HEARTS and Aberdeen can contribute to a competitive Scottish Premiership next season, but must be realistic about mounting a title challenge.
That is the opinion of Scotland coach Stuart McCall, who pointed to the financial gap between Celtic, Rangers and the rest as a crucial factor in the league race.
Aberdeen finished 15 points behind champions Celtic this season, with Hearts 21 points off the top. Both clubs will return in August hoping to compete with the Glasgow club again as Rangers join the top flight. McCall is hopeful of seeing four teams challenging, however he cautioned that Hearts and Aberdeen must punch above their weight to do so.
“That would be great but there has to be a realism there,” he said. “Look at Aberdeen, who did really well last season. How much did they pay for Kenny McLean? Around £250,000? And then you look at Celtic who were signing players at £2m to £5m. So there’s still a big gap there. For all you think it could be tight, when you line the budgets up side by side there’s a big gap.
“People expect Rangers to spend millions to put in a challenge next season but people thought Aberdeen could do that with a much smaller budget. When I was at Motherwell [as manager], I remember someone saying we should be putting up a better challenge to Celtic. We were second at the time but maybe nine points behind. But there were players in the Celtic team earning more than my entire squad. So you have to be realistic.
“It would be great if Hearts and Aberdeen could put up a title fight – and I’d love if that happened – but if you list their financial strengths one after the other then these two shouldn’t really be able to get close to Celtic or Rangers.
“Both Aberdeen and Hearts will look to improve again. The crowds have been good. You look at Tynecastle and it’s full most weekends. Celtic’s crowds will go up, and Rangers can go up a bit if they can. You look at how many fans are coming to games and it’s encouraging. So it should be intriguing next season.”
McCall is currently with the Scotland squad preparing for friendlies against Italy in Malta and France in Metz. Along with national coach Gordon Strachan and his assistant Mark McGhee, he will assess several new players in these two games – including the Hearts pair Callum Paterson and Jack Hamilton.
Hamilton is vying for game time with the Ross County goalkeeper Scott Fox over the next nine days. “I’m sure there will be a chance for one of them at some part of the games,” said McCall, mindful that Cardiff City’s David Marshall is the established keeper in this squad. “We haven’t got round to discussing the two games. We’re just looking at what systems we might try. In our World Cup group, you’d rate England next to Italy and France in terms of toughness. Italy have played a couple of different systems in their recent games.
“Gordon is always one for concentrating on ourselves. We’ve got to be aware of what other sides are doing but we have to try and implement certain things. As long as we keep learning.
“You say you have to make your mark in these games. John McGinn stood out last time, and Kieran Tierney. He probably would’ve been back but for the Celtic European games. Ollie Burke impressed and he’s back. The younger ones who are here must think: ‘If we can make our mark on a game then we can stay part of it’.”
That will certainly be the sentiments of Paterson, Hamilton and Fox as they await senior international debuts. “We’re taking it deadly seriously,” continued McCall. “Our last two games were good results [against Czech Republic and Denmark] but we can do a lot of things better in our performance. We try to improve each time we get together.
“We might look at different systems this time and certainly different personnel. Last time we had John McGinn and Ollie Burke with us for the first time, now we have Callum Paterson, Stephen Kingsley, Barrie McKay and others. That freshens things up.”
While the Italians and French focus on building momentum for their Euro 2016 campaign, Scotland’s attention settles on the future. Another failed qualifying campaign forces Strachan to look to the autumn, when World Cup qualifiers begin. McCall senses a hunger within the national team camp as players try to cement a place.
“The mentality of the lads is good. A lot of them have come back from holidays to join up, so they want to be here. As a player, you want to play against the best. Because you know who you’re playing, you know you’ve got to be at your best.
“A week’s training gets them up to speed and gets them ready. Although they’re friendlies, they’re competitive games. We can’t just turn up and go through the motions. They won’t have that mindset because they’re all playing for a start in the first qualifying game at the Euros.
“Our lads, difficult as it might be, have to have that. If they do, they’ll be here for the World Cup qualifiers. Our main aim in these two games is to build for the qualifiers. It’s great that we’ll be in Malta for a few days and play on the pitch we’re going to play on in our first qualifier. That will be beneficial to us.”
The period after these friendly matches may be difficult and McCall makes no bones about trying to ignore Euro 2016. “When the Euros come on, I think I’ll go away for three weeks. You’ll be watching Ireland and Poland there and thinking: ‘We drew twice with Poland and beat Ireland and drew with them’. We’re undefeated against these teams, yet they’re in the finals. It going to be sore.
“You see all the fans from all home nations and it’s going to be tough. There’s nothing we can do about it. We just need to take our medicine and make sure we do our best in the next campaign.
“As a player, I’d be coming into these two friendly games thinking: ‘This is who I want to be playing against’. If we had two easier games against lesser nations, the mindset might be that you’re still on in holiday mood. We can’t afford to be in that mood and the players know that.”