Gerrard, Lennon, Morelos, Cosgrove, Alessio - the A to Z of the new Scottish season
Around this time last year, as a kind of curtain-raiser to all the things that were about to happen in Scottish football in the months ahead, a decapitated pigeon fell out of the sky above Hampden and crashed to earth as Queen's Park were playing St Mirren in the League Cup.
It seems that some players gathered around the unfortunate bird and then stared to the heavens in bewilderment in an attempt to figure out how the hell it lost its head.
This year's favourite warm-up act involves Kevin McCormick, Queen of the South's groundsman, and his ongoing battle with the Palmerston Park seagulls. Kevin has pulled out all the stops to get rid of them.
He's played bird of prey noises over the sound system, but the gulls laughed at him. He's flown a bird of prey kite around the place but the enemy were having none of it. Kevin says he stayed on the pitch until 11.30pm on the night before one League Cup game. A human scaregull. Magnificent.
The new season is almost upon us and there's going to be a lot more of this kind of stuff. Maybe nothing will quite match the intoxicated Celtic fan going for a 10-in-a-row tattoo one evening while on holiday in Magaluf and waking up the next morning with the words 'Terry Munro' decorating his torso - but this is going to be fun.
It's always fun. The Premiership alone runs the gamut of drama and intrigue. So here's an A-Z of the Scottish game in all its brilliant fascination.
- Thompson & Stewart preview the season
- Predict the Scottish Premiership table
- Noisy neighbours & managerial mavericks
How on earth do you carry on Steve Clarke's remarkable work at Kilmarnock? Answer: with immense difficulty. Angelo Alessio has a stellar CV as an assistant to Antonio Conte, but he's already on the back foot with that eye-watering humiliation in Europe at the hands of Welsh part-timers Connah's Quay Nomads. There's been rumours of player unrest, subsequently denied. It's too early to judge the Italian, but this is Scottish football and patience wouldn't be one of the things it's strong on.
Killie are at home to Rangers first. In this fixture, more than most, Clarke's record represents an incredibly high bar. Two wins, one draw and one defeat in four games last season. Alessio may already be sick of hearing Clarke's name and the stories of his team's conquests. His shadow still walks the corridors.
Or lack of back bone in the case of the football authorities. Sectarian chanting goes unremarked upon and unpunished. People can pollute the air and sing what they like knowing that the governing bodies will do nothing. Of course, if a lower league club mistakenly fields an ineligible player in a cup competition, the Sword of Damocles will fall. It's the twisted morality that gets you.
Rangers have recently launched a new diversity scheme - 'Everyone Anyone'. If they're serious about dealing with the abusive element in their own support then they should be encouraged. Their resolve will be tested.
Hibs' Martin Boyle suffered a bad knee injury while playing for Australia in January, did his rehab, came back full of hope and then did his knee against Elgin last weekend. Boyle needs surgery and won't be seen in competitive action until next year. It's another reminder - not that Hibs needed it - of the precarious existence of professional sports people. As we bask in the cut and thrust of the league, Boyle will have a mental battle on his hands to get back to his best. Good luck to him.
Ross County are back and are in the fairly unusual position for a promoted team of not being heavily tipped to go straight back down again. No wonder. They look in decent order and Steven Ferguson and Stuart Kettlewell have done a fine job in returning them to the Premiership at the first attempt. County look to have more than enough goals in their team to keep relegation worries at bay. Josh Mullin, Billy Mckay, Blair Spittal and Michael Gardyne should all weigh-in. Tenth place seems to be the consensus. Wouldn't be surprised if they were two or three places higher than that.
Stephen Dobbie turns 37 in December and it wouldn't be a surprise come the end of the season if his age matched his goals total for Queen of the South. Last season he surpassed it with 43 goals including six doubles and six hat-tricks. His equalisers and winners equated to 17 league points. Given that the Dumfries side only survived in the Championship on goal difference, you get an idea how critically important the striker is. Not even the Palmerston Park seagulls can stop him.
Their collapse has been pitiful. Five seasons ago they finished a credible fifth in the Championship behind Hearts, Hibs and Rangers. Four seasons ago they were second, topping Hibs on goal difference. Three seasons ago they were second again, three points ahead of Dundee United. Two seasons ago, they slumped to eighth, and last season the sorry demise ended in relegation. They won three league games at home all season. League One had better spark a recovery or Lord knows what might become of them. The early season goal-scoring of Declan McManus must give them some heart.
