When the new Scottish Premiership came into force in 2013, there were mixed reactions to the end of season play-offs that would decide whether a second team was either relegated or promoted. Those struggling at the bottom of the top flight had more to fear, but if you were in the market for a high finish in the Championship then of course you’d be delighted at the increased chances of a potential move up. There aren’t many leagues where a single place is exchanged between the top two divisions, and the increased competition has led to increased drama – more fear of the drop, and more impetus to push on for a second spot.
Of course it now means that when we talk relegation, we’ve got far more to take into account. A team trailing way behind no longer means you’re safe – if there’s a plateau just above that then there could be several clubs in the firing line. Though there is some daylight between the bottom two and everybody else this year, that doesn’t mean 10th and above are out of the water just yet.
Struggling St Mirren, via Stuart Chalmers on Flickr
Sitting at rock bottom this far into the campaign are St Mirren. Twenty-one games in and just a paltry 11 points on the board was never going to lead to anything but dead last. The form has been atrocious, particularly of late, with nine defeats in their last ten games and just one win. That came good against Dundee in a rare yet convincing 3-1 victory, but you don’t stay up with one isolated victory, you stay up by delivering more than a 10 per cent success ratio.
However, they can take some consolation in Ross County’s poor season to date which puts them level on both points and goal difference, although St Mirren have played one more game. The Staggies have only lost five of their last ten, glorious by comparison, but they still haven’t been putting enough points on the board with just a single victory. Some dogged displays have seen four draws come in that time, even holding Celtic to a single point, but again there really is no way they can hope to rise from the gutter with current form.
There’s very little aspiration for Paisley’s Saints. A rumoured takeover from English company Aspiration fell through with accusations of poor communication on either side, and that has paved the way for an Argentinian group to take the lead in the push for new ownership. Fans aren’t exactly convinced on their intentions just yet. “Maybe these guys have got good intentions but we just don’t know,” said St Mirren Fan Club chairman John White, as the mouthpiece for presumably many more behind him.
One thing is for certain, they need some resolution and they need it quickly. The club is in dire straits and the outlook is only getting worse by the day. If things continue to play out as they are on the field then interest from investors will wane further, and more financial troubles are the last thing they need compounding their woes. They need to be able to concentrate on doing some building. It’ll be hard to entice many high-level acquisitions with so much negativity.
It has been said that the club have their eyes on Aldershot’s Brett Williams, who netted 24 goals in the Conference last season. They need strength and depth up front, of which they have neither. A proven finisher would be a huge asset, albeit not a huge name. Yoann Arquin is also on the wish list for a move and has been training with the club, so that’s a positive switch that looks quite likely. Just 15 goals in their 21 games shows a lack of firepower, with midfielder Kenny McLean by far and away the top scorer with five, providing some edge where the forwards can’t.
Ross County also need a catalyst, although as mentioned it’s not easy to attract the kind of season saving talent that can really turn things around. Luring players to a bottom-of-the-league club in the north of Scotland is hard going. A few shrewd investments should help their fortunes, as captain Richie Brittain confesses that now is the time to motor on or face the axe. “We need to start climbing this league table, we can’t put it off any longer,” he told Press and Journal.
The Ross County faithful, via Noel Slevin on Flickr
The fact that they can keep Martin Woods to help in their relegation battle certainly eases some woes due to his spirit in the midfield, and they might manage to cling on to some of the more stubborn short-term loanees who want to see out the rest of the fight for survival. Some players can relish the challenge and others can recede from the battle. How much we’ll see of either trait will really affect the dog fight later on.
With all this talk of St Mirren and Ross County, it would be easy to forget about Motherwell, who are still in the firing line as it stands. A six-point gap separates the clubs and that may feel comfortable at the moment, although that is liable to change in the space of a couple of games, such is the nature of football. They’ll have to concern themselves with survival, too, and edging away is a priority.
