The SPL is back, and Thierry Ennui today casts a critical eye over the squads contesting the SPL. Who will win? Who will struggle? Which people should we watch out for? Does anyone care? These questions and more are answered below in an easily accessible format.
Each team has an entry showing their SPL Form dating final positions going back over the last decade, an analysis of their ability and summer captures, followed by speculation of who to Watch for the coming season, rounded off by a couple of lines which constitutes a summarised Prediction of how the team will fare.
With all that explained, let’s start at the beginning, with…
SPL Form: 9-9-4-4-3-6-4-11-8-4
The Dons’ poor placing last season was primarily due to two things: inexperience in defence, and a lack of goalscoring talent. Craig Brown was never renowned for his adventurousness as a coach during his years as Scotland manager, and I’m afraid that it looks like the Dons will again struggle to impose themselves at either end of the park. Ricky Foster will prove a strong leader from the back, and if defender Youl Mawene (32), once Derby’s Player of the Season, can coax some maturity into the likes of Andy Considine, then perhaps their defensive record will improve. Certainly the additions of goalkeepers David Gonzalez, on loan from Man City, and Jason Brown from Blackburn (both 29) will provide seasoned cover in goal. Yet Aberdeen’s main problem – aside from a habit of getting pasted by Celtic – is that they don’t have enough threat upfront. The additions of Kari Arnason and Isaac Osbourne, two defensive midfielders, provides midfield replacement for Paul Hartley, but they possess 10 senior goals between them and are unlikely to add to that “Goals For” column. A fully-fit Scott Vernon might give some hope, but Darren Mackie and Josh Magennis will fail to reach double figures between them, so unless “Pa Broon” produces something special out of the hat before September, then the Dons may not do much better than last year.
Watch: Fraser Fyvie – the youngster may yet bring some attacking flair to Pittodrie; as noted, Scott Vernon‘s fitness may prove important, unless perhaps the wily Craig Brown can unearth a quality striker in August?
Prediction: at the moment, looking like dour results and lower-mid table obscurity.
SPL Form: 2-2-2-1-1-1-2-2-2-1
As their form guide displays, bad luck has come in threes for Celtic, but so has good luck, and Celtic are my favourites for the title. The league is theirs to lose, although as they showed last season, they are capable of that. However, I tip them to learn from last year’s slip-up and deliver the goods. Their captures of Kelvin Wilson, Adam Matthews and Victor Wanyama serve to bolster a squad that was already bursting with talent and depth. The two things that might hamper their bid? Goalkeeping and management. Whether Lukasz Zaluska is a dependable option for a title bid is a question asked by Celtic themselves, since they opted for Fraser Forster last season. Yet there is still time for another keeper to be loaned or signed. The real question is over Neil Lennon, whose media antics and public outbursts increasingly suggest a man who may be too impassioned for the rigours of management, which require a certain cool detachment. He must maintain a calm focus, to help his team do likewise, if they are to eclipse a Rangers squad bereft of the solid guidance of the iconic Walter Smith for the first time in years.
Watch: Ki Sung-Yueng – aside from “squad depth”, his eye for a pass may be the major difference between the Old Firm squads this season. Keep an eye on Neil Lennon too…
Prediction: Champions, or their manager gets the bullet.
SPL Form: 4-3-5-5-9-9-9-5-11-8
Since the Levein-Houston axis took charge at Tannadice five years ago and exerted their influence, the Terrors have consistently finished in the top half, culminating in last season’s 4th placing along with their first Scottish Cup in 16 years. The gloss of last season has been somewhat removed by the triple-loss of Morgaro Gomis, cup-hero Craig Conway, and Prince Buaben; all to the Championship, all on free transfers. The capture of fans’ favourite Willo Flood is almost certainly some comfort, but whether John Rankin and Gary Mackay-Steven provide adequate replacements will remain to be seen. In effect, we will now truly see how Peter Houston fares without Craig Levein, as some of Levein’s cannier buys depart, to be replaced by his heir’s choices. If David Goodwillie can be kept, and maintain his promising development; and Johnny Russell can display some of his potential too, then United could be in for another good season. Yet a lack of depth may yet hinder their bid for a European place.
Watch: Flood and Rankin – if they can deliver instant performances, then United have every chance of challenging for Europe again. Also see if the club can retain the services of Goodwillie.
Prediction: will compete, but will ultimately register a hangover-season and post lower-top-half.
SPL Form: X-X-X-X-12-11-11-4-5-6
The Pars won the First Division with some breathing space, and this was in no small part down to their solid home form, where they lost only one game all season. They will need to replicate that form if they are to stay clear of relegation, and Thierry Ennui believes that they might have just about enough seasoned heads around to achieve it. The capture of Paul Gallacher gives them a dependable figure between the sticks, and with Rutkiewicz and Potter signing on at the back, they have two more unspectacular SPL journeymen bolstering their defences. Gary Mason and Martin Hardie will provide seasoned guidance in midfield, the latter offering a threat from set-pieces, so the only real question is whether Andy Kirk or Andy Barrowman can hit double figures to provide Athletic with a cutting edge. My personal guess is that they will struggle to find goals upfront, otherwise they would be posting their best finish in 7 years.