After surviving a lamentably bad relegation/promotion play-off with Dundee United, St Mirren needed to re-evaluate in the summer, particularly after a messy end to Oran Kearney's time as manager. Tony Fitzpatrick, the chief executive and spiritual heart and soul of the club, repeated his mantra that St Mirren are top-six, top-four material. Jim Goodwin, a progressive young manager, was appointed, but he was left with a threadbare squad incapable of beating, or even scoring, against East Kilbride and Albion Rovers in a failed League Cup campaign. New recruits are arriving, slowly. This promises to be another season of toil.
Hostage to fortune
Sheyi Ojo stated last week that Rangers are the best team in Scotland. That's quite a boast when you've yet to play a competitive game in Scotland. Joey Barton cornered the market in this kind of bombast and we know how it all ended for him. Ojo looks a fine acquisition - big, strong, athletic and a good finisher - but trumpeting a title win when you're not in the country long enough to know your Celtic Park from your Central Park is the kind of rhetoric that tends to get rammed down your throat when things go wrong.
Is anybody going to bid for Alfredo?
So much talk about him leaving Rangers and yet no offer. AC Milan were supposedly the latest suitors until the bizarre episode with the Chinese club who apparently could have and would have made him a jaw-dropping offer, only they didn't. Unless things take a dramatic turn, Morelos will be staying exactly where he is and on the pitch, if not in the financial accounts, Rangers will be stronger for his presence, presuming his self-defeating petulance has been addressed. A sizeable proviso.
Jambos kicking back
When Hearts are struggling and Tynecastle starts to vent against Craig Levein, you're presented with scenes that give you some impression of what it must have been like for the Christians in the Colosseum in Roman times. The place is unforgiving, put it that way. When sections of the support go for Levein's jugular, they do so with gusto. Right now, after some poor early performances in the League Cup, the drums are beating again. Levein can hear them, but he'll be confident he can silence them. He's got a decent squad that should be targeting third or fourth.
In December, Partick Thistle's 'new' striker will celebrate his 40th birthday, 22 years after making his competitive debut as a kid at Hibs. More than half his life scoring goals - it's ridiculous. He's already got two this season. His longevity is a tribute to his ability, naturally, but also his incredible hunger and love of the game. Most people would have packed it in long since.
Land of the free
Otherwise known as Dundee now that both clubs are under American ownership. The Dundee derby has been restored but the pair of them are in the Championship. There's always going to be an edge when these two meet but, such is the desperation for promotion, the rivalry this season is going to be intense. United have been in the second tier for three seasons already. They've pulled off a bit of a coup to land Lawrence Shankland from Ayr to ensure they don't have to stay down there any longer. That looks a very significant signing.
It might seem odd that so many people fancy them for top-six given that they've lost Jake Hastie to Rangers and will be without David Turnbull for an indecent amount of the season, but they're looking good. Four wins out of four with 12 goals scored and none conceded in the League Cup gives them momentum. Those games were all against lower league teams, but they still put them away with zero fuss.
Stephen Robinson looks to have signed well. Declan Gallagher from Livingston could be the pick of them. Liam Donnelly, a defender, has scored four times in three games this season and five in four if you count the final game of last season. James Scott is a teenager worth watching. The squad looks nicely balanced. Sixth should be the target. They may be capable of more.
Still reeling from tipping Partick Thistle to finish top six in the season they got relegated, this prediction lark is dodgy territory. On the basis that nobody will remember what was forecasted come May - hopefully - Celtic will win the league and one cup, but not another treble. Rangers will break their trophy duck and pick up something. The top six will be Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Hibs, Hearts and Motherwell. St Mirren will be relegated. Some managers will lose their jobs and this writer will cringe when he sees, come season's end, how hopelessly wrong he was about all of this
One hundred and seventy two
That was the percentage increase in Livingston's average attendance last season, a chunky feat given the shambles of their early season when Kenny Miller was appointed manager before moving on in the relative blink of an eye. Enter Gary Holt and onwards towards a terrific season based on organisation, resilience and mental strength. The challenge, and it's a massive one, is to cope now that they have lost so many key men. Craig Halkett has gone to Hearts, Declan Gallagher has gone to Motherwell, Liam Kelly has gone to QPR. Shaun Byrne has gone to Dundee. Marvin Bartley is in. Scott Pittman remains. Holt wants people to write them off. We won't oblige.
Or the new darling of Pittodrie - Sam Cosgrove. Aberdeen were in the midst of a goalscoring crisis when the big striker suddenly started banging them in just after the loss to Celtic in the League Cup final. In the winter months he scored 15 goals in 14 games. With 21 in 44 games, he scored the winner in league games against St Mirren, Hearts, Hamilton and Dundee. Some of those were penalties - the Dons win quite a few - but Cosgrove has turned into a fair old weapon up front. A hat-trick against Chikhura on Thursday was further proof. Derek McInnes suffered the grievous loss of Graeme Shinnie - Craig Bryson looks an astute replacement - but Cosgrove's form gives him all kinds of hope.
