Last season was the Scottish Premiership’s closest title race during Celtic’s seven-year reign at the country’s summit, and they still won it in April. The only relief other fans have had from Celtic’s supremacy has been through their shortcomings in Europe or when Scottish football produces one of its typically offbeat tales – like when Inverness Caledonian Thistle accidentally “liked” a pornographic video on Twitter. Otherwise, things have been irritatingly – or comfortably, if you side with Celtic – predictable.

Mercifully, the opening weeks of the 2018-19 campaign indicate that things may be different, proffering more twists than the troubled minds of Irvine Welsh’s most drug-addled characters. Celtic are fifth after seven matches, behind a pack that doesn’t even include Old Firm foes Rangers. Hearts are top, with a five-point cushion over Edinburgh rivals Hibernian in second place. Livingston are third after back-to-back promotions hoisted them from the third tier, and Kilmarnock are fourth.

“Yes I think they should,” Brendan Rodgers, the Celtic manager whose usual smug expression has tightened over the past couple of months, replied when asked if the club’s fans should be alarmed after September’s 2-1 defeat at Kilmarnock. Killie striker Kris Boyd claimed his view from the bench suggested there was a divide in the Celtic dressing room, though his vision may be tinged blue by his two spells with Rangers.

Rodgers has a right to feel aggrieved with his employers. Stuart Armstrong and Moussa Dembele were granted summer transfers from the club, with the latter’s move to Olympique Lyonnais particularly unsettling given its completion on deadline day. Patrick Roberts was also unable to return on another loan deal due to parent club Manchester City preferring to hone his talents with Girona in La Liga. Olivier Ntcham was kept aboard despite interest from other outfits, but Dedryck Boyata’s failed switch to Fulham resulted in a standoff which, despite Rodgers reinstalling the Belgian to his defense, seems irreparable.

Mark Runnacles / Getty Images Sport / Getty

To compound matters for Rodgers – who, prior to this season, was being tipped for a triumphant return to management south of the border – his team’s unshakable struggles in the continental game are being roundly trumped by Rangers’ performance. The cross-city club is overseen by Steven Gerrard – Rodgers’ captain when in charge of Liverpool – and sits atop Group G in the Europa League after an impressive away draw at Villarreal and victory over Rapid Vienna at home on Thursday. This follows Rangers’ arduous eight-game stretch to qualify for their first European tournament since the 2010-11 term. Celtic, meanwhile, slumped to a 3-1 defeat at RB Salzburg in their last European jaunt, and are third in Group B. They’re supposed to compete in the more illustrious Champions League.

Celtic’s cohesion has faltered in the season’s early days, but they would have encountered greater difficulty in their domestic division regardless. Gerrard’s Rangers are spluttering on the road, but he is instilling a welcome, dogged mentality. Derek McInnes’ managerial skills at Aberdeen are highly rated. After suffering a health scare in August, Craig Levein has shrugged off his dour personality and game plans that hindered his Scotland tenure and is now surveying attacking, almost care-free, football at table-topping Hearts.

Simply put, Scotland currently boasts a legion of talented managers capable of testing Rodgers’ dominance and perhaps restoring parity to the country’s top flight.

Club Manager Notes
Aberdeen Derek McInnes Established Dons as Celtic’s biggest competitors in Scotland
Hearts Craig Levein Scotland manager 2009-2012
Hibernian Neil Lennon Guided Celtic to 3 league titles & 2 Scottish Cups
Kilmarnock Steve Clarke Jose Mourinho’s former No. 2 & reigning SFWA Manager of the Year
Livingston Gary Holt Club is 3rd despite odd Kenny Miller reign to begin campaign
Rangers Steven Gerrard Decorated ex-Liverpool skipper working well in transfer market
St. Johnstone Tommy Wright Minnows regularly overperform & won Scottish Cup in 2014

Positivity doesn’t just engulf the domestic game. Scotland might just … (whispers) have a decent team. Ryan Fraser keeps improving for Bournemouth in the Premier League, and players such as Robert Snodgrass and Steven Naismith are carving out renaissances late in their careers. True, it is an unbalanced squad – Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson, Celtic’s Kieran Tierney, and Leeds United’s Barry Douglas are among the best in the talent pool yet assume similar roles – but there is a promising contingent fronted by Manchester United’s Scott McTominay and Aston Villa’s John McGinn staking claims in the senior setup. With the experienced bosses currently in the Scottish Premiership, the numbers pushing for international recognition should grow.

To the relief of everyone except Celtic fans, Scottish football is benefiting from addition through subtraction. The improving fortunes of Rangers after years of financial turmoil, increased strength of the Edinburgh clubs, and gate-crashing from the likes of Livingston and Kilmarnock have conveniently coincided with Celtic’s dominance being threatened. During a period when European football is rife with runaway league winners, the hint of a fiercely contested division in Scotland must be gratefully received.

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