Kevin Harper expects both Hibs and Rangers to up their game next season and predicts an ultra-competitive Championship title race between the two flagship teams of the division.
The ex-Easter Road striker was thrilled to see his old club seemingly steal a march on their rivals when head coach Alan Stubbs swiftly re-signed Fraser Fyvie and Lewis Stevenson and recruited Dan Carmichael and James Keatings before Rangers had even decided whether they were going to retain previous manager Stuart McCall.
But Harper believes the Ibrox club’s decision to appoint an eye-catching new management team of Mark Warburton and David Weir this week has redressed the balance somewhat and allowed them enough time to prepare for the start of the league campaign in seven weeks.
“Last week, I’d have said Hibs were favourites, but now Rangers have brought in an excellent management team with enough time to get players in and have a full pre-season together,” Harper told the Evening News. “I think Warburton and Weir will be excellent and Rangers will be stronger this season than they were last year. They’ll be a more harmonious team and there won’t be so much distraction surrounding them. But Hibs will be stronger as well. Alan will have learnt a lot from his first year in management and will benefit from having a full pre-season with his team this time. I think the title race will be really close – I don’t think anybody will run away with it the way Hearts did last year and I don’t see either team as being obvious favourites.”
Harper raves about Stubbs and believes that, with the popular Liverpudlian at the helm, Hibs can overcome Rangers’ financial muscle. “The biggest difference between the two teams is that Rangers will be able to spend £1 million on a player and pay them £7,000 a week, whereas Hibs don’t have that option. They can go into a different market to Hibs and they’re not in as bad a situation as Hibs were at this time last year when we still didn’t have a manager and only had about ten signed players. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win the league. We’ve got a manager who is excellent tactically and has everybody right behind him.”
Harper is enthused by the arrival of both Keatings and Carmichael, whom he believes will bring qualities that were missing last season. “Keatings will score goals,” he said. “I’ve spoken to a few people about him, Hearts fans as well, and he looks like a really good signing.
“As long as he handles making the move across the city he’ll definitely enhance the strikeforce.
“That was the one area where we probably had to strengthen and the manager’s done that very early.
“Carmichael did well at Queen of the South and he’ll bring some genuine pace, which is something we didn’t really have last season.”