Vanishing Point: The 2014-15 Championship Preview

A long time ago, the Scottish Football League’s First Division was a special place to be. Clubs would regularly pay six-figure sums to entice star players to sign for them and teams would perform in front of countless fans with nothing better to do with their Saturday afternoons. Chairmen rejoiced at the wealth that was spread across the league, supporters flocked in their tens of thousands and everybody tied an onion to their belt, which was the style at the time.

Until recently, we could only reminisce from a distorted viewpoint on what it was like to have a professional second tier where there was more than one club who could pull in over 10,000 supporters at any given point throughout the season, not just in a title-defining match. Now, all of a sudden, there are three sides with the clout and the bravado to plough through the rest of the opposition like a trio of juggernauts in a touring car race. What seemed implausible as recently as two years ago has now become a startling reality.

With almost a third of the division being taken up by newcomers Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian and Rangers, it is inevitable that the spotlight will shine on their quarrels, squabbles and tireless one-upmanship over each other more than anything else. The mainstream media will invariably be focusing almost exclusively on these three clubs – with a support base of unquantifiable magnitude to the rest of  lower leagues to satisfy – while smugly insisting that all fans are catered for.

Yet that shouldn’t take anything away from the rest of the division, which successfully mixes builders and bakers and shopkeepers among a smattering of the professional elite and, in so many cases in recent years, some of the finest young prospects in Scottish football. The First Divsion then – and the Championship now – is a tremendous league that allows players to develop and shine away from the cut-throat hyper-competitiveness of the bottom half of the Premiership and holds so much narrative and drama among its ten clubs that it should never be discounted without witnessing it first hand.

In all likelihood, the league could play out as anticipated: Rangers out-muscle and out-resource everyone else while showcasing a tragic brand of football under Ally McCoist (all the while flirting recklessly with insolvency); Hearts and Hibs set themselves apart from the rest of the competition; Falkirk lead the rest of the full-time teams quite comfortably with not much to distinguish the others; and the part-time teams struggle to hold on to their place in the division.

But it might not. This is football, after all: anything can happen. Rangers might spontaneously combust; Falkirk might finally tap into their well of unrealised potential; or Raith Rovers might confound everyone – including Grant Murray – by becoming an excellent, progressive team that goes toe-to-toe with the top of the league.

The Championship has never been more compelling. Here’s to 2014-15!

All previews and transfers correct as of 8 August 2014

 

Alloa Athletic

Players in:

Adam Asghar
Liam Buchanan (East Fife)
Mark Docherty (Stranraer)
John Gibson (Dundee)
Steven Hetherington (Crook Town)
Greig Spence (Raith Rovers)
David Weatherston (Stirling Albion)

Players out:

Scott Bain (Dundee)
Liam Caddis (St Johnstone – end of loan)
Ross Caldwell (Hibernian – end of loan)
James Creaney (Stirling Albion)
Andy Kirk
Liam Lindsay (Partick Thistle – end of loan)
Derek Riordan
Willie Robertson (Stirling Albion)
Darren Young (Albion Rovers)

Prediction:

9th

Barry Smith goes into the new season facing a quandary: how do you change a malfunctioning system with such meagre resources? Last term, the Wasps entered the New Year in fifth, one point behind Falkirk in the final play-off place, but a terrible sequence of results from January onwards – they collected just 12 points during the second half of the season – saw them slither down the table and almost end the season in ninth. (Of course, there’s nothing to suggest that the team would have been relegated but unlike Cowdenbeath, they would have entered the play-off contest in wretched form.)

Although Smith could call upon creative players like Ryan McCord and Kevin Cawley, the team’s default setting was to sit deep, keep men behind the ball and play on the break. When it worked, Alloa proved themselves to be obdurate competitors but when it became faulty, there was no real alternative. As a consequence, the team took just one point from the 18 games in which they conceded first. As supporters watched on, there must have been a taste in their mouths as desperation took hold; something so good just didn’t function no more.

The manager has made moves to rectify his side’s shortcomings. Although Scott Bain’s defection to Dundee is an obvious blow, Alloa, on paper at least, are arguably stronger than they were last season. The same core of players who served the club so well over the last three years are still there – Darryl Meggat, Ben Gordon and Michael Doyle will form the backbone of a solid defensive unit, while Stephen Simmons, McCord and Cawley will add colour to the midfield – but Smith’s signings have indicated the team will be a little more expressive this time around.

Forwards Greig Spence, Liam Buchanan and David Weatherston all have their qualities but their goal returns at this level have been patchy. Spence comes back to Recreation Park after leaving for Celtic in 2009 and is likely to operate as the team’s main striker. The player had his detractors at Raith Rovers but a record of 20 Championship goals in 35 starts over two seasons is very decent. He has already started brightly and scored four times in the club’s first two games of the season, including a hat-trick at Arbroath. Buchanan, meanwhile, netted ten times for a rotten East Fife side last term and should still have the smarts to compete in the second tier.

Smith has added two more forward-thinking midfielders to provide for his strikers, and Steven Hetherington has joined from Crook Town while Adam Asghar signed on after an a year without a club. The former has played at this level before, appearing 14 times for Airdrieonians two years ago, but their lack of experience suggests the pair are likelier to be used in reserve rather than in the starting XI. Elsewhere, John Gibson is an adequate replacement for Bain, despite his recent game time coming on loan at Montrose and Elgin City.

