Celtic seem poised to canter to another Premier League title
With Hearts in disarray, Motherwell look well-placed to prove best of the rest
Neil Lennon: the title remains a priority for the Celtic boss but a good European Champions League run is also required
The recent European victory for St Johnstone over Rosenborg offered a reminder of Scottish football’s importance and a stark snapshot of how far it has tumbled. The Perth team’s aggregate win, highly impressive though it was, arrived in the second qualifying round of the Europa League.
Scotland has slipped so low down the European radar that its clubs now play qualifiers as routine against clubs they could once treat with disdain.
The level of national exuberance that met St Johnstone’s win highlighted other things; namely how desperate the nation has become for any kind of success and that a generation of supporters have no knowledge of a time when teams had a significant standing in Europe.
Celtic’s Champions League exploits last season were wonderful and Rangers’ run to the Uefa Cup final of 2008 shouldn’t be forgotten but elsewhere failure has become an unhappy commonplace.
Perhaps the most endearing and notable aspect of St Johnstone’s home leg was the attendance of 7,850. By the end of last season’s Scottish Premier League, St Johnstone had an average home crowd of just 3,640.
This weekend marks the official start of the Scottish Professional Football League, a body again encompassing all four divisions.
The SPL has been renamed and rebranded, but it lacks a title sponsor and will be run by the same people who have presided over years of stagnation.
The SPFL unveiled the names of their divisions as Premiership, Championship, League One and League Two.
Newly-introduced play-offs between the first and second tiers have been hailed as the most impressively radical development for the new season. It was the closed-shop, exclusion mentality of the SPL that pushed so many clubs towards financial oblivion. Some have never fully recovered.
Celtic will win the Premiership, their third in a row, and once again at a canter.
The question is are the club’s board of directors content to retain a squad that is guaranteed to return that domestic success or will they spend meaningful cash in order to boost hopes of a return to the Champions League’s group phase.
Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper have left and top players will not choose Scotland as their ideal place of work but Celtic revelled in their European run last season and, clearly, want more of the same.
Neil Lennon insists that winning the title remains his priority but there is a mundane element associated with doing precisely that that is offset by Champions League occasions.
Spending money would not guarantee a return to Europe’s top table, and Celtic’s business model is unquestionably strong, but supporters want to see ambition in return for their costly season tickets. Celtic still need a centre-forward, a centre-back and a ball-playing midfielder.
At the bottom of the table, it will require a minor miracle for Hearts to overcome the 15-point penalty they suffered for entering administration.
That deduction would be harmful enough in isolation but they also have a signing embargo and a playing squad that is preciously low on experience, scoring threats and physicality. Their best hope, which cannot be discounted, may be that another club suffers an insolvency during the coming months.
Hearts’ city neighbours, Hibernian, suffered the humiliation of a 7-0 home Europa League defeat by Malmo.
Pat Fenlon has remained as manager and has made good signing in the form of Owain Tudur Jones and Rowan Vine. The £200,000 Hibs paid Swindon Town for James Collins represented a rare case of a team (bar Celtic) spending a six-figure transfer fee.
Aberdeen’s perennial hope for better things has been boosted by the arrival of a manager with hunger in the form of Derek McInnes (formerly boss of Bristol City).
Motherwell have lost their key striker, Michael Higdon, but Stuart McCall can be content with a batch of useful signings that include Stephen McManus, John Sutton, Iain Vigurs and James McFadden. They seem the best bet for second place.