Change is afoot in the Scottish Premiership
Is there a chance that Celtic's seven in a row could come to an end?
For all its flaws and self-loathing in recent years, the Scottish Premiership has been one of the most exciting leagues on the continent so far this season. There is a feeling surrounding the Scottish game that it has eventually turned a corner, with more successful and competitive times ahead. This can be illustrated by the surprising start to the domestic campaign.
As we approach the third month of the season reigning champions Celtic sit six-point adrift, with the top of the table resembling east coast dominance rather than the typical Glaswegian supremacy. It is last season’s sixth placed team, Heart of Midlothian, who are setting the pace in the Premiership, having gone seven games unbeaten with six of those coming as victories. Whilst it is too early to call this a title race of any sort, there is belief that there is now the chance of genuine competition after Celtic had gone seven years previous without anyone laying a glove on their title chances.
Despite being one of Scotland’s largest institutions, Hearts are undoubtedly the surprise package of the season. After a heavily disappointing season, ex-Scotland manager Craig Levein used the summer transfer window to overhaul his playing squad, bringing in 18 new faces and doubling his squad in size. Hearts often relied on academy players throughout a stop-start season in Gorgie last year, and despite the clubs recruitment under great scrutiny, Levein has unearthed more than a few gems to revitalise his side. Amongst those signings were loanees Steven Naismith and Demetri Mitchell, who performed well-enough in the latter stages of last season to earn a further year in Edinburgh. Naismith leads the scoring charts with ten to his name so far, and more so his experience is just as valuable to the team. His signing is a marker of the progression of the league, with a player of his calibre previously not available to clubs such as Hearts. Other players such as Peter Haring and Olly Lee have been plucked from obscurity in the lower leagues of Austria and England respectively, yet have been two of the most creative midfielders in the league. For a team that was, rightly or wrongly, often criticised for their direct style of play, Hearts have shown they are capable of playing entertaining and intricate football so far this season. Although it is too early to call Hearts challengers to Celtic’s throne, there is a genuine opportunity for clubs such as themselves, Rangers and Hibs to capitalise on what has been a rocky few months for the Scottish champions.
Craig Levein’s side sit comfy at the top of the table heading in to a tricky month, but do so with a five-point lead. The club also progressed to their first semi-final in five years, with an outstanding win over a physical Motherwell side last week. All of this has been done without their talismanic leader, as well as the sale of their top scorer to Rangers. Captain Christophe Berra tore his hamstring in a 1-0 win over Celtic, whilst 19 goal striker Kyle Lafferty departed after just one season to return to his boyhood heroes. There have been question marks on how Hearts squad could adjust with injuries or suspensions, yet Levein has proven they can cope just fine after losing two of his key players in the first few games.
Just behind Hearts are their city rivals Hibs, who have snuck under the radar so far this season. The Hibees have often been hailed for their exciting and stylish approach to the game, but suffered a huge blow in the summer as they lost three of their creative sparks in a tumultuous transfer window. Their manager Neil Lennon, who has many honours as manager and player at Celtic, is as competitive as they come, and he has raised the ceiling for his squad at Hibs. After a dismal few years in Edinburgh, both clubs now look capable of pushing closer to the Old Firm with the backing of loyal supporters in their refurbished stadiums in the east coast of Scotland.
All of this comes after a massive summer of hype, European triumph and plenty of cash. Most of that would be a result of a certain Mr Steven Gerrard entering the fray as manager of Glasgow Rangers. A risky move, which so far has delivered mixed results. There is no doubt that Gerrard’s introduction is positive for the Scottish game, contributing to a long list of exciting characters sitting in the hot seats of the top clubs. Brendan Rodgers is arguably one of the best managers the league has seen in a number of years, and the aforementioned Levein and Lennon bring a refreshing yet entertaining perspective to both the game and the media, whilst last year’s surprise package Steve Clarke has shown yet again this season how important he is to Kilmarnock. Add one of the biggest icons of British football history to the mix and you’ve got a very exciting product that could do with more than a little bit of help from the powers that be.
Gerrard has steadied the ship at Rangers, in what was a leaky defence now becoming a disciplined unit – noticeably so in Europe. The manager has lead Rangers in to the group stage of the Europa League for the first time in eight years. That achievement should not be underestimated, having done so by progressing through four qualifying rounds and eight games, becoming the fifth team ever to do so. The Gers started off their campaign with a fantastic 2-2 draw in the El Madrigal of Villarreal, and progression is now seen as a distinct possibility. A summer of recruitment brought in 15 new faces and over £10m spent, as the board back Gerrard to topple Celtic in his first season. And although Rangers were far from convincing in their first Old Firm of the season, Celtic have seemed to enter a decline despite their comfortable 1-0 win.
Double-treble winner Brendan Rodgers admitted last week that he was approached by a Chinese Super League club with a lucrative offer during the summer, but was focused on the project ahead at Celtic. In a sheepish answer, Rodgers brushed over the fact that the clubs summer was far from ideal, with a Champions League exit and numerous failed targets. It is important not to get carried away with what may just be a blip for the seven-in-a-row champions, but performances have shown that the squad is far weaker than previous campaigns. Celtic remain as overwhelming favourites for all three domestic honours, but there is no signs of it getting any easier for Rodgers' men.
The club took the decision to cash in on midfielder Stuart Armstrong, whilst Man City loanee Patrick Roberts was deemed too expensive. The one that hurt the most was the loss of their main goal threat and focal point Moussa Dembele, who thrashed a deadline day move to Lyon in a very public and messy falling out with the club. Celtic cashed in on a deal which made Dembele the league’s most expensive export, yet many fans were disheartened with the lack of preparation to replace a player who has been touted for big money moves since his arrival. Whatever may be going on behind the scenes at Celtic, they will need to get their house in order if they are to win the title as convincingly as they have done in previous years.
Celtic, as well as Rangers, need to be serious about the threat at hand, with Thursday football often shown to have a big impact on the following Sunday’s result. The longer that the Old Firm stay in Europe, the easier it will be for the likes of Hearts and Hibs to stay within touching distance, with trips to Russia, Norway, Austria and Germany yet to come for the west coast clubs. Both clubs have failed to win a single match away from home this season and have suffered their worst starts to the season in over 25 years. If this form continues then there is a chance that the league could be as competitive as it's been since the 1980's.
With a storming start to the season, a higher calibre of player, the highest European coefficient in a decade and strong coaches at the helm – it is not foolish to say it feels like Scottish football has turned a corner. The league is as competitive and exciting as it has been for the best part of a decade, and the best is yet to come.
By Lewis McKenzie
Published on 01/10/18.