Celtic and Rangers will once again go head-to-head for the Scottish title.
By Dan Brennan
Regaining the SPL title will be the minimum requirement for Tony Mowbray in his first season in charge of Celtic, but he will also need to improve on the team’s patchy Champions League record. Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Paul Hartley have been replaced by a pair of Nancy boys: £3.8million forward Marc-Antoine Fortune (who Mowbray had on loan at West Brom last season) and Cameroon international Landry N’Guemo, who will slot into a midfield that will be without Shunsuke Nakamura this season after he left for Spanish side Espanyol.
Automatic Champions League qualification has guaranteed champions Rangers a £10m windfall, but manager Walter Smith has refused to rush into the transfer market. The focus so far has been offloading players, with veteran defender Christian Dailly and midfielder Brahim Hemdani among those shown the exit. Smith will certainly want to inject some additional creativity ahead of the European campaign, with a winger and striker likely to top his wish-list. Young Spanish midfielder Aaron, who spent a season on loan from Valencia, has extended his Ibrox stay.
After an impressive first season at Hearts, Csaba Laszlo has been beefing up his squad in a big way. In addition to midfielder Ian Black, signed on a free from relegated Inverness, Laszlo has recruited Algerian international defender Ismael Bouzid from Turkish club Ankaragucu, Polish centre-back Dawid Kucharski from Lech Poznan and Spanish winger Suso from Tenerife, while fending off bids for England Under-21 midfielder Andrew Driver. Third place last season means Hearts enter the Europa League in the play-off round.
Mark McGhee was part of Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen side that regularly humbled the Old Firm in the 1980s. Now back at Pittodrie as manager, success will be defined in more modest terms as the Dons do battle with Dundee United and Hearts for third spot. McGhee knows he must do so on a limited budget and he lost out to English third-tier club Norwich City in a bidding war for Motherwell midfielder Steven Hughes.
A leaky defence cost Craig Levein’s Dundee United third place last season and to compound those problems they have lost excellent Polish keeper Lukasz Zaluska to Celtic, while his Slovakian replacement Dusan Pernis doesn’t arrive from Zilina until December. Former Hearts keeper Steve Banks, drafted in as player-coach, will help plug the gap, as will defender Andy Webster, who joins on a season-long loan from Rangers.
Meanwhile, former England Under-18 Jennison Myrie-Williams, who can play in midfield or up front, has arrived from Bristol City.
New Motherwell manager Jim Gannon knows he must add experience to a youthful squad whose naivety was exposed during a shock home defeat to Welsh side Llanelli in the Europa League first qualifying round (though they bounced back in the second leg). Some defensive reinforcements will be a priority and Gannon’s job will be made tougher by the departure of midfielder Hughes.
With no money to spend at Kilmarnock, and having lost several key members of his squad as he looks to pare down the wage bill, manager Jim Jefferies needs to be at his creative best to get his side to overachieve once more and retain their status as a mid-table outfit. He has managed to bring in Middlesbrough winger Graeme Owens, who can be deployed on either flank, though a proven striker remains the priority.
Former player John “Yogi” Hughes will hope to restore consistency at Hibernian after a non-descript season under Finnish coach Mixu Paatelainen. Hughes has lost star performer Steven Fletcher to Burnley for £3m, but talented former Arsenal graduate Patrick Cregg has been drafted in from Falkirk. Unlikely to be handed a generous transfer kitty, Hughes will put the emphasis on youth and seven members of Hibs’ Under-19 double-winning team of last season have been handed senior contracts.
Gus MacPherson’s St Mirren only avoided the drop on goal difference and they will need to produce more firepower to avoid another relegation scrap this term. Out goes homesick Argentinian defender Franco Miranda, replaced by Aberdeen’s Lee Mair. Experienced goalkeeper Paul Gallacher has been added to help shore up a rearguard that conceded 52 goals last season.
Hamilton defied the pundits by surviving their maiden season last year and the Accies will now fancy their chances of cementing their top-flight status. However, having already lost defender Brian Easton to English Premier League newcomers Burnley, they then saw highly rated teenage midfielder James McCarthy join Wigan Athletic for an initial fee of £1.2m, rising to £3m depending on appearances.
After a seven-year hiatus, St Johnstone return to the top flight on a high, following a runaway First Division title triumph. Manager Derek McInnes has recruited former Gretna goal machine Kenny Deuchar, who is a qualified doctor, to provide some tonic up front. Livingston duo Dave Mackay and Murray Davidson have been snared for a combined fee of £50,000 to bolster defence and midfield respectively, while keeper Graeme Smith has arrived from Rangers.
Falkirk have turned to former reserve team coach Eddie May to reshape the squad. May has already conducted a mass clear-out, releasing Steve Lovell, Gerard Aafjes, Kevin McBride, Mark Staunton and Scott Gibb, while striker Michael Higdon has joined St Mirren and defender Dean Holden has moved to Shrewsbury Town. Coming in on loan are Burnley’s Scotland Under-19 captain Alex MacDonald and Liverpool winger Ryan Flynn, who left the Bairns for Anfield for £75,000 in 2005.