Eilidh Barbour is a sports broadcaster working all over Scotland. She knows more about Scottish Football than the rest of us put together, and you can follow her on Twitter @EilidhBarbour
Breathe a collective sigh; normality returns to the Scottish football fraternity on Saturday when the SPL clubs opens their doors on another season. Optimism is the drug of choice as scarves are removed from their summer hiding place, creases are ironed out of lucky shirts and bodies are squeezed once again through the turnstiles.
Last season saw controversy, scandals and sackings; sectarianism once again became Scottish football’s shame with death threats and controversial singing overshadowing the occasional quality on the pitch. League reconstruction was a hot topic before very quickly becoming a cold subject. Referees were drafted in from around the continent as the ‘ref-gate’ scandal culminated in a major strike from the men in the middle and fans were left frustrated as, once again, Scottish weather proved victorious sparking yet more discussions of winter breaks.
But as the champions Rangers unfurl the flag and kick off another season at 12.30 on Saturday afternoon, all that has passed will be forgotten. The journey to come is long but inviting and everyone is keen to be back on board. As for what the journey entails for Scotland’s top 12, here are my predictions.
DUNFERMLINE – Prediction 7th
It’s an old cliche but a team that is used to winning knows how to keep doing it, particularly when there is nothing to lose, and the First Division champions tend to deliver on their first season in the SPL. Dunfermline are a big club and have signed some experienced SPL players in Paul Gallacher, John Potter and Kevin Rutkiewicz which will stand them in good stead. Defensively they look strong and if they can get the ball in the net at the other end they should have a welcome return to the top flight. Good accounts of themselves in televised cup matches against SPL opposition in recent years won’t have done them any harm either. The pressure in the bottom 6 is extreme but Dunfermline are the ones that can enjoy playing without the pressure that the rest have to deal with which should give them the edge in coming out on top of the bottom bunch.
ST JOHNSTONE – Prediction 8th
With the most linked manager in the SPL, St Johnstone will be pleased to start the campaign with Derek McInnes still in charge. He’s had a successful reign since taking over from Owen Coyle but question marks still remain over his ability to sign players with the quality to push the Perth Saints into the top 6. Another busy transfer market has seen a number of new faces in the dressing room including former fans favourite Callum Davidson. Strikers were top of the agenda after a very poor goalscoring season and the fans are delighted to see the return of former Celtic player Cillian Sheridan, back on loan. If Sheridan finds the same form as when previously at the club there should be plenty more goalmouth action this time around. The addition of Kilmarnock’s Frazer Wright to replace Michael Duberry looks a solid upgrade. In midfield Saints managed to hold on to Murray Davidson despite interest from Rangers and Kevin Moon returns from injury with a promising pre-season. Top 6 still looks a step too far for St Johnstone but retaining SPL status shouldn’t be a problem.
HIBERNIAN – Prediction 9th
Hibs are a team in perpetual turmoil these days. Managers come and go in the blink of an eye and the chances of current manager Colin Calderwood being around come Christmas are almost impossible to call. The club needs stability but it doesn’t seem to be coming any time soon. A clear out in the squad has seen the departure of a number of first team players including Derek Riordan and Liam Miller. A new manager in charge may give the expectation of a new type of player, a new brand of football but instead Hibs welcome back former players Garry O’Conner and Ivan Sproule. A dangerous gamble as the expectations from the fans relate to players much younger and in a more successful team than the present day. This is the prediction I’m most worried about being reminded of come season’s end but I just don’t see enough harmony, stability and drive from the manager or the players to achieve anything more than safety this year. I truly do hope I am proven wrong.
ST MIRREN – Prediction 10th
Danny Lennon surprised many last season by keeping St Mirren out of the drop zone last season. With signings coming from much lower down the ranks of Scottish football, the squad was relatively unknown. Like Lennon himself, though, those players proved doubters wrong and Darren McGregor showed that the leap from part-time to full-time football was achievable, in his case with ease. This time around and Lennon has brought in some familiar faces. Steven Thompson is a proven goalscorer in Scotland from his time at Rangers and, despite not having much game time for Burnley, his pre-season form has been good. The departed Michael Higdon may not be missed as much as initially thought. Midfielder Paul McGowan is joined this season by former Celtic team mate Graham Carey. Having already been on loan at St Mirren under previous manager Gus McPherson, Carey knows the club and provides definite balance in midfield. Both are dangerous particularly from set pieces and will enjoy having a BIG MAN like Thompson up front. Undoubtedly losing captain John Potter and goalkeeper Paul Gallacher have been blows and there may be a slight lack of experience in the squad and at the helm and consequently a bit of flirting with relegation but I think they’ll pull through once again.
INVERNESS CALEDONIAN THISTLE – Prediction 11th
Out with the old and in with the new was the philosophy in Inverness this summer as a team’s worth of players were released. The club’s financial difficulties are no secret and Terry Butcher has had to mould a squad of quality not quantity and at a tight budget. Top goalscorer Adam Rooney is gone and inspirational captain Grant Munro now plies his trade for rivals Ross County. Andrew Shinnie is a noticeable new face moving from Rangers and there is no doubting the youngster is a classy midfielder. A big impetus is on Gregory Tade to repeat his goalscoring success of last season while making the step up to the SPL. The big challenge for Inverness this season is keeping the squad fit and all players providing consistent form. It’s going to be tough I think it will pay off in that they’ll survive but I don’t see it being pretty and there could be a fair few nervy moments for Butcher and co.
KILMARNOCK – Prediction 12th
Survival by the skin of their teeth two seasons ago was turned on it’s head under Mixu Paatelienen with Kilmarnock providing some of the best football on show last time around. Find of the season Alexei Eremenko conducted play with brilliance and ease, breathing a new lease of life into the players around him. Unfortunately for Kilmarnock those players and the conductor himself are no longer around. Craig Bryson, Connor Sammon and Jamie Hammell are amongst a group of big names to leave the club. The inspirational Mixu has also departed and Kenny Sheils takes over. As nice a man as Sheils is, his pedigree as a number one is still to be demonstrated and the test he faces is as tough as it could be. There are some new faces at Rugby Park, the most notable being Gary Harkins, a man who has been teetering on the edge of SPL football for a number of seasons. The key for Sheils is going to be creating a strong team bond and determination to work for each other. Should he manage it then safety can be achieved, don’t achieve it and the drop beckons.
Check back later for Eilidh’s Top Six preview (and find out if she tips blue or green) and don’t forget to follow @gdfeet4abigman on Twitter.