Football Expert & Columnist
Hibs and Hearts fans could be in for a long season, says Andy Walker
Hibernian and Hearts could be in for a long season, says Andy Walker, in his SPFL preview.
Last Updated: 01/08/13 3:15pm
The Scottish Professional Football League kicks off this weekend with two games live on Sky. On Saturday, Scottish Champions Celtic host the impressive Ross County, while a beleaguered Hibs entertain Motherwell at Easter Road on Sunday.
The only real change will see the introduction of a play-off between the Premiership and Championship at the end of the season, but on the plus side, the redistribution of money filtering down the leagues to more full-time clubs has to be welcomed.
For champions Celtic it will be difficult to replace the goals of new Norwich signing Gary Hooper and the driving force of Victor Wanyama, Southampton having paid £12million for his services.
However, the inaugural SPFL title for Celtic is a certainty, their resources are far superior to anything else in Scotland's top flight.
Even when Rangers return to the top flight, the investment in an experienced playing staff required to topple Celtic looks beyond the Ibrox club at present if they want to compete for the title.
Given that there is no serious threat to the title, taking part in the Champions League is essential for Neil Lennon's credibility as a manager and to satisfy the demanding Celtic support.
Hearts start the season having to make up a 15-point deduction for going into administration and while that will be a tall order for Gary Locke and his players to overcome, the harsh reality is that the future of the Edinburgh club is still very much in the balance. Survival will be their greatest victory.
Derek McInnes will be looking to kick-start his own managerial fortunes as well as those of his new club Aberdeen, where Willo Flood and Barry Robson should provide the driving force in midfield for Calvin Zola to flourish in a completely new environment for him. A winning mentality, sadly missing from Pittodrie for years, has to be the way ahead.
Jackie McNamara led Dundee United into the top half of the table last season but has had to contend with big changes to his playing squad. United will obviously miss the goal threat of Jon Daly and Johnny Russell and you can only hope that David Goodwillie can find his scoring touch again after returning to his old club on loan from Blackburn.
The biggest problem United had last season was their awful home form so sending their own fans away in a better mood is their priority, while after leading Motherwell to a runners-up spot last season, Stuart McCall had the opportunity to take over at Sheffield Utd but chose to stay at a club that is a good fit for him.
Every club changes personnel for a new campaign but Motherwell have lost a lot of experience and established players. Scotland's Player of the Year Michael Higdon notched an impressive 27 goals and formed an excellent partnership with Henrik Ojamma.
Both have chosen to leave and when you add Chris Humphrey, Darren Randolph, Nicky Law and Tom Hateley to that list, it all adds up to a big turnaround in staff. Thankfully James McFadden has re-signed again and McCall will be hoping Stephen McManus, John Sutton, Ian Vigurs and Paul Lawson settle into their new surroundings quickly.
It's fair to say Pat Fenlon at Hibs is under severe pressure already; losing 7-0 at home to Malmo in a Europa League qualifier was a shocking experience in front of a tremendous home support and Fenlon will be praying £200,000 front man James Collins from Swindon will be good enough to replace the goals of Leigh Griffiths.
Without Griffiths' goals last season, Hibs would have been relegated and given that their first two fixtures are both live on Sky - home to Motherwell and away to Hearts - he simply has to get off to a winning start.
Year after year, everyone dismisses the prospects of Inverness Caley Thistle under Terry Butcher. Finishing fourth last season was remarkable and testimony to the fine job Butcher and assistant Maurice Malpas did.
Having put together an entertaining side, he too has lost the significant talents of Andrew Shinnie, Owain Tudor-Jones and goalkeeper Antonio Reguero. But practically all of his new signings were made early and much is expected of James Vincent, Ben Greenhalgh and Danny Williams.
Like Caley Thistle, Highland rivals Ross County put clubs like Hibs, Hearts, Aberdeen and Dundee United to shame with their efforts on such a small budget and Derek Adams is adamant he has a stronger squad this time round. Four have been added from the Dutch league, the pick of the bunch perhaps Kevin Luckassen, a 20-year-old striker.
Much to everyone's surprise, St Johnstone finished third last season but have given their supporters a huge lift by overcoming Rosenborg in a Europa League qualifier. That was a dream start for new manager Tommy Wright, who has stepped up from his No. 2 position last season under Steve Lomas. I can't see them matching last season's extraordinary finish but like so many of the smaller clubs, a cup success is not beyond them.
St Mirren demonstrated last season what winning a domestic trophy can do for you. Beating Celtic in the semi-final before overcoming Hearts at Hampden defined their season. John McGinn is ready to improve on his excellent performances.
New boys Partick Thistle would have been favourites for the drop but have the added cushion of being 15 points in front of Hearts before a ball has been kicked. Alan Archibald has a young squad and look to be short on experience.
Kicking off against former manager Jackie McNamara is an ideal start but the next 10 months will be a huge learning curve for most of his young squad. Time will tell whether they are good enough to survive in the top flight.
Rangers, meanwhile, are slowly making their way back to the top with their supporters hopeful of a far more entertaining side than the one who performed so inconsistently last season.