Thursday, 21 July 2011

SPL Preview

Last season the SPL hit the headlines worldwide for a series of unsavoury events on and off the field. With minds now focused back on the game itself, here is a preview to how all 12 sides should get on before the big kick-off this weekend.

Last Season: 9th

In the past two years, Aberdeen fans have watched their club go from European qualification, to battling relegation, while attendances plummeted at the same rate as league position.

This summer saw the contracts of, Derek Young, Zander Diamond, Jamie Langfield, Mark Howard, Scotland international Chris Maguire, and Nigerian International Sone Aluko expire.

As yet, Aluko has not found a club, Diamond moved to Oldham and Maguire left for Derby - though compensation received due to his young age has yet to be seen in Craig Brown’s transfer dealings.

Jamie Langfield signed a new one-year deal, then suffered a seizure that will keep him out of action for the first half of the season, resulting in Colombian keeper David Gonzalez joining on a six-month loan from Man City. Welsh keeper, Jason Brown, also signed up after leaving Blackburn Rovers this summer.

Centre back Youl Mawene – whom Brown previously worked with at Preston North End – was the summer’s first signing. Following this, midfielder Isaac Osborne and Icelandic international Kari Arnason joined. While these three are one-year contracts, former Don, Chris Clarke joined on a three-year deal.

Returning from injury for the start of the season are Frazer Fyvie, Yoann Folly and testimonial-man Darren Mackie. Also returning from a year-long loan at arch-rivals, Rangers, is new club captain, Richard Foster, who was subjected to vile abuse from one or two moronic ‘fans’ on his first pre-season appearance against Borussia Monchengladbach.

The team as things stand remains notably short in certain positions. Given the obvious lack of width, it appears likely that the formation will become 3-5-2, with Foster and perhaps, Robert Milsom, Ryan Ryan Jack or Clarke as wing-backs should no one more natural out wide be signed.

Josh Magennis, Michael Paton and Mackie will hope to be the second striker to Scott Vernon, though whether the creativity of Maguire (and occasionally Aluko) last season can be met by players already on the books is not clear.

Peter Pawlett in particular has shown encouraging form pre-season and himself, Jack and Fyvie are most certainly the young players providing Aberdeen’s long-suffering fans the infinitesimal optimism they have remaining for the future of their once great club.

Prediction: 5th

Last Season: 2nd

The summer has been one of relative calmness at Celtic Park. After the upheaval required in playing personnel last summer, following the removal of Tony Mowbray and installation of Neil Lennon as manager, Celtic have paid for only one player since the close of last season only eight weeks ago; the Kenyan Victor Wanyama signing for a million pounds from Belgian club Germinal Beerschot.

Wanyama will though be joined by Adam Matthews and Kelvin Wilson who had already agreed pre-contract deals with the club.

However, rather than disharmony over the lack of transfer action, there is a contentment within the Parkhead faithful. Lennon has had his contract renewed - a priority amongst the support given the progress he made on the field and horrific abuse he was subjected to off it last season – and there have been no major departures.

By retaining Player of the Year Emilio Izaguirre (linked with Liverpool and Manchester United in recent months) and other star players, Gary Hooper and Beram Kayal, Celtic will start as favourites for the league. However, as Lennon has recognised himself, the progress demonstrated last season must continue if the title is to be arrested back from Rangers.

One area of concern for the Northern Irishman will be the goalkeeping position. Fraser Forster has returned to Newcastle following his season-long loan spell and Celtic have been linked with a number of keepers in recent weeks.

Croatian international Stipe Pletikosa has been on trial and wouldn’t now cost anything after Spartak Moscow cancelled his contract. Lukas Zaluska will start the season as number one (as he did last year before losing out to Forster) but with Europa League qualification around the corner, expect to see a new man between the sticks in the not too distant future.

Prediction: 1st

Dundee United
Last Season: 4th

United have suffered the fate of many Scottish clubs in recent times by losing key players to the English Championship.

Prince Buaben (Watford), Craig Conway (Cardiff) and Margaro Gomis (Birmingham) have all headed south leaving a huge hole in the midfield that had been the key to success under current manager Peter Houston and his predecessor and current Scotland boss, Craig Levein, in recent seasons.

Houston has been able to welcome back one player from the English second tier in Willo Flood. The Irishman had a successful 18-month stay at Tannadice under Levein but failed to claim a regular starting place after moving to Celtic and Middlesbrough.

