The Scottish Championship is back on Friday. And it's back with a bang as Hearts “welcome” Dundee after a summer of conflict initiated by an elusive email.
Scotland's second-flight is brilliantly unpredictable. My only prediction is that it'll be uniquely entertaining and that I'll strive to cover every angle and story until Hearts wrap up the league title in March.
Although it's been seven long months since these teams have played a league fixture, I've looked at each team and attempted to highlight some key areas and players to watch.
The Wasps are routinely tipped for relegation. They are the Hamilton Accies of the Championship. Although these predictions are understandable to an extent given their part-time status, Alloa seemingly thrive as underdogs.
A few clubs have been guilty of a complacent mentality when facing the Clackmannanshire side and they’ve learned that the hard way. Alloa are determined and committed but they also play attractive football which is the envy of most of their rivals.
Weaknesses: Scoring at home
Remarkably Alloa only managed 12 goals in 14 home games last season whilst scoring 21 in the equivalent amount of away games.
Liam Buchannan only managed one in 23 games last season. Much of the onus will fall on Alan Trouten - who scored an impressive 10 goals last season and his link-up play is also superb. But at 34 and 35 respectively, it could be viewed as a tall ask to rely on their output. Robert Thomson is another option but again, he only managed one goal in 23 games last season. Kevin O’Hara and Iain Flannigan will be a huge miss.
Key Signing: Stefan Scougall
The signing of the former Scotland U-21 internationalist looks to be an incredible piece of business. After breaking through at Livingston, Scougall caught the attention of major English teams before deciding to join Sheffield United. The 27 year-old is an intelligent footballer and will be well suited to his manager's intention to play a possession based game.
Manager: Peter Grant
Grant's first managerial job with Norwich was ultimately unsuccessful but he enjoyed an excellent first season with the Wasps. One of his first decisions was to expand the dimensions of the pitch to accommodate a more attractive style of play. This was successful as Alloa played some of the best football in the division, as they took some memorable scalps including a famous win against eventual champions Dundee United.
Avoiding relegation was a fantastic achievement for the part-time side and while that’ll be the target this season - Alloa will try to achieve it in style.
Strengths: The wind (not really)
Gayfield’s close proximity to the sea can lead to problematic conditions but that excuse - occasionally used - is a disservice to a good team. They possess a talented, hard-working squad with a fantastic attitude. Their squad is littered with experience at this level and captain Thomas O’Brien was the best centre-back in the league last season.
Jason Thomson, Kris Doolan, James Craigan, Derek Gaston and more know this league inside out and in talisman Bobby Linn they’ve an infectious character to match their manager.
Despite finishing fifth, Arbroath scored the lowest amount of goals in the whole division. They’ve recruited Partick Thistle legend Doolan - in the top 20 all-time Scottish Premiership goalscorers - but he was hardly prolific last season at Ayr and Morton.
Doolan is a brilliant penalty-box predator and his finishing remains lethal. Former Celtic youngster Luke Donnelly possesses huge talent and he showed signs of that last season and could prove to be an important player.
Key signing: Miko Virtanen
The Aberdeen midfielder returns to Gayfield on loan after a standout spell last season. His defensive statistics were frightening and his performances drew praise from manager Derek McInnes. The Finn with the strong Scouse accent can be a beast in the engine room when he’s on top form.
Manager: Dick Campbell
The 66 year-old has accumulated over 1,300 games in the dugout and 2021 will mark his 50th anniversary in Scottish football since making his debut as a player at Cowdenbeath.
The native Fifer’s achievements with the Red Litchies are nothing short of remarkable, after dragging them from League Two into the Championship and a fifth place finish last season. They had a realistic chance of reaching the play-offs before the season was curtailed but after retaining key players and some astute additions, don’t bet against them this season.
Ayr United’s squad is full of inventive, attacking talents although some are more mercurial than others.
