SPL ready for new season kick off

By Colin MoffatBBC Scotland
Ally McCoist passes on instructions as Neil Lennon (right) looks on at Ibrox
McCoist (left) and Lennon will be challenging for SPL honours this season

Rangers begin the defence of their title on Saturday lunchtime as the Scottish Premier League lurches into action after a truncated summer break.

It was 15 May when Rangers thumped Kilmarnock at Rugby Park to take the prize by one point from old foes Celtic.

With players being pressed into action again so soon, it means that suntans may not be as pronounced. It has also led to criticism from managers concerned by the lack of downtime for their stars.

Inverness boss Terry Butcher thinks the early kick-off is "farcical", while Celtic's Neil Lennon is worried that mental fatigue could be a factor later in the season.

Fixture congestion caused by severe winter weather in recent years has prompted the switch, along with a view to improving clubs' chances in Europe.

But, with more than five weeks to go until the transfer window closes, many SPL squads are looking rather threadbare.

And Dundee United have already been knocked out of the Europa League before Sunday's league opener at home to Kilmarnock.

The Tannadice outfit have been weakened significantly by the loss of midfield trio Prince Buaben, Craig Conway and Morgaro Gomis. The arrival of Willo Flood, John Rankin and Gary MacKay-Stevens does not look like a fair swap.

Motherwell and Hibernian are also in dire need of more new faces, while Kilmarnock have lost players of real quality in Craig Bryson, Mehdi Taouil and Alexei Eremenko.

The Old Firm have been slow to recruit, with pre-contract signings Kelvin Wilson and Adam Matthews being joined at Celtic by 20-year-old Kenyan Victor Wanyama.

Lukasz Zaluska will be between the sticks when Celtic visit Hibs on Sunday but Lennon wants a new goalkeeper and a striker in place soon.

He will also hope his board can resist any bids for Beram Kayal and Emilio Izaguirre.

Rangers have brought in Spanish midfielder Juan Manuel Ortiz and splashed out for Hearts left-back Lee Wallace.

Hearts striker John Sutton
John Sutton should provide a regular supply of goals for new club Hearts

But manager Ally McCoist has been frustrated elsewhere in the transfer market, losing out to Cardiff over Conway and Kenny Miller, while Leicester was Neil Danns' preference.

McCoist is, of course, stepping out of Walter Smith's considerable shadow for his first season at the Ibrox helm.

"People ask 'is he ready'? Of course he's ready, he's been there the best part of five years under Walter Smith," former Rangers team-mate Billy Dodds told BBC Scotland.

And another old Rangers favourite, Craig Paterson, is not expecting a dramatic change of style from the champions, who have done good business in tying up new deals for Allan McGregor, Steven Whittaker and Steven Davis.

"Having learned his trade from Walter Smith, I think he'll be running the team in exactly the same fashion," said the BBC pundit.

McCoist and Lennon clashed angrily last season on a now-infamous night at Celtic Park.

The pair were quick to bury the hatchet but the fall-out from the confrontation continued to generate headlines long after the dust had settled.

Lennon had a lot to contend with in his first full season in the Celtic dugout, with a shameful series of off-field threats and an attack from a fan at Tynecastle in May.

He has spoken of his belief that to guarantee his job beyond the summer of 2012 he will have to win the league in his second term in charge.

And former Celtic team-mate Paul Lambert is tipping him to do just that.

"They know what it is like not to win it, and that has hurt them. I think this time it will be different," the Norwich manager told BBC Scotland.

Hearts are the visitors to Ibrox as Rangers unfurl the championship flag for the third year running.

Despite tailing off dramatically, the Edinburgh side were comfortably the best of the rest last term but finished a distant 29 points behind runners-up Celtic.

Manager Jim Jefferies moved early to sign up Jamie Hamill and Taouil from former club Kilmarnock, while John Sutton adds real menace to his attacking options.

If Andy Webster can stay injury-free and Marian Kello maintains his excellent form from last term, the men in maroon can look forward to another good campaign.

Dunfermline fans will also be full of the joys of anticipation now that the Pars are back in the big time.

Manager Jim McIntyre has done his shopping in the lower reaches of the SPL and the First Division and will gladly settle for an 11th-place finish.

Steven McDougall celebrates a goal for Dunfermline
Dunfermline are the new kids on the SPL block

St Mirren followers too can be excused if they have an extra bounce in their collective step, since they appear to have bought well.

Internationals Steven Thompson and Gary Teale should bring greater composure in the final third, while Nigel Hasselbaink showed flashes of promise at Hamilton.

The arrivals of Youl Mawene, Isaac Osbourne and Kari Arnason immediately give Aberdeen a more solid and athletic look but they have lost the trickery and pace of forwards Chris Maguire and Sone Aluko.

Inverness, who visit Motherwell on Saturday, need to fill the scoring void left by Adam Rooney, with replacement, Gregory Tade, perhaps a little rough round the edges.

The Highlanders narrowly missed out on a top six finish last time and have shed several grizzled old campaigners for a batch of youthful recruits.

St Johnstone make the trip to Aberdeen on Saturday with one simple message ringing clear: 'score more goals!'

Cillian Sheridan, Carl Finnigan and Sean Higgins give boss Derek McInnes new forward options to compliment the burly aggression of Sam Parkin and the exuberance of Stevie May.

Death threats, a referees' strike and a government summit concerning public disorder were just some of the low points from the last campaign.

"Everyone has a responsibility towards calming things down, managers, players and media," said Lennon.

Here's hoping the talking points are confined to footballing thrills and spills this time round.

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