Watch: The Two Andys, Kirk and Barrowman – without goals, Dunfermline go down. Also, Martin Hardie has an SPL point to prove after his last season there, an injury-ravaged year with St Johnstone.
Prediction: If they can consistently win points at home, they may grind out enough results to narrowly avoid relegation.
SPL Form: 3-6-3-8-4-2-5-3-3-5
The Jambos’ SPL record has a fairly predictable “good-season-poor-season” pedigree over the last few years. All I’m saying is, last year was technically a good season. Yet what was turning into a “spectacular season” inexplicably fizzled out, right about the time that Kevin Kyle got injured. Consequently, Hearts limped into third looking over their shoulders very, very nervously. Pre-season has been dogged by controversy, and Hearts’ Bogus Journeys in Europe normally result in an early exit with sapped morale. That said, Jim Jefferies has brought in some shrewd squad buys in Taouil, Hamill, Grainger and Sutton; so Hearts are looking strong enough in depth to withstand the sale of Lee Wallace, Euro exits, and injuries. Sutton in particular may prove invaluable, as a second target man to take the weight from Kevin Kyle’s considerable-yet-fragile shoulders. Suspicions may be cast around the squad depth of their defensive players.
Watch: David Templeton and John Sutton – if they can link like ‘Temps’ did with Kevin Kyle, then Hearts are potentially in for a good season. Also Andy Webster – if he cannot stay fit, then Hearts are decidedly short of out-and-out centre-halves.
Prediction: buck the trend of the last few years by posting third again, thanks to a large squad.
SPL Form: 10-4-6-6-6-4-3-8-7-10
The only way is up for the Hibees after registering their worst season in a decade. Colin Calderwood’s intent was allegedly to trim the squad of an ‘element’, personified in the talented-yet-indisciplined Derek Riordan, and the gifted-yet-unfocused Liam Miller. Some of his January captures helped him turn the club’s fortunes around and avoid being drawn into the relegation battle which threatened. Yet with the capture of Garry O’Connor, undoubtedly talented but allegedly troubled, one has to wonder if Calderwood is flirting with the very problems he sought to avoid. That said, O’Connor was always a harder grafter than Riordan, and fellow returnee Ivan Sproule always battled whenever played, albeit sometimes too enthusiastically. Commanding centre-half Sean O’Hanlon should add some bite at the back, and the failed attempt to land Cillian Sheridan signalled Calderwood’s attacking intent, realised in his capture of the stocky Junior Agogo. Expect a more robust and competitive Hibs, regardless of whether Calderwood remains at the helm or not.
Watch: Junior Agogo and Garry O’Connor – the former adds some well-travelled experience to the Hibs front-line ; the latter needs to recapture his pre-Moscow form. Also the emerging talent of David Wotherspoon.
Prediction: expect Hibs to compete to make the upper-half of The Split.
SPL Form: 7-X-12-9-8-7-8-X-X-X
Terry Butcher’s men managed a respectable 7th on their return to the top-flight – equalling their best standing thus far – but this was due in part to goals from Adam Rooney, who has since departed to Birmingham on a free. In addition, the release of long-standing Caley duo Russell Duncan and Grant Munro means that Thistle are short of some experienced heads. Butcher’s summer imports tend towards the youthful, with former Raith forward Grégory Tadé the eldest, at 24. Tadé is hungry to replace Rooney and repay Butcher’s faith, but it will remain to be seen whether he transitions to the top-flight easily. Another choice to partner captain Richie Foran upfront would be Billy McKay (22), who signed from Northampton less than a year after scoring a goal against Roy Hodgson’s Liverpool in a famous cup upset.
Watch: Grégory Tadé – the powerful forward will need to deliver the goals that Adam Rooney provided, to give Caley a fighting chance. Greg Tansey may also prove a capture, with an eye for goal from range. Whether young Watford loanee Tom Aldred can fill the shoes of some departed defenders may prove crucial.
Prediction: unless some youngsters come of age quickly, Second-Season Syndrome lurks with the threat of a relegation battle.
SPL Form: 5-11-8-11-5-5-7-10-4-7
Kilmarnock just posted their best finish since the Jim Jefferies era with player such as Kris Boyd and Steven Naismith, which made Killie Euro contenders 5 years ago. However Mixu Paatelainen’s managerial nous and players attracted too much attention: the Finn departed for national service heralding a poor end to the season with no wins in 8, although this admittedly includes games against the top 4 teams in the upper Split. That fact aside, the squad that performed so well last season has had some key players poached, in Alexei Eremenko, Medhi Taouil, Frazer Wright, and Craig Bryson. Promoted from assistant, Kenny Shiels has had to do some searching to revitalise his squad, and it will be the measure of Shiels and his scouting staff if their summer signings can recapture last season’s form.