Former Rangers man Tom Walsh has been a consistent performer for Inverness, when fit, and his versatility will be a bonus. Dario Zanatta is as talented as any winger in the league but despite being capable of moments of brilliance, he has a tendency to disappear when the going gets tough. Luke McCowan is another promising talent who contributed eight goals and eight assists in 31 games last season.
Although they look prolific offensively, questions remain over Ayr defensively. They’ve conceded six goals across their last three fixtures - Partick Thistle, Albion Rovers and Hamilton - and they’ve looked susceptible at the back.
Justifiably, Ayr fans could point to the fact they kept three clean sheets in four games at the end of last season but they’ve lost Ross Doohan, Steven Bell and Daniel Harvie.
However, Patrick Reading looks a solid replacement for the excellent Harvie and goalkeeper Viljani Sinisalo is highly-rated at parent club Aston Villa.
Key Signing: Bruce Anderson
Subscribers of TheTwoPointOne will know all about the love-child of fellow contributor Andrew Southwick.
Quite simply, he’s an excellent signing for any Championship side and the recent call-up to the Scotland under-21 side should score goals. I could expand but I’d suggest reading this excellent piece instead.
Manager: Mark Kerr
The Championship Manager legend - one for our older subscribers - is continuing as player/manager this season. The effectiveness of this dual role is open to debate but Kerr did well after being thrown in at the deep end after Ian McCall’s acrimonious departure last season. His retirement from playing would be easier if Ayr’s squad wasn’t lacking depth.
Strengths: Central midfield
A midfield containing the talents of Charlie Adam, Graham Dorrans and Paul McGowan is ridiculous at this level.
Some will question their age but not their ability. In Adam and Dorrans, Dundee have two players that have played at the highest level. The prospect of tagging in Paul McGowan is frightening. Shaun Byrne is another experienced options in midfield but the most exciting player at Dundee is Finlay Robertson.
Jack Hamilton, the former Scotland youth international, has failed to live up to expectations since his emergence as a teenager at Hearts. At 26 years old, Hamilton has matured and is more than capable at Championship level but he is yet to convince the Dundee faithful.
Key Signing: Charlie Adam
The former Liverpool midfielder’s desire to return closer to home was a major factor in his move to his boyhood club. Some people have written him off but that is premature. Read more about Adam’s signing in my previous column.
Manager: James McPake
A highly regarded coach but the former Hiberninan captain faces a big season ahead. Expectations at Dundee are always high, fans view the club as a Premiership club and this will be exasperated by their rivals presence in the top flight.
McPake’s astute defensive understanding led his side to five consecutive clean sheets to end last season and if they can add goals - Danny Mullen is a good signing - they could challenge hot favourites Hearts.
To have a successful side, it’s imperative to have a strong spine to the team and Dunfermline possess that. Owain Fon Williams is an experienced and reliable goalkeeper and their defensive solidarity is really impressive.
The central-defensive base of Paul Watson and captain Euan Murray is protected by the experienced Steven Whittaker who will be deployed in a holding midfield role. A strike partnership of Kevin O’Hara and Declan McManus provides pace and tenacity which will trouble many a defence.
Weaknesses: Results on the road
It’s an unenviable task to identify weaknesses in sides that have barely played any competitive action in seven months but Dunfermline’s away form was abysmal last season.
They had the second worst away record in the league and only averaged a point per game on their travels. If they have realistic ambitions of challenging Hearts for the title, they’ll need to drastically improve away from East End Park.
Key signing: Dom Thomas
The former Scotland Under-21 international is one of the best wide players in the league. The 24 year-old has excellent feet, good pace and his delivery from set-pieces will be a major threat for the Pars.
Thomas featured regularly off the bench for Kilmarnock in the Premiership last season before joining Dunfermline in January. He will provide assists for O’Hara and McManus but should contribute more goals because he is extremely capable.
Manager: Stevie Crawford
A Dunfermline legend as a player, his managerial career hasn’t reached the same heights but he’s assembled a promising squad.
