Anthony Brown: Second tier riddled with danger

Alloa's Liam Buchanan, left, celebrates scoring against Hibs. Picture: SNS

Alloa's Liam Buchanan, left, celebrates scoring against Hibs. Picture: SNS

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The Scottish Championship certainly isn’t short of positive endorsements these days.

At a time when Rangers, Hearts and Hibs – the league’s shiny new poster boys – were widely expected to make light work of turning the second tier into a runaway three-horse promotion race, there have been plenty reminders of late that this is a division riddled with hazards.

Indeed, Morton, having just missed out on promotion to the top flight in the previous campaign, found out just how unforgiving it can be when they finished rock bottom last season.

The competitiveness of the Championship is lent further substance by the presence of Hamilton Accies looking down on the whole of Scottish football from their unlikely perch atop the Premiership. It was only a few months ago that Accies, surprise promotion contenders themselves last season, scraped into the top flight by virtue of some late play-off drama against Hibs. The fact they have made such a strong start in the big league with virtually the same squad that only just pipped Falkirk to second place last season is a further boon to the second-tier’s stock.

In previous seasons, Ross County and Partick Thistle, upon winning promotion, had similarly gone on to prosper in the top flight, giving credence to the notion that many Premiership teams, having largely been diminished by financial restraints in recent seasons, are no longer significantly stronger than their Championship counterparts.

Increasingly, it is becoming clear that the Championship, littered with hungry youngsters and discarded former top-flight players desperate to prove a point, is a league reluctant to pander to reputation.

Hearts and Hibs are finding that even the least-illustrious teams in the Championship, namely the part-timers of Dumbarton, Alloa and Cowdenbeath, are, to coin an old phrase, “no mugs”. These teams, traditionally from the third or even fourth tier of Scottish football, have grown accustomed to raising their game against the likes of Dundee, Hamilton, Livingston and Falkirk in recent seasons. The prospect of facing three of the biggest clubs in the country has merely given their players additional impetus to punch above their weight.

Ominously for the two Edinburgh clubs, the only team to have so far been immune to the dangers of the supposed inferiors of the division are Rangers, whose solitary competitive slip-up this season came against a Hearts side boasting genuine title aspirations themselves. Despite the paucity of their performances at times, the Ibrox side have retained a knack for winning matches by hook or by crook. It is this winning mentality, nurtured on their processions through the bottom two divisions, which Hearts and Hibs must replicate if they are to have any chance of challenging them.

Hearts looked like they had adjusted to head coach Robbie Neilson’s demands for such “relentlessness” when they won their first four league games in scintillating fashion, but it was notable that they slipped up at the first genuinely unfashionable venue they had to visit.

After such a strong start to the season, a goalless draw from a match they controlled shouldn’t signal the end of the world. However, the strength of their title credentials will become clearer in the coming weeks when they host a Cowdenbeath side that came close to winning at Easter Road and then a Livingston team who have already thrashed Neilson’s fringe men in the Petrofac Training Cup.

Hibs, meanwhile, continue to make desperately heavy weather of the second tier and have now struggled against all three of the division’s part-time teams. If there was any doubt before the season kicked off, the scrambled victories against Cowdenbeath on Saturday and Dumbarton in the League Cup either side of a defeat at Alloa should underline that there will be no easy games in this division for a club which, no matter its ground size or reputation, is still in the process of rebuilding following its demise.

Rangers, Hearts and Hibs are still the likeliest sides to occupy the top three positions at the end of the season – probably in that order – but not before the smaller fish of the Championship enjoy plenty more days in the sun.