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Aug 12, 2009

Scottish Premier League preview

Season Preview | Aberdeen - Hearts

HIBERNIAN
It's a new dawn at Easter Road with the departure of Mixu Paatelainen over the summer paving the way for John Hughes to make his way back to Hibs after four years managing Falkirk. Under Hughes, the Bairns were promoted to the SPL and ventured into Europe (albeit briefly) for the first time this season following last year's run to the Scottish Cup final, but his arrival back in Leith as Hibs manager is the realisation of a lifelong ambition for Hughes.

That has to be tempered with the cold, hard, financial realities of life as a modern SPL manager with the sales of skipper Rob Jones to Scunthorpe and star striker Steven Fletcher to Premier League side Burnley bringing in around £3.5m for Hibs over the summer. Hughes has approached his task in hand with the same type of no-nonsense style that characterised his playing days. He has admitted that his vision for the club 'will involve constantly shuffling the pack' and certainly he has wasted no time in sweeping out those deemed surplus to requirements with Ross Chisholm, Denes Rosa, Alan O'Brien, Joe Keenan and Ross Campbell all released.

The increasingly problematic Abdessalam Benjelloun has been left in no doubt as to his manager's disgust towards him following the collapse of a move to Al-Ahly and some protracted visa-related problems that supposedly prevented the Moroccan's return to Scotland over the summer.

Given the high number of goalkeeping clangers at Hibs in recent times, the removal of goalkeeping coach Gordon Marshall can be seen as further evidence of Hughes setting his mark on the shape of the club. Ex-Arsenal 'keeper Graham Stack has come in to provide competition for Yves Ma-Kalambay and u-19 keeper Thomas Flynn between the sticks.

Brian Rice has followed Hughes into the Hibs dugout from Falkirk with midfielders Patrick Clegg and Kevin McBride swelling the number of ex-Bairns at Easter Road. Youngster Danny Galbraith also joins from Manchester United as Hughes seeks to re-jig the Hibs midfield.

In contrast to his compatriot Benjelloun, Merouane Zemmama's can-do attitude has impressed Hughes with the Moroccan stating his desire to repay the debt he feels he owes Hibs following a year-long loan to Al-Shaab in the UAE whilst issues regarding his wife's visa were resolved.

The playmaker's presence is a major coup for Hughes and Hibs fans will be looking forward to seeing his skills at Easter Road once more. With Fletcher gone, Hughes will be looking for Derek Riordan to assume the sort of responsibilities his off-field antics so seldom display and, if he can dovetail with Zemmama, Hibs should not be short of goals.

KILMARNOCK
It's been a difficult summer for Jim Jefferies at Kilmarnock. The financial problems facing Scottish football have been particularly keenly felt at the Ayrshire side and the Killie manager has been forced to operate within a corset-tight budget once again.

Jefferies has moved swiftly to knock back rumours of a threatened players' strike in support of axed coach Gary Locke, but there is no doubt that the furore surrounding his exit is a blow to morale at Killie ahead of what promises to be a trying season. Jefferies has admitted the situation is 'a distraction we can do without'.

As well as Locke, David Lilley, Grant Murray and Allan Johnston have all been released. Youth team graduates Scott Anson, Paul McInnes and Thomas Nolan have not had their contracts renewed either as Jefferies attempts to cut squad numbers to 24, a significant reduction from the 34 players hehad at his disposal a year ago.

Locke's removal has at least granted Jefferies the funds to bring on board the experienced Mark Burchill on a one-year deal from Rotherham. Burchill has displayed all the bearings of a lost puppy as he has wandered from club to club without ever fully realising the early promise he showed as a youngster at Celtic, but at 28 he could yet have plenty to offer should he settle.

Burchill is likely to be partnering Kevin Kyle, who has certainly taken to life at Kilmarnock with the born again ex-Sunderland striker finding a timely rich vein of goalscoring form towards the tail end of last season. His eight goals in twelve games, following a January move from Coventry, did more than anything to preserve Kilmarnock's SPL status and he has been rewarded for his efforts by being handed the captaincy.