Motherwell have actually been defeated more times in their last ten outings than Ross County, but their wins over Partick Thistle, St Mirren and Dundee have helped them move away. John Sutton has been a leading light with his six goals in the league. Nobody can get complacent, though, and that is exactly what manager Ian Barraclough fears as January gets into full swing. The margin can quickly decrease if a game or two go awry. He wants to make some squad changes to keep his players on their toes moving forward, to make sure competition raises the level.
When your name is almost automatically on the team sheet due to injury, even a bad performance won’t see you get the shove. “There are areas where people think they are fairly safe,” noted Barraclough, and he confirmed that it was not a situation he felt lent itself well to increasing the output.
The bottom two clubs will meet each other in a pivotal clash this weekend, with Ross County slight favourites on betfair at the Global Energy Stadium. It’s a term that is thrown around too much, but when you’re neck and neck at the pit of the league on points and goal difference, this one really will be worth more than just the three points. It’s one that could have clear connotations further down the line. It’s not going to get either club in the clear but it can go a good way towards clawing their way off the bottom.
Here’s what is in the immediate future for the joint-bottom clubs and Motherwell.
Motherwell: Kilmarnock (H), Celtic (A), Dundee Utd (A), St Johnston (H)
Ross County: St Mirren (H), Celtic (H), Inverness (A), Aberdeen (A)
St Mirren: Ross County (A), Dundee Utd (H), Dundee (H), Patrick Thistle (A)
It has to be said that Ross County facing three of the top four in this period could certainly help their rivals. You don’t need expert betting help to tell you that. However, you don’t want to be relying on other results around the country. St Mirren need to be concentrating on scoring the points at their own hands.
Of course this is only half of the story. Bottom place straps on a parachute for the big drop to the Scottish Championship, but there’s no guarantees that second from bottom will follow. The play-offs will pit them against the runners up from the second flight, and over two legs they’ll duke it out for the honour of being a Premiership club next season. There’s clearly a lot at stake, and it creates another interesting narrative for the end of the end as opposed to the old one up, one down and that’s that.
It’s beginning to look like a two-horse race and considering there isn’t a big field anyway we can realistically expect two of Scottish football’s highest profile clubs to be in the running for the move up. Hearts have been consistent, and emphatically leas the way with 54 points from their 20 games. The Edinburgh outfit are undefeated with 17 wins and three draws, netting 52 times en route. They are almost a dead cert to win it from here, and anything else would involve a calamity of epic proportions, and a run-in from the chasing pack to rival any we’ve seen.
Glasgow Rangers look about as comfortable for second spot as Hearts do for first, 41 points on the board and eight clear of their nearest rivals Hibs. Although they haven’t had an unblemished season like last year in League One, they do look like they’ll do enough to round out the season with enough points to put them in the play-offs. Last year’s title winning feat was spectacular, but it’s basically a top-flight team taking a holiday further down and it seems inevitable that they’ll be back where they belong soon enough. If not this year (which already looks likely), it’s hard to see another side challenging for the Championship next time out.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Rangers, it must be said. They have six wins in their last ten games but they have also slumped to three defeats. There have been some turbulent moments of late, with manager Ally McCoist leaving after fans and the board were starting to show signs of discontent when defeats kept coming to teams that, on paper, had no right to be beating them. Assistant manager Kenny McDowall managed to make a smooth transition into the role until the end of the season, and he’ll be hoping that when the final day comes it’ll see his team on their way up for the third consecutive time.
It would be beneficial to the county’s first tier to have Rangers back. The old rivalries never go away, and they still command a huge following. Once they’re there it’ll take some time to re-establish themselves and the days of a Glasgow monopoly on the trophy may well have faded. That said, with their popularity so well entrenched in Scotland and internationally you can’t deny their right to Premiership status.
We have two teams desperately struggling at the bottom of that league, and two teams head and shoulders above the rest as it stands, looking to elevate themselves one higher. There is still a lot of football left to be played, no doubt plenty of upsets to be had, some despair and some jubilation.
From where I’m sitting I don’t think it’s bold to make these predictions. Ross County and St Mirren to drop, Hearts and Rangers to do the switch and get back among the Scottish elite.