Alloa’s chances of remaining in the division will come down to how the fare against the teams around them – Dumbarton and Cowdenbeath, probably – but they should take confidence from last year’s record of taking 24 of their 40 points from the sides finishing in seventh, ninth and tenth. Smith will be keen for a repeat if his side are to make it three consecutive seasons in the Championship. SM

 

Cowdenbeath

Players in:

Darren Brownlie (Partick Thistle – loan made permanent)
Iain Campbell (Forfar Athletic)
Sean Higgins (Stenhousemuir)
Daniel Lurisic (SV Lannach)
Craig Sutherland (Queen’s Park)
Robbie Thomson (Rochdale)

Players out:

Liam Dunn (Berwick Rangers)
David Gold (Hibernian – end of loan)
Kane Hemmings (Barnsley)
Rory McKeown (Kilmarnock – end of loan)
Jordan Morton (Lokomotiv Plovdiv)
Jamie Pyper
Jamie Stevenson (Peterhead)
Greg Stewart (Dundee)
Sebastian Usai

Prediction:

10th

After the heroics of last season’s play-off victory over Dunfermline Athletic, Cowdenbeath compete in the second tier for the third consecutive season. Predictably, they’ll begin the campaign as one of the favourites for relegation – although the club have narrowly avoided the drop in the last two years, this time around will be their toughest challenge yet: not necessarily because of the rising level of quality in the Championship, but because the quality of the outgoing personnel has not been adequately replaced.

Of course, most sides would struggle to find a forward line as fantastic as Greg Stewart and Kane Hemmings – two strikers who might be considered among their best of all time – but for a club where finances are so restrictive, the issue is exacerbated. It would be incorrect to suggest that Cowden were a one-man or two-man team, but the pair were entirely responsible for carrying their scoring burden. Stewart and Hemmings netted almost 60 per cent of their league goals last term and their defection to Barnsley and Dundee respectively leaves Jimmy Nicholl with a cavernous hole to fill.

His like-for-like replacements are interesting but come with reputations and records that won’t quite reassure fans. Sean Higgins is likely to assume Stewart’s role as a second striker and arrives after a reasonable season with Stenhousemuir where he scored nine times. Has last foray at this level with Falkirk was less successful, however, and he netted four goals in 14 starts in 2012-13, albeit after Steven Pressley fielded him a variety of positions. Craig Sutherland, meanwhile, signed on after an impressing as a trialist in a 1-4 friendly defeat to St Mirren but his record in front of goal is paltry and the player has scored once in a handful of senior appearances since 2011.

If Sutherland is something of an unknown quantity then Danijel Lurisic is a complete mystery. The 6ft 2in Slovenian joined from Austrian cracks SV Lannach and will represent something of a gamble – Nicholl’s predecessor’s ventures into the international transfer market were routinely poor – but it is a risk worth taking if Cowden are to trouble opposition backlines this season.

Of more pressing concern is the defence and the midfield and neither area has been significantly strengthened over the summer (Iain Campbell’s transfer from Forfar Athletic notwithstanding). The bulk of last season’s side has been retained but it should not be overlooked how often they were exposed. Nicholl will need greater depth if he is to implement an orthodox 4-4-2 system as the lack of width and creativity has hampered its success.

Judging by the 1-3 Challenge Cup defeat to Brechin City and the last minute victory over Clyde in the League Cup, it appears that the manager has yet to find the right balance just yet. Unless Nicholl can add to his squad in the coming weeks, it feels as though it could be a season of toil and not triumph this time around for Cowdenbeath. SM

 

Dumbarton

Players in:

Archie Campbell (Greenock Morton)
Lee Mair (Partick Thistle)
Danny Rogers (Aberdeen – on loan)
Scott Taggart (Greenock Morton)
David van Zanten (St Mirren)

Players out:

Alan Deans (East Stirlingshire)
Chris Kane (St Johnstone – end of loan)
Paul McGinn (Dundee)
Michael Miller (Celtic – end of loan)
Nicky Phinn
Owen Ronald
Scott Smith (East Fife)
Callum Thomson (St Mirren – end of loan)

Prediction:

8th

One of the downsides to a football club punching above its weight is its potential to attract the attention of bigger, more established sides, keen to see what all the fuss is about. More often than not, the better players are cherry picked and the team have little chance to build on their previous success. In Dumbarton’s case, it was the future of Ian Murray that provoked the most anxiety. After a sensational campaign – the Sons finished in fifth and even contested for the final play-off place until the penultimate game of the season – there was a fear that St Mirren and then Hibernian would move for the manager but his new two-year contract, signed in mid-May, abolished any immediate worries.

The anticipated thinning out of the playing squad did not materialise either, and the core of last season’s team will remain in place for the forthcoming campaign. Dumbarton must make do without two of their most impressive performers this time around, however. The exceptional full-back Paul McGinn has moved to Dundee while Chris Kane, who scored ten times in 19 appearances, will not be returning on loan from St Johnstone.