If you fancy it, Celtic are 5-1 to do a clean sweep for the fourth straight season. You wouldn't say that it has become unimportant to their supporters but, having done three in a row, there are other things on the horizon that they'd chose over another treble. The title is non-negotiable, but proper progress in the Champions League surely comes ahead of another cup or two. Brendan Rodgers made them domestic kings and, mostly, European fodder. Neil Lennon is keen to regain some lost kudos on the big stage.
God help them as they attempt to follow the letter of Ifab's law surrounding handball penalties. There will be many and there will be furore upon furore on this and other interpretations. Scrutinised, mocked and threatened, Scotland's officials have a lot to put up with. They make mistakes, just as managers and players make mistakes. Give them a break and usher in VAR pronto.
It's just as well Steven Gerrard experienced pressure in his epic years with Liverpool because this season is a seismic one for him after the discernible progress of last term. Another cavalry has been assembled at Ibrox in an attempt to stop nine in a row. At the very least he has to take it to the wire. A cup win would ease the strain of failing to stop Celtic in the league, but only to a point. Gerrard knows that his team's soft underbelly has to go. They dropped points in 15 of their 38 league games despite beating Celtic twice. Gerrard's attempt to introduce a ruthless professionalism into his team will be one of the most fascinating subplots.
In three seasons, Celtic's cushion at the top of the league has been reduced from 30 points (over Aberdeen and 39 points over Rangers) in Brendan Rodgers' first campaign in charge to nine points (over Rangers) in his last. The gap is narrowing, then? Undoubtedly. Among the pack, Rangers are best placed to put Celtic under pressure, but as much as Steven Gerrard advanced their position last season it's hard to escape the conclusion that Celtic still won it without ever being forced to reach for top gear. They lost their manager, they had injuries to key players, they signed poorly and yet they still had it won with weeks to spare. We crave a toe-to-toe rivalry to the last weekend, but we might be kidding ourselves. Celtic still look nine points better off.
Hamilton continue to refuse to read the script. For seasons we have been predicting that this is the year they go down and for years they've made pundits look like mugs by staying up. Brian Rice encourages opinion that talks down his team. It gives him juicy motivation on match day. This space has predicted relegation for too long. Enough. They're staying up. Sorry, Brian.
Straying outside of Scotland for a second, Oli McBurnie is now a £20m player following his move from Swansea to Sheffield United. The newly promoted Premier League team reckon they've got a good deal, a view based solely on McBurnie's 24-goal season for the Welsh side last season. Nothing he did before that - and nothing he has done for Scotland - would suggest that he's worth such a fee, but this is the English top flight, a place where in the last 18 months Bournemouth have splurged £17m on Dominic Solanke and got precisely zero league goals out of him, where Brighton forked out for £17m on Alireza Jahanbakhsh and got no goals, where Wolves ponied up £18m for Adama Traore, who scored once in the league, and where Everton spent £27m on Cenk Tosun for a return of three goals. It's not a normal world down there.
Wright man, wrong place
When Tommy Wright took over as manager of St Johnstone in 2013, Terry Butcher was at Hibs, Gary Locke was in charge at Hearts, Allan Johnston was running things at Killie and Stuart McCall was still at Motherwell. Wright enters his seventh season as boss at McDiarmid Park having seen many counterparts come and go.
He had four top-six finishes in his first four seasons - they finished fourth on three occasions - and, of course, he won the club their first cup. The excellent Wright should have been poached by another club by now, but in Perth he remains and the job is only getting harder as player recruitment gets ever more difficult. The Stevie May saga will have hurt Wright no end. Saints have finished eighth and seventh in the last two seasons. This one looks like being another brutal grind.
In signing Craig Halkett, Hearts didn't just get a defender who clearly loves the art of defending, they also got a serious goal threat down the other end of the pitch. Halkett scored seven times for Livingston in the league last season, only one of them from the penalty spot. That was 17% of their entire total of league goals from their now departed centre-half. He has already scored three times for Hearts - that's 50% of their goals. He could be one of the signings of the season.
Aaron Hickey and Harry Cochrane at Hearts, Mikey Johnston and Karamoko Dembele at Celtic, James Scott and Jamie Semple at Motherwell, Lewis Ferguson and Connor McLennan at Aberdeen. Age ranges from 16-20. There are others. Their progress will be worth watching.
Whatever you may think of the product, there is one thing that is bordering on world class in Scottish football and that is the way it impacts on people. Most games in this country do not attract anything like the same numbers as games in the Premier League, but there is something authentic about the experience here and something contrived about what you get in some of the glamour spots in England. The Etihad? The Emirates? They couldn't hold a candle to some of the hothouses we have in Scotland.