Graeme McGarry: Could a team other than Celtic or Rangers win the league this season?

THE Scottish Premiership has long been the ultimate drug store handicap. Less an open competition than a two-horse race between the flat-track bullies of Glasgow. With Celtic looking as sure-footed as Devon Loch and Rangers seemingly a little on the lame side themselves though, could this finally be the year that the Old Firm stranglehold is broken?

Not since Aberdeen lifted the title in 1985 has a league flag been hoisted anywhere other than at Celtic Park or Ibrox, but now in these fledgling days of the season, the Premiership table is looking refreshingly competitive. Celtic fans may have a different view.

Yes, Rangers are still at the top, as their manager Steven Gerrard pointedly reminded everyone this week. His bristling at a pretty straightforward question on when he expects his team to get back to form told you just how far away from their best he thinks they currently are, incidentally.

Tucked in just a point behind them though are the two Edinburgh clubs, with Motherwell another point adrift. And wouldn’t you know it, those top four teams all face off this weekend.

Hearts welcome Motherwell to Tynecastle on Saturday for what is set up to be a cracker, while Hibernian travel to face Rangers on Sunday not in trepidation, but salivating at the prospect.

It is an exciting time for the three clubs currently on the shoulder of the champions, and given the way Hibs and Rangers are currently playing, it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise should Jack Ross’s men emerge from Ibrox with their noses in front. The age-old problem though comes in sustaining that charge.

Ultimately, squad depth over a 38-game season has been the factor that has killed the chances of the ‘smaller’ clubs upsetting the applecart. And as much as I don’t wish to relieve myself over anyone’s pomme-frites, it is why the chances of the Scottish Premiership having their own Leicester City miracle are slim to none.

For all the fairytale narrative around Leicester’s (still remarkable) achievement, they weren’t exactly a plucky band of youth prospects who gave the big boys a bloody nose. Their team was packed full of multi-million pound players, so when all of the larger clubs inexplicably had an annus horribilis, they were primed to take advantage.

Even if Rangers are to fall from the pace they set last season, and even if Celtic don’t look up to storming away with the league either, it is still difficult to see both of them regressing in form over a season to such a point that another club could muscle in between them, let alone surpass them both.

It would be a wonderful thing to have Ron Gordon fly the trophy into Easter Road on a helicopter while The Proclaimers belted out Sunshine on Leith in the centre-circle, or whatever the equivalent scene at Motherwell may be. Tam Cowan singing Twist and Shout as Alan Burrows swigs Bucky from the trophy, maybe. But there just isn’t the quality beyond the starting line-ups of any team outwith the big two to consistently churn out the results required home and away over a season.

Heck, Celtic are finding it tough going themselves just now after suffering a few injuries. But when the likes of Callum McGregor, Kyogo Furuhashi, James Forrest and Christopher Jullien return, they will soon find their way back to their natural habitat of the top two.

This is being written prior to the Europa League fixtures on Thursday night, but just because both Celtic and Rangers look a little off the quality required to make an impact on the continent this term, they still have more than enough about them to see off any pretenders to their domestic throne.

Hibs are the team that most observers fancy to run them close, and there is no doubting their quality, particularly in attack. Martin Boyle, Kevin Nisbet, Christian Doidge and Jamie Murphy will all score and create goals.

But compare their bench from last weekend’s win over St Johnstone to the Rangers bench from their win at Dundee. Maciej Dąbrowski was the back-up keeper for Hibs. For Rangers? Allan McGregor. Lewis Stevenson has been a fine servant for the Hibees over the years, but had Rangers needed reinforcements at left-back, they could have thrown on Croatian international Borna Barisic. They also had the UK’s all-time most capped men’s player in Steven Davis in reserve, just in case.

There is also the small matter of the January transfer window to consider. If the likes of Hibs, Hearts, Motherwell or Dundee United are anywhere near the coattails of the Old Firm by then, it will be a great achievement. But with the best part of £40m available to this season’s league winners due to automatic entry to the Champions League group stages, the chances are that it would simply jolt the Glasgow giants into speculating during the winter window in order to accumulate down the line.

So, for all those supporters outside the Old Firm, savour this weekend, and breathe in the rarefied air of the upper reaches of the table. But the chances of anyone other than Celtic or Rangers winning the title in this lifetime? Sorry, that horse has long since bolted.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992