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2020/21 Scottish Championship preview

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hislopsoffsideagain

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 I did kinda already look at the Championship sides a month ago.


What's changed? Not a lot.


Hearts should stroll this. Even if their entire starting XI were ruled out with Covid the next eleven players up would still be stronger than everyone else. There has been a worrying hint of the same trait that dogged Robbie Neilson's Dundee United team last season - doing just enough to win and not a lot else, rather than blowing away opponents - but if that's the most negative thing I can come up with then you can tell they must be good. Craig Gordon at the back, Stephen Kingsley, Craig Halkett and Michael Smith in the defence, Peter Haring and Jamie Walker in the midfield, Liam Boyce up front; no-one else should even be in the same postcode by May.


Simply going by budget, Dundee should be the best of the rest. Too often last season they looked limited by the tactics (or lack of) used by rookie manager James McPake. Either he has to improve, or new signings like marquee man Charlie Adam and the 150,000 (give or take a few) forwards they've brought in need to overcome his deficiencies. I got slaughtered on Twitter for claiming that the club had no obvious recruitment plan, but the fact remains that a team intent on playing a back three has only three centre-backs on the books, and whilst Adam, Graham Dorrans and Paul McGowan will make pretty passing patterns when they have the ball, who is going to do the running?


As for the rest, I think it's anyone's guess. Inverness Caledonian Thistle were second when play stopped in March but they've lost lots of first choice players and now have a completely different back four from the one that they could deploy as recently as December. Players like Robbie Deas and Wallace Duffy are the sort of talented youngster and reclamation projects respectively that have done well under John Robertson in recent years, but for a team whose defence was a strength in recent years they don't half look vulnerable there now. At the other end it's not clear who will get the goals, or even who will start up top: Nikolay Todorov as the replacement for fellow target-man Jordan White, or pacey Miles Storey in a complete change of style? They'll hope on loan Rangers winger Kai Kennedy can be a wild card. This team could finish top three again, but there could also be a 'Peter Houston at Falkirk' sort of collapse.


If ICT are weakened, so you could argue that most of the other full-time clubs are in the same situation. Dunfermline Athletic's new German investors haven't found them any players from the continent yet, but their finance is probably why things look a lot better than when they butchered the playing staff in May. Kevin Nisbet will be irreplaceable but Stevie Crawford has done his best to plug the gap with Ross County's Declan McManus and Kevin O'Hara who was super for Alloa last year. Tying up winger Dom Thomas on a permanent deal was a great move too. All in all, they've probably managed to come up with a squad close to the level of last year's, which is no mean feat in the circumstances.


Ayr United's strategy has been to try and amass as much talent in their starting eleven at the possible expense of depth, So whilst newbies such as Patrick Reading and Jack Baird in defence, Joe Chalmers and Michael Miller in midfield, Tom Walsh and Dario Zanatta out wide and Bruce Anderson up front look like terrific signings there isn't a huge amount on the bench especially now Craig Moore is out long term.  If everyone else stays fit I think they could do really well; if the injury bug bites they could be in a hell of a lot of trouble.


Greenock Morton are very bullish about manager David Hopkin's ability to build a team, and they will need him to live up to that billing. They lost their most dangerous creator, Nicky Cadden, and too many players - Aiden Nesbitt, Robbie Muirhead, Craig McGuffie and Gary Oliver spring to mind - have yet to live up to their potential. This could however be the perfect place for loanee Josh McPake to kick on and watch out for left-back Lewis Strapp developing into one of this division's best players this season.


If I was to pick a dark horse though it would be Raith Rovers. Newly promoted sides tend to have few problems making the step up and it's not long since Livingston managed back-to-back promotions. The additions that John McGlynn has made have been astute and focussed at the side's weaknesses. Manny Duku already looks impressive up front and if Lewis Vaughan can stay fit they should be really dangerous up top. Regan Hendry should establish himself as one of this level's pre-eminent midfield players and having the experienced Jamie MacDonald between the sticks will do them no harm too. I certainly don't see them in a relegation battle.


Queen of the South, in contrast...their early League Cup results were far better than I anticipated but the fact remains that but a handful of players remain from last season, Stephen Dobbie will be 38 in December and they really will rely on Wullie Gibson, who is 36 and hasn't played at this level for five years, to contribute. On the positive side Joe McKee deserves one more crack at full-time footie and Aidan Fitzpatrick is an exciting loan signing from Norwich. But QOS were on the slide back in March and will need yet more Dobbie miracles to avoid a dogfight at the bottom.


I've left the part-timers to last for good reason, and that's not because I think they'll be bottom. Arbroath in particular are an intriguing prospect. Dick Campbell has kept together his solid backbone and once more augmented it with loan players - what on earth is Miko Virtanen doing playing at this level for another season? If one of their strikers can score regularly - probably either Luke Donnelly or Michael Ruth - then they could spring many a surprise.


As for Alloa Athletic, I'm tired of getting slagged off by @AlloaStats at the end of every season for having predicted they'll go down. The news that Iain Flannigan had retired might have tempted me to do so again - hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day - but incredibly they managed to replace him with Stefan Scougall. If Edin Lynch can fill the CB slot vacated by Robbie Deas, they'll do fine.


So here's my inevitably wrong predicted table:


1. HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN


2. DUNDEE

3. AYR UNITED

4. RAITH ROVERS


5. DUNFERMLINE ATHLETIC

6. INVERNESS CALEDONIAN THISTLE

7. ARBROATH

8. GREENOCK MORTON


9. ALLOA ATHLETIC


10. QUEEN OF THE SOUTH


Feel free to bookmark this to use against me in May (I'm sure @AlloaStats will...)


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.


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