The SPL title race may have degenerated into a depressingly predictable procession for Celtic, but, even though there is no second Champions League place on offer, don’t let it be said that the battle for second spot has been devalued.
In what has been anything but a vintage season for the SPL, with crowds remaining frighteningly low and no side other than Celtic able to show any real sustained quality, the gruelling dogfight that has ensued for second place has served to provide some much-needed intrigue. Forget the fact Rangers are not in the league; for whichever club ultimately prevails in the fight to finish runners-up, this season is likely to go down as their best of the SPL era.
Given how tightly matched the ten sides outwith Celtic and Dundee are, with budgets slashed across the board, whoever falls over the line in second will earn the right to party as if they’ve won the league itself. The fact no side other than Celtic have won more than half of their home games highlights just how difficult it is to pick up points and sustain consistency in an ultra-competitive section of the league. It truly is developing into a war of attrition.
So far, the battle has been notable mainly for the fact that no team wants to seize command, with Motherwell, Hibs and Inverness all looking good at various points, only to lose their way just as they seemed set to pull away from the tightly-clustered pack.
The latest round of fixtures saw Motherwell regain the initiative, with Kilmarnock and Ross County, remarkably, emerging as dark horses. The Fir Park side have to be considered favourites now on the basis that they are two points clear with a game in hand, while also bolstered by the experience of holding off all-comers to land third place – when Rangers were still in the league – last term. To finish as best of the rest two seasons running would be quite a feat for a club of Motherwell’s stature.
But even if Stuart McCall’s men fall short, whichever side finishes second will still have a magnificent tale to tell. Inverness would be the romantics’ choice because of the unlikeliness of it all – and the fact their swashbuckling attacking play under the popular Terry Butcher has endeared them to so many. If Hibs or Aberdeen were to pull it off, it would complete a road to redemption after their abject travails of previous seasons.
As it stands, County, one of the form teams in the league just now, and St Johnstone, the only side outwith Celtic to string together five successive wins, both have an outside chance and if either of those two were to win the race, it would be nothing short of remarkable, particularly in the case of the Dingwall club.
If United, who were meandering aimlessly towards mid-table under Peter Houston, were to mount a late-season run and pinch second, it would see new manager Jackie McNamara’s stock go through the roof, while a similar rampage up the table from Hearts would be miraculous given their current position, the youthfulness of their team and all the chaos they would have had to overcome to get there.
Personally, I’d like to see Kilmarnock win the race as a reward for their admirable dedication to playing a complete passing game. Plenty have had their fill of Kenny Shiels, below, but Scottish football, which is crying out for people to embrace its disillusioned fanbase, needs more characters of the madcap Rugby Park manager’s ilk. He thinks outside the box and does more than most to generate discussion, even if he usually succeeds in ruffling a few feathers. The day people stop talking about Scottish football is the day it dies. And Shiels gets people talking,
For me, he’s the best manager in the league and the philosophy he has implemented, which means a club of Killie’s meagre resources can constantly lose key men and still remain competitive, merits success.
Although it remains unlikely that Kilmarnock will finish in second, for me, they are the biggest breath of fresh air in a league which is depressingly lacking in inspiration.