LAST summer, the Championship title race looked – at most – a three-horse race but, even then, one of the supposed contenders, Hibs, were effectively being asked to run on three legs.
Given the disarray the Easter Road club were in following relegation, it was always likely that the winner would be either Rangers, a team packed with experience, or Hearts, a club riding the crest of wave after emerging from administration. As it transpired, Hibs were effectively out of title contention by the end of the first quarter in October, when they trailed their city rivals by a whopping 14 points.
With Hearts now out of the equation after coasting into the Premiership and Hibs a far more sure-footed proposition than a year ago, the Easter Road side are entitled to go into the new season with far more optimism.
They may be second favourites in what looks a straight two-way fight between them and Rangers, but, unlike last summer, they have a genuine chance of winning the title.
Alan Stubbs’ side can take heart from the fact they pipped Rangers to second place last season after hitting a rich vein of form from October onwards.
They won 15 of their last 21 league games, displaying the level of consistency that will have to be sustained for an entire season if they are serious about winning the league this time round. Rangers won only 19 of their 36 league games last term in what was one of their most calamitous campaigns on record. Early indications are that, under Mark Warburton’s guidance and with the off-field tumult having subsided, they will be a far more formidable proposition this season.
In short, both Hibs and Rangers are in far better fettle, which should make for a compelling battle for the title.
The Easter Road side can claim to have an advantage over their rivals in the sense that most of their squad played together last season – to impressive effect – and they will be expected to improve further this season. Of the new additions, James Keatings looks an obvious upgrade on Franck Dja Djedje in attack, while John McGinn, Marvin Bartley and Dan Carmichael should be adequate replacements for the likes of Dylan McGeouch, Scott Robertson and Liam Craig. If Hibs are able to get McGeouch back from Celtic, while also holding on to Ibrox target Scott Allan, they would probably have a stronger midfield than Rangers on paper. As things stand, the Ibrox club look pretty good in that area, with Andy Halliday, Nicky Law and Jason Holt forming an impressive threesome.
Defensively, both teams are in good order.
Hibs will be fine if they can keep their regular defenders from last season fit, while Rangers have strengthened significantly at the back. James Tavernier, Rob Kiernan and Danny Wilson should have little trouble coping with the attackers of the Scottish Championship, while Lee Wallace will welcome having more dynamic players around him.
In attack, Hibs can expect Dominique Malonga, Jason Cummings and Keatings all to net double figures this season, while they will hope to be able to call on the physical presence of Farid El Alagui more often than they could last season if they need help breaking down a stuffy opponent.
Rangers new boy Martyn Waghorn will get goals, while Nicky Clark and Kenny Miller will also chip in with their fair share. Player for player, there is little between the teams while, assuming Warburton and his assistant David Weir live up to the early hype, both are under shrewd stewardship.
Ultimately, the title race will boil down to which of the two sides is able to show the more ruthless streak. Both will be keen to emulate what Hearts did last season although, with more full-time teams in the division than last season, winning relentlessly will be easier said than done.
With Hibs and Rangers likely to be within arm’s reach of each other at the top of the table, the four games between the pair will have a big bearing on who finishes first. Hibs won three of the four league meetings last season. But, perhaps more pertinently, Rangers triumphed in the two-legged play-off at the end of May. Winning when it really matters is something this promising Hibs side will have to add to their make-up.
Rangers are entitled to use last month’s 6-2 Petrofac Cup demolition at Easter Road to gain a psychological edge when the sides reconvene at Ibrox in a couple of weeks time but, with improved match fitness and their four new faces added to the mix, Hibs are sure to be a far stronger team by the time that game comes round.
By then, Hibs need to make sure they have six points in the bank from their opening two league games, against Dumbarton and Morton. Anything less leaves them at risk of falling off the pace, as they did last year. Only this season, with so much in their favour, there can be no excuses.
St Mirren are third favourites following relegation from the Premiership and, although there is a fair bit of pre-season optimism in Paisley following the appointment of Ian Murray as manager, the former Hibs captain has already acknowledged that the big two are likely to be fighting it out for the title. In fact, he stated last week that he viewed Hibs as favourites on the basis that they had shown such promise in the second half of last season.
The Buddies have lost a host of players over the summer – including McGinn to Hibs – and Murray will be hoping the club’s homegrown youngsters can help lift them into the play-offs. A third-place finish shouldn’t be beyond them, although they will face stiff competition from the likes of Falkirk and Queen of the South. The Bairns have lost top scorer Rory Loy to Dundee, but have a reasonably settled look and can be expected to make a sharper start than they did last season when Peter Houston was busy putting a new team together.
Queens are a team in transition after losing a raft of key men to bigger clubs and recruiting a host of new faces. James Fowler will be hopeful that the bedding-in process doesn’t take too long.
