Complacency is the only danger to Neil Lennon’s side retaining their title while Dundee United look best placed to finish second
Last season: 1st. Prediction: 1st.
Complacency represents the biggest danger to Neil Lennon on the domestic front, and even that wouldn’t be enough to alter the inevitable destination of the SPL trophy. Rangers’ absence means nobody is even bothering to put up a genuine case for alternative champions to Celtic, who will be in gentle pursuit of a second title in succession. Lennon is still seeking added quality in central defence and a powerful centre-forward. Yet even without such arrivals, Celtic are vastly superior to the remainder of the division. Of more interest will be whether or not progress can be made to the Champions League group phase.
Last season: 3rd. Prediction: 5th.
Motherwell earned a place in the Champions League qualifying stage on the back of a terrific 2011-12 campaign – and Rangers’ demise – but after a 2-0 win for Panathinaikos at Fir Park it looks like that sojourn into Europe will be a short-lived one. Stuart McCall hasn’t enjoyed the resources to make meaningful additions to his squad but hasn’t witnessed a Motherwell exodus either. Steve Jennings’s departure, however, is a blow to the manager. McCall has a thin squad and may discover that living up to the success of last season proves difficult.
Last season: 4th. Prediction: 2nd.
Peter Houston hasn’t really been afforded the credit he is due for keeping United competitive in the top half of the SPL after the manager succeeded Craig Levein. As with so many clubs, United have suffered from a batch of players departing on free transfers this summer – the influential Dusan Pernis and Scott Robertson amongst them – but the scoring threat of Johnny Russell has remained at Tannadice for now. Michael Gardyne and Mark Millar are smart recruits for Houston, leaving United as a decent value bet to prove “best of the rest”.
Last season: 5th. Prediction: 3rd.
A famous Scottish Cup victory over Hibernian understandably masked Hearts’s inauspicious league form last season; fifth place under Paulo Sérgio wasn’t really good enough considering the players at the Portuguese’s disposal. Sérgio has departed, along with the scoring threat of Rudi Skacel and Craig Beattie. Ian Black, who excelled in the Hearts midfield last year, has joined Rangers. Hearts retain a core of strong, senior players and a batch of fine youngsters; the hardly insignificant matter of scoring goals looks like being their problem but they retain enough quality to do reasonably well.
Last season: 6th. Prediction: 4th
Steve Lomas has a tough task living up to the success of Derek McInnes in Perth but the Northern Irishman has made a decent early fist of things. Lomas has displayed a knowledge of the Scottish market by bringing players such as Gregory Tade, Nigel Hasselbaink, Gary Miller and Tam Scobbie over the close season. Securing Chris Millar on a new contract was also a boost. Of those who exited, Jody Morris and Francisco Sandaza seem likely to leave the biggest voids. Yet Saints are left with enough collective ability to remain firmly in the SPL’s top half.
Last season: 7th. Prediction: 7th
Kenny Shiels has sought to play down pre-season expectations in Ayrshire, owing to his small squad and lack of attacking options. The departure of the manager’s son, Dean, from the side which triumphed over Celtic in last season’s League Cup final will be keenly felt. Still, Kilmarnock have decent youngsters who can step forward, Matthew Kennedy and Rory McKenzie amongst them, while Rory Boulding could be a useful capture from Livingston. Cammy Bell remains one of the finest goalkeepers in the SPL and Paul Heffernan, when fit, will claim a reasonable goal tally.
Last season: 8th. Prediction: 9th
St Mirren’s season dwindled away tamely after a bright opening. Key to the Paisley club’s troubles was an inability to win matches at home after defeating Rangers on Christmas Eve. Sam Parkin will offer a powerful option in Danny Lennon’s forward line, Paul McGowan has been courted by English clubs and the former Rangers youngster Grant Adam is expected to offer a challenge to Craig Samson in goal. There is still little evidence, though, that Saints can push into the top six.
Last season: 9th. Prediction: 6th.
Arguably, Aberdeen have made the smartest summer transfer moves by signing Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn. When not injured, Hayes excelled at Inverness while McGinn has an obvious point to prove after failing to command a regular starting spot at Celtic. Of equal value to the manager, Craig Brown, will be keeping Russell Anderson fit, thereby stabilising the Aberdeen defence. This season could well be Brown’s last hurrah in charge of the north-east club. Taking Aberdeen back into the top six, thereby offering at least some hope to their beleaguered supporters, would be a fitting way to sign off.
Last season: 10th. Prediction: 12th.
Terry Butcher’s methods of recruitment continue to raise eyebrows in the Highlands. The Inverness manager has opted to sign players from such teams as Newport County, Macclesfield and Gillingham, thereby completely avoiding the Scottish market. Such a policy carries clear dangers, given the importance of knowing the environment you are competing in.
Last season: 11th. Prediction: 8th
The bitter memory of the Scottish Cup final mauling by Hearts will linger with the Hibs support for some time. So, too, will a series of under-par league finishes, which have led to dwindling attendances at Easter Road. Pat Fenlon is charged with improving matters and has at least made transfer moves aimed at pulling Hibs away from any relegation battle. It would be a surprise if Hibs encountered the trouble of last season but Fenlon’s forwards must make up for the departure of Garry O’Connor, who scored 16 times in the 2011-12 campaign.
Last season: 1st in First Division. Prediction: 10th
The Dingwall side will toast a maiden campaign in Scotland’s top flight just 18 years after turning out in the Highland League. County cantered to the Division One title last term. In Colin McMenamin, County have a striker who is capable of scoring goals in the SPL, and the depth of Derek Adams’s pool is also noticeable. Their core strength may be the unity of a team littered with players who have motivation to perform well in the Premier League after being released by bigger clubs in their careers. County look no worse than the majority of teams in the bottom half of the SPL, and should be safe.
Last season: 2nd in First Division. Prediction: 11th
Dundee have been victims of the Scottish game’s dismal handling of all matters Rangers. Until chronically late in the day, the Dens Park club didn’t even know which division they would be competing in this season. Dundee finished 24 points adrift of Ross County in Division One and still need fresh blood but have enough streetwise players to survive in the top flight. The return of a traditionally decent-sized Dundee support will also be of benefit to the top division.