After five months without competitive football in Scotland, the Premiership kick-off is upon us.
Aberdeen host Rangers in Saturday’s early game before matches between Dundee United and St Johnstone, Hibs and Kilmarnock, and St Mirren and Livingston, with Hamilton travelling to Celtic Park on Sunday and Motherwell visiting Ross County a day later.
Ahead of the opening weekend, Courier Sport’s writers deliver their verdict on who will shine in the top flight in 2020/21.
Breakout star of the campaign will be…
Eric Nicolson: Maybe he wouldn’t strictly be a breakout star but I’m going for St Johnstone’s Jamie McCart because I don’t think people outside Perth appreciate how well he played after arriving from Inverness at the end of January, and he’s not had a full top flight season yet. I saw him in a Caley Thistle shirt against both Dundee teams and didn’t ever come back down the A9 thinking he was a cut above. Credit Tommy Wright for identifying that having better players around him would help take McCart up a couple of levels. A six-foot-plus, left-footed, ball-playing centre-half who won’t get out-paced by many – what’s not to like? Steve Brown protected the club with long-term deals for Ali McCann and Callum Hendry. I would be putting a new contract under McCart’s nose sooner rather than later before the secret gets out.
Sean Hamilton: Callum Hendry hinted at what he is capable of last season. This term could be the one in which he truly explodes onto the Premiership scene. His goals off the bench in the first half of last season, then those that followed once he was handed a regular start, were all vital. They proved his finishing prowess, along with his ability to rise to high-pressure occasions. An extended run in the side this term, with a settled, upward-trending group around him, is just what he needs to take his game to the next level.
George Cran: Robby McCrorie. The talented young goalie has returned to Livingston on loan from Rangers after a brief spell at the end of last season. Having seen him often in the Championship for Queen of the South at the start of 2019/20, McCrorie made a massive impression and won points for the Doonhamers with some huge saves – there’s an argument his performances kept them up come the end of the season. Yet to play for the Gers, the Scotland U/21 international has only made eight top-flight appearances to date – I expect him to shine in the Livi goal in his first full season and be a Scotland international in the future.
Ian Roache: Kevin Nisbet at Hibs. I class him as a breakout player because few fans of top-flight sides will have seen him in action. He will get goals, though, and take the step up in his stride.
Marc Deanie: Robby McCrorie at Livingston. The on-loan Rangers goalie is a serious talent and will eventually take over from Allan McGregor as Ibrox No1.
Several players are stepping up from the Championship – who will make their mark?
EN: What I’ve said above on McCart proves that it’s a very bridgeable gap between the second tier and the first. It’s harder for forwards, mind you. I wasn’t that impressed anytime I saw Alan Forrest (he was anonymous against Saints for Ayr in the Scottish Cup) and I’m not including Lawrence Shankland in this section. He’s a Scottish international for goodness sake! So I’ve chosen Kevin Nisbet. Hibs are the perfect team with which to make an immediate impact. The likes of Drey Wright and Martin Boyle will give him silver service from the wings and I’m expecting doubles figures and a phone call from Steve Clarke before the season is over. I also have high hopes for Declan Glass.
SH: The question is who amongst those making the step up has the fewest question marks surrounding them? The answer, for me, is the obvious one – Lawrence Shankland. With 92 goals to his name in the last three seasons, there’s no doubt the Dundee United striker knows where the target is and how to get himself onto the end of chances. But crucially, he also has the temperament, technique and vision to craft opportunities for himself, which is something he will need to rely on in the early days of this season, whilst his teammates get used to the step up in class. It’s a step up for Shankland too, but he has already scored against top flight opposition and didn’t look out of place in the Scotland squad. I expect another strong season from the Tangerines’ star man.
GC: It’s difficult to look past Lawrence Shankland for this one. Dundee United’s main man has been waiting for his shot at the top flight for years now and he’s not the type to shy away from a challenge. One hundred and five goals in 164 starts throughout his career is an incredible record for anyone. He’ll now be relishing the chance to add to those numbers as a Premiership player and prove any doubters he’s had along the way wrong. His form will be key to any success the Tangerines enjoy this season and he showed against Hibs last season he can mix it with the big boys.
IR: He is just in the door but Luke Bolton, on loan from Man City, isn’t here just to make up the numbers at United. He will make an impact and I am also expecting good things from Declan Glass and Louis Appere at Tannadice.
