SFL kick-off like no other

By Clive LindsayBBC Scotland
Rangers' Dean Shiels and Lee McCulloch celebrate against East Fife
Rangers' Dean Shiels and Lee McCulloch celebrate against East Fife

It will be a season like no other as the Scottish Football League kicks off with arguably more attention focused on Division Three than the battle for promotion to the Scottish Premier League.

Rangers' financial collapse means the club has emerged under new owners but been forced to start life in the bottom tier.

But, whereas the First Division is typically difficult to predict, the only imponderables in Division Three are how many points by which Rangers will win the title and how many times their collection of highly-paid full-time professionals find the net against part-time opponents.

Rangers, who have lost a host of international players but added others with top-tier experience, eased aside Second Division side East Fife 4-0 in the Scottish Communities League Cup in midweek and former Ibrox striker Billy Dodds thought the performance hinted of what was to come.

"We played them the other night there with East Fife, I go in there to coach a couple of nights a week, and the gulf in class - and that was a Second Divison team - is enormous," he said.

However, another Second Division outfit, Brechin City, took Rangers to extra-time the previous week before losing 2-1 in the Ramsdens Cup at Glebe Park and former Celtic midfielder Murdo MacLeod thought it could be typical of away games for the Ibrox men this season.

Martin Hardie celebrates scoring for Morton after leaving Dunfermline
Martin Hardie celebrates scoring for Morton after leaving Dunfermline

"Peterhead played Celtic in the Cup the same day as Arbroath played Rangers last season and they made it tough," he said.

"I don't think they'll get tough games at Ibrox, but away from home it is always going to be difficult as teams will be up for it."

Indeed, Rangers' first opponents, Peterhead, took Dundee to penalty kicks before the Premier League newcomers progressed in the League Cup.

The Blue Toon were last year's Division Three big spenders yet failed to win promotion, but this time it is really is all about who finishes in the play-off places for promotion behind runaway leaders.

Annan Athletic faded last season but have started brightly again, knocking First Division Livingston out of the Ramsdens Cup.

With their surprise League Cup defeat of First Division Airdrie United, Queen's Park will hope that, as last season's runners-up, they will feature again despite the amateurs losing their usual quota of players to the professional ranks.

Montrose knocked Division Two champions Cowdenbeath out of the League Cup and even East Stirlingshire, who finished bottom, showed promise by surprising Ayr United in the Ramsdens Cup.

In contrast to Division Three, early-season cup form suggests that the race for the one promotion spot - and title - in Division One is wide open.

Dunfermline Athletic should start as favourites having been an SPL side last season, but it is notoriously difficult to downsize and maintain a promotion push and they have already suffered a surprise Ramsdens Cup defeat by Second Division Forfar Athletic.

Manager Jim Jefferies has since strengthened, having been forced into a late start by the uncertainty of whether Rangers' demise would mean a late reprieve from relegation.

Three Pars players are among a host of experienced signings made by Morton manager Allan Moore that suggest the Greenock side could do a lot better than flirt with relegation this time round and could be surprise champions.

St Mirren midfielder Jim Goodwin said: "We played Morton in a pre-season friendly and, I tell you, they have added some really good experience there.

Willie Gibson is now playing for Queen of the South in Division Two
Willie Gibson is now playing for Queen of the South in Division Two

"Big Mark McLaughlin at centre half, Martin Hardie, midfielder, been there and done it.

"If they can get the boy McDonald fit up front, he will guarantee you goals up front in that division.

"I think they are outsiders and are my dark horse for this year."

However, MacLeod is tipping another former Celt to lead another Glasgow club to glory.

"I wonder if Partick Thistle are going to have a wee run this year," he said.

"I think, if they can get off to a decent start, a bit of confidence about the club, the fans will turn up if the team is playing well.

"I just think this could maybe be the year for Jackie McNamara."

Falkirk and Hamilton Accies will again rely heavily on the talent emerging from their youth academies.

Dodds suggested: "Falkirk will be up there again and will be there or thereabouts, because they play nice football.

"It just depends on whether the young boys there have enough experience to see them over the line."

The experienced and high-profile new management duo of John Hughes and John Collins will hope that their 8-0 hammering of Stranraer in the League Cup is more typical of their form than the defeat by Third Division Annan that came a week before in the Ramsdens Cup.

Airdrie United won their Ramsdens Cup derby against Hamilton but were themselves knocked out the League Cup by Queen's Park.

Cowdenbeath's loss to Montrose and struggle to beat Second Division Alloa Athletic in the Ramsdens Cup, on top of Dumbarton's home defeat by Queen of the South the same day, sugggests all three promoted sides will struggle.

Likewise, Raith Rovers, who only edged out Berwick Rangers 4-3 in the League Cup and were given a fright by Highland League outfit Wick Academy in the Ramsdens.

In terms of fan base, Queen of the South are the Rangers of Division Two and the Dumfries outfit have emerged as early favourites to bounce straight back up after Cup wins over Alloa and Dumbarton.

Alloa have themselves added some players with top-level experience as they look to build on last season's Third Division glory and are Goodwin's tips for a second title in a row.

"If Alloa can maintain the momentum they had last year and carry that into this season, I think they've got a really good chance," he said.

"I went to watch them a couple of times last season - my brother in law plays at Clyde - and I was very impressed with them.

"They have got some good experienced players and Paul Hartley has another year under his belt as manager."

However, Arbroath, Forfar and Stenhousemuir have also all made some astute signings, while Ayr will expect a quick return to Division One, which should ensure another close battle for the title and the promotion play-off places.

With the presence of Rangers likely to boost the finances of their Third Division rivals, the SPL's loss could just be the SFL's gain in increased profile and excitement - and a sharing of the wealth - in the coming seasons.

Top Stories