The Scottish Premiership is set to be the most competitive it has been in half a decade at least. Scotland’s biggest clubs are getting on their feet, dusting themselves down and getting ready to make an impact in the title race.
Aberdeen, still smarting from letting Celtic slip away from them in the latter part of the season, are in a great position to improve the squad for a third consecutive summer.
Hearts, after a year of consolidation in the top flight upon promotion, will fancy their chances at improving greatly on their points total of 2015/16 under a bright young coach in Robbie Neilson
Rangers, once again capturing the imagination of not just their fans but also neutrals, are as defiant as ever in their quest for silverware, finding fresh impetus under the direction of Mark Warburton.
But can any of them really challenge a Celtic side showing serious ambition with the appointment of Brendan Rodgers? Hoops fans have been hoping for a domestic treble for years, can it be stopped?
It’s fair to say that Derek McInnes is threatening to turn on the northern lights of Aberdeen once again. With major trophies lacking since the heady days under Sir Alex Ferguson, there’s a real groundswell of opinion that that’s changing. Indeed many think it’ll be them, not Rangers, who have the best chance to take a shot at Celtic’s throne next season.
The evidence thus far suggests that while obviously in good shape they don’t have quite what it takes to sustain a challenge over a 38 game league campaign. It was neck and neck in season 2015/16 until mid-March. The Dons were just one point behind Celtic at Christmas and within touching distance well into spring until three defeats in four weeks put to bed their title charge.
A leaky defence was the main hindrance, despite finishing six points ahead of Hearts they were worse off by 5 in goal difference compared to the Tynecastle club. They conceded 17 more goals than a much maligned Celtic defence. That illustrates they have a lot to improve on.
Graeme Shinnie, Adam Rooney, Niall McGinn, Kenny McLean and Jonny Hayes all rank among some of the best players in the division. If they are really going to challenge for first place then the key is making them believe that.
Ultimately, with the financial disparity being what it is, the cups will be their best chance at a trophy. On their day they can beat any team in Scotland.
Ever since Ann Budge took control of the Jambos in 2014 and steered them out of administration it’s been a club on the up. The appointments of Craig Levein as Director of Football and subsequently Robbie Neilson as Head Coach have proven to be shrewd moves from a person with no previous experience in the industry. If that trend of improvement continues then Hearts should go some way to closing this season’s 21 point deficit with Celtic.
At just 35 years old, Neilson has emerged as one of Britain’s best young coaches. His Hearts side destroyed the competition in the Scottish Championship in season 2014/15. They finished with 91 points, to put into context that’s 10 more than the points total of a much fancied Rangers in season 2015/16.
He proved that was no fluke with an adventurous and ambitious season on their return to the top flight. They feared no-one. Only Celtic lost fewer games across the campaign and if not for a high proportion of draws they would have pipped Aberdeen to second place.
With the historic Tynecastle close to sell-out every week and with talent like Callum Paterson, Juanma and Arnaud Djoum, next season presents their best chance to win a trophy in 5 years and an opportunity to mount a title challenge for the first time in a decade.
When Tom Rogic failed to convert his vital spot kick in a penalty shootout at Hampden, Rangers fans felt vindicated for finding a confidence and a belief in Mark Warburton’s Rangers.
There’s no doubt to any observer that the side’s fortunes have improved since he took over from Stuart McCall in 2015. Out of a period of soul searching following a promotion playoff defeat to Motherwell, he’s given a signal that his side are not to be underestimated any more.
A cup final defeat to Hibs will do little to dampen that enthusiasm internally. They’ve already made two impressive signings in Jordan Rossiter and Joey Barton, undoubtedly improving a squad that’s been playing lower league football for years.
The penalties win over Celtic proves that there are no paper winners of football games, you have to turn up and produce on the pitch. If they can do that consistently over the coming season then things could be closer than you’d think at first glance.
With a bigger budget than any team outside of the Scottish champions they potentially have the resources to construct a squad better than both Aberdeen and Hearts.
What remains to be seen is if they can get used to life in the top flight straight away. While faring better this season, they’ve struggled against Premiership opposition in the cups over the last four years. Five defeats in this season’s Championship also indicate that there’s perhaps a fragility at the heart of this resurgence. To overcome a re-energised Celtic side would be a gargantuan task.
The fans though, they have belief and a Rangers with belief can never be discounted out of hand.
It all promises to be one of the most exciting seasons in Scottish football we’ve seen in quite a while.