SPFL 2019/20 Season Preview - Part Two
The waiting is almost over. We can almost reach out and touch the beginning of the SPFL season. The upcoming ten months of football will be filled with controversy, debate, surprises and hopefully some emerging stars.
Earlier this week I previewed the top and bottom divisions of Scottish football - available here - so in the interests of providing a complete picture this part will look at the two leagues sandwiched in-between; the Championship and League One.
It is fair to say that at this time of year fans of all clubs are optimistic. Even if they think realistically there will be no silverware coming their way in May, most supporters are caught up in the excitement an approaching new season brings. How teams begin the season will determine how long this feel good period lasts for their fans. It's a marathon not a sprint though so a bad start is not the end of the world.
The clock is ticking so no better time than now to provide some information and guess wildly at what may happen in the second and third tiers of Scottish football this season.....
Often this is the most competitive league in the country. With only one automatic promotion place to the Premiership available every point is a prisoner. In years gone by predicting who the Championship winners would be has been very difficult. For the upcoming season though it looks like there is one team in this league that should be head and shoulders above the rest.
Dundee United will be making their fourth attempt to return to Scotland's top flight. This time it looks like they have all the pieces in place to achieve that goal. Last season's agonising playoff final penalty shootout defeat to St. Mirren is now just a distant memory for the Tannadice club. Manager Robbie Neilson arrived in October 2018 with the team struggling. He inherited a bad situation so did well to guide them to the playoff final. Now with the full season to work with and reasonable investment in the squad it really looks like United's title to lose. One significant addition to the squad is striker Lawrence Shankland from Ayr United. Shankland scored 34 goals in 41 matches playing at the same level last season so United fans will be hoping for a similar strike-rate from their new centre-forward. Another interesting addition to the Tannadice squad is Adrian Sporle who arrives from Banfield in Argentina. I wonder what he will make of Scottish football?
Attempting to stop Dundee United marching to the title will be their city rivals Dundee FC. Dundee FC had an abysmal time of it last season in the Premiership and were relegated. Just five wins and a goal difference of -47 tells the story. They have appointed a new manager, former club captain James McPake, and freshened up the squad with nine new arrivals. We shall have to wait and see if this is enough to offer a genuine challenge to their neighbours but one thing is certain - the four Dundee derbies will be fiercely contested. Hopefully some of them will be televised.
How about the rest of the clubs? On paper Inverness Caledonian Thistle look best equipped to take on the Dundee teams in a promotion race. Third last season, the highland club have added a proven goalscorer at this level in James Keatings. Last season's fourth placed team Ayr United may struggle to hit those heights. Up until Christmas Ayr looked like they could actually win last season's Championship until they fell away over the closing months of the campaign. Their squad has been raided by clubs with more money, including the already mentioned move of their ace goalscorer Shankland to Dundee United.
Fifth last season were Greenock Morton and they have an interesting mix of youth and experience in their squad this time around. Partick Thistle were a disappointing sixth last season - they were actually in danger of relegation until the second last week - so they will be looking to improve. Manager Gary Caldwell has brought in eleven new players, including experienced and evergreen veteran striker Kenny Miller. If Miller can play regularly and hit 15 or so goals then Thistle could be in the frame for the playoffs.
Dunfermline were disappointing last season and while they may be better this time they look lightweight up front so I can't see them threatening the better teams in the league. Queen of the South survived relegation via the playoffs and may have to scrap towards the bottom of the league again. Alloa Athletic surprised everyone by surviving in the Championship last season. The part-timers were heavily tipped to go straight back down to League One but Jim Goodwin (now managing St. Mirren) worked wonders guiding them to an eighth place finish. New manager Peter Grant - formerly Alex McLeish's assistant during his appalling spell as Scotland manager - is the man charged with repeating Goodwin's feat.
Last season's League One champions Arbroath complete the Championship lineup for 2019/20. Like Alloa, Arbroath will operate as a part-time club at this level. As a result they are this season's heavily tipped club to go straight back down. Manager Dick Campbell is an experienced operator in the lower leagues of Scotland though so you won't find me writing off Arbroath's chances of staying up.
I can't see anyone but Dundee United winning the league. Dundee FC, Inverness and Partick Thistle will finish best of the rest to earn a shot at promotion via the playoffs.
At the other end of the table it may well be a dog-fight between Alloa and Arbroath to avoid coming bottom of the heap. Alloa have the experience of prevailing last season but this time around I think they could be in trouble. Automatic relegation for them. Dick Campbell and Arbroath will finish ninth and earn the right to fight for Championship survival in the playoffs.
There's only one place to start when looking at League One. Falkirk FC, a club generally found in the upper reaches of the Championship and occasionally the Premiership have slipped down to the third tier of Scottish football for the first time since 1980. It was a disastrous way to close out a woeful period of boardroom mismanagement for the team known as The Bairns. The off-field catastrophes were made worse by a period of lazy and inept recruitment and on-field decisions by former manager Paul Hartley. Hartley's dismal work was too much for his replacement Ray McKinnon to undo last season. McKinnon is back for the new campaign with a squad he can finally call his own. The expectation is that Falkirk, who will operate on a full-time basis, will go straight back up to the Championship.
To add to the feeling of mild optimism around The Bairns a new owner and investment plan for the club was announced last week. English businessman Mark Campbell is reportedly looking at making a seven-figure investment in the club with a view to getting Falkirk back to the Premiership as soon as possible. We shall have to wait and see how that develops.
Last season's second and third placed teams, Forfar and Raith Rovers, will be looking to challenge Falkirk all the way for the League One trophy. Raith maintained full-time status in this league last season and were expected to rampage their way to the title but Arbroath proved to be too good for them. This season Raith are using a mix of full and part-time contracted players as last season's failure to gain promotion reportedly cost them around £400,000.
Forfar meanwhile are generally under the radar. Their home of Station Park is a difficult place for opponents to find any success and the additions of midfielder Ross Forbes and proven League One marksman Andy Jackson should see them go well again.
Promoted clubs Peterhead (last season's League Two Champions) and Clyde (up via playoffs) should hold their own in their new surroundings and stay clear of any relegation worries.
With the exception of East Fife and the clubs already mentioned every other League One team looks weaker on paper than they were last season. Montrose will have their work cut out to emulate the fourth place finish their efforts last season yielded. Airdrieonians' recruitment of 18 new players suggests they may be a work in progress while Dumbarton and Stranraer could be relegation candidates.
I don't think they will run away with it but over the 36 games I can only see Falkirk coming out on top of this league. They could still potentially bring in one or two more players before the transfer window closes with the new investment they are due to receive. This would bolster a squad which already contains players who have played at a higher level. Experienced pros like Morgaro Gomis, Connor Sammon and Cammy Bell will help The Bairns back to the Championship at the first time of asking.
Raith Rovers, Forfar and East Fife will make-up the playoff bound teams.
At the bottom of the table I think it could be a long season for fans of Dumbarton and Stranraer. Stranraer to finish bottom with Dumbarton ninth.
It's almost the weekend, but not just any weekend. Yes, let the drama begin - domestic football in Scotland is back. Enjoy the season!