SPFL 2019/20 Season Preview - Part One
It's almost time to get up and running again. After a summer break which feels like it gets shorter each year the SPFL campaign kicks off this coming weekend. The 42 clubs across all four divisions will very soon be finding out if their hopes and dreams for the new season were well placed or if their worst fears were closer to reality all along.
Welcome to any new readers checking out the madhouse that is Scottish Football for the first time. In order to properly cover the four leagues that make up the professional pyramid in Scotland I decided to present this preview in two parts. This part will look at the top and bottom divisions (Premiership and League Two).
Before a ball is kicked it is worth pointing out something positive - Scottish Football will not be using VAR this season. After a summer spent trying to figure out how on earth that system was being implemented during Copa America and the Women's World Cup I can only view the decision to not introduce it here at the moment as a good one.
Time to look at what's to come and to throw in some predictions along the way just for fun.....
When looking at the top flight in Scotland there is really only one place to begin - the title race, or more specifically will there be one? Celtic have had things all their own way in this respect for many seasons now. Realistically the only two teams capable of winning the title are Celtic and Rangers. The Glasgow giants have fan-bases and resources that dwarf all the other clubs in Scotland. The chances of a contender emerging from the pack and beating both of them to the trophy in May are virtually non-existent.
That's not to say the league can't be exciting. A two horse race for the title - England's Premier League and its media seemed to enjoy exactly that last season - with competition for all other places in the league fierce between the more evenly matched clubs would make for compulsive viewing. Celtic are still the team to beat. Rangers - runners-up by nine points last season - will be looking to use what they learned during the last campaign to propel themselves past their bitter rivals.
As soon as Celtic had wrapped up the Scottish Cup in May they confirmed that Neil Lennon would permanently be appointed as manager. It was a decision that not all of their fans agreed with but it put an end to all the speculation that was circulating and allowed the club to look forward to the challenges ahead. At time of writing Kieran Tierney is still a Celtic player although a transfer to Arsenal looks likely if the English club match Celtic's valuation of the player. In preparation for this a new left-back, Boli Bolingoli, has been purchased along with fellow defenders Hatem Abd Elhamed and £7M man Christopher Jullien. Attacking wise the same players who carried Celtic to last season's title are still there and they will be boosted by the return of Leigh Griffiths. Griffiths missed a large part of the 2018/19 season while he was dealing with depression. Having him back gives Lennon another top class option in the centre-forward department. Celtic may well add some more new players when the outcome of their current European qualifying campaign is known. Domestically their current squad looks well equipped to add another league title this season.
Offering the most sustained challenge will be Rangers. Manager Steven Gerrard now knows exactly what to expect as he enters his second season in charge at Ibrox. Every home game for his team is a must win with pretty much the same pressure applying to the away matches. It was dropped points against the weaker Premiership teams that derailed Rangers' challenge to Celtic last season. The head-to-head fixtures between Rangers and Celtic were all closely fought affairs. Gerrard is aware of this and has worked to ensure his squad has more depth for the upcoming season. Central defender Filip Helander has been recruited for £3.5M from Bologna FC along with players who offer more attacking options - Joe Aribo, Jordan Jones, Jake Hastie, Sheyl Ojo and Greg Stewart. At time of writing striker Alfredo Morelos is still a Rangers player; if this remains the case and he manages to cut out the ill discipline which saw him red-carded five times last season, Rangers may well run Celtic very close indeed.
The other clubs in the league will all be looking to finish as high up as possible. Finishing in the top six guarantees bigger matches after the split and offers the chance of coming third or fourth which brings with it entry into the Europa League qualifiers. Last season's third place finishers Kilmarnock are unfortunately already eliminated from the European competition they worked so hard to get into. Previous manager Steve Clarke moved on to the Scotland national team and Italian Angelo Alessio replaced him. Alessio is an unknown quantity as a manager but has worked as Antonio Conte's assistant at Juventus, Chelsea and the Italian national team. He is starting off on the back foot though after Kilmarnock were disasterously eliminated from Europe by Welsh part-timers Connah's Quay Nomads. I don't think they will emulate Steve Clarke's third place finish this season.
Aberdeen were next best last time around and while they will comfortably finish in the top six the players they lost after last season will be hard for the new faces to replace.
Will there be a Premiership challenge from Scotland's capital city, Edinburgh? Not even the most optimistic of Hearts or Hibs fan would try to make that case. Hearts started last season like a train before injuries caught up with their squad and they faded back into sixth place. On their day they are a match for anyone but if they somehow finished third I think the club would see that as a success. Hibs do look like they could be a good side this season. Manager Paul Heckinbottom made a positive impression since taking over in February. He has used the summer transfer window to add eight new recruits to his squad. It looks like Hibs may well have the best squad in the country outside of Celtic and Rangers.
