According to @SPLstats, not since a shortened 1975/76 season has any Scottish team won their league earlier in the year than Rangers have the League One title this season. Lee McCulloch’s hat-trick saw them beat an Airdrie side last night who were but the latest victim of Rangers’ powerful march back up towards the top of the game. However, after winning two league titles in a row at a canter, I’m not sure they will be able to repeat the feat next year in what is shaping up to be one of the most fiercely competitive seasons in Scotland’s most competitive league: the Championship.
Looking at the Championship title race at the moment and you will see three fantastic teams that are all very capable of competing at the lower reaches of the Premiership. Dundee managed to put in a good account of themselves last season in the SPL even though they had months less to prepare than other Premier League teams because of their expedited promotion in the wake of Rangers’ demise. Hamilton and Falkirk have both had extended spells in the top league in the last decade – with the Bairns even making it to Europe only 5 years ago via the Scottish Cup. At least one of these teams will be squaring up to Rangers next season; with no possibility of all three teams being promoted either automatically or through the new play-off system. These teams have more pedigree than the current Rangers squad at that level, and will be just as fired up, if not more so, to win the league.
Not only will Rangers have to compete against one of the three teams that have been fighting it out at the top this year but they will have to play either one or two teams that have dropped down from the Premiership. Hearts look doomed to face the drop after an administration-caused points deduction while one of the teams above them will have to play-off against a Championship team for their right to remain in the top division. Hearts have been a weak Premiership side this season, but not as powerless as some had expected given their squad’s relative inexperience and lack of top class quality. They will be a threat to the top of the league next season if they can hold on to their better players like Danny Wilson (who’ll want to prove himself against his former club) and Jamie MacDonald as well as perhaps shaking off their transfer embargo to bring in a few more battle-hardened veterans to their side.
Any of the sides above Hearts will be close to Rangers if not above them in the league towards the end of the season if they are relegated. Partick Thistle and Ross County have both recently traversed the First Division, with Ross County winning by a country mile two seasons ago. Their squads are good and they have what it takes to win the league if they are back there next season. Even stronger than these teams are Kilmarnock and St. Mirren, the other two relegation play-off hope-nots, both of whom would be relative strangers to playing in anything other than the Premier League. If either were to be relegated it would not only be a shock, but would surely render them favourites to go straight back up to the big time if they could hold on to the majority of their squads into the Championship.
So Rangers will face stiff opposition from strong teams next year if they are looking to win the league. But the Championship is perhaps Scotland’s most exciting league because even though there will be a few stronger teams than the rest, anybody can beat anybody over the course of a season. Last year Morton ran eventual winners Partick Thistle to the wire, but this season they are languishing at the foot of the table. Teams that have had a few difficult seasons come out of the woodwork and challenge for the title all the time. Raith Rovers came second three seasons ago (to Dunfermline, who could be in next year’s Championship should they get through the play-offs) after a few years of obscurity in the league. Teams such as these will come away with results against Rangers throughout the season and put dents in their dreams of another gallop to victory. In the Championship, nothing is certain – and that makes things difficult for even great footballing sides to win easily, and Rangers will be far from immune to that next season.
Most of all though, Rangers will have to defeat their own demons if they are to win their return passage to the Premiership next season. Years of backroom bargaining and bickering over the club’s messy reformation have left fans, and surely the playing and coaching staff, weary of off-field drama. Instead of focussing on the, albeit easy, job at hand of winning the lower leagues they have been at the centre of a media peep show that’s all their own doing. When you are facing semi-professional and amateur teams week in week out, it’s not too much of a burden to bear – but when up against professional footballing sides hell-bent on stopping the Rangers juggernaut: any distraction from the matches they’re playing will leave the Rangers’ team stranded in the Championship. If the ownership and financial turmoil doesn’t go away and the fans don’t get behind their club and manager in what will be their toughest footballing season for years then the meteoric return to the Premier League will be halted.
Although the season isn’t over competitively for Rangers, with a Challenge Cup Final and Scottish Cup semi-final still to come – without a doubt Ally McCoist & Co.‘s eyes will be on the next campaign already. If they have been clever, they will have been preparing for this season ahead more so than they have the last two combined – as I believe this will be the first real test of Rangers’ claim to be the same club they once were: a team that is the most successful in Scottish league history and has won many titles in the face of stern competition. Although it is months away, I can’t wait to see how Rangers will do in the Championship.