It is one of the lingering images of last season: Ally McCoist and Neil Lennon confronting each other on the touchline at Celtic Park. The hostility of the moment, coming at the end of a Scottish Cup replay that the home side won, was an expression of the antagonism that marred so much of the campaign. Striking referees, bullets and parcel bombs in the post, Lennon being assaulted by a supporter at Tynecastle; there was so much ill feeling that Scotland was forced into a bout of agonised self-analysis.
Sectarianism remains a fraught subject for the nation – new legislation aimed specifically at football supporters has been delayed by six months as it passes through the Scottish Parliament – but as Rangers and Celtic are drawn into opposition again, the hope is McCoist and Lennon will represent something different: competitive values, and a rivalry that is ageless but also capable of restraint. As the new season begins the competition is intensified by the two managers' circumstances.
Having succeeded Walter Smith at Ibrox, McCoist is beginning his first year in charge. He is 48, and has spent seven years working alongside Smith for Scotland and then Rangers, but he is still vulnerable to the mistakes that rookies can make. The sole responsibility for the team now belongs to McCoist, and the club's new owner – Craig Whyte – who is himself learning how football works.
The summer has been spent pursuing players. They missed out on Tomer Hemed and Neil Danns, have yet to close a deal for Carlos Cuellar and David Goodwillie, and the three signings they have made are a journeyman Spaniard in Juan Manuel Ortiz, United States international Alejandro Bedoya, on a pre-contract agreement, and Lee Wallace, a Scotland full-back from Hearts.
Lennon found the same last summer. He failed in his efforts to sign David James, Sol Campbell and Jimmy Bullard, yet by October Celtic's work in the transfer market was being lauded since Emilio Izaguirre and Gary Hooper were performing impressively. Lennon has signed three players – Adam Matthews, Kelvin Wilson and Victor Wanyama – and wants a striker.
All the SPL clubs received visits from the police last week, to brief the players on what behaviour is not acceptable. Scottish football still stands on the brink; Lennon, having lost the title once, and McCoist, having yet to win it, are in the same fragile place.Reuse content