Watch: the new signings – the defensive pairing of Patrick Ada and Zdenek Kroca will likely determine whether Killie prosper, or are dragged into the dogfight. Is Ben Hutchinson finally to get a shot at regular SPL football, and will he find goals? Can Paul Heffernan do so, if Hutchinson can’t?
Prediction: having been effectively gutted by summer transfers, Killie will struggle with too few tried-and-tested SPL players – expect a relegation scare.
SPL Form: 6-5-7-3-10-8-6-6-12-11
Stuart McCall’s project is still developing after a solid season last year. No great shakes in the transfer market: the only notable departure being John Sutton, who was like-for-like replaced by St Mirren’s Michael Higdon. Target-man Sutton’s 17 goal return last season will be competently replaced by Higdon, who managed 15 for the Buddies last term. Improvement may well depend on whether they can hang on to Jamie Murphy: the talented youngster is attracting suitors from south of the border, and if he leaves, the Steelmen’s season may suffer. Yet they should still benefit from a relatively settled squad. The international retirement of captain Steven Craigan should offer extra focus at the back. One nagging doubt is that the Well do not have adequate cover if their senior personnel should be injured or suspended.
Watch: Jamie Murphy – the pacy young talent would be a hard act to replace if he heads south before September. Also, Nicky Law, who arrives with a reputation for creativity and potential.
Prediction: top-half finish narrowly missing out on Europe; possible cup glory if their squad can stay fit.
SPL Form: 1-1-1-2-2-3-1-1-1-2
The champions have achieved incredible feats with a limited budget, but this will be a season too far. A large part of last season’s success was due to goals from Kenny Miller, and the Gers’ inability to land Miller may well prove to be a metaphor for this season’s struggle to retain the crown. For all the consistency that a stable squad can offer, Rangers are in real need of some new blood. Unless David Healy or James Beattie can fill Miller’s shoes, then Nikica Jelavic needs a predatory strike partner. Unless the Gers can find a talented right-midfielder to facilitate Steven Davis being deployed in a more central role, or a playmaker; then they are wanting for creative talent. They have been linked with several centre-halves, so they are clearly addressing their need for fresh blood at the back, but unless Ally McCoist can bring in several top-quality stars, then Celtic will take the title from them at a canter.
Watch: Ally McCoist in the summer transfer window – does he have enough money to spend to give Rangers a fighting chance? Also Steven Davis, who is a rare creative force in the squad; or perhaps John Fleck can come of age to provide a spark from midfield?
Prediction: a tired Rangers squad to surrender the crown to Celtic, McCoist will find Walter Smith a hard act to follow; possibly a cup to save face.
SPL Form: 8-8-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-12
After two solid seasons of SPL survival, Derek McInnes appears to be expanding his ambitions with several cheap and effective captures. The rearguard will be tightened by the arrival of Frazer Wright and David McCracken, and the return of prodigal son Callum Davidson dispels any worries that Danny Grainger might be missed for a season or so. The capture of Cillian Sheridan may be symbolic of the Saints’ fortunes, McInnes succeeding in acquiring a young target from under the noses of Hibs. He could prove a powerful influence especially if latest capture Francisco Sandaza can regain fitness and form. The signings of David Robertson and Carl Finnigan serve to bolster a decent squad, and I expect an improved performance on seasons past.
Watch: Cillian Sheridan and Callum Davidson – the young Irishman may benefit from the prodigal son’s cultured left-wing deliveries. Francisco Sandaza could give them a further edge.
Prediction: bottom of the upper Split, or else top of the lower.
SPL Form: 11-10-11-10-11-X-X-X-X-X
The knock on effect of the Target-Man Shuffle that happened this summer meant that the Buddies had to find a replacement for Michael Higdon (who was signed by Motherwell to replace Hearts-bound John Sutton). The capture of veteran Steven Thompson may well prove vital to their survival chances. Whether the powerful striker scores goals himself, or provides the focus for attacking build-ups, they have a seasoned professional leading the front. If the likes of veteran winger Gary Teale or prospective wide-player Graham Carey can forge an understanding with Thompson, then St Mirren might have a cheeky goal threat on their hands. That said, Thompson has never been particularly prolific, and a lot of the Buddies’ signings, such as Nigel Hasselbaink and Paul McGowan, appear to maintain the standard of football at the club, rather than particularly improve it.
Watch: the Teale-Thompson axis – if these two former fringe internationalists can strike up a partnership, the Buddies could stay out of trouble. Jim Goodwin to put in a great season.
Prediction: four seasons’ survival experience and veteran captures to keep relegation at arms’ length… barely.
There we have it: the usual two horse-race to be won by the bigger gang; a long-shot threat from the capital’s upstarts; a three- or four-way battle to claim Upper-Split status; and five or six teams looking to stay out of trouble, with a two-or-three way relegation battle. Thierry’s guesstimate at the final positions looks like this:
That said, the transfer window is still open, and much may yet happen. Watch this space for further subjective opinion…
Disagree with Thierry’s opinion? Has he missed something? Leave your thoughts below.