Flood will be joined in midfield by John Rankin who has moved to United from Hibs. Rankin’s career has stuttered recently after a couple of very promising seasons at Inverness and a good start to his time in the capital, but on form both he and Flood can provide more of a goalscoring threat from midfield than either Buaben or Gomis did.

The future of David Goodwillie is likely to be the key to other arrivals. The Scottish Young Player of the Year has attracted interest from Rangers and Cardiff but, with the striker awaiting trial over an allegation of rape later in the year, potential suitors have been put off by United’s £2million asking price.

Prediction: 4th

Dunfermline Athletic
Last Season: Promoted

Dunfermline are the SPL’s newcomers and after a four-year absence from the top tier they have been busy in recruiting both players with SPL experience and some of the First Division’s leading lights.

Goalkeeper Paul Gallacher and defender John Potter have joined from St. Mirren after being released by the Paisley club and another experienced SPL campaigner Kevin Rutkiewicz has signed from St. Johnstone.

Andy Barrowman, who helped fire Ross County to the Scottish Cup Final in 2010, should also bring extra firepower to a frontline that relied heavily on ex-Hearts striker Andy Kirk last season. While, other impressive performers in the First Division last term, Paul Burns and Paddy Boyle have signed from Queen of the South and Partick Thistle respectively.

There has been a trend in the SPL over recent seasons of sides coping well with the transition to the top league, due both to the competitive nature of the First Division and the declining standards in the SPL. Inverness, St. Johnstone and Hamilton, the previous three promoted sides have all stayed up in their first season and the relative strength of Jim McIntyre’s squad to those sides means Dunfermline should have every chance of retaining their SPL status come May.

Prediction: 11th

Last Season: 3rd

Since Vladimir Romanov took charge of Hearts in 2005 there has rarely been has dull moment. This summer was no different as again Scottish football hit front page headlines for all the wrong reasons. Hearts midfielder Craig Thomson was put on the sex offenders’ register and fined £4,000 for indecent behaviour towards two girls aged 12 and 14.

Understandably the tidal wave of public opinion, along with that of his manager and team mates, was for Thomson to be reprimanded by the club. Instead, Romanov issued a spectacular statement in which he blamed the influence of the mafia (amongst a variety of other factors) for Thomson’s discretion.

However, once sponsors started to withdraw their support from their club, the Lithuanian owner was forced accept that the severity of the situation did not require the response of a bad Soprano’s script. Thomson was eventually sacked, but once again, after a serious of Romanov rants in recent years and the attack on Neil Lennon by a Heart’s fan in May, the reputation of the club was sullied.

A very unfortunate distraction for the club since it had in fact had a very good summer in the transfer market. John Sutton who scored 17 goals for Motherwell last season was signed on a Bosman as were Jamie Hamill and Mehdi Taouil, two of the stars of a fabulously entertaining Kilmarnock side.

St Johnstone’s Danny Grainger was also brought in to substitute for the loss of Lee Wallace at left-back after the Scottish international agreed a £1.5m move to Rangers.

However, unlike most clubs outside the Old-Firm, Hearts have been able to hold onto their other promising young players and will be hoping Young Player of the Year candidate David Templeton will return to the form that saw him shine so brightly in the first-half of last season. The future of top-scorer Rudi Skacel remains in doubt though with the Czech’s current contract running out on July 31st and no offer of a new deal in the pipeline.

Jim Jeffries’ side laboured slightly to third place in the final third of last season after a wonderful run saw them take 31 points from a possible 33 between the beginning of November and the end of January. With some shrewd additions they are pole position to again be the closest challengers to the Old Firm.

Prediction: 3rd

Last Season: 10th

There hasn’t been the same amount of scandal, but across the city it has also been an unhappy summer at Hibs.

Top-scorer Derek Riordan has surprisingly headed to China (a purely football based decision I’m sure) along with Liam Miller and Colin Nish in a raft of departures from Easter Road.

The biggest distraction however has been the speculation surrounding manager Colin Calderwood. The former Scotland defender has never been warmly welcomed by the Hibs support, as much for his negative tactics as his poor results, since his appointment last October. Calderwood was assistant to Chris Hughton during his time at Newcastle and now that Hughton has taken over at Birmingham it has been widely reported that Calderwood would like to be reunited with him in the Midlands.