There are several other clubs who will have a new look this season. Raith Rovers, now under the charge of Ray McKinnon, have done some eye-catching summer business, with their transfer policy revolving around handing a second chance to younger players who have recently been released by bigger clubs. On paper, they look equipped for a play-off push.
Livingston, following their great escape from relegation under Mark Burchill, will be hoping for a more mundane campaign after all the controversy that dogged them last term. The manager has performed a major overhaul of his squad this summer, with the signing of Liam Buchanan from Alloa looking particularly shrewd. Without a points deduction, the Lions will hope to steer clear of relegation trouble, but, like many of their rivals, it will depend how well their new recruits settle in.
The part-time pair of Alloa and Dumbarton, both having recently appointed new managers in Danny Lennon and Stephen Aitken, have also made significant changes to their squad over the summer. The Sons have added the experience of Darren Barr and Mark Brown – rivals in the Hearts v Hibs Scottish Cup final of 2012 – as they look to build on the good work performed by Murray before his departure for St Mirren. With survival the main target for these two clubs, they will be hoping that League One champions Morton, under the stewardship of former Hibs boss Jim Duffy, toil to handle the step up.
At this stage, it looks like the league can be split into three segments: the survival hopefuls of Morton, Alloa, Dumbarton and Livingston; the play-off chasers of Raith, Queens, Falkirk and St Mirren; and the bona fide title contenders, Rangers and Hibs.
ANTHONY BROWN’S CHAMPIONSHIP PREDICTIONS
Fourth: St Mirren
Relegation play-off: Alloa
Top scorer: James Keatings
Manager: Danny Lennon
Last season: 9th
IN: Andrew McNeil (Airdrieonians), Colin Hamilton (Brechin), Dougie Hill (Raith Rovers), Kyle McAusland (Dunfermline Athletic), Burton O’Brien (Livingston), David Crawford (Arbroath), Omar Kader (Forfar), Connor McManus (Celtic, loan), Michael Duffy (Celtic, loan), Catalin Paun (Stirling University), Mikk Reintam (Frydek-Mistek), Mark Williams (St Mirren), Geoff Mitchell (Histon FC), Aron Lynas (Cowdenbeath)
OUT: Ben Gordon (Livingston) Craig McDowall, Russell McLean (Hearts), Kevin Cawley (Dumbarton), Marc Docherty (Dumbarton), John Gibson (Clyde), Ryan McCord (Raith Rovers), Daryll Meggatt (Dundee), Greig Spence (Cowdenbeath), Kyle Benedictus (end of loan), David Ferguson (end of loan), Phil Roberts (end of loan), Adam Ashgar, Michael Chopra, Stephen Simmons, Jonathan Tiffoney, David Weatherston, Liam Buchanan (Livingston), Mikey Couser (East Fife), Michael Doyle, Greg Rutherford
Manager: Stephen Aitken
Last season: 7th
IN: Mark Docherty (Alloa), Kevin Cawley (Alloa), Gregor Buchanan (Dunfermline), Grant Gallagher (Stranraer), Willie Gibson (Stranraer), Mark Brown (Ross County), Darren Barr (Ross County), Darren Miller (Queen’s Park), Gordon Smith (Stirling Albion), Jon Routledge (Hamilton), Calum Waters (Celtic, loan), Steven Craig (Wycombe Wanderers)
OUT: Scott Agnew (St Mirren), Mark Wilson, David Van Zanten (Airdrieonians), Lee Mair (Stranraer), Archie Campbell (Clyde), Stephen Grindlay (Beith Juniors), Mark Gilhaney (Stenhousemuir), Scott Linton (Clyde), Mitch Megginson (Raith Rovers), Chris Duggan (end of loan), Dylan Easton (end of loan), Stuart Findlay (end of loan), Darren Petrie (end of loan), Danny Rogers (end of loan), Chris Turner (Hamilton), Josh Lumsden (Clydebank), Joe Coleman
Manager: Peter Houston
Last season: 5th
IN: Danny Rogers (Aberdeen, loan), Paul Watson (Raith Rovers), Bob McHugh (Motherwell)
OUT: Rory Loy (Dundee), Taylor Morgan (end of loan), Ollie Durojaiye, Michael Martin, Liam Rowan, Jamie MacDonald (Kilmarnock)
Manager: Jim Duffy