MD: Lawrence Shankland and Kevin Nisbet will make an impact for United and Hibs this season, while I fancy Salim Kouider-Aissa at Livingston to surprise a few observers. He scored 17 goals in 36 games for Queen’s Park last season, including 13 in League Two. Hamilton new boy Tunde Owolabi – prolific in the Northern Premier League down south with FC United of Manchester – is another intriguing attacking addition to the top flight.
How will St Johnstone and Dundee United perform?
EN: I wouldn’t like to call Saturday’s first game between our two teams. It’s hard enough judging how pre-season campaigns have gone at the best of times, never mind when you haven’t seen either side kick a ball. If Shankland plays the full season for United and they make a couple of first team-ready signings, I suspect there might not be too much distance between them. I do think Saints will place higher in the end, though. No Tommy Wright will feel very strange but I don’t have any fears about Callum Davidson. Far from it. And he’s inheriting a strong, young squad that has proved itself over the course and distance. I expect Saints to finish between fourth and seventh and United between sixth and ninth.
SH: I’m not a gambling man, but if I had to put my money where my mouth is, I’d be backing St Johnstone for the top six again this year. Callum Davidson’s appointment as manager offers a through-line from the Tommy Wright era, while the Perth squad is young, talented and rapidly finding its feet. I’m less optimistic about United. Though, by saying so with the Tayside pair facing each other on opening day, I realise I’m opening myself up to a potential online hiding should the result go the Tannadice side’s way. It’s not that I think United are in grave danger of going down or anything like that. I just feel they’re a few players short of being able to sustain a top six push as things stand. If they can finish seventh, I think that would be an excellent first season back in the Premiership. Sixth or higher would be absolutely magnificent.
GC: As I said in the previous answer, Shankland will be the key for United. If they can keep up the supply of chances to him, he’ll get goals. As always there isn’t much between a lot of the Premiership teams but a quality goal-scorer can be the difference. I don’t expect it to be plain sailing for the Tangerines by any stretch but I think they’ll keep themselves out of trouble and if Shankland is still there come the end of the season they’ll have a shot at the top six. I don’t expect new St Johnstone boss Callum Davidson to change too much at the club and we’ll see a Saints team similar to that of the last few seasons, one that’s very tough to beat. They had a strong second half of last season after a tricky start and fans will be hoping the squad keeps that momentum rolling under the new gaffer. Don’t think they’ll trouble the top five but they’ll be in the mix to repeat last season’s sixth-placed finish.
IR: United’s owner Mark Ogren is ambitious and there has been talk of the top six and even European qualification from sporting director Tony Asghar. That will have to wait a year or two, however, and I think the Tangerines should be happy with the top end of the bottom six. The secret target should be staying up, of course. I predict better for Saints, with them very likely top-six contenders.
MD: Ally McCoist famously likened replacing Walter Smith to “taking the microphone from Frank Sinatra” and Callum Davidson’s in the same boat after succeeding McDiarmid Park legend Tommy Wright. Saints have a nice mix of youth and experience in the squad but the new gaffer needs time to make his mark. He’ll want top six but it won’t be a disaster if they just miss out. On the United front, fans will dream of finishing in the top half but staying in the Premiership for another season would be a brilliant achievement for new boss Micky Mellon.
Game you’re looking forward to the most…
EN: Dundee United v Hearts in the Betfred Cup! Before that, whichever is the first one I’m covering with fans in the stadium. There are two theories about what football will be like post-coronavirus. One is that a lot of supporters will have found other things to do with their Saturdays and won’t come back after the habit has been broken. The other is that absence will have made the heart grow fonder. I think more will be in the latter camp. Hopefully it’s not wishful thinking to have some fans back for the next Saints v United game in October.
SH: I’m going to use one of the most well-worn clichés in football here and say I’m taking it game by game – because Dundee United v St Johnstone is the match floating my boat right now. It’s one of those season openers you wish could have taken place under normal circumstances, because the punters would have flocked to it. United fans, riding the crest of their promotion wave, would have packed out the home end, while Saints punters, keen to see whether their side could pop their neighbours’ bubble, would have travelled along the Carse of Gowrie in their thousands. Unfortunately, there will be next to nobody there to see it, but there will be plenty watching on streams at home and praying for the perfect start against a local rival.