In contrast to last season, Murray has conducted his transfer business promptly and given his side a more balanced look. Despite having Jamie Ewings and Stephen Grindlay signed up for the new campaign, the manager has seen fit to bring in Aberdeen’s Danny Rogers on loan and it is likely he will start in goal. David van Zanten, a straightforward replacement for McGinn, and Partick Thistle’s Lee Mair will also go some way to strengthening a rickety defence. Mair is expected to partner captain Andy Graham at centre-back but there is concern that, with a combined age of 65, the pair may be susceptible to attacks with pace. The 22-year-old Scott Taggart, who can cover in middle and on the right, is a viable solution should last season’s problems persist.

Dumbarton were the Championship’s great entertainers last year and their matches featured 129 goals, 65 for and 64 against. There may be the temptation for the manager to temper his side’s attacking intentions. There wasn’t really any evidence of this in the disappointing 2-3 Challenge Cup defeat to Stranraer (they led by two goals at half-time before collapsing) but the 1-0 League Cup win over Brechin City saw a change in system. A new 4-5-1 formation saw Bryan Prunty unusually deployed in midfield and although the performance wasn’t necessarily convincing, it could be rolled out against the division’s better sides.

If Murray is willing to keep his side as an offensive force, he has the personnel to do so. Archie Campbell was poor at Greenock Morton last season – as was everybody else – but he was good throughout 2012-13 and scored 13 goals. If he can recapture the same form then the pacey forward should work well with Colin Nish and Mitch Megginson. Prunty himself is still a handful for most defenders.

It might be difficult for Dumbarton to replicate the success of 2013-14 but with Murray committed to playing good football (and committed to the club) then it should be another enjoyable season. Should the manager, for whatever reason, decide to move on elsewhere then their prospects might diminish but for the moment at least, the Sons should have enough about them to avoid ninth and tenth. SM

 

Falkirk

Players in:

Alex Cooper (Ross County)
Peter Grant (Norwich)
Jamie MacDonald (Heart of Midlothian)
Alan Maybury (Hibernian)
Tom Taiwo (Hibernian)

Players out:

Mark Beck (Carlisle United – end of loan)
Steven Brisbane (East Stirlingshire)
Joe Chalmers (Celtic – end of loan)
Kris Faulds (Stenhousemuir)
Jonathan Flynn (Cliftonville)
Connor Greene (East Stirlingshire)
Stephen Kingsley (Swansea City)
Michael McGovern (Hamilton Academical)
Mark Millar (Dundee United – end of loan)
Kyle Turnbull (Albion Rovers)

Prediction:

4th

Gary Holt’s surprise return to Norwich City to become assistant manager left a vacancy too tempting for even Peter Houston, a manager who appeared to have ruled himself out of a number roles since leaving Dundee United 18 months ago. With a clutch of promising youngsters and the resources to make a couple of potentially excellent signings, this might be the right place at the right time for him.

The first problem that Houston had to face was the prospect of replacing Michael McGovern, a player worthy of a try in the Premiership with Hamilton Academical. The manager pulled the ace out his sleeve, however, with the capture of Jamie MacDonald from Heart of Midlothian, who was one of the Premiership’s more distinguished goalkeepers last season despite the club’s relegation. Falkirk simply couldn’t have done any better in the market available.

Tom Taiwo could be another shrewd signing, but time will inevitably tell on that one. As a central midfielder most comfortable in keeping the play simple with an orderly tackle and a mixed passing range, he will be an adequate replacement for Mark Millar. Alex Cooper, the left-sided midfielder from Ross County, is a serious threat to Craig Sibbald’s progress with a direct style of play and a habit of shooting hard and low when cutting in from either flank.

The squad still seems a little light, however, and Houston might have to peruse his filofax to bring in a couple of loan signings from the top flight to boost the numbers. Stephen Kingsley’s sale to Swansea will be felt, with Liam Dick competent but not close to the former left-back’s ability. With Kieran Duffie missing so much football in the last year or so, it would be naive to have Alan Maybury as the main deputy – he struggled enough in the recent cup ties against League 2 sides and showed at Hibernian only a few months ago that his technique is wanting when pressed at a higher tempo. Wasting possession from the full-back areas could be a big weakness for Falkirk this season, which will just invite teams onto them and goes against everything that works so well further forward. It is a detail that will be taken advantage of by the league’s better teams, so Houston would do well to bring in reinforcements if he can.

Rory Loy could do with a partner up front as well, of course. The wonderfully named Botti Bia Bi is a fine specimen at just 18 years of age but is lacking the nous to create or score regularly – indeed, midfielder Ollie Durojaiye looked more dangerous when pushing forward. Scott Shepherd, meanwhile, is full of endeavour but it seems doubtful that his potential will meet Falkirk’s aspirations and he might benefit a loan spell in either League 1 or 2. One suspects that a creative forward behind Loy could be the perfect partnership: being a former Houston signing at Dundee United, Michael Gardyne ticks all of the boxes and it would be rude not to suggest it.

