SPL Preview 2011/12

1 Aug

A recent piece for Just Football. 

The whole of Europe is eagerly awaiting the new SPL season which kicks-off on 23rd July – well no, actually they’re not.  Not surprising really, given that the last campaign turned out to be a truly horrible affair for so many reasons.  Hopefully this year will be more about players, teams and results, rather than referees, politics and death threats.  Here’s a look ahead to 2010/11:

Some Old Favourites Return

Were the SPL to adopt a Champions League-style theme tune, then ‘Welcome Home’ would be apt.  Hibernian have brought back Garry O’Connor and Ivan Sproule, Willo Flood has signed on again at Dundee United, and Callum Davidson has returned to his first club, St Johnstone.  Chris Clark meanwhile is back at Aberdeen and at the time of writing, Rangers are trying to agree a deal for Carlos Cuellar and may yet move for Kenny Miller.

McCoist v Lennon

That’s as rival managers, not squaring up to each other on the touchline as they did at the end of the Scottish Cup replay in March.  As Ally McCoist embarks on his first season in charge at Rangers, he has money to spend now that Craig Whyte’s takeover is finally complete.  However, he is learning the same lesson as Neil Lennon did last summer – the top two are not as big a draw as they once were, with Rangers’ signing targets Craig Conway, Neil Danns and Tomer Hemed all choosing other clubs.  McCoist has brought in Spanish midfielder Juan Manuel Ortiz and others should follow.

Celtic have brought in Kelvin Wilson to strengthen a defence which, although statistically was the best in the league, conceded too many cheap goals in too many important matches.  Kenyan Victor Wanyama provides options in midfield or at the back.  Lennon is on record as saying that it’s “imperative” that Celtic win the league – he’s not wrong.  Four years in a row without the title hasn’t happened since the dark days of the early 1990’s and if it does, then Lennon’s own future will be in doubt.

Heart of Midlothian

There’s rarely a dull moment at Tynecastle, particularly with club owner Vladimir Romanov around…or even when he’s back in Lithuania.  His most recent act was a bizarre statement via the club’s website which included:

“Every year Hearts fights to be in the top three, but even last season in the last 12 games of the season it was almost like someone replaced the team with a different one. Whose fault is that? Players? Manager’s? Or it is mafia?”

This is the same Romanov who previously suggested that Celtic and Rangers were “buying” officials and has had run-ins with numerous managers and players during his time in charge.

The latest controversy to hit the club is defender Craig Thomson’s conviction for lewd, libidinous and indecent behaviour involving two under-age females.  Hearts had originally allowed Thomson to continue his career as if nothing had happened.  However, they then suspended him after public condemnation from fans, sponsors and Edinburgh City Council – even First Minister (and Hearts fan) Alex Salmond had his say.  Hearts have now announced Thomson will leave the club, though there has been speculation that he will move to one of Romanov’s other clubs in Eastern Europe.

Despite the flak they’ve been receiving, it’s looking rather promising on the field.  Excellent in the first-half of last season, the squad has been bolstered with experienced SPL campaigners John Sutton, Danny Grainger, Jamie Hamill and Mehdi Taouil.  They won’t win the title but are clear favourites to repeat last season’s third-place finish.  Don’t be surprised if they land a domestic cup either.

The Top Six

Dundee United should be Hearts’ main challengers for third place, but will have to cope without the departing Conway and David Goodwillie.  Motherwell should also finish comfortably within the top-half – Stuart McCall has made a positive start to his time in charge at Fir Park, including last season’s Scottish Cup final appearance.  Much will depend on new signing Michael Higdon following the loss of Sutton.

Inverness Caley Thistle will look to finish in the top six after being there for much of last season but they too have lost a striker, with the impressive Adam Rooney heading to Birmingham City.  If low-scoring St Johnstone are able to find the net more often (only 23 goals in 2010/11) they may surprise a few people.

The Rest

Kilmarnock will find it tougher this time round without so many of their key men from last year, including Paatelainen, Bryson, Eremenko and Sammon. Craig Brown, meanwhile, will continue his rebuilding job at Aberdeen and any kind of finish above seventh will be a decent return.

Like the Dons, Hibernian need to make a good start or risk being dragged towards the bottom.  Hibs’ preparation has been hampered by speculation surrounding the future of manager Colin Calderwood, who is wanted by Birmingham and Nottingham Forest as an assistant.  Clearly, the timing of such a departure would be far from ideal, but it wouldn’t be a disaster: there has been little evidence during his tenure to suggest that Calderwood is the man to take the club forward, and some of his statements to the media indicate that he wouldn’t be too disappointed to leave either.

For St Mirren and Dunfermline, it could prove to be a difficult season.  The Paisley side were 10th and 11th in the last two seasons and will hope to avoid continuing on that downward trend.  The Pars meanwhile, will take heart from the likes of St Johnstone and Hamilton, who in recent years have both survived in the top flight after promotion.

Off The Field

Scottish football seemed to appear on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers almost as often as the back pages last season.  The threats to Neil Lennon’s life and the touchline attack at Tynecastle showed the world what the Celtic manager has to contend with in order to live and work in Scotland.  Then of course, there was the Dougie McDonald decision-changing fiasco which led to industrial action by referees.  As if that wasn’t enough drama, Celtic and Rangers met seven times during the course of the season, with that explosive cup-tie in March resulting in high-level meetings between the clubs, Scottish Government and the Police.  Anti-sectarian legislation is expected to follow later in the year.

So, expect another quiet season in Scotland.

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