Crawford has a great understanding of the game, displaying encouraging signs of tactical astuteness already this campaign. It will be a fascinating season with fresh investment from an innovative group of German investors and anything other than a play-off place will be unacceptable.
The Greenock side are blessed with varied options in attack which will allow them to deploy different formations. That unpredictability will be crucial while their ability from long-throws, especially at Cappielow, is reminiscent of Stoke under Tony Pulis.
Cappielow has the potential to be a fortress too. It’s a ground that opposition players hate to visit although fans adore it even if it means getting soaked in an unsheltered terrace. Morton’s home form was the fourth best in the league last season whilst their away form was the worst. Replicating that form at home will be the key to a good season.
Weaknesses: Defensive depth
Former Manchester United wonderkid aside, defence is a concern again this season. The Ton conceded the most goals (53) in the league last season and they appear to lack depth at full-back.
Only having one registered goalkeeper in the squad is a concern. An injury to Aidan McAdams against Queen of the South in the Betfred Cup would have been disastrous but with so many players out of contract, Morton can rectify the situation.
Key signing: Josh McPake
The Rangers loanee approaches a pivotal season in his career after failing to impress at Dundee last season. With undeniable ability, McPake has the potential to develop into one of the best signings this summer if given the platform by David Hopkin. His manager was impressive with his performance against Queens last week, labelling him ‘excellent’.
Manager: David Hopkin
Hopkin is a highly-rated manager after working miracles at Livingston and getting them into the top-flight. Criticism over his side’s physicality are often lazy and are only heard when the opposition loses but Hopkin’s Morton have generally been involved in high-scoring games and that looks set to continue.
Strength: Sheer quality
There can be no doubting that Hearts are massive favourites to win the Championship and deservedly so. Their squad is littered with quality and international experience.
Failure to gain promotion would be disastrous and some fans would be unhappy unless they win the title. Michael Smith was easily Hearts best player last season while Craig Halkett and Mihai Popescu is a formidable central-defensive partnership.
The Jambos have an embarrassment of riches in central midfield while Liam Boyce is a proven goalscorer and will be favourite to top the scoring charts.
Weaknesses: Steven Naismith
Not only is Naismith still a top player, he’s undisputedly a brilliant leader but does he fit in Hearts’ best eleven? Some are predicting that Robbie Neilson will deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation and in that case Jamie Walker is surely the best option to play as a No.10.
That creates a problem because it’s where Naismith is best suited and with ambitions to break back into Steve Clarke’s plans it’s clear that the 34 year-old will want to play. Both players are intelligent and versatile so Walker could play wide and interchange positions but it’ll be an interesting situation to watch develop over the season.
Key signing: Craig Gordon
The former Scotland No.1 is a brilliant keeper that suffered at Celtic due to Brendan Rodgers’ requirement that his goalkeeper was comfortable in possession. The goalkeeping position has been a problem for Hearts since Jon McLaughlin’s departure and they’ve recruited a reliable - and handsome - stopper.
Manager: Robbie Neilson
People questioned Neilson’s motivations for dropping down a division but Hearts are a massive club and one close to his heart. (Pardon the pun)
The Edinburgh side strolled to the title during the 2014/15 season under the tutelage of Neilson as a host of promising youngsters emerged. Neilson led Dundee United to the Championship title last season and while criticism was levelled over a perceived negative style of play, the 40 year-old is a very talented manager.
Strengths: The manager
John Robertson is the most important figure at Inverness. He’s done an outstanding job in the Highlands, finishing in the play-offs in consecutive seasons and winning the Challenge Cup.
Robertson’s persona in the media is often as a charming and jovial figure and whilst this is accurate, there is a determination to the 56-year old. Without Robertson’s astute management, you’d wonder about Inverness’ predicament but how long can he continue to work miracles?