GC: The first one! Let’s get going again! It’s been a long, long time without football in this country and, even if we have to make do with empty stands and virus testing kits getting shoved up noses, it’s good to have the ball back out. The league kicks off with a belter, Aberdeen v Rangers, but closer to home, Dundee United v St Johnstone is such an intriguing one.
IR: The first one, United v Saints. It has been a bit of a wait since my last one – Dundee v Ayr on March 10 – so I’m match-fit (well, almost) and ready to go.
MD: Dundee United’s visit to Ibrox on September 12 to face Rangers has the potential to be a cracker.
Who will finish first, second and third?
EN: That’s the easiest question of the lot – first Celtic, second Rangers, third Aberdeen. Rangers fans were kidding themselves if they thought Covid-19 robbed them of a title. The gap was only going to get bigger. I suspect it will be single digits this season but only just. Celtic by eight or nine points. If Jurgen Klopp did Steven Gerrard a favour and gave him Rhian Brewster for a season, I’d think about changing my mind. But the young Liverpool striker’s form for Swansea has probably taken him out of Rangers’ reach. For Aberdeen, I’ve got a feeling this will be Derek McInnes’s last season. He deserves another chance in England.
SH: There’s no point debating who’s going to win the title this season. You can call it Celtic’s league now as far as I’m concerned. Give them the trophy. 10-in-a-row is done. Second place? On budgets alone, it should be Rangers by an absolute mile. It shouldn’t even be close. Third? Despite the fantastic work Stephen Robinson and his team have done at Motherwell, it will be a big ask for them to cling onto third, though I’d be pleased enough to see it happen given their underdog status. Aberdeen should really be finishing third this season. If not, Derek McInnes’ already strained relationship with the Aberdeen support will be tested further.
GC: Celtic, Rangers, Hibs.
IR: I would love to say Aberdeen, Hibs or Motherwell for the title but that’s just because I am a romantic. I have seen nothing over the summer to suggest anything other than 10 in a row for Celtic, with Rangers desperately trying to hang on to them in second. I fancy Nisbet’s goals to get the Hibees into third.
MD: All week I’ve thought Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen, but the news that Sam Cosgrove might be out until December with a knee injury is a huge blow to Derek McInnes. It could allow Jack Ross’ Hibs to grab third place.
Who’ll be in the mix for the end-of-season awards?
EN: There’s no point mentioning anyone from this part of the world. I still can’t believe Lewis Ferguson beat Ali McCann to the young player of the year award last season. What I will say is, it wouldn’t surprise me to see McCann nominated for the main award this time around.
SH: Player of the Year – whoever is Celtic’s star man this season. Nobody else will get a look in. That’s just how it is. A Rangers player will be there or thereabouts and, if somebody from outwith the Glasgow pair has an outstanding campaign, a la Lawrence Shankland last season, they’ll get a token, pat-on-the-head mention despite not really standing a chance. Young Player of the Year tends to be a more open category, though if there was any justice, St Johnstone’s Ali McCann or Motherwell’s Allan Campbell would have won the Scottish Football Writers’ Association’s gong last season. Both had far better campaigns than the actual winner, Aberdeen’s Lewis Ferguson. McCann will be there or thereabouts again if he plays like he did last term, while, if Lawrence Shankland can bag another bucket load of goals in the Premiership, his name will certainly be mentioned in connection with the main award.
GC: Rangers and Celtic players. Outside of the Old Firm, I’d back guys like Martin Boyle and Declan Gallagher to shine this season and be in the conversations for awards. Possible candidates for the young player awards will be Ali McCann at St Johnstone and Ross Stewart at Ross County.
IR: If we are talking 10 at Celtic Park then they will sweep the board.
MD: You wouldn’t bet against Celtic’s Odsonne Edouard having another brilliant season but I’m tipping his countryman Olivier Ntcham to have massive impact at Parkhead in 2020/21. Across the city, Joe Aribo has the talent to become Rangers’ main man. Away from the Old Firm sides, this could be a huge campaign for Callum Hendry at McDiarmid Park, Motherwell’s David Turnbull (if he stays at Fir Park amid speculation about his move to Celtic being revived) and Livi keeper Robby McCrorie.