With Celtic looking nailed-on certainties for a second successive title, the main intrigue in the SPL this season will come from the battle for second, and whether or not any team has the ability, belief and consistency to at least give the Parkhead some kind of test along the way.
In the absence of Rangers, it would rank as the biggest humiliation in Celtic’s history if they were unable to win a title which has been claimed by one of the two Old Firm sides every year since 1985.
As every club apart from Celtic trims their squad and increases their reliance on youngsters in order to meet financial constraints, the popular school of thought is that Neil Lennon’s men will have the title all but wrapped up by Christmas.
While this unappetising outcome could well come to fruition, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that at least one team could emerge to give the champions-elect something to think about. Lennon will surely set his team the target of amassing a record points haul, but complacency will be a danger without the presence of their great rivals to keep them on their toes.
The other hope from those who yearn to see the Old Firm stranglehold challenged is that Celtic might stumble out the blocks, allowing any fast-starting rivals the chance to at least dream – however temporary it may prove – of a title challenge.
As recently as a year-and-a-half ago, Hearts were viewed as dark horses for the title in the month of January, while it was little over two-and-a-half years ago that Hibs were considered to be in the title hunt at the halfway stage.
Last season, Motherwell were the team who took the challenge to the Old Firm, leading Celtic by three points in mid-October, while Dundee United finished last term with nine wins and a draw from their last 12 games. If the Arabs could replicate that form from this weekend onwards, it would see them go close to topping the table in October. As fanciful as the notion of anyone challenging Celtic may seem at present, the evidence is there, in short bursts at least, that teams are capable of stringing together a decent run of results. Doing it over the course of a full season is the real test, however, and that is where Celtic, with their extra quality, financial clout and squad size, will ultimately prove too strong for all of their rivals.
Nonetheless, if enough clubs are galvanised by Rangers’ absence and develop a genuine desire to try and go toe-to-toe with Celtic, it should at least manifest itself in the form of a compelling battle for second. United are the favourites to finish best of the rest, and it’s easy to see why. In Jon Daly, Gary Mackay-Steven and Jonny Russell, they have the best attack in the league outwith Celtic, while Mark Millar and Michael Gardyne look like shrewd additions by Peter Houston.
Motherwell have survived the summer relatively unscathed, with Tim Clancy and Steve Jennings the only members of last season’s regular XI to leave. Darren Randolph, Tom Hateley, Steven Hammell, Keith Lasley, Chris Humphrey, Nicky Law and Jamie Murphy ensure they retain a good core of upper-end SPL players, while they have plenty talented youngsters with first-team experience to compensate for a lack of squad depth. Hearts, despite fears of a mass cull, are not in bad fettle either as they embark on life under John McGlynn. Ian Black and Rudi Skacel will be missed, but the return of the revitalised John Sutton should go some way to filling any goalscoring woes caused by the popular Czech’s departure. Of all the others who left, none, including Craig Beattie, featured often enough last season to be considered integral players. If the youngsters prove to be as good as Hearts believe, a second-place finish is within their reach.
While these three sides look the likeliest to challenge at the top, there is an opportunity for Aberdeen and Hibs to emerge from their recent slumps and at least re-establish themselves as top-six sides. Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn will give the stodgy Dons the type of creativity they’ve been crying out for in recent seasons, while Rory Fallon and Scott Vernon form a decent front two. Perhaps the biggest boon for Craig Brown’s side, however, could be having veteran centre-back Russell Anderson back to full fitness, ably assisted by fellow 30-something Gary Naysmith at left-back.
Likewise, Hibs will benefit from having James McPake and Clancy forming half of their back four, while Paul Cairney has the potential to emerge as one of the stars of the season. In the absence of Garry O’Connor, manager Pat Fenlon could desperately do with youngsters like Ross Caldwell and Danny Handling stepping up to share the goal-scoring burden with Leigh Griffiths. If Hibs get off to another poor start, though, as they have done in the last two seasons, they could find themselves embroiled in a relegation battle again, as there doesn’t look to be a standout candidate for the drop among the six supposed smaller clubs in the division.
Dundee and Ross County are currently favourites to go down, but the fact only three newly-promoted teams have suffered instant relegation in 14 years of the SPL has to count in their favour. Kilmarnock, St Mirren and St Johnstone will be hopeful of building on fine seasons last time round, although St Mirren will be keen to ensure their disappointing finish to last term doesn’t carry on into the new campaign.
Inverness perhaps look most susceptible after failing to set the heather alight last season and subsequently losing key man Hayes to Aberdeen. At first glance, their summer recruitment drive doesn’t exactly inspire great confidence.
That said, it’s probably any one from at least half a dozen who could go down. Outwith Celtic, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal between any of the other 11 teams. With a dearth of star quality throughout the league, this season could be defined by the youngsters who will hopefully emerge from the shadows to seize their big chance.
Runners-up: Dundee United
Relegated: Inverness CT