The Celtic and Rangers issue

You'll have noticed that we haven't yet looked to Scotland on IBWM.  Today is the day and, invariably, we must start in Glasgow with Celtic and Rangers.  Just this once.  IBWM welcomes Tom Hall.

The early season international break seems as good as place as any to dive into this new, regular run-down of events in Scottish football.

After just three rounds of fixtures there’s still uncertainty about the season ahead. But some things never change.

Already Rangers and Celtic sit atop the SPL. They’ll remain there in May but it’s too early yet to predict who’ll have the bragging rights at the end of season.

As is traditional in any discussion of the SPL I’ll be concentrating on the big two here. But I’ll do you a deal. Unless something spectacular happens over the coming weeks I promise that neither Rangers nor Celtic will appear in the next three installments of my regular ramblings.

Celtic present a particular conundrum. This week’s capture of Anthony Stokes from Hibs - their only bit of incoming business on a relatively quiet deadline day - was the 11th signing of the summer as new boss Neil Lennon has sought to completely overhaul the squad that so spectacularly failed under Tony Mowbray last season.

You can search in vain for stability at Celtic over these last two seasons. Does that matter? Up to a point. For a start it makes it difficult for people like me to predict their form for the season ahead.

Do we laud their apparent statement of intent in blasting four past St Mirren? Or do we rip them asunder for their meek, shambolic capitulation to FC Utrecht by the same scoreline in the Europa League just five days later?

The truth is we should do neither. Fools and bairns should never see work half-done. With the recruitment drive finished Lennon must now mould a team capable of winning the league. We’ll need to wait and see if the players are up for the task and if Lennon can prove himself as a manager.

If he can succeed then the European defeats won’t matter. If he can’t then the unenviable truth for Celtic might just be another re-invention under a new coach in 12 months time. A two-horse race, perhaps, but don’t let anyone tell you the stakes aren’t high.

If Celtic crave stability there are those at Rangers who must look at Celtic’s ability to enact such huge changes with a degree of envy.

Money, the blessing and curse of modern football, is currently the root of all evil at Ibrox. It’s a testament to both Walter Smith’s experience - and Celtic’s failings of last season - that Rangers have been able to go on amassing trophies in this atmosphere of enforced austerity.

There are a couple of new faces for the season ahead though and the loan capture of Vladimir Weiss raised eyebrows and has been the cause for some excitement. The Manchester City fringe player hasn’t fully settled in yet but there have been a couple of tantalising glimpses.

But the squad continues to look quite threadbare. The loan signing of Aberdeen utility man Ricky Foster yesterday was a sign of Rangers’ continued struggles, this is a player brought in for his versatility rather his raw ability.

So Celtic changed but still unknown. Rangers bracing themselves once more for the challenge. It’s going to be an intriguing duel but I’d sooner try my hand at a long-term weather forecast than tell you who I think is going to come out on top.

One thing we can say with some confidence is that even if Rangers collapse and Lennon proves himself to be a total dud it is unlikely that there will a challenger from the other ten clubs ready to breakout and split the Old Firm or even snatch the league.

In recent season we’ve seen both the Glasgow sides slip back towards the no-mans ground that separates them from the rest. Yet somehow the other clubs seem to retreat with them so that the gap stays just as wide but the whole, combined product become just that little bit duller.

Last season’s third, fourth and fifth placed teams, Dundee United, Hibs and Motherwell, have all crashed out of Europe and none look as capable as they were last season. Jim Jefferies will improve Hearts but it looks set to be a functional rather than a trailblazing kind of improvement.

Aberdeen won’t be as bad as last year and St Johnstone will hope to push for a top six place again. The rest will aim for safety and take it from there.

So the big two will continue their shootout as before.

Yet somehow they do seem to have an ability to make their races compelling. Even if you reject both sides, refute the more unreconstructed ignorance that some fans dress up as a particularly abhorrent kind of passion and don’t really care who comes out on top, there is still something worth watching.

Different stories will emerge as they always do. Lennon’s first full season as manager, Walter Smith’s last hurrah. Lennon’s new boys, the pressure on Kenny Miller and James Beattie to fill Kris Boyd’s goalscoring shoes.

And hanging over it all is the question, as ever, of how Rangers and Celtic can fulfill their potential and pretensions as major players in a league that is seen as too small to satisfy their aspirations yet affords them the two-handed parochial drama that remains, for now, their lifeblood.

In Scottish football everything changes yet everything stays the same. The football might not always be great, the crisis of identity within the national game might continue, but more often than not we’ll find something worth talking about.

Tom will be writing regularly for IBWM, but if you would like to read more from him please visit the excellent Scottish Football Blog.

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