig Brown, Fyvie's development this season will be overseen by a manager old enough to be his great grandfather.

Given the hints of quiet confidence that seem to be swirling around Pittodrie at the moment could the Fyvie-Brown double act become a defining image of the season? The youngster's heroics on the pitch being rewarded by an avancular smile and a Werther's Original from the dugout?

Brown has apparently said Fyvie has the potential to be the best midfielder he has ever worked with. High praise if not, perhaps, the best way to keep pressure to a minimum.

It's going to be interesting to find out if he's right though.

Cillian Sheridan, St Johnstone

I don't think I was alone in expecting Cillian Sheridan to be a Hibs player by the start of the season.

But St Johnstone struck like a bolt in blue to nab him on a six month loan deal. There are conflicting accounts of exactly how that happened but, whatever the reasons, St Johnstone will be hoping to have a found a solution to their goalscoring travails.

He's got some form here, nabbing a goal from every other league start in an earlier loan deal in Perth.

His time in Bulgaria with CSKA Sofia has not been as satisfying as he would have hoped but he still managed seven goals in 26 appearances, a return that would have rocketed him up the St Johnstone scoring charts last season.

So what St Johnstone may have got, and what Hibs may have lost out on, is a 22 year old striker out to prove himself by scoring goals. Even on a short term contract that could be quite a mix, a dose of Viagra for Derek McInnes' impotent front line.

Nicky Law, Motherwell

Obviously Stephen Craigan is the one Motherwell player I'll be forced to watch, a man so keen to tout himself on TV and radio that he makes tabloid hack stereotype Paul McMullan look reclusive.

But one player I'll actually be interested to see is Nicky Law. Picking up an out of contract Rotherham player for free is not perhaps the kind of thing to get the pulse racing.

Yet Law, who came through Sheffield United's youth academy and is now 23, seemed highly rated in his two seasons with the Millers. He twice made the League 2 team of the year, was near the top of the assists table and picked up a fan's player of the year award. He was also said to be attracting the interest of clubs further up the English league food chain.

A certain pedigree then.

Will that be enough? Some Rotherham fans talk of a drifter who shuns the physical element of the game. I'm tempted to borrow a pundit's phrase and ask how much will he relish a rainy night in Lanarkshire?

Time will tell. But Motherwell have unearthed a few gems in the past couple of seasons and the pressure will be on Stuart McCall to do the same.

With Law he might just have struck lucky.

Gregory Tade, Inverness

As Terry Butcher moans about the early start to the season, and the rest of us wonder why he doesn't just buy an appointments calendar, the focus must surely be on his team's ability to survive the loss of Adam Rooney.

A striker whose style perfectly complements the strengths of the rest of the squad and who also pitches in with 20 goals is a rare commodity. Difficult to find, even harder to replace.

All of which leaves Gregory Tade some unenviable boots to fill.

And Tade is no Rooney. He's not without qualities - lots of them and many that SPL defenders will not relish - but he's some distance from being the finished article and remains untested at this level.

But he's bundled his way through the Scottish leagues - something of an oddity for a Frenchman - and while he might lack some of Rooney's subtlety he should be able to offer Inverness a strong and quick focus in attack.

He doesn't score a hell of a lot of goals though so much will depend on his teammates' ability to feed off his strengths in other areas and pitch in with goals themselves.

For better or worse Tade's SPL baptism could come to define the season in Inverness.

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.