I’ll be honest I wasn’t going to do a ‘Championship Preview’ this season. I was going to wait a few months because I prefer my mid-season reviews over the start of the season preview. Why? Well probably because I have more to work with and we all know how each side has performed in the early months of the campaign so there is more to write about. At the moment everything we think we know, we probably don’t. It is easy to say that “Ross County will do well because they have the financial backing”, but they might not. It is easy to say “Alloa are dead certs to get relegated”, but they might not. Predictions are easy to make but it is almost guaranteed that any definitive statements you make about what the future holds for a particular team will almost certainly come back to haunt you.
With this two-part preview of the Scottish Championship 2018/19 what I will try to do is sum up what the general feeling is about each team and attempt to highlight what might be on the cards for each side over the coming months (whilst trying my best to not be wildly inaccurate).
It is a line often repeated at the moment but it is true that this, more than many before it, is looking like being one of the most competitive Championship seasons in recent memory. Not great news if you are trying to win the title like so many of the sides are. This is what makes the league such a minefield. Out of the 10 teams in the division you are looking at maybe 6 of them who might think that they can win the division, with a further two who will hope for at least a playoff spot. If you are interested in who the six might be then I think that with Ross County, Partick Thistle, Falkirk, Dundee United, Inverness and Dunfermline the managers, players and boards of all of these sides will hold ambitions of a title. For Queen of the South and Greenock Morton you probably have two sides who will aim for at least a playoff spot.
Finally we have Alloa Athletic and Ayr United who, I’m assuming but might be wrong, will simply aim for safety in this, their first season back in the Championship. It was a case of St.Mirren running away with the league last year and it was a year of shocks with Livingston in particular showing everyone what a good manager, a close-knit squad, and a strong style of football can achieve. Who will be this year’s surprise package?
For this preview I’ve set myself a rough 350 word limit for each team to keep things brief but hopefully informative (and also to stop me rambling, especially when it comes to Dundee United). I have split the preview into two separate posts with the second one hopefully published tomorrow.
Last Season – Promotion via a fantastic set of results in the playoffs. I’m sure many would have written Alloa off given they had to face both Raith Rovers and Dumbarton but they managed to achieve the unthinkable (and I thoroughly enjoyed watching their second leg win against Dumbarton on BBC Alba). Alloa of course have been here before but promotion probably came as a surprise to many.
Transfer Window Success? – With the obvious restrictions placed on the team given their part-time status it has been a case of trying to bring in players who were already part of a similar setup at other clubs. A great deal of pressure will be put on forwards Alan Trouten who arrived from Albion Rovers and Greig Spence who joined after leaving Raith.
The Manager – Alloa have a potentially very talented young manager on their hands with Jim Goodwin. A good year in the Championship and you would assume that Goodwin might start to look for a full-time post elsewhere having already turned down the chance to be interviewed for the St.Mirren job due to his loyalties to Alloa.
Key Player(s) – Do Alloa have enough firepower? They have recruited in that area so will look to the new forwards for the goals that will secure safety. For me though the key will be in keeping teams out and Alloa will need captain Andy Graham and goalkeeper Neil Parry to perform as best they can this season.
The Hope – To avoid relegation. It really is that simple. Being the only part-time team in the division will provide Alloa with similar challenges to Brechin last season but Alloa have a slightly better setup and more experience in this league. They know they will be up against it but Goodwin and his players will relish the challenge.
The Reality – They will more than likely be the team that finishes bottom. Much will depend on their ability to have a strong home record but with so many good teams in the division they will be seen by others as a team that should be beaten (sorry Alloa fans). It is up to Jim Goodwin and his players to prove everyone wrong…..
Last Season – Despite almost throwing it away in the last few matches of the season Ayr finished as deserved champions of League One. They were very impressive for long spells last year and they have kept most of the same squad together so will look towards keeping that momentum going. Ayr are doing lots of good things at the moment and this could be the start of a fruitful few years.
Transfer Window Success? – The club have taken a slightly different approach this year compared to most by sticking with almost the exact same group of players that got them promotion. It could be a fantastic way of using stability to breed success but if it doesn’t work then they have missed out on a lot of players who may have been available to them earlier in the summer but now have clubs.
The Manager – Ian McCall is another aspect of the current stability at Ayr United and he has led the team very well since his arrival in 2015 (despite relegation the season before last). He is very solid and capable and is now one of the longer serving managers in the country. I might be wrong but I’ve got a funny feeling this could be his last year at the club, especially if they don’t do particularly well in the league.
Key Player(s) – Without question it has to be Lawrence Shankland. The young striker is probably one of the best talents in the division and to secure his services again this year is a big coup for Ayr. At 22 this could be a defining season for his future career and if he gets going in the league then Ayr may be bombarded with offers in January.
The Hope – Similar to Alloa the number one priority for the club will be safety. That isn’t to say that they may have slightly loftier ambitions but the basic measure of success will be to remain in the Championship. If they do this then next year there is no reason why thy couldn’t begin to plan for a potential top-half finish.
The Reality – Ayr will spring more than a few surprises this year. The continuity they have within the club is much better than almost any other team in the division so they are well placed to catch teams off guard and potentially finish well clear of the relegation zone.
