Ian Murray has installed Hibs as “slight favourites” to take the Championship title – but warned Alan Stubbs’ players they’ll face the toughest of battles to win automatic promotion.
With no team likely to conjure up a repeat of the way Hearts left everyone else trailing in their wake last season, Murray believes the coming campaign could be even more competitive, his St Mirren side aiming to be very much in the frame following relegation.
However, while Rangers, Hibs and Saints will be the clubs many feel will be heading the table, Murray insisted the likes of Falkirk, Queen of the South, Raith Rovers and newly promoted Morton will all have a huge say on exactly how the season pans out.
The Ibrox club will, again, have a budget to put others into the shade but with Rangers still managerless as the days count down to the start of the action, Murray believes Stubbs has stolen a march on many of Hibs’ rivals by snapping up James Keatings and Dan Carmichael, persuading Fraser Fyvie to sign a new deal and in retaining the nucleus of last season’s side.
In contrast, whoever the new Rangers boss turns out to be faces a massive rebuilding job with the Glasgow club having released 11 players including the likes of skipper Lee McCulloch, Bilel Mohsni, Ian Black, Kris Boyd and Jon Daly. Queens’ manager James Fowler is in the same boat, the Palmerston Park outfit’s success resulting in the loss of Carmichael, Ian McShane, Kevin Holt and Mark Durnan and with Gavin Reilly set to sign for Hearts.
Murray, too, will have to add to his squad, the Buddies having lost seven players including Greg Wylde, Marian Kello, Jeroen Tesselaar and Yoann Arquin although he’s hopeful of persuading midfielder John McGinn to stay and has yet to speak to veteran frontmen Steven Thompson and Alan Gow.
The former Hibs and Rangers midfielder, however, adopts a philosophical approach to such a situation saying: “It’s part and parcel of football, you lose seven or eight so you need another seven or eight.
“For Queens it’s a measure of how well they’ve done individually and collectively that so many have got good moves for themselves. It’s tough for James, but he’s got a year under his belt in terms of management and he’s already set about bringing in replacements.
“At Dumbarton I had to rebuild and rebuild, it happens to everyone. Rangers have lost a few and need to get the manager’s position sorted out quickly to let the new man get to work. I don’t know what resources he might have but I’d imagine the name Rangers in itself will attract good players.
“They won’t want things to drag on too long but at the end of the day I don’t think they’ll be too far behind. It’s early days, but I think you have to say that at the moment Hibs are slight favourites. They’ll have the biggest budget outwith Rangers, they’ve got players with a season’s experience of playing in this league and Alan has had his first year in management.
“It does take players time to adjust, the Championship probably isn’t as tactical as the Premiership but it’s a bit quicker, there are more mistakes at the back and players do need to adapt.
“Alan has said a few times the season came just too soon for Hibs and when you look back at their results from the first half to the second that’s quite telling. They were a bit like Rangers and didn’t manage to get going while Hearts were just relentless.
“But Alan has gone out and got good players in Keatings and Carmichael. Keatings has won the Championship with Hamilton and Hearts and will be hoping for a third while Carmichael has come back from injury and done very well. They are two players who know the league, Keatings has been at a big club like Hearts while Carmichael has been looking for this chance to step up to a big club.
“Hibs and Rangers will see it as being between them but it’s not rocket science to point out that they both can’t win the title so the next goal will be to go up through the play-offs and as we know that is no certainty given the way things are tilted in favour of the Premiership side that becomes involved in them.”
Murray obviously has the same aspirations as his two old clubs but admits it will be difficult although he has high hopes for the youngsters he has inherited in Paisley where he’s looking forward to a return to full-time football.
He said: “We’re not going to have the same budget as Rangers or Hibs but what I do have are young players desperate to do well. They have experience, they’ve played at the top level and when you look at Hearts with their youngsters then you know that with a couple of older heads to guide them they could do well.
“We’ve plenty of quality in the likes of Sean Kelly, Jack Baird, Barry Cuddihy, Stephen Mallan, Lewis Morgan and Jason Naismith, we’ve offered Keiran Sadlier training facilities and I’m hoping John McGinn will re-sign while I’ve also to speak to Steven Thompson and Alan Gow.
“The target, like any other team, is to go up and the best chance of doing that is automatic promotion as I think the play-offs are a long shot because of the way it’s set up to help the Premiership team.
“But I want to improve our young players, to help them and to do that in parallel with winning games and gathering points quickly. If we can be there or thereabouts come Christmas we can perhaps reassess what we are doing, how we are progressing. We know we can compete but it’s going to be difficult.
“Falkirk are a good side, they ran Inverness Caley very close in the Scottish Cup final and were a wee bit unfortunate. They beat Hibs twice in the league and again in the cup semi-final and have a number of good young players who already have a large number of games behind them and, again, have plenty experience of this league.
“Raith Rovers have a new manager in Ray McKinnon and will be looking to strengthen while Livingston will be hoping they’ll be allowed to sign players. Queens, Alloa and Dumbarton all enjoyed good results against the top teams last season and they’ll be aiming to be stronger this time while Morton, I think, could be the dark horses.
“They’re a good club, they’ve got a decent amount of money to spend and a good manager in Jim Duffy.
“It’s going to be an exciting league but tough for everyone. Starting the season well will be massively vital if you want to make sure you are at the top end of the table.”