Strachan feels pressure as old friends square up

Unless Gordon Strachan's Celtic make a winning start in their 12.30pm kick-off at Motherwell, managed by Terry Butcher - a fellow former Coventry City manager and a Scotland-England opponent in the 1980s - Strachan's distress will be increasingly unbearable three weeks ahead of what he might have assumed would be his first white-hot fixture.

That should have been the first Old Firm derby of the season, at Ibrox on 20 August against champions Rangers, who are managed by Alex McLeish, one of Strachan's oldest footballing friends from their playing days at Aberdeen and with Scotland. But the midweek 5-0 Champions' League breakdown in Bratislava has piled on the pressure to start well domestically.

The sub-plots weave endlessly, and today's is that Celtic's last visit to Motherwell ended with them conceding two goals in the final two minutes of last season to gift Rangers the title. Another Celtic hiccup at Fir Park, the last of which came in Martin O'Neill's final SPL game in charge, will bring calls for Strachan to head for the exit too.

If such haste to judge seems like madness, it is no more than Strachan should have expected. Five of the SPL's 12 managers have been in their jobs less than six months, while the longest-serving of the dozen, McLeish, has had only three full seasons in charge. He has spent no money in the summer, with two French signings - Jose-Karl Pierre-Fanfan from Paris St-Germain and Marseilles' Brahim Hemdani - arriving for free and the Argentinian striker Federico Nieto coming on loan.

Rangers start at home tomorrow against Livingston, whose new manager, Paul Lambert, played under McLeish a decade ago at Motherwell. Theirs will not be the sole "master-apprentice" rivalry in the league. Hearts' new manager, George Burley, faces a season of Edinburgh rivalry with Hibernian's Tony Mowbray, who played for several years under him at Ipswich.

With signs that Hearts' Lithuanian board is preparing to back Burley with semi-decent funding and the exploitation of contacts - which led to Hearts signing Lithuania international Edgaras Jankauskas - there are worse bets than Hearts as the leading Old Firm chasers, if not catchers.

Burley's first match in charge is at Kilmarnock, whose manager Jim Jeffries faces the club he managed for five years before his pre-Killie sojourn in Bradford.

Mowbray starts at home to Dunfermline, aiming to improve on last season's third place, 31 points behind second-placed Celtic. But he knows that they will need one of the Old Firm to have a truly nightmarish year to cede the top two places.

Aberdeen, fourth last year, start at Dundee United, who finished ninth last term, three points clear of bottom club Dundee, whose relegation was only formally confirmed this week. Dundee had appealed to the Scottish FA, claiming that Livingston had breached the rules by playing Hassan Kachloul as an amateur while paying him as a professional. But although Livingston were fined £15,000, they escaped a points penalty, condemning Dundee.

They are replaced by promoted Falkirk, who begin their tenure in the world of friend-turned-foe at home to Inverness Caley Thistle.

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