Hibs chairman Rod Petrie however is famed for his tough negotiating skills and has outlined his intention to receive significant compensation before he allows his manager to return down south.

Like a number of other clubs this season, Hibs fans will at least have a couple of former favourites to cheer on this year. Striker Gary O’Connor and Ivan Sproule have re-joined the club on free transfers. The returning heroes could be joined by former Ghanian international Junior Agogo who is currently on trial and set to sign a deal with the Edinburgh club.

Yet, even if O’Connor and Agogo are able to fill the void left by Riordan’s goals, it is hard to see Hibs improving greatly on last year’s 10th position. It could be sometime before the sunshine returns to Leith.

Prediction: 8th

Inverness Caley Thistle
Last Season: 7th

The side that made its name by embarrassing Celtic in the Scottish Cup in 2000 were at it again at the end of last season to cap off a wonderful return to the SPL after a season back in the First Division.

That 3-2 defeat of Celtic made headlines as it cost the Glasgow side the title, but it also underlined Inverness’ excellent end to the campaign in during which they won their last five fixtures.

Earlier in their season it had been their terrific away form that had seen them rise as high as fourth near the turn of the year. Until defeat to St. Johnstone in January they had gone over a year unbeaten on the road; including come from behind draws at Celtic Park and Ibrox.

Their home form had never hit quite the same heights and a slump in form after Christmas meant that Terry Butcher’s side just missed out on a top-six place, but seventh was good enough to match their highest ever finish.

As ever new challenges await for Butcher. Top-scorer Adam Rooney has joined Birmingham on a Bosman and a host of other loyal servants to the club over a number of years were released at the end of the season.

The former England captain will be hoping that Gregory Tade, who caused a number of Premier League defences trouble during cup runs with Raith Rovers over the past couple of seasons, will be able to bring the cutting edge that Rooney did over two highly successful seasons in the Highlands.

Butcher has also been able to bring in Aaron Doran from Blackburn who impressed during his loan spell at the club last season and Rangers youngster Andrew Shinnie, brother of current Caley defender Graeme Shinnie.

However, despite being last season’s surprise package, Caley Thistle will probably return to being relegation candidates this season. The loss of Rooney’s goals and a dependence on young players could see them fall foul of second season syndrome.

Prediction: 10th

Last season: 5th

For the first two-thirds of last season Kilmarnock were the team to watch. With the precociously talented Alexei Eremenko pulling the strings in midfield, Killie displayed a wonderful brand of pass and move football that Scottish football is so often devoid of.

However, after the turn of the year the wheels didn’t so much as come off the bus as the passengers. The decline began when Connor Salmon who had scored 18 goals in the first-half of the season moved to Wigan in January. Manager Mixu Paatelainen then moved to coach his home nation of Finland in April and Killie failed to register a win under newly installed boss Kenny Shiels in the final eight games of the season.

Eremenko has now also gone, having returned to Metalist Kharkiv, as have key midfielders Jamie Hamill (Hearts), Mehdi Taouil (Hearts) and Craig Bryson (Derby). An exodus that doesn’t leave Shiels with much of last year’s successful side to work with.

The Northern Irish manager has added five players from the English lower divisions as well as Dutchman Danny Buijs, Dundee youngster Gary Harkins and former Celtic striker Ben Hutchinson. But, with such a turnaround in personnel, none of whom are proven at the SPL level, it is very hard to see Killie replicate last season’s top-six finish.

Instead they are more likely to return to the position they were in two years ago when they staved off relegation on the final day of the season.

Shiels was considered by many lucky to get the job, if he starts in the season in similar form to how he ended it another managerial change, this time of the club’s making, could be on the cards.

Prediction: 9th

Last Season: 6th

Motherwell had fantastic season in 2010/11. A top-six finish allied to a run to the Scottish Cup final, League Cup semi-final and even a few victories in Europe very early in the campaign was great progress for a side that have consistently punched above their weight in recent years.

The downside of such success has been their losing their managers. Craig Brown followed Mark McGhee’s route in swapping Lanarkshire for Aberdeen mid-way through last season, paving the way for Stuart McCall to become Motherwell’s fourth boss in five seasons.

This year they should at least benefit from some continuity with McCall having been in charge for seven months and not nearly facing the turnover in playing staff that other sides have.