In the absence of such a player, greater responsibility lies on Conor McGrandles and he is most definitely capable of handling it. The midfielder is still a teenager for another year-and-a-half but swept past his markers from East Stirlingshire and Montrose as if they weren’t there. He had a big part to play in the ten goals scored by the Bairns over the two cup matches and it is daunting how much his development has accelerated in the last year. It is very likely that he will stand out against more challenging opponents from the expected top three clubs and if he isn’t sold this summer or in January 2015, he could have the biggest say in where Falkirk will finish this year. JAM

 

Heart of Midlothian

Players in:

Neil Alexander (Crystal Palace)
Prince Buaben (Carlisle United)
Soufian el Hassnaoui (Sparta Rotterdam)
Scott Gallacher (Rangers)
Morgaro Gomis (Dundee United)
James Keatings (Hamilton Academical)
Alim Ozturk (Trabzonspor)
Osman Sow (Crystal Palace)

Players out:

Jamie Hamill (Kilmarnock)
Jack Hamilton (Stenhousemuir – on loan)
Jamie MacDonald (Falkirk)
Paul McCallum (West Ham United – end of loan)
Dylan McGowan (Adelaide United)
Mark Ridgers (St Mirren)
Ryan Stevenson (Partick Thistle)
Callum Tapping (Brechin City)

Prediction:

2nd

Heart of Midlothian come into this season in a reasonably strong position. Having troubled themselves with administration for almost a year, it was certain a long time ago that the punishment meted out by the SPFL – by way of a 15 point deduction in last season’s top flight – would result in the Jam Tarts being relegated to the second tier.

They have therefore had time to plan ahead, and by coincidence or otherwise, have a relatively settled but young team, with recent experience of outperforming a considerable proportion of the top flight’s teams toward the end of last season. Some might have been disappointed with the decision to let Gary Locke go after securing five wins from the last eight matches of the Premiership campaign but by now appointing Robbie Neilson as the head coach with director of football Craig Levein above him, Hearts look well set for finishing in the top two.

The Jambos have shed some of their experience in dropping down a division, but appear to have recruited very well indeed. It might even be argued that this side is as good – if not better – then last season. For instance, losing a goalkeeper with Jamie MacDonald’s form would have been a disappointment to most, but Neil Alexander is as capable a replacement as any around. Jamie Hamill was a significant asset when he was properly focused and motivated, but his departure is offset with the capture of Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben, a pair of previously lost lovebirds brought together once more to rekindle past courtship.

Neilson has the luxury of having so many options to choose from in forming his midfield and attack. Judging from pre-season matches and the Challenge Cup win against Annan Athletic, it is difficult to say for certain what the first choice team might be beyond the goalkeeper and back four. Osman Sow is likely to be the chief centre-forward with a towering physique, a formidable amount of pace when he finds his stride, and the technique to pull off a tidy finish, all of which is complemented by a praiseworthy work ethic to close down opponents. Sow has the ability to better the usual second tier top scorer watermark of one goal per two league games, so long as he stays fit and focused.

If Neilson plays a 4-4-2 then Dale Carrick might be the obvious choice to partner Sow, after an increasingly accomplished first touch and a handful of goals to bank on from the end of last season. Yet, at least from very early impressions, Carrick looks to be working out how to play off the shadow cast by Sow, whereas Gary Oliver has shown gritted determination and a defiance to be anything but dangerous on his own merits. Soufian el Hassnaoui is to come into contention as well and where James Keatings fits into the equation must be Anne Budge’s guess.

In midfield, Neilson could well be tempted by pairing Gomis and Buaben together, but that would be an immediate disservice to Jason Holt and Scott Robinson, who both featured well in the Premiership last season. Holt was once regarded one of the country’s best young attacking playmakers but in the last six months since returning from injury has played a deeper role – his technique and vision is never short of excellent, but he can sometimes be shy in putting in a tackle at the back of midfield and would be best partnered by someone a bit tougher like Gomis.

Further back, the first-choice central defence looks strong, with Danny Wilson partnered by Alim Ozturk. Neither is the bruising, dominating alpha-male who would prefer playing against a more technical defender, but both are very proficient on the ball and will be perfectly capable against the vast majority of their opposition this season. Ozturk looks a real find, with pace, balance and passing ability that should see Hearts capable of playing out from the back (even if both Ozturk and Wilson are fond of the cute, backspun ball clipped towards the forwards’ heads or chests). Callum Paterson could claim to be the lower leagues’ best right-back but an unfortunate knee injury against Annan might see him out for the first six weeks or so. His deputy Jordan McGhee lacks the conviction to win the majority of his duels in the full-back position by comparison, but at Championship level should fare reasonably enough until Paterson’s return.

Meanwhile, there is competition on the flanks with Billy King playing better and better with more first-team action and looks a threat when driving forward from the flank. But so too do Sam Nicholson, Jamie Walker and David Smith. This part of the squad is young enough that the players will be patient to bide their time during squad rotation, but with so many capable of operating at a similar – high – level to each other, finding the correct blend will be Neilson’s toughest strategic decision this year.

