As the Scottish 2017/18 season draws to a crescendo, with Celtic looking for a second consecutive treble-winning season, most fans with no allegiance to the Champions are beginning to focus on the race for second, European spots, or to avoid relegation.
Each of the “alternative” aspects are tightly contested, with at least 2, if not 3 teams realistically still in the race for each at this point just before the first Post-Split fixtures. This, added to Motherwell reaching their second cup final of the season (a staple measurement of success for non Old Firm, or non Celtic clubs in Scotland) point to an ongoing and apparently refreshingly competitive football culture – taking the all conquering Celtic out of the equation, with their mammoth finances and resources in comparison to the rest.
Looking deeper into the relative successes of other clubs in Scotland and competitiveness of the league over the past few seasons, a broad cyclical pattern can be seen. Rangers, Hibs and Aberdeen are all in the race for second at the time of writing. Rangers have the budget and resources to finish second, albeit off field issues have plagued the club for a number of years, as well as the poor allocation of their respectable resources. But nonetheless, Rangers are roughly where you would expect them to be after climbing back from the abyss and re-establishing themselves.
For other sides however, the cyclical nature of Scottish Football rings only too true.
Peaks and Troughs at Easter Road
Take the example of Hibs, up and challenging for second this season. This follows their promotion from the tier below last year. In any normal season over the last 10-20 years second place would represent an exemplary season for the Hibees, but after gaining promotion this can be viewed as a great achievement. Hibs are a big club in Scottish terms, with a fine stadium, large fan base and an honourable history. When things click in terms of the right manager at the right time, with shrewd signings and a peppering of starlets from their successful youth team, Hibs are capable of challenging at the right end of the league table. But as we have seen in recent and more distant times, Hibs along with other Scottish sides fall into a cyclical pattern.
In 2014, it was Hibs’ turn to play at the lower end of this cycle. After a dreadful post Christmas season, they plummeted towards the bottom of the table. Beset by a broken relationship between their then manager Terry Butcher – taken from Inverness who were themselves at the crest of a wave, and top of their cycle, at the time – and their players, many of whom were underperforming. Eventually, Hamilton overcame Hibs in the promotion playoff and Hibs were relegated to the second tier for the first time in 15 years. This represented a low point for the Hibees, lower than they had fallen for a while. The preceding 15 years had been populated by middling performances, with the odd good season as referenced above – finishing in the top 4 twice between 2004 and 2006.
A similar story can be told at many other clubs. Kilmarnock are currently in the top 6, for the first time in years after seasons of scraping by towards the bottom of the league. Motherwell, as mentioned, have reached 2 cup finals, a great achievement on a lower budget notwithstanding middling league performances. St Johnstone have fallen into a middling sort of season after a number of top 6 finishes while clubs like Dundee United and Inverness Caledonian Thistle have fallen from high points of top level finishes and Scottish Cups wins to stodgy performances in the league below.
A Question of Timing
What the above demonstrates is a cyclical pattern within Scottish Football. Clubs will have a good season, when a manager focuses his resources well – picking up the right mix of free transfers and loans, with the addition of promising young players (transfer fees are essentially a rarity in Scotland). This is largely short term though. Good managers get cherry picked by clubs higher in the food chain, on paper or in terms of budget – it doesn’t always go right, look at Terry Butcher at Hibs, for example.
Or, instead, good players move on after a couple of good seasons – with finances as they are and this cyclical nature, clubs can only generally offer 1-2 year contracts and so players can move on with limited income to the clubs, meaning that there is a perpetual need to scour the scouting networks and lower leagues of England or Europe to discover gems for the next season. Recent examples of this would be Dundee United with Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven, Andy Robertson, Ryan Gauld and John Souttar all being at a relatively successful United side over a few years before leaving, from which United struggled to keep their heads above water through not being able to successfully replace and eventually falling down a league level.
It is difficult to predict these cycles, many good or bad periods are simply down to good timing, a good manager who picks up the right blend and mix of players who click at the right time before being split up and picked off and the club subsequently failing to replace or match the achievements through a lack of finance or inability to plan long term.
Aberdeen: “A large Marsupial with no Predators”
Aberdeen have had a similar cyclical mix from poor, through middling up to top end periods. At present, they have been at the top end of their relative cycle for a few years now, coinciding with financial troubles at Rangers and Hearts, as well as other relatively big clubs like Hibs and United also struggling. So like a large marsupial with no predators, Aberdeen have established themselves as a second force in Scotland over the past few seasons, winning a League Cup and finishing second with regular comfort. This season hasn’t been so straight forward, with big challenges from Rangers and Hibs as well as the Dons struggling with games against other better performing sides in the league.
Aberdeen are an interesting case at this point. On the one hand they appear to be reaching the end of their successful cycle and without the correct direction or investment could find themselves slipping as has happened to many others who have been in this situation before. On the other, they do have some resources, some promising young players and incoming transfer fees which could be re-invested in order to establish a sustained period of success. They have long serving manager, who has been able to build a long term squad rather than feasting on year by year, paycheck to paycheck free transfers. As such, there is an opportunity to break the otherwise inevitable cycle.
Aberdeen have a good basis of a squad, much the same squad and core which has performed well over the past few years. Their manager, Derek McInnes has been in post since 2013, as above residing over a relatively successful period (albeit arguably in the absence of any realistic league challengers). A single trophy within this period of apparent success adds question marks, but is also a sign of the playing style of his side. Competitive, solid in defence with good wingers and a good goalscorer – there is a simple recipe to their success which will win most games – but seems to come unstuck in one-off battles or tactical games in the latter stages of cup competitions or league games against other top sides. The average derived from a consistent approach will always offer a respectable league position, even if the silver polish remains under the sink.
So is it a different type of cycle which could trip up Aberdeen this time? They have the resources at the moment to ride through the short term, free transfer and perfect storm-type cycle outlined to above and demonstrated by the good and bad Hibs sides, this season’s good Kilmarnock and even the cup winning Inverness team of 2015. But can they escape an alternative cycle leading to a gradual decline?
Not Just a Scottish Football Problem?
The great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann famously never stayed at a club for more than 3 years, believing that after that period even good or successful players grew tired of his methods and that he could no longer motivate players, essentially exhausting tactical methods and strategies throughout that period. This cycle has proven true of many managers at many clubs across the world over the years. As above, Aberdeen have a relatively set gameplan – a successful gameplan in many cases – but have struggled this season when this is challenged or when they need to adapt and try something different. Is this a sign of a decline, the effect of this Scottish football cycle taking hold through an alternative mechanism? Or are these the initial cracks in a wider decline for Aberdeen? Or, with the resourcing and longer term strategy as outlined above through the longevity of the manager (who has turned down other job offers – breaking part of the general cycle), can Aberdeen break through and establish a linear period of success?
It will be interesting to see the next steps for the club, how McInnes rebuilds the squad or whether, as per the Guttmann approach above he feels, or it is proven that he has taken them as far as he can. Likewise, can Neil Lennon at Hibs or Steve Clarke at Kilmarnock break through cycles of being picked off by bigger clubs and look to establish their respective sides on a successful period? Will the general cycle or the Guttmann cycle strike for these clubs?
Whatever happens, one thing is for sure – we will never be bored as Scottish Football fans as cycles of success, mediocrity and failure perpetuate. This continual cocktail of excitement and dread, joy and despair keeps bringing us back for more.