Joel Sked: Hearts and Hibs set for intriguing top-flight season

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard faces a tough opening fixture away at Aberdeen. Picture: SNS
Rangers manager Steven Gerrard faces a tough opening fixture away at Aberdeen. Picture: SNS
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After a summer in which Scottish football had its nose pressed up against the World Cup window, the Ladbrokes Premiership returns promising enough intrigue to act as a fillip to any lingering disappointment regarding the national team’s inactivity.

As well as intrigue there is excitement. At the time of writing Scottish teams have played 10 matches in European qualification matches and remain unbeaten. Aberdeen have drawn with Premier League opposition, Celtic look well-equipped to reach the Champions League group stages and Rangers have made progress under Steven Gerrard. As for Hibernian? They continue to hold on to their mantle as the team to watch.

The Betfred Cup has its detractors, and increases pressure on managers before the league season is underway. Yet, goals aplenty, shocks, talking points and no shortage of controversy have whetted the appetite for what’s to come.

It has been a long time since the Premiership dugouts have been patrolled by such a stellar cast, each with their own ideas and idiosyncrasies.

There is no bigger storyline than that of Steven Gerrard the manager. The Liverpool legend takes on his first managerial role at first-team level and he could hardly have asked for a more demanding and pressurised job than that of Rangers.

Still a far cry from challenging Old Firm rivals Celtic, the demands of their fans can be the downfall of both management and playing staff at Ibrox. But his experience as Liverpool captain should stand him in good stead as he attempts to make progress, while keeping expectation in check.

His arrival has given Scottish football another selling point.

It will be the meetings with his former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers at Celtic which will be top billing throughout the season. The Northern Irishman has made the managing malarkey look relatively easy since arriving in the east end of Glasgow, leading the Hoops to back-to-back domestic trebles.

He has yet to hit a significant bump in his Celtic career and the sort of challenge which puts him under severe pressure. Will it come from Steven Gerrard? Or will it come from elsewhere?

Despite investment from Rangers which as allowed Gerrard to reshape a poorly constructed side, Aberdeen, Heart of Midlothian and Hibs will all feel they have realistic aspirations of second place.

Aberdeen and Hibs have been relatively quiet in the transfer window. The former have already lost inspirational midfielder Kenny McLean, whereas the latter’s summer has been overshadowed by the future of their own inspirational midfielder, John McGinn.

Yet the key men at both clubs are those in the dugouts. And with Derek McInnes and Neil Lennon having fine footballing pedigrees, neither Aberdeen or Hibs will likely see a drop-off in quality.

Which means over in Gorgie that Hearts manager Craig Levein will hope the blank canvas he has been working on will yield positive results. Thirteen players have arrived during the summer and fans will not accept another transitional season. Question marks still surround the quality of the team but with greater depth it allows Levein to adapt and work around different systems.

At the bottom of the league there is another fascinating coaching career underway as Kenny Miller looks to juggle playing with management responsibilities at Livingston. Fellow promoted team St Mirren are under the control of former Hibs boss Alan Stubbs who is still in the midst of getting his feet under his desk as he looks to bounce back from a poor spell in charge of Rotherham United.

So, for once, Hamilton Academical won’t be the obvious favourites for relegation despite exiting the Betfred Cup and losing creative talent in Ali Crawford and David Templeton.

The division is populated by a number of distinct styles throughout the league. That is epitomised by Dundee, Motherwell, St Johnstone and Kilmarnock all harbouring ambitions of reaching the top six.

While Neil McCann continues to instil a fluid, passing system at Dens Park, Motherwell’s Stephen Robinson has recruited players, such as Conor Sammon, to fit into his hard-running, direct and aggressive system, one which resulted in the team reaching two cup finals last season.

In recent seasons Tommy Wright and Steve Clarke have shown what is capable with a small budget by organising a team, simplifying the game and extracting greater than the sum of the team’s parts.

Add in an eclectic mix of players, from proven individuals to unknown quantities and curious signings, and there is once again the makings for another entertaining and engaging season of Ladbrokes Premiership football.

Celtic may be the overriding favourites to lift the league title for the eighth season in a row. But between now and May the road which leads there will be full of twists and turns, enjoyment and nonsense, goals and gaffes.

And it all starts on Saturday.