The loss of top-scorer John Sutton to Hearts will be a huge one, especially as his replacement, Michael Higdon, has never been prolific during his time in Scotland with Falkirk and St. Mirren.

However, they have been able to retain key performers from last season’s cup in Jamie Murphy, Chris Humphrey, Steve Jennings and Keith Lasley, whilst new signing Nicky Law has looked good in pre-season.

How they cope with the loss of Sutton will be key, but in Murphy Motherwell have one of the outstanding young talents in the league and should be looking to retain their place in the top-six.

Prediction: 6th

Last Season: 1st

Rangers’ first pre-season under new manager Ally McCoist and new owner Craig Whyte has been one of consolidation and frustration.

Allan McGregor, Steven Whittaker and Steven Davis have all signed long-term deals at the club with the dual intention of guaranteeing their future but also a significant transfer fee should they move in that period.

David Weir and David Healy have also signed one-year extensions to their deals, but elsewhere McCoist has been hampered by a lack of funds.

Lee Wallace and Juanma Ortiz have arrived from Hearts and Almeria respectively and both have a versatility that will be crucial to a squad very short on numbers. Meanwhile, American international Alejandro Bedoya has agreed a deal to join the Ibrox side in January at the end of his current deal with Swedish side Orebro.

Further new faces are expected in the 40 days before the end of the transfer window with a return for former defender Carlos Cuellar still a possibility.

Despite the lack of signings, however, the champions’ prospects look no different to how they have for the past two seasons. On both occasions Rangers were unable to add much to their squad and were up against a Celtic side with much greater strength in depth. Yet, on both occasions it was Rangers’ consistency that prevailed in winning the title.

The major difference this year though is the change in management. Walter Smith was able to use all his experience to motivate his thin looking squad to not only success on the domestic front but also some notable victories in Europe last season. Whether McCoist can match those achievements in his first year is a major challenge.

Rangers will face a seeded side in the Champions League play-off round of qualification should the overcome Malmo in the third qualifying round and with his recruitment not complete, the early start to the season, both at home and abroad, could be a penalising one for their new manager.

Prediction: 2nd

St. Johnstone
Last Season: 8th

St. Johnstone consolidated last season with a respectable eighth placed finish despite a chronic lack of goals.

At one point in the season the Saints scored only one goal in nearly three months – a run spanning 11 league games.

That goalscoring problem doesn’t appear to have been remedied over the summer. Carl Finnigan has been brought in from Falkirk, but was never a player that scored regularly during his time in the SPL with the Bairns. The loan signing of Cillian Sheridan from CSKA Sofia could prove a vital one though as the Irishman scored some important goals when on loan at the club from Celtic two years ago.

Elsewhere, there have been some impressive signings in former player and Scotland international Callum Davidson and David Robertson from Dundee Utd.

Frazer Wright and ex-Dundee Utd defender David McCracken have also come in to replace the departed Michael Duberry and Kevin Rutkiewicz at the heart of the defence. And while on that side of the game Derek McInnes’ side should remain strong, with goals so difficult to come it may be third season unlucky for the Saints.

Prediction: 12th

St Mirren
Last season: 11th

St. Mirren have arguably been the most successful side of all in the transfer market this summer. After a raft of players were let go at the season’s end two months ago, manager Danny Lennon has concentrated on trying to take the Buddies to the next level by concentrating on quality rather than quantity.

Celtic youngsters Paul McGowan and Graham Carey who impressed during loan spells at the club have signed on a permanent basis along with Nigel Hasselbaink (nephew of Jimmy-Floyd) who showed flashes of brilliance at Hamilton last season. Their youth will be complemented by the experience of former Scotland internationals Steven Thompson and Gary Teale who have signed on free transfers from Burnley and Sheffield Wednesday respectively. All five new signings promise to give the Paisley side a much greater attacking threat in the coming season, a threat they have sorely lacked since their return to the top-flight in 2006.

Goalkeeper Graeme Smith who has excelled for St. Johnstone in the past two seasons has also been brought in to replace Paul Gallacher.

Should everything go to plan for Lennon then St. Mirren could even challenge for a top-six place for the first time in the SPL era. However, more realistically, they should be looking to avoid relegation more comfortably than they have in recent seasons.

Prediction: 7th

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