Last season: League 1 winners
IN: Bobby Barr (Brechin), Frank McKeown (Stranraer), Denny Johnstone (Birmingham City, loan), Romario Sabajo (Lienden)
OUT: Aiden Ferris (BSC Glasgow), Declan McManus (end of loan), Sean Crighton (Airdrieonians), Ross Caldwell, Nicolas Caraux, Jamie McCluskey, Stefan Milojevic
Manager: Alan Stubbs
Last season: 2nd
IN: James Keatings (Hearts), Danny Carmichael (Queen of the South), Martin Boyle (Dundee), Mark Oxley (Hull City), Antonio Reguero (Ross County), Marvin Bartley (Leyton Orient), John McGinn (St Mirren)
OUT: Tomas Cerny (Partick Thistle), Liam Craig (St Johnstone), Callum Booth (Partick Thistle), Franck Dja Djedje (Al Shahaniya), Dylan McGeouch (end of loan), Keith Watson (end of loan), Kleton Perntreou (Crystal Palace), Scott Robertson (FC Botosani)
Manager: Mark Burchill
Last season: 8th
IN: Liam Buchanan (Alloa), Jackson Longridge (Stranraer), Jordyn Sheerin (Musselburgh Athletic), Kieron Gibbons (Aberdeen), Ben Gordon (Alloa), Ross Millen (Dunfermline), Spas Georgiev (Dobrudzha Dobrich), Morgyn Neill (Motherwell), Moses Duckrell (BK Sport), Darren Smith (Hamilton), Matt Gould (Cheltenham)
OUT: Callum Fordyce (Dunfermline), Jason Talbot (Dunfermline), Mikey McKenna (Berwick Rangers), Shaun Rutherford (Queen of the South), Kevin Walker (Berwick Rangers), Jack Beaumont (Cowdenbeath), Burton O’Brien (Alloa), Kyle Jacobs (Queen of the South), Nejc Praprotnik, Rory Boulding, Ibra Sekajja, Keaghan Jacobs (Bidvest Wits FC), Bradley Donaldson (Cowdenbeath)
QUEEN OF THE SOUTH
Manager: James Fowler
Last season: 4th
IN: Ryan Conroy (Raith Rovers), Robbie Thomson (Cowdenbeath), Steven Higgins (Motherwell), Darren Brownlie (Cowdenbeath), Shaun Rutherford (Livingston), Kyle Jacobs (Livingston), Callum Tapping (Brechin City), Dale Hilson (Forfar), Gavin Skelton (Workington AFC), Jordan Marshall (Carlisle)
OUT: Kevin Holt (Dundee), Ian McShane (Ross County), Kevin Dzierzawski (Peterhead), Chris Mitchell (Clyde), Danny Carmichael (Hibs), Zander Clark (end of loan), Patrick Slattery (East Fife), Mark Durnan (Dundee United), Gavin Reilly (Hearts), Michael Paton (Dunfermline)
Manager: Ray McKinnon
Last season: 6th
IN: Darren Petrie (Dundee United), Kyle Benedictus (Dundee), Lewis Toshney (Cowdenbeath), Ryan McCord (Alloa), Mitch Megginson (Dumbarton), Craig Wighton (Dundee, loan), James Craigen (Partick Thistle)
OUT: Ryan Conroy (QOS), Calum Elliot, Liam Fox, Dougie Hill (Alloa), Martin Scott (Salgaocar FC), Kevin Moon, Liam McCroary, Christian Nade (Hamilton), Barrie McKay (end of loan), Paul Watson (Falkirk)
Manager: Mark Warburton
Last season: 3rd
IN: Danny Wilson (Hearts), Rob Kiernan (Wigan), Wes Foderingham (Swindon Town), Jordan Thompson (Manchester United), Andy Halliday (Bradford City), Tom Lang (Birmingham City), Martyn Waghorn (Wigan), James Tavernier (Wigan), Jason Holt (Hearts)
OUT: Steve Simonsen (FC Pune), Lee Robinson, Lee McCulloch (Kilmarnock), Bilel Moshni (Angers), Richard Foster (Ross County), Steven Smith (Kilmarnock), Sebastian Faure, Kyle Hutton, Ian Black, Kris Boyd (Kilmarnock), Jon Daly, Haris Vuckic (end of loan), Remie Streete (end of loan), Shane Ferguson (end of loan), Kevin Mbabu (end of loan), Gael Bigirimana (end of loan), Calum Gallagher (St Mirren)
Manager: Ian Murray
Last season: Bottom of the Premiership
IN: Scott Agnew (Dumbarton), Stuart Carswell (Motherwell), Paul McMullan (Celtic, loan), Luke Conlan (Burnley, loan), Cameron Howieson (Burnley), Calum Gallagher (Rangers)
OUT: Gregg Wylde (Plymouth Argyle), Callum Ball, Marian Kello, Viktor Genev, Jeroen Tesselaar, Marc McAusland, Isaac Osbourne, Gary Teale, Thomas Reilly, Yoann Arquin, Mark Williams (Alloa), Mo Yaqub (Cowdenbeath), Adam Brown, James Dayton (end of loan), Emmanuel Sonupe (end of loan), John McGinn (Hibernian), Kieran Sadlier (Peterborough United)