Rangers leave no room at top for strangers

The champions look untouchable again in the Scottish League. David McKinney reports
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With pounds 10m worth of talent added to an already successful squad, the inescapable conclusion in Scotland is that Rangers will in nine months' time unveil to their fans an eighth consecutive Scottish League flag. While the Premier Division might be seen as a one-horse race - the bookies offer them at 1-6 on - the title has become a means to an end for Rangers, whose sights are set on loftier things.

Europe has become an all-consuming passion at Ibrox and with David Murray, the Rangers chairman, this week suggesting that a European League could be a reality within five years, some sense can be made of the fact that Rangers now have on their books eight non-Scottish players. It is conceivable that Murray also has an indication that the European three-foreigner rule might soon be changed.

In the short term, it will be up to Scottish clubs to mount enough of a challenge to restore credibility to a league which has been a procession for Rangers over the years. To do so other clubs will have to nullify the talents of Paul Gascoigne, Oleg Salenko and Brian Laudrup among others. Rangers quite simply have the biggest squad, the best players, the only chance of winning the League.

Rangers' greatest rivals, Celtic, have been unable to mount a challenge over the last five years because of internal disruptions, but they now have a belief in themselves fuelled by the arrival of Andreas Thom from the German club, Bayer Leverkusen. The Scottish Cup holders have returned to their spiritual home of Celtic Park, which boosts a brand new north stand capable of seating 26,000 supporters.

Already Newcastle and Liverpool have been impressed by the atmosphere and if Walter Smith, the Rangers manager, suggests that Celtic will prove his biggest challengers, that will only come about if the off-field re- building is matched on it. Celtic's cause has been helped by the decision of John Collins to see out the remaining year of his contract yet the feeling remains that they require another new face or two to sustain a title bid.

In losing 3-1 to MyPa of Finland in the Uefa Cup, last season's League runners-up, Motherwell, have indicated they will find life more difficult this time. John Hendry has arrived from Tottenham but Alex McLeish, their manager, must hope the legs of Tommy Coyne carry him through the season. Hibernian have made no signings over the summer, suggesting they will once again lack the strength and depth over the marathon of a league season.

It remains to be seen if the fright of last season, when they preserved their Premier Division status in a play-off, will make a difference to Aberdeen. In Roy Aitken they have a manager capable of getting the best out of the players; the question is whether the players are good enough.

For the other clubs in the top flight the coming season will be one in which to avoid being sucked into the relegation area - especially for three managers at new clubs: Jim Jefferies at Hearts, John Lambie, who has replaced him at Falkirk, and Murdo Macleod, who has taken over from Lambie at Partick Thistle.

Those three, in common with many in the game, will hope the standard of play rises above the mediocrity of last season. With all-seated grounds being completed throughout the country, the supporters are paying enough money to expect a return in terms of quality. In order to ensure their attendance on a weekly basis, the supporters of Aberdeen, Celtic, Hearts, Motherwell and Rangers have bought season tickets in record numbers.