Weaknesses: Recent departures
Since the start of last season, Inverness have lost all of their back four to Premiership sides. Shaun Rooney and Jamie McCart joined St Johnstone whilst Coll Donaldson and Carl Tremarco have joined rivals Ross County. All four players were excellent for Caley and they’ll prove difficult to replace.
Jordan White, last season’s topscorer, has also departed for Motherwell and his physical presence will prove hard to replace.
Key signing: Robbie Deas
The 20 year-old was excellent on loan at Alloa last season and it’s a fantastic piece of business to secure his services on a three-year deal. Inverness beat Dunfermline, Raith Rovers and a couple of other clubs to his signing and Robertson will be hoping he can emulate the performances of Donaldson and McCart before securing the club a healthy profit.
Manager: John Robertson
Strength: The left flank
In James Maxwell and Aidan Fitzpatrick, The Doonhamers possess an energetic, talented and skillful pairing on the left. Rangers loanee Maxwell is highly regarded by his parents club and Norwich loanee Fitzpatrick’s performances in the Championship for Partick Thistle earned him a move to the English side.
Queens’ best player Stephen Dobbie also has a tendency to drift to the left to link-up with the pair. Dobbie has scored a ridiculous amount of goals for his beloved Dumfries side over the years but at 37 years-old, his influence on younger players and playmaking abilities could prove as crucial as his goals.
Weaknesses: Defensive cover
Queens arguably only have three recognised defenders in their squad - Maxwell, Gregor Buchanan and Ayo Obileye. New signing Nortei Nortey and winger Willie Gibson can deputise at right-back effectively but a lack of depth is a major concern.
Although clubs can still pick up free agents, Queens have one of the lowest budgets in the division and will be susceptible to defensive injuries.
Key Signing: Aidan Fitzpatrick
Signing the former Thistle winger on loan from Norwich City was a fantastic coup for Queens as other reputable clubs enquired about the talented 19-year old.
‘Fitzy’ has pace and skill in abundance as displayed in his recent performance against St Mirren, where he opened his account for his new club. Connor Shields has hit the ground running on the other flank with two goals in two games so deploying traditional wingers could prove profitable.
Manager: Allan Johnston
As a player, Johnston was prodigiously talented as demonstrated when he burst onto the scene with a hat-trick for Hearts at Ibrox.
Johnston began his managerial career at Queens where he famously won the double - League Two and Challenge Cup - before spells at Kilmarnock and Dunfermline. He returned in 2019 to save Queens from relegation and his partnership with assistant Sandy Clark will be integral to Queens bid to avoid relegation this campaign.
Strengths: The midfield trio
In Regan Hendry, Ross Matthews and Dylan Tait - Raith have three talented midfielders at an age in which they’ll continue to develop. The trio have a great understanding and the ability to interchange positions which defies their relative inexperience. I spoke at length to Tait and his manager, John McGlynn, for a feature piece which you can access here.
Weaknesses: Defensive pace
At a combined age of 64, Kyle Benedictus and Iain Davidson won’t be the quickest centre-back pairing in the league. They will be susceptible to pace in behind and there are some quick strikers in the league.
Although they may be exposed at times, both are good defenders and their positioning and experience will stand them in good stead. The leadership that both demonstrate from the back will be imperative to Raith’s success especially with a relatively young midfield.
Key signing: Jamie MacDonald
The experienced stopper stood out for his performances at Alloa last season. The 34-year old was unfortunate not to be given more of a chance at Kilmarnock but he excelled for Grant’s men. His shot-stopping skills are impressive but his communication and influence will be crucial in Raith’s attempts to acclimatise to the Championship.
Manager: John McGlynn
The former Hearts manager done a fantastic job to beat Falkirk and their superior resources to win* the League One title.
The 58-year old is well respected and a shrewd operator. McGlynn is capable of maximizing the talent at his disposal whilst showing the patience to blood a couple of exciting youngsters into the side.