Last Season – A rollercoaster of a year with a change of management and plenty of boardroom unrest. Ultimately last season was a failure given that United need promotion and Csaba Laszlo’s side failed to achieve that in the meekest of circumstances against Livingston in the promotion playoffs.
Transfer Window Success? – United have been one of the bigger spenders this transfer window. With a mass departure at the end of the last campaign the club have re-invested in a dozen or so new players and changes to the backroom staff. The chairman, Mike Martin, has also introduced new rules regarding longer deals, smaller wages, higher bonuses and a 25-mile radius requirement. The ideas are good but the execution might not be.
The Manager – Odds on favourite for the ‘sack race’ this year, Csaba Laszlo started his tenure at Tannadice as eccentric and engaging but has become a confusing and contradictory manager who seems to have lost the fans and, if rumours were to be believed last season, the dressing room. He has a new squad to work with but won’t get much time from the supporters to get it right.
Key Player(s) – With so many new faces in the squad you may look towards someone like Nicky Clark to get the goals that might win the league but for my money the most influential player at Tannadice is Fraser Fyvie. Despite getting a bad injury last year he has been given a new contract and the captaincy. If fit and on form he is possibly the best player in the division.
The Hope – Most clubs would like to get promoted, for United they HAVE to get promoted. A club operating with a huge financial outlay and diminishing revenue is on course for disaster if they fail to win the league. It really is a watershed season for Dundee United.
The Reality – I am very fearful for United this year. The manager seems to have lost his way and despite having a decent squad the reality is that others in the league are at a similar level and will fancy their chances against United. I predict an early season management change but what happens after that is anyone’s guess.
Last Season – Another year of nearly doing enough but this time it was a case of a strange 30 minutes at Tannadice in the playoffs ending their season. After looking like being in total control and heading a game closer to promotion they seemed to totally collapse and their season ended in poor, poor circumstances.
Transfer Window Success? – Early in the summer I would have said that the Dunfermline squad was looking like a bit of a disaster but on closer inspection (and after a couple of impressive signings) they actually look like having one of the strongest starting lineups in the league. With the current 5-3-2 system they have a really good balance to their team and have strength in every area. Despite this it may be that squad depth will be an issue.
The Manager – Again if you had asked me this at the start of the summer I would have said Allan Johnstone might be on his last legs but they have had some impressive performances in recent weeks and it looks like this could be a year where Johnstone might find a winning formula.
Key Player(s) – I reckon if Johnstone can get his forwards hitting top gear then Dunfermline have one of the most unpredictable and exciting partnerships in the league. Myles Hippolyte can be a big danger on his day and in Faissal El Bakhtaoui they have, for me, possibly the most technically gifted player in the league.
The Hope – After a worrying few weeks after the league ended the Dunfermline fans are now genuinely excited for the league to start. They will hope that after a few seasons of near misses that this can be the season they mount a real title challenge.
The Reality – I think that Dunfermline may well be a surprise package this year. Not that they are arriving from nothing but because they may actually challenge for the league and push all the way. Two things will be massive factor though, the fitness and more importantly the form of their undoubtedly talented but erratic strike force.
Last Season –Full of misery at Falkirk. They had a strong end to the campaign but the early part of the season was an unmitigated disaster that saw them in potential relegation playoff danger. Ultimately they had to act so they made the decision to sack Peter Houston after the long-serving manager seemed to give up (and so did his players). They did revitalise themselves under Paul Hartley but 2017/18 was a year to forget.
Transfer Window Success? – Falkirk are in a similar position to Dundee United and others in that they have had to assemble a brand new team but unlike other managers in the division who have targeted players known to the division, Paul Hartley has gone out and signed a number of unknown quantities from English football. On one hand this could be the start of something really exciting, on the other it could be a gamble that fails miserably.
The Manager –In general I rate Paul Hartley as a manager despite my United loyalties. Falkirk is a good fit for him and he is at a club with a great deal of potential. It is a good project for him after running out of steam at Dundee and he is now in charge of his own group after the summer clearout. This will be a true test of his ability.
Key Player(s) –Despite a raft of new signings, many from down south, it is a late addition that might hold the key for Falkirk. It may sound like I am a bit of a dinosaur but I am very much in favour of a direct style of play and I think in the Championship you need a good target upfront. In Marcus Haber it looks like Falkirk could have a very effective striker if he stays fit and focused.
The Hope –Better than last year and a firm push for the playoffs if not the league. It might be a bit much to ask Hartley to challenge for the title but you would expect fans (and Hartley himself) to have the ambition to be in amongst the top four for the duration of the season.
The Reality – It really all depends on the squad Hartley has assembled. Even if he has 5 or 6 good players in amongst his new signings you would assume that Falkirk should be challenging amongst the other string teams in the division. They have to get off to a good start and if they do it could be a good year for them. I have a feeling that they will be strong this year.
Well that is the end of the first part of this Championship 2018/19 preview. If you have any thoughts, comments or feedback please let me know. I hope to have the second half of the preview published at the same time tomorrow.