The coach’s choices are muddied by finding success with whichever configuration in recent matches, apart from a thrashing by Dundee in early pre-season. Overall, they have the capability of competing with Rangers all the way to the title and will probably finish close enough that any surprise insolvency event occurring in Govan might prove to be the tipping point in the title race. It is only the expected showcase of sheer experience and amount of goals likely to come from Rangers’ strikers, rather than an impression of stylistic or tactical superiority, that makes them favourites over Hearts. Make no mistake, though: Hearts are good enough to win the league on their own merits and might just do that. JAM

 

Hibernian

Players in:

Scott Allan (West Bromwich Albion)
Farid El Alagui (Brentford)
David Gray (Burton Albion)
Mark Oxley (Hull City – on loan)

Players out:

Daniel Boateng (Arsenal – end of loan)
Paul Cairney (Kilmarnock)
Ross Caldwell (St Mirren)
James Collins (Shrewsbury Town)
Bradley Donaldson (Livingston)
Jay Doyle (East Stirlingshire)
David Gold (Berwick Rangers)
Paul Grant (Livingston)
Danny Haynes (Notts County – end of loan)
Dean Horribine (Berwick Rangers)
Alan Maybury (Falkirk)
Ryan McGivern (Port Vale)
James McPake (Dundee)
Sean Murdoch
Tom Taiwo (Falkirk)
Kevin Thomson (Dundee)
Duncan Watmore (Sunderland – end of loan)
Ben Williams
Robert Wilson (Airdrieonians)

Prediction:

3rd

It is fair to state that Hibernian suffered a bit of a disaster last year. With their rivals Heart of Midlothian destined for administration-induced relegation, Hibs were at once stale and mediocre and then eventually quite appalling, winning only two league games in 2014. Despite the recently sacked manager Terry Butcher repeatedly insisting that positivity was the recurring theme of Hibs’ preparations, by matchday it became increasingly clear that the decay of confidence had set in and the rot was not dealt with in time.

A new season brings new circumstances and a new manager, with Alan Stubbs appointed as the man in charge to pilot Hibs’ eventual return to the top flight, but with both Rangers and Hearts competing in the same division, there is little guarantee that they will make an immediate return.

That’s not to say that it won’t happen, of course, but there is still a lot of work to be done with the playing staff to prepare for the season ahead, and it seems likely that Stubbs will need to make use of the full transfer window before forming a long-term strategy. The Hibees let go of up to 19 players during the summer and have brought in less than a handful at the time of writing. The first team looks set and capable of beginning the league campaign, but beyond the first XI is a dearth of quality and numbers that will need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

The Challenge Cup extra-time defeat to Rangers was telling in a lot of respects. Stubbs is keen to have a less direct and more controlling style compared to his predecessor and that centres around Liam Craig as a deep-lying playmaker. That was a role that Butcher asked of his captain in the second half of last season but, for whatever reason, it was a task that looked uncomfortable to him. Against Rangers, however, Craig was a lot more at ease at recycling possession from the defence through the midfield. Perhaps it was a mixed message relayed by Butcher, or simply the time it has taken to settle at the club, but he looks much more at ease than before.

Craig is central to the progressive 4-2-3-1 that Stubbs seems to be adopting, then, but there are other key figures in the team. Scott Robertson is maybe the perfect foil for Craig, as an energetic midfielder who is more active and vertical towards the goal than what Stubbs has in mind for the captain. Jordan Forster was an important defender under Butcher and will be used centrally more this season with David Gray arriving from Burton Albion: Forster’s aerial prowess will be well received but whether he can strike a successful partnership with Paul Hanlon remains to be seen.

Up top is Farid El Alagui, a striker who became an icon at Falkirk for not only his goals but his outgoing personality and PR-friendly charm. Yet since his prolific season for the Bairns in 2011-12, the Moroccan has failed to make an impact elsewhere. Perhaps the second tier is his optimum level, or maybe his career trajectory spiked only intermittently under Steven Pressley, but in either event he is ably deputised by Paul Heffernan, a striker with top flight pedigree, and Jason Cummings. Cummings scored at an alarming rate in the U-20s league last season and although too much was asked of him by Butcher in the first team towards the end of the league season, he showed in the play-off against Hamilton Academical what a terrific prospect he is with opportunistic finishing and superlative technique off his left foot.

Talking of prospects, this writer’s favourite Hibs player is playmaker Sam Stanton and this piece should be considered as a personal plea to play him in the central attacking midfield role, behind El Alagui or another forward. Stanton has the rare ability of imposing fear on a retreating defence by driving forward into the last third of the pitch with the ball at his feet. The midfielder can play in a variety of positions and Stubbs has so far deployed him on the left of a trio – with licence to drift – but a talent of his deserves the responsibility of being the chief creator, particularly in a league below where he ought to be playing. With a terrific shot and the vision for a through pass, he could be the definitive trequartista whom Hibs supporters could idolise – but he could be slightly hampered when starting on the left and simply being another cog in the wheel. When Danny Handling starts centrally before him, questions have to be answered. Stubbs will need another left-sided attacking midfielder or winger to facilitate Stanton’s move permanently infield, but it’s a thought worth considering to get the best out of one of the club’s most promising players. It could be that signing Scott Allan – a wonderfully technical player in his own right – puts paid to that idea, though.

