McCoist and Lennon charged with fresh hopes
Saturday 23 July 2011
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, and the Old Firm engage in another tussle for the championship, 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 with mixed success, and the sense is of the new regime coming to terms with the transfer market. 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, and United States international, Alejandro Bedoya, on a pre-contract agreement, and Lee Wallace, a Scotland full-back from Hearts.
Supporters inevitably grumble, and there is already a fear – however suppressed – that McCoist suffers the same fate as John Greig, another iconic player who stepped up to become Rangers manager in 1978 and failed. McCoist is the club's record goalscorer, and fans cannot bear the prospect of his career in the dugout not being as triumphant. It is the neurosis of the football fan, but McCoist has the shrewdness and experience of his surroundings to succeed.
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, then Beram Kayal returned to fitness and was one of the most accomplished midfielders in the country.
Lennon was involved in a radical overhaul of his squad last summer, and the task this year has been to refine that work. He has signed three players – Adam Matthews, Kelvin Wilson and Victor Wanyama – and is looking for a striker. Otherwise, he is trimming his squad, and this is where the essential difference lies between the two teams. While McCoist seeks reinforcements, and both starting line-ups are of a similar quality, Celtic have the greater strength in depth.
All the SPL clubs received visits from the police last week, to brief the players on what behaviour is not acceptable on the field. Scottish football, at the beginning of this fresh campaign, still stands on the brink; Lennon, having lost the title once, and McCoist, having yet to win it, are in the same fragile place.
Three things to look out for this season
More turmoil in the capital
During the summer, Hearts sacked Craig Thomson, after the full-back pleaded guilty to lewd, libidinous and indecent behaviour, and was placed on the sex offenders' register. Hibernian have faced constant speculation that their manager, Colin Calderwood, is about to join either Birmingham City or Nottingham Forest. The season may only bring further unrest at two clubs where stability has become rare.
The battle to escape mediocrity
Who can finish the best of the rest behind the Old Firm? It was Hearts last season, Dundee United the year before that. Can Motherwell or Kilmarnock rise above their competitors? They both have much to build on from last term, and two ambitious managers in Stuart McCall and Kenny Shiels, respectively.
St Mirren and Hamilton were adrift at the bottom for much of last season, with the latter eventually dropping into the First Division. Dunfermline have replaced them, but will struggle to cope in the top flight, particularly since the other lower-ranked teams from last season have strengthened during the summer. It could be a short stay in the SPL for the Fife side.
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