Recent seasons have seen Kilmarnock cash in on strikers, with both Steven Naismith and Kris Boyd sold to Rangers to balance the books, and if Kyle should continue his resurgence this season then Jefferies has admitted he may be forced to sell in January if offers come in for his star man.

New Zealand international defender Steven Old is finally able to kick a ball in anger following the granting of the relevant work permit and he joins ex-Middlesbrough winger Graeme Owens and keeper Lee Robinson from Rangers as Jefferies, the longest serving manager in the SPL, looks ahead to his eighth season in charge of Kilmarnock.

MOTHERWELL
Motherwell were yet another SPL club searching for a new manager over the summer and it's fair to say that not too many had heard of Jim Gannon in North Lanarkshire prior to the unveiling of McGhee's replacement by chairman John Boyle.

The young London-Irish manager was recruited ahead of bigger names such as Aidy Boothroyd and Lawrie Sanchez and Boyle may well have made an astute appointment.

During his four years in charge of Stockport County, Gannon lifted them to League One via the 2008 play-off finals and earned a reputation for favouring a fast-flowing passing game, a commitment to bringing through youth and a readiness to speak his mind with brutal frankness.

Gannon emphatically underlined his belief in the policy of promoting from the ranks by dropping experienced trio Stevie Hammell, Keith Lasley and Steven McGarry for last month's Europa League qualifier return leg against Flamurtari following a 1-0 defeat in Albania in Gannon's first game in charge.

His bold move was vindicated with a hat-trick from 19-year-old Jamie Murphy and first career goals for Shaun Hutchinson, Paul Slane, Robert McHugh and Ross Forbes in an 8-1 win. Gannon's appointment should ensure Well's proud recent history of nurturing and producing young talent continues to evolve.

Despite the promise to blood youth, Gannon has had to seek out experience in the transfer market after inheriting a heavily depleted squad. As well as top scorer David Clarkson - sold for £600,000 to Bristol City - the Steelmen have seen skipper Paul Quinn depart to join the growing band of Scottish players at Cardiff, Stephen Hughes agree terms with Norwich, keeper Graeme Smith leave for Brighton and Bob Malcolm head down under.

They have brought in young keeper John Ruddy from Everton, Giles Coke from Northampton, Steve Jennings from Tranmere and the speedy winger Chris Humphrey from Shrewsbury.

With Clarkson gone and Cillian Sheridan's loan spell at an end, scoring responsibilities will largely rest on the shoulders of John Sutton who netted twelve times last season.

RANGERS
With last season's title win securing Scotland's precious, solitary automatic Champions League berth, Walter Smith can allow himself a brief moment of quiet reflection in the days before SPL battle commences to rejoice in the knowledge that Rangers at least will not be running the gauntlet of a Champions League qualifiers this time round.

The summer has seen a pruning of that squad with Christian Dailly, Charlie Adam, Alan Gow, Brahim Hemdani and Barry Ferguson jettisoned from the Ibrox wage bill for combined transfer fees of around £2m, a modest sum that, nevertheless, Smith is unlikely to be handed as a kitty.

Kevin Thomson's return to action after a cruciate ligament injury is the sort of boost to Rangers that, in the absence of new bodies, will give weight to the belief Smith's side are well placed to retain the title.

As Allan McGregor earned a reprieve over his 'Booze-gate' role, there is at least genuine competition between Barry Ferguson's drinking buddy and Neil Alexander for the Rangers number one jersey.

A flat four of Sasa Papac, Madjid Bougherra, David Weir and Steven Whittaker, however, lacks adequate cover if and, when injury strikes Smith's defence, there has to be doubts over whether the age-defying limbs of Weir can endure the rigours of another full campaign - although Bougherra's decision to remain with the club is a major plus point.

The form of Whittaker in the right-back role during the latter half of last season was one of the highlights of Rangers run-in and Smith must hope that other young players such as Steven Naismith and John Fleck seize the first-team opportunities presented by a pared down squad.

Smith's 'biggest enigma' Kris Boyd is unlikely to be hearing from Scotland boss George Burley any time soon and it remains to be seen how Smith deploys the man who last season joined the elite band of players to have bagged 100 goals for Rangers.