Ultimately, it seems likely that Hibs will fall short of the title race and could finish closer to Falkirk than to Hearts, but then with a full season behind them there could still be promotion through the play-offs. Current circumstances are such that Hibs’ season could be more defined by the Edinburgh derbies than Hearts’ campaign will, but if the Hibees come out on top of those more often than not, they should be there or thereabouts. JAM

 

Livingston

Players in:

Bradley Donaldson (Hibernian)
Declan Gallagher (Dundee)
Gary Glen (Ross County)
Paul Grant (Hibernian)
Myles Hippolyte (Brentford)
Michael McKenna (Musselburgh Athletic)
Robert Ogleby (Wrexham)
David Robertson (Greenock Morton)
Jordan White (Stirling Albion)

Players out:

Andy Barrowman (Greenock Morton)
Danny Denholm (Forfar Athletic)
Ross Docherty
Michal Habai
Mike Mampuya
Marc McNulty (Sheffield United)
Martin Scott (Raith Rovers)
Kyle Wilkie

Prediction:

7th

With Stefan Scougall, Coll Donaldson and Marc McNulty having now left the club in the last eight months, there is at least some sense of a beginning of a new era at Almondvale, even if there is some overlap in detail from previous years. Nonetheless, this will be John McGlynn’s first full season in charge of Livingston and he has been able to shape the team to his design. It seems that he already has a particular line-up in his mind and how it fares can be reasonably expected: competent enough to consolidate but without the quality to flirt to heavily with the play-off places.

In a league like this year’s Championship, that might not be a terrible thing. Livingston are geographically well located to benefit from the novelty of having league fixtures against the Edinburgh sides and ought to have a competitive rivalry among Queen of the South, Raith Rovers and probably Dumbarton, but at best it will be another middling season with ultimately not much to play for.

At least there is the new generation of talent to observe and eventually – with luck and some patience – some might develop into quality players. McGlynn is overseeing the emergence of centre-cum-right-back Callum Fordyce (now 22 years old), left-winger Daniel Mullen (19) and the latest graduate, left-back Shaun Rutherford (17), while central midfielder Michael McKenna (21) arrives from the juniors. None yet carry the pizzazz of the departed trio, but there are promising signs in them all and McKenna looks especially worthy of his place in midfield.

Livingston started with the same XI in both recent cup victories, having been taken to extra time in both matches and then penalties against Albion Rovers in the League Cup. It seems that what you see is what you get with this team: a flat 4-4-2 with hard work in the frontline and the flanks, making up for a certain lack of imagination between the lines. The style is not as blatantly pragmatic as it was in the latter part of McGlynn’s time at Raith Rovers – maybe the short-term pressure to play with some amount of panache at Heart of Midlothian has softened up his approach – but it couldn’t be more orthodox and, ultimately, that might hinder them against more tactically astute teams such as Queen of the South, Falkirk and Hearts.

There are plenty of options for McGlynn to choose from at least, particularly up front. The manager has thus far preferred to use Gary Glen whirring around Robert Ogleby, with the latter not having much of an impact in the cup ties before being forced off early against Albion Rovers. Glen has a lot to prove to hold on to his starting place having failed to hold a regular spot at Ross County, but showing in flashes – when not alone and paired with another strike partner – that he understands how to get in goal-scoring positions and has an aptitude for shooting early around the penalty area. He won’t have the one-in-two ratio that McNulty achieved last season but a dozen goals isn’t beyond him as part of a strategy that seemingly suits him perfectly – if he gets the chance to build his confidence up.

Elsewhere, Jordan White had a terrific season for Stirling Albion in League 2 but is another forward with a point to prove: his time at Falkirk as an understudy to Farid El Alagui was a definitive failure. Myles Hippolyte, meanwhile, has already shown that he is handy in latching on to a through ball and could be a capable reserve. He ought to even graduate to the starting selection, if he stays focused.

The more objective Livingston supporter will no doubt enjoy the experience of pitting their team against previously long-established top flight clubs from the country’s big cities, with the added bonus of winnable fixtures against the bottom half of the table, but the senses will invariably be dulled by the lack of season-defining drama for the Lions. Yet that will be quite an enviable position for some. JAM

 

Queen of the South

Players in:

Zander Clark (St Johnstone – on loan)
John Baird (Raith Rovers)
James Fowler (Kilmarnock)
Lewis Kidd (Celtic – loan made permanent)

Players out:

Calum Antell
Bob McHugh (Motherwell – end of loan)
Derek Young (Forfar Athletic)

Prediction:

5th

After the upheaval at Palmerston last summer, Queen of the South are heading into the new campaign on a far more even keel. While the majority of the clubs around them are busying themselves with new management regimes or major changes in personnel, Jim McIntyre has sensibly opted to keep disruption to the minimum and performed minor surgery to a squad that eventually achieved what was expected of them last term.

McIntyre’s consistency contrasts with 12 months ago when he arrived in Dumfries and brought with him a clutch of new signings. Although his imports promised much, they began the year in frustrating form, a problem that was exacerbated by the manager’s over-enthusiasm in tampering with his system. After an uncertain start, however, an impressive run of form over the second half of the season lifted them from eighth to fourth and won them qualification to the play-off quarter-finals.

One of the reasons for their improvement was the addition of Zander Clark, and the burly goalkeeper returns for a second loan spell from St Johnstone. He will play behind a back four unchanged from last term, a unit that conceded just 39 goals (the third best record in the division).

While their defence was steadfast, they were a little less remarkable in attack. Fifty-three goals in 36 games isn’t necessarily a poor return but it was the lowest of the league’s top five teams. Their limitations were shown up against the Championship’s better defences and they only netted 11 times in their 12 league matches against Dundee, Hamilton Academical and Falkirk (even after they put four past the Dees on the opening day of the season).

