As we prepare to open the first door of our advent calendars, the SPL table has an incredibly refreshing sheen to it.
One point separates the top three teams; four separate the top six; seven separate the top nine and a mere 14 separate top from bottom. Hearts are seven points off the top and seven off the bottom.
This is the startling state of affairs as we approach the half-way point, with most sides having played 15 of their 38 games. Of course, Celtic are, predictably, at the head of affairs and, with a game in hand and a far stronger squad on paper than all of their rivals, it is still widely expected that they will ultimately stroll to the title.
Yet for those who had grown tired of the annual Old Firm cakewalk – basically every non-Rangers or Celtic fan – the current scenario is one to be savoured. However short-lived it may prove to be, we finally have a league which isn’t being dominated by those with the most money. There is an element of competition, not to mention genuine surprise, which has been depressingly absent ever since the Old Firm seized their stranglehold of Scottish football in the mid-1980s.
The SPL has long been considered by outsiders as a joke league in which the exploits of Rangers and Celtic generally papered over the cracks of ineptitude throughout the rest of the top flight. When Rangers plummeted to the Third Division, many suggested the SPL was a busted flush, and that Celtic would turn it into a wearisome one-horse race which would be tied up by Christmas.
Of course, the relative competitiveness of this year’s SPL doesn’t mean the league is in great health. Far from it. After all, its tightness can mainly be attributed to the fact Celtic have had their worst domestic start to a season since 1998 when Dr Jo Venglos was in charge. The general quality of the league remains as low as it has always been, if not lower, but at least there is a freshness about it.
Aberdeen, Hibs, St Johnstone and Inverness are all within three points of top spot as we prepare to enter December, which would have been unthinkable if both members of the Old Firm were still in the top flight. Celtic are considered to be playing within themselves, crippled by complacency in Rangers’ absence or distracted by their impressive Champions League exploits. However, it shouldn’t be ignored that consistency is a trait of all top teams and Neil Lennon’s men are currently toiling to attain it.
The days of teams going to Parkhead and fearing a hammering are long gone. It could be that Celtic are not quite the team their brilliant European results suggest they are. After all, if Hearts had performed week in, week out to the level they managed in their two Europa League games against Liverpool, they would surely be top of the league by now.
Getting roused for bread-and-butter league games is what makes good teams, and, in this regard, the likes of St Johnstone, Inverness, Hibs and Aberdeen, despite the huge financial gulf, have all been able to give Celtic a run for their money.
The only depressing aspect of the league’s unlikely competitiveness is the lingering sense of what might have been. What if Hearts, Dundee United and Motherwell, the three most consistent non-Old Firm teams of recent seasons, had not all had their squads decimated just as Rangers were removed from the SPL landscape?
These three teams have all had poor starts to the season at a time when at least one of them would have been seen as the likeliest to challenge Celtic. In each of the past five seasons, the non-Old Firm team who had the most points at the 15-game mark would have had more points then than Celtic currently have.
Motherwell’s 29-point tally at this stage last term would put them four points clear at the top now, while Hearts had also amassed 29 points by this stage two seasons ago. If every team could raise their game an extra ten per cent, Celtic might just have a bigger fight on their hands to retain their title than they originally envisaged.
We don’t have any super clubs like Manchester United, Manchester City, Barcelona or Real Madrid, so surely we’re better off having a competitive league like the Dutch or French versions, over a cash-dominated competition like La Liga or the Premier League, where only a select few have any chance of winning it.
The quality may be diminished without Rangers but, for those whose world doesn’t revolve around the Old Firm, that hasn’t stopped the much-maligned SPL being visited by a welcome sense of intrigue.