Smith, of course, knows all about defending titles but he was always able to rely on the Ibrox coffers to fund his vision on the park and stay at least one step ahead of whichever team dared to challenge the Ibrox club's hegemony during the nineties.

These are changed times, though. With the Ibrox coffers empty, it remains to be seen whether the wily Rangers manager can dig deep into his reserves of experience to help fend off the challenge of a new-look Tony Mowbray Celtic side that will be chomping at the bit to reclaim the title.

ST JOHNSTONE
Fledgling SPL manager Derek McInnes is about to grapple with the age-old issue that afflicts every boss of a newly-promoted side - how do you stay there?

The 37 year-old ex-West Brom man has, in his first full year at the helm, guided Saints back in to the SPL after a seven-year absence from Scotland's top flight.

Last season's Division One win was the culmination of several seasons of mounting promise at Saints following the appointment of Owen Coyle as manager in 2005. McInnes clinched the title at McDiarmid Park against Morton with a game to spare and a 22-game unbeaten spell set a new club record.

McInnes has been busy bulking up his squad over the summer with six new faces brought in. Two of these will at least be familiar to Saints fans with Filipe Morais and Kenny Deuchar both having played under Owen Coyle in 2007. The Portuguese winger's spell at Hibs brought unwelcome headlines and court appearances last season but the ex-Millwall man's SPL experience and his pace could prove vital to McInnes' men.

'Good Doctor' Deuchar is unlikely to give his manager too many sleepless nights. Saints new striker (back after a previous loan spell where he bagged 10 goals in fourteen games) juggled practicing medicine with record-breaking goal tallies during his spell at Gretna and the 6'3'' striker will add a new dimension to the Saints strike force. Deuchar's addition to an attack boasting Colin Samuel and Steven Milne should remedy the loss of Derek Holmes to Queen of the South and the continued absence of Andy Jackson.

Danny Grainger comes in from Dundee United to fill the gap at the problem left-back slot and McInnes saw off competition from Dundee to secure the signings of Livingston pair Dave Mackay and Murray Davidson.

Grame Smith has been brought in from Rangers to provide competition to veteran keeper Alan Main who, at 41, overhauled Drew Rutherford's all-time Saints appearance record during the march to last season's title, although it is unlikely St Mirren supporters will be queuing up to congratulate him when Saints travel to Paisley.

ST MIRREN
Despite last season's uncomfortably close brush with relegation, with a margin of just two goals ensuring the Buddies escaped ahead of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, there are reasons for optimism amongst the St. Mirren support this time around.

Manager Gus MacPherson has brought in players who should strengthen his squad with defenders Lee Mair arriving from Aberdeen and ex-Livingston skipper (and former Kilmarnock team-mate of MacPheson) Chris Innes signing after his contract was ripped up by the threatened Almondvale outfit.

The purchase of their Love Street ground by Tesco has wiped out St. Mirren's debt thus ensuring they are one of the better-placed SPL sides to weather the current financial storm.

The club's January move to a new home at St. Mirren Park was another cause for cheer, although the Buddies will be hoping to quickly improve on a dismal recent home record that has seen them yet to record a league win at their new ground.

Eight-times Scotland capped 'keeper Paul Gallacher is another player to have made the jump to Paisley over the summer and the local lad will be looking for the number one jersey ahead of Mark Howard whilst Chris Smith recovers from injury. Michael Higdon is the fourth of MacPherson's summer signings, with the striker moving on a two-year deal from Falkirk.

The decisions not to renew the contracts of Gary Mason and Will Haining may have raised a few eyebrows and the end of Scott Cuthbert's loan spell, together with some prohibitively high wage demands from Franco Miranda scuppering MacPherson's hopes of a permanent move for the Argentinean left-back, leaves St. Mirren light in numbers at the back.

The hapless Mo Camara will remain in that position for now, unless MacPherson chooses to strengthen in this area, although the inclusion of Allan Johnston for the friendly game in Wigan suggests he may look to recruit the ex-Rangers winger.

If Billy Mehmet, or free-scoring midfielder Andy Dorman, were to get injured or depart the club then goals may be a problem given the pair were responsible for over two thirds of the Buddies' meagre 33-goal league tally last season.

Season Preview | Aberdeen - Hearts

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