O'Neill suggests loosening of Old Firm's traditional grip

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The Independent Football

It was the closest title race anyone, anywhere, has ever known. "Down to the wire" needed to be redefined after Rangers and Celtic squeezed the last drop out of their season.

Only 76 days have passed since that astonishing climax on 25 May when the destination of the Scottish Premier League title was not decided until the final minute of the campaign. It took a 91st minute penalty to separate the Glasgow rivals: not until Mikel Arteta sealed the 6-1 thrashing of Dunfermline at Ibrox, did Rangers know that they were champions.

Down at Rugby Park, Celtic - having just missed a penalty of their own - were chasing a fifth goal against Kilmarnock. They ran out of time, just as they had in the Uefa Cup final four days earlier. The Old Firm fell just short of a century of points in their duel, but the adage about championships being a marathon, not a sprint, became redundant on that Super Sunday as a lunge for the finishing line saw the BBC, give each team a separate channel and a live screening.

This time round, it could be very different. Who says so? None other than Celtic manager Martin O'Neill, the man whose dream of securing three successive titles evaporated under the Rugby Park sun.

O'Neill believes that the Old Firm will be unable to attain last term's standard. "I don't think it will take 97 points to win the league this time. If both ourselves and Rangers get to the Champions' League group stage, I think other sides will see their chance to close the gap and that's where points will be dropped.

"I remember in my first season here, Dick Advocaat said the title was only between two sides, yet Hibernian [under Alex McLeish] were still in the title race up until March. It is difficult for the other teams to maintain that consistency throughout the season, but if they have a belief in themselves, then one, or maybe two sides, could sustain it longer."

After a summer that seemed like a cheap day-trip to the beach compared to the spending frenzies of previous close-seasons, all 12 SPL clubs have re-emerged leaner. High-wage earners have been off-loaded - as befits a league that is £160m in the red - and more modest replacements sought.

Celtic, even with £20m in the bank after that epic Uefa Cup run, have not spent a penny. O'Neill is keeping faith with the players who came so close in Seville and at Rugby Park. "You don't dismantle a team that almost won a European trophy," said captain Paul Lambert. "There is a feeling among the players that we still have another great season left in us and we intend to prove the manager right."

The two sides that O'Neill picks to challenge the Old Firm are Hearts and Dundee. Hearts defeated Celtic at Tynecastle last April and head coach Craig Levein has now added Dennis Wyness, the prolific Inverness Caledonian Thistle striker whose goal knocked Celtic out of the Scottish Cup. "If Hearts show the same application they do against us, they are capable," said O'Neill.

"In the three years I've been here, I've never had an easy game up at Dundee and they even beat us at Celtic Park. They will have taken a new belief from getting to the Scottish Cup final and Jim Duffy is the man to instill consistency."

Elsewhere, the prudent new approach will force clubs to rely more on younger Scottish players. Hibernian have plenty, which is just as well for manager Bobby Williamson, who had to limit himself to signing only former Newcastle winger Stephen Glass in the face of huge debts, while Aberdeen have taken back Scott Booth after six years' exile in Germany and the Netherlands. Thankfully, James McFadden is also still around to brighten the scene after Motherwell resisted offers for the promising young Scotland forward.