Fixtures rekindle mood of anticipation for domestic game

Traditionalists will be appeased by the release of Scottish football's fixture list for next season. The opening day of the league campaign delivers a nod towards the past, after all, when it pits Aberdeen against Dundee United and Rangers against Hearts.

These are the most striking games on the first Saturday, with the former once a pivotal encounter in deciding the outcome of the title. The years when the teams from Pittodrie and Tannadice challenged for supremacy might seem an anomaly now, but there is an opportunity for the two clubs to emphasise their continuing revival.

When Rangers host Hearts, the biggest crowd of the opening day will be watching. A season-ticket boycott is causing financial alarm inside Ibrox, but the expectation remains that fans will continue to attend matches in similar numbers to the past two seasons, when crowds often topped 40,000 in the bottom two tiers.

Rangers v Hearts

Rangers and Hearts last met in the league two years ago

It was self-imposed crises that brought the two clubs together in the Championship, while a bout of ineptitude sent Hibernian into the same division and their opening game will be at home to Livingston. The contest between the three clubs alone will be intriguing, since only a maximum of two can return to the top-flight at the first opportunity.

Fans of Premiership clubs rightly bridle when the Championship is predicted to be the better league. That description is misleading since it would be more accurate to say that there is likely to be more drama in the second tier given that Hearts are attempting to rebuild, Hibs are seeking to appoint a new manager while a committed group of fans try to oust the chairman Rod Petrie, and Rangers remain a club beset by turmoil.

The top flight will seem more sedate in comparison. Celtic, of course, will be expected to secure a fourth consecutive championship, even if there might be a period of adjustment for Ronny Deila as the Norwegian comes to terms with the greater demands and intensity of managing Celtic compared to the job he has just left at Stromsgodset.

The advantage in resources at Celtic Park will always leave opponents struggling to keep up. Aberdeen, in particular, and Dundee United have found the means to restore optimism amongst their supporters, and that alone will be uplifting.

Last season's League Cup triumph reminded Aberdeen fans of what it was to celebrate glory, but also permitted them to embrace some ambition again. There will be an opportunity to apply some pressure to Celtic, at least in the early stages.

Deila has been studying footage of games to come to terms with Scottish football and the players he is now in charge of. The appointment of John Collins as his assistant will provide further insight, although Celtic will have to wait four days to make their league debut since the opening match at home to Partick Thistle has been postponed because their stadium is being used for the Commonwealth Games.

A new era is being established at the club, and the ideal is that it will underpin the next generation since both Deila and Collins are committed to player development and education. Nonetheless, there is always a fascination with the initial efforts of an Old Firm manager, particularly one who has no experience of the intensity of football in Glasgow.

Celtic manager Ronny Deila

Celtic's new manager Deila will open his Premiership campaign away to St Johnstone

Even if Celtic perform as expected, there will still be competitive issues in the top flight. Teams were bunched together in the bottom six last season, reflecting the fact that there was little to separate them in terms of squad ability or managerial nous.

A similar tussle to avoid the drop can be expected, but there is the added dimension of the return of the Tayside derby now that Dundee are back in the top flight. There might be a difference in the wherewithal of the two clubs, since United are established in the Premiership and are building a squad that contains several talented youngsters whereas Dundee are readjusting following promotion, but the meetings of the teams will be compelling regardless.

Purists will rankle at the unique aspect of this campaign, since Hamilton and Kilmarnock will be using artificial surfaces in the top flight. There is little point railing against progress, though, when so many lower division clubs rely on 3G and 4G pitches to ensure that their stadia generate income on the days when matches are not being played.

It is also a quaint notion nowadays to think that the game can only be played on grass when so many leading clubs - with the necessary wealth to be able to budget for the costs - now have pitches that are a combination of real and synthetic grass.

Mostly, though, the fixture list merely draws attention to games that stand out regardless of circumstances. Even if Hearts and Hibs were ensconced in mid-table, for instance, their derby meetings would still draw full houses, widespread media coverage and a sense of excitement.

The presence of the World Cup makes the domestic game seem mundane, but a list of games can still generate a brief pang of anticipation.