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Championship season preview: It's not all about Hearts, Hibs and Rangers

Extra exposure this year - but Scotland's second tier already boasts great competition.

Rangers 2-1 Hibernian, August 2014.
© SNS Group

The Scottish Championship – it’s all about those big three, right?

Approach this year’s all-new high profile second tier with that impression and you may be in for a surprise.

Yes, the television cameras are going to be giving the spotlight on the Championship an extra dose of wattage this term, but be aware that we are venturing into a league that is widely accepted to have been the most competitive competition in Scotland for years.

Last year Dundee were run all the way to the title by Hamilton and previous champions in recent years – Partick Thistle, Ross County, Dunfermline and Inverness – have all been made to work above and beyond for their glory.

The telling part of the Championship is how close positions three to seven always are – a handful of points between potential play-off action, and skirting with relegation.

Hearts, Hibernian and Rangers may be rolling the circus into town - but the locals already have a grandstand show of their own.

Last Term

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The race for the title went to the final day in a three-way battle for automatic promotion. Dundee just kept their place at the top, while runners-up Hamilton became the first side to enter the Premiership through the play-offs, defeating Hibernian on penalties after a 2-2 aggregate draw.

Falkirk finished just three points off the top, with Queen of the South back in fourth place.

The middle zone saw Dumbarton push for the play-offs before falling just short in an enormously successful campaign for Ian Murray. Livingston were back in sixth in a transitional campaign with John McGlynn at the helm.

Raith Rovers can justifiably feel to have underachieved in the league, concluding just two points above Alloa and Cowdenbeath. The Blue Brazil stayed up via the play-offs with Morton deservedly relegated after a wretched campaign.

Enter Rangers from League 1. Their consecutive promotions after starting from the bottom in 2012 have been predictable but well executed. Now they face a leap in standards.

Hearts were doomed before a ball was kicked in the top tier last term having endured a 12 month administration ordeal. City rivals Hibernian had no such excuses for being relegated. Their 19 game run without a victory saw them plummet to the Championship.

Summer Transfer Business

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Rangers certainly strengthened with the acquisitions of three internationals - Kenny Miller, Kris Boyd and Marius Zaliukas while seasoned Premiership defender Darren McGregor also joins.

Hearts were left with the bare bones after almost being liquidated but head coach Robbie Neilson and director of football Craig Levein have filled the gaps intelligently from home and abroad. Eye-catching signings include Premiership veterans Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben while striker Osman Sow has scored in every friendly and cup game he has taken part in.

Hibernian have a striker who has scored for fun in the second tier before in Farid El Alagui and have made potentially the steal of the summer in coaxing Scott Allan back north after his frustrating spell in England.

Getting goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald was something of as coup for new Falkirk manager Peter Houston. The Bairns were in title contention last year and signings like Tom Taiwo from Hibs will only strengthen their chances of being up there again.

Queen of the South have consolidated their strong 2013/14 squad with striker John Baird from Raith Rovers and defender Lewis Kidd from Celtic.

With a turnover of faces at Starks Park, Grant Murray will be hoping Raith can be more competitive this time around. Christian Nade played a big part in Dundee’s title win, Martin Scott has an abundance of experience at Ross County, Hibs and Livingston, and Ross Perry will be out to prove a point after leaving Rangers.

Livingston are another side with something to prove. Losing Marc McNulty to Sheffield United was a blow but they have signed a slew of attackers in replacement, with Jordan White an intriguing prospect in stepping up from Stirling Albion. In defence Declan Gallagher is an excellent capture from Dundee.

Dumbarton bring in old St Mirren teammates David van Zanten and Lee Mair in the hope that experience can prevent any slide from last season’s heights, while Alloa will hope to get their attack working again with Greig Spence, Liam Buchanan and David Weatherston.

Losing Kane Hemmings was a huge blow to Cowdenbeath and fans will be desperate that Craig Sutherland can carry his off season form into the campaign.

Players to Watch

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Aside from their headline-grabbing signings, there are big hopes for some of the kids to have graduated from the Rangers academy recently. Attacking midfielder Lewis Macleod is handed the iconic number 10 shirt while Fraser Aird can cement his place in Ally McCoist’s team by continuing his late season form.