McIntyre has addressed the deficiency by recruiting John Baird from Raith Rovers. Although the player struggled at Dundee and Partick Thistle, he is a fine second tier striker and enjoyed a strong end to 2013-14 at Stark’s Park. He scored seven times in 13 games to help the Kirkcaldy club retain their Championship status and – much more memorably – made the decisive contribution in the club’s Ramsdens Cup final victory over Rangers. It will be fascinating to see how McIntyre uses the player in a system that only really has room for one out and out striker. Baird certainly has the attributes to lead the line on his own but his unselfish style might see him pushed out wide.

More pressing is the current injury list. Baird, Chris Mitchell, Paul Burns, Mark Kerr and Steven McKenna played no part in their two cup matches, while Michael Paton and Andy Dowie limped off against Livingston and Elgin City respectively. Indeed, against Livi, Queens were unusually hesitant and wasteful in possession and lost out 3-4 after extra-time.

Even with a full compliment of players, the top-heavy nature of the Championship will probably discount Queen of the South’s chances of promotion. That said, their squad looks balanced and dynamic and there is no reason why the Doonhamers shouldn’t aim for fourth. Behind the division’s headline acts, they’re certainly handy enough to finish as the best of the rest. SM

 

Raith Rovers

Players in:

Craig Barr (Airdrieonians)
Kevin Cuthbert (Hamilton Academical)
Rory McKeown (Kilmarnock)
Christian Nade (Dundee)
Ross Perry (Rangers)
Martin Scott (Livingston)
Mark Stewart (Derry City)

Players out:

John Baird (Queen of the South)
Callum Booth (Hibernian – end of loan)
Joe Cardle (Ross County)
Reece Donaldson (Peterhead)
Fraser Mullen (East Fife)
Lee Robinson
Gordon Smith (Stirling Albion)
Greig Spence (Alloa Athletic)
Jamie Watson
Billy Vidler (East Stirlingshire)

Prediction:

6th

When a trophy-winning side is broken up, fans will tend to wistfully reminisce about their achievements and maybe even lament that the team was fragmented all too soon. In the case of Ramsdens Cup winners Raith Rovers, however, a change was required. So awful was their league form from November onwards that the club even flirted with relegation and alterations were in need.

Seven players have left the club over the summer, and the outgoing personnel have been met with mixed responses. John Baird was offered a new contract but was tempted by Queen of the South’s two-year contract and a training base closer to his home in Glasgow (the Doonhamers do not prepare for matches in their local Dumfries). Baird was one of Raith’s better performers in the latter part of the season, as was left-back Callum Booth, who returns to Hibernian after a season-long loan, and their departures have disappointed.

The same cannot be said for the loss of Joe Cardle and Greig Spence, the side’s most creative force and their top scorer respectively. Both players split opinion: Cardle was seen as a luxury in a team that rarely dominated possession; Spence, meanwhile, started brightly but his campaign fell away into inconsequence. Spence might not necessarily be missed, but the striker averaged a league goal every 159 minutes in his two seasons at Stark’s Park – his absence might be more keenly felt than some anticipate.

Grant Murray has brought eight new players into the club but the early signs have not been encouraging and recent performances have been lacking. Rovers struggled beyond Forfar Athletic in the League Cup after being taken to extra-time, while their defence of the Challenge Cup lasted just one match after a poor defeat to Dunfermline Athletic earlier in the week.

Much was expected from Craig Barr after his impressive showing at Airdrieonians last season but injury has precluded his participation thus far. With Dougie Hill also unfit, Murray has signed Ross Perry from Rangers as cover but it will take time for him to build a rapport with Paul Watson. Rory McKeown has been brought in to replace Booth at left-back but he has yet to enjoy the same good form he showed during a loan spell at Cowdenbeath.

In the middle of the park, Liam Fox and Martin Scott have struggled in tandem and without Kevin Moon – another player missing through injury – Raith are an inferior prospect. Ryan Conroy can deliver a fine cross ball but his inability (or his unwillingness) to beat his marker restricts his contribution. Mark Stewart, a player who has spent the majority of his career as a forward, has been fielded on the wing and impressed against Forfar.

Christian Nade appears to be Murray’s best acquisition so far but to get the best from the striker, his team-mates must play the ball into his feet and resist the temptation of knocking high balls towards his general direction. With three strikers at the club (and one currently being used as an auxiliary wide man), the team seems short of attacking options and the issue must be addressed in the coming weeks. Clearing the lengthy injury list will also be crucial if Raith are to make a decent fist of this tricky Championship season but with an increasing number of supporters beginning to dissent, Murray requires a good start to relieve the pressure. A win against Dumbarton would be the very thing. SM

 

Rangers

Players in:

Kris Boyd (Kilmarnock)
Darren McGregor (St Mirren)
Kenny Miller (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Marius Zaliukas (Leeds United)

Players out:

Emilson Cribari
Scott Gallacher (Heart of Midlothian)
Chris Hegarty (Linfield)
Andy Little (Preston North End)
Ross Perry (Raith Rovers)
Charlie Telfer (Dundee United)

Prediction:

1st

Rangers begin the season as the obvious favourites to win the Championship but something just isn’t right down Govan way. The 2014-15 campaign should be an exciting proposition for supporters – after careering through the third and fourth tiers and clambering above the country’s more modest opponents, they’ve now reached a level far more appropriate for their capabilities and may relish testing their mettle – but there are major concerns with how Rangers are performing both off and on the park.