For the clubs who finished in the lower half of the Premiership last season, staying clear of a relegation fight is probably their main priority for the beginning of the season. Hamilton are generally always tipped to go down but despite a high turnover of players I think they will do enough to survive again. St. Mirren, who did survive last season via the playoffs go into the new campaign with a new manager. Some type of dispute with Oran Kearney led to the Irishman and the Paisley side parting company during the summer. Kearney actually did a good job keeping the club in the top division last season so the man who has replaced him, Jim Goodwin, will have his work cut out.
Motherwell perhaps look the most likely to gate-crash the top six. Good form in the group stages of the League Cup (a competitive slant that Scottish football introduced to pre-season in 2016) suggests they are ready to hit the ground running. The same can't be said for St. Johnstone. They look weaker than last season and they are candidates to be pulled into the relegation fight. I would also place Livingston in this category. Last season's new boys surprised many and punched above their weight but they may find things harder this time around. New comers Ross County should cope fine with once again being a Premiership club.
Celtic and Rangers will contest a hard fought title race. Points will be dropped by both clubs along the way but they will emerge as the clear front runners by the half-way stage of the campaign. A pressure filled run-in will follow and it will be Celtic, thanks to their previous championship winning experience, who will prevail. Hibs will finish third with Aberdeen fourth.
At the bottom of the table Livingston will finish in last place and St. Mirren will need to take their chances in the playoff again.
From the summit of Scotland's professional pyramid to the base of it. For many years there was no punishment for finishing bottom of League Two but now the club who occupy that unwanted position at the end of each season must negotiate a trapdoor playoff against a club from the Highland or Lowland League. Last season's bottom team, Berwick Rangers, were comprehensively swept aside by Cove Rangers in this playoff. Cove, by all accounts an ambitious club, will definitely offer something positive to League Two. More about them later.
All the clubs in this league will all have the same goal as the season begins - promotion to League One. Joining Cove as new teams in this league for the 2019/20 season are Stenhousemuir and Brechin City. Both were relegated from League One last season. The seven remaining clubs who played at this level last season will all be looking to improve on their final standing from the previous campaign.
How it will all play out is anyone's guess. Most of the teams have a large turnover of playing staff each summer as all the contracts are one year deals. Clubs also make up their squad numbers with young players on loan from clubs further up the pyramid. Going purely by how the squads are shaping up on paper though it looks like there isn't an outstanding team in this league. That should make for competitive fare, something I am pleased about as I will see a fair bit of this league over the coming nine months. My club, Stenhousemuir, will hopefully be involved at the right end of the table.
Edinburgh City finished last season in third place and have retained much of their squad. It could be the case that a team finishing above them will be in good shape come April. Annan Athletic were also in the playoff mix so they will be looking to build on that and perhaps go one better this time around. Elgin City were a lowly eighth in 2018/19 but looking at their recruitment they could be a dark horse for promotion.
Stirling Albion, Cowdenbeath, Queen's Park and Albion Rovers all may be fighting it out to avoid finishing bottom but it really is impossible to say at this stage. One of those clubs could just as easily go on a good run and get into the playoffs for promotion.
Trying to decide on a league winner though keeps bringing me back to the new boys, Cove Rangers. Last season's Highland League champions then romped past Lowland League winners East Kilbride 5-1 before destroying the aforementioned Berwick Rangers 7-0. The co-managerial team who guided Cove to this achievement, John Sheran and Graeme Mathieson, are no longer in charge - Mathieson left the club and Sheran decided to leave the dugout to become Director of Football. Stepping in to the manager's office is Paul Hartley.
Hartley is an interesting choice bearing in mind that his previous managerial reign at Falkirk was an unmitigated disaster. Prior to managing Falkirk, Hartley had been making a name for himself as a promising young Scottish manager - guiding Alloa Athletic to successive promotions and then Dundee to the Premiership in 2014. If you speak to any Falkirk fans they will tell you that Hartley, in conjunction with the previous board, turned their team from realistic Championship promotion contenders to a League One club very quickly.
In many aspects Hartley is lucky to have been given this opportunity so soon after his Falkirk debacle. The people running Cove Rangers clearly see this as a chance for their club to progress even further up the professional pyramid under a manager who has gained promotion for clubs in the past. Interestingly Hartley will work at Cove on a full-time basis, despite the club's part-time status.
As I hinted at in the preview, predicting how this league will shake out is nigh on impossible at this point. I can't shake the feeling though that Cove and Edinburgh City will be the teams to beat. Cove's bold play in appointing Paul Hartley will pay off for them in my opinion and they will win the league. Edinburgh City will be joined in the playoffs by Stenhousemuir and Elgin City.
As for the trapdoor game - there are a few candidates and luck will play a part of course but take your pick between Cowdenbeath and Brechin City to be taking part in the game no established league club wants to be involved in come May.
*** a preview piece similar to this one for the Championship and League One will follow later this week***