Scottish football fans have forgotten what it feels like to experience a real title race. Between the 2006/07 season and 2011/12, no team won the title by more than six points. The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers created a competition at the top of the Scottish game that was often decided by the slimmest of margins. In 2005, for instance, Celtic would have been champions were it not for a late Scott McDonald double on the final day of the season. That was enough to send the helicopter carrying the trophy Rangers’ way.
Even going back to the 1980s, when Sir Alex Ferguson and Jim McLean changed the footballing landscape in Scotland, tight title races were commonplace. When Dundee United won the old Scottish Premier Division in 1983, for example, they won it by a single point, clinching the championship with a Dundee derby victory on the final day.
This sort of drama has been lost at the top of the Scottish game in recent years. Even in 2015/16, when Ronny Deila’s Celtic were faltering and Aberdeen were seemingly on the rise, the difference between first and second place ended up being a massive 15 points. This season is shaping up to be somewhat different, though.
With six games played, champions Celtic are slumped in sixth place, six points adrift of table-toppers Hearts and behind Rangers, Hibernian, Livingston and Kilmarnock. Brendan Rodgers’ side have suffered a dismal start to the season, with Sunday’s defeat to Kilmarnock a nadir in the Northern Irishman’s time as Hoops’ manager.
The damage looks to be deep. Rodgers has cut a frustrated figure for quite some time, with exasperated comments on transfers made early on in the summer. From that, a sense of malaise has festered. Even towards the end of last season, there were signs of decline from Celtic. Poor results have been the starkest manifestation of their troubles, but they are a fractured club at the moment with a clear disconnect between boardroom and first team management. Some have even speculated over a potential dressing-room divide.
From this comes opportunity for others, primarily Rangers. The Ibrox club have taken giant strides under new manager Steven Gerrard, raising hopes that a title challenge might not beyond the realms of possibility this season. To date though, their best results this season have come in Europe. Now is the time to stretch their legs domestically, and with games coming up against Hearts and Hibernian they have the chance to do that.
It’s not just Rangers who are hinting at a title challenge either. Hearts have won five and drawn one of their opening six games, setting the early pace in the Scottish Premiership. Of course, their lack of squad depth could prove to be a handicap, but if the Jam Tarts can come through a difficult October, which will see them take on Rangers, Aberdeen and Hibernian in quick succession they will have to be taken seriously.
This is the strongest Scottish top flight for years. Right the way through the division, there is quality, from Celtic (despite their current struggles) and Rangers, to the two Edinburgh clubs, to Aberdeen, to even the likes of Kilmarnock, Livingston and St Johnstone. A stronger field will, theoretically, result in a less predictable title race and that has already started to pan out over the opening few weeks of the campaign.
Of course, if Celtic regroup and regain their form there will be little the rest of the Scottish Premiership can do to stop them. For all that the chasing pack have improved in recent months, Celtic still boast talent and resources that, if all is going well, makes them untouchable. Their slump is not yet a full-blown crisis, but it could become one if others take the chance they have offered up.