The aforementioned Scott Allan will be subject of much scrutiny after going off the radar with West Bromwich Albion but Hibees will be hoping to see a return to blistering form for winger Alex Harris.

Hearts boast a fine crop of youngsters, with Callum Paterson (injured until October) and Sam Nicholson winning regular honours with Scotland’s age group squads.

Keep an eye out for English striker Myles Hippolyte securing his jersey at Livi, while hopes are high that Raith Rovers midfielder Lewis Vaughan can build on his encouraging debut season.

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Dumbarton’s Scott Agnew will relish pitting himself against the big three’s midfields this term and Queen of the South duo Gavin Reilly and Iain Russell were regular scorers in 2013/14.

Falkirk will be delighted to have kept Craig Sibbald and Conor McGrandles this summer, who will be the midfield platform for Rory Loy to continue his penalty box exploits.

Defence will be key to staying out of the relegation battle and if Cowdenbeath are to do that they’ll need stoppers Thomas O’Brien and John Armstrong to be on their game to help keep clean sheets.

Kevin Cawley is always a threat for Alloa and the development of ex-Motherwell youth Adam Asghar in midfield could be the catalyst to a good run of results for the Wasps.

Managers

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The handful of newcomers to Scottish Championship will make for an interesting dynamic.

Alan Stubbs at Hibs and Robbie Neilson at Hearts are also going into 2014/15 in their first ever positions as bosses of a first team. While impossible to judge on past experience, both took charge of youth sides before being promoted to the frontline.

Stubbs speaks of an effective, attacking style of football being played at Easter Road, while Neilson is pursuing a pass-first policy with heavy emphasis of attacking down the wings at the Jambos.

Peter Houston is back in the game at Falkirk and he inherits a team that knows the league inside-out. Falkirk are an attractive side to watch but the Scottish Cup winner with Dundee United may be keen to shore up the defence.

It is year four in the Ibrox hotseat for Ally McCoist, whose vast resources have been enough to see off Leagues 1 and 2. This is a maiden campaign in the Championship for McCoist, who has not won a cup competition in Rangers’ two years in the lower leagues. He will be under scrutiny to prove his ability in the dugout against a higher quality of opposition.

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It is year two in the job for John McGlynn at Livingston now has a summer to have shaped the squad to his liking. His failure at Hearts should be out his system and Livi’s encouraging transfer market moves have built a platform for improvement.

Ian Murray’s stock remains high as he takes Dumbarton from strength-to-strength. Sons fans will be intrigued to see how the change of number two from Jack Ross to Guillaume Beuzelin will affect their approach.

Queen of the South marked their return to the second tier with a fine season under Jim McIntyre who will want to keep the Doonhamers’ strong home form going into the new campaign.

The heat could be on Grant Murray this year after a poor 2013/14 and an early exit to Dunfermline in the Petrofac Training Cup. Up in Alloa Barry Smith managed to avoid a relegation play-off but he has to hope he has improved the playing pool at Recreation Park to avoid a repeat of the scrap at the bottom.

Plugging the goalscoring gap is priority number one for Jimmy Nicholl at Cowdenbeath and he must draw on all his experience to create a compact side to counter the Blue Brazil’s status as relegation favourites.

Expectations

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The oddsmakers place Rangers as favourites for the title and with their array of international players and formidable home crowd, it is hard to argue that they enter the season with the highest level of expectation.

Credit goes to Hearts for their post-administration rebuilding job that sees them named as second favourites, with Hibernian predictably in behind their Edinburgh rivals in the bookmakers' reckoning.

Falkirk will be expected to win the race for a play-off spot with strong foundations being built upon by an experienced manager who has brought in some shrewd new signings.

The traditionally sardine-packed middle table is expected to see Queen of the South, Livingston, Raith Rovers and Dumbarton fight it out – and such is the competitiveness of this league, any one of them could find themselves either in the hunt for promotion, or skirting with a relegation play-off.

Alloa and Cowdenbeath are considered joint favourites for the drop, reflecting their relative paucity of resources and the loss of some key personnel.

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