Gnawing away behind the scenes is the shambolic mismanagement of the club’s finances and there are worries they will struggle through the season. Such issues are probably better discussed elsewhere but it would be remiss to ignore news that a recent share issue failed to garner the desired £10m, and that doubts remain as to whether or not the club can repay a £1.5m loan before the end of the month. Only 20,000 season tickets have been sold over the summer (almost 18,000 fewer than last term) and their short-term cash flow has been badly hindered.

That a crowd of just over 18,000 pitched up to watch the recent Challenge Cup victory over Hibernian, a meeting that would have been a primetime SPL fixture three or four years ago, is perhaps indicative of the levels of dissatisfaction amongst the support. Some fans are reluctantly boycotting in protest at the incumbent board; others are just fed-up with the pathetic product on the park.

Ally McCoist has shown little aptitude for management so far. Only Rangers’ full-time status and their vastly superior resources have allowed them to coast through the divisions relatively unscathed (despite the increasingly unpleasant spectacle). This year, however, the rise in quality across the competition will provide a far stouter test of his acumen on a week-by-week basis. It should be pointed out that, with the exception of the rousing League Cup win over Motherwell in 2012, Rangers have consistently failed to punch their weight when it’s mattered the most. McCoist seems incapable of drawing convincing performances from his players and the team frequently looks a damn sight less than the sum of its parts.

Take the recent match against Hibs, for instance. Having the spent the majority of the pre-season fixtures by ostensibly using an orthodox back four, eyebrows were raised by the manager’s decision to configure his players into a trendy 3-5-2 system. The formation has its functions and is becoming more prevalent in Scotland (Jimmy Nicholl’s Cowdenbeath used it last term, while Stranraer have experimented with the formation in recent matches) but such is McCoist’s complete lack of cache that his maneuvering brought nothing but despair and rictus chuckles. “It’s good to see Ally’s been watching the World Cup,” remarked one wag. Who could have ever imagined that McCoist would become a joke inside Ibrox?

If Rangers win the Championship it will be in spite of, not because of, their manager. Their squad boasts depth and quality that most teams in the country (never mind the division) would struggle to match. The forward line is the team’s most impressive asset and the returning Kris Boyd and Kenny Miller are superlative additions. The pair are playing at a level beneath their capabilities and should be expected to score around 40 goals between them as they party like it’s 2009 all over again. Boyd is far more complete player than the one who left for Middlesborough in 2010 and is comfortable both inside and outside the penalty area. He scored 22 goals in 37 appearances for Kilmarnock last term and was the key figure in the club’s Premiership survival. If goals are football’s purest currency then Boyd is an ATM.

Miller, meanwhile, might not be as prolific but he is fit, professional, committed, utterly selfless and the kind of forward who can bring out the best of those around him. That said, his recruitment highlights a number of McCoist’s deficiencies. Charlie Telfer, the spunky 18-year-old midfielder, concluded that first team opportunities would be restricted and so defected to Dundee United; two days later, the 34-year-old Miller signed on. The affair symbolised the short-termism that has dogged McCoist’s tenure – long-term progress has been sacrificed in favour of immediate gain. Dean Shiels, Jon Daly (no longer the apple of his manager’s eye) and Nicky Clark will make for fine reserves although how much game time they each get remains to be seen.

Central defence has been bolstered by the recruitment of Darren McGregor and Marius Zaliukas, credible alternatives to the creaking Lee McCulloch and the flamboyant (but ultimately thoughtless) Bilel Mohsni. With Cammy Bell continuing to perform solidly in goal and Lee Wallace still a thrilling presence at left-back, the defence is more than capable for the Championship. Doubts remain about Richard Foster and the addition of another right-back would not have gone amiss; expect to see McGregor deputise in the event of his unavailability.

The midfield is unchanged from last term and it is perhaps a surprise not to have seen McCoist bring in some reinforcements. The deterioration of Nicky Law over the past six months has been utterly depressing and Ian Black, despite a brief spike in form at the beginning of last season, still looks ponderous and unable to fully impose himself on games. What has happened to them? Thank goodness for Lewis Macleod, who returns to the first team after missing the second half of last term through illness, and his forward-thinking approach and willingness to express himself will be of major benefit to his side. Fraser Aird should continue to develop and bring grit to the left of midfield (providing McCoist does not persist with his 3-5-2 project).

Rangers have the personnel and the wherewithal to win the division by a decent margin (and the Challenge Cup too, for good measure) but unlike last season, they will not have it all their own way. Heart of Midlothian are shaping up to be a handy proposition; Hibernian perhaps should have won the midweek contest between the sides; and Falkirk and Queen of the South will provide an interesting challenge. One thing’s for sure: no-one will fear the Gers this season. Their lustre wore off a long time ago. This may be an unnecessarily glum outlook for the prospective champions but it cannot be overstated just how poor a manager Ally McCoist is. CGT

Tell Him He's Pelé

Tell Him He's Pelé

If Tell Him He's Pelé were a boy band, they would probably be the much-missed One True Voice, both in terms of appearance and musical output.

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