Viaplay Cup: SPFL returns after 41 days, group stage first, Dundee United, Mexico intrigue and standout fixture
If Phileas Fogg had left London as soon as Sims’ spot-kick had hit the net in Dingwall, by the time 29 SPFL sides – and Cowdenbeath – get their 2023/24 campaign under way on Saturday afternoon he would be approaching Yokohama, just over half way through his attempt to traverse the world in 80 days. Despite this shortened off-season – down from 47 days last year and mammoth 55 days in the summer of 2018 – it hasn't stopped some sections of fans losing their collective minds over signings, announcements, kit releases. These days are meant to be precious, a down period where all the stresses of the previous campaign are forgotten about, the summer to be enjoyed. Music festivals, barbecues, holidays, tennis, cricket or golf, instead of scrolling on social media shouting into the ether about the lack of transfers. Alas, that may be too much to ask for.
At least, with the start of the League Cup, fans of some clubs can start to get tucked into competitive action. For the first time since the change in format to incorporate a group stage, neither Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibs or Rangers are involved. But there remains oodles of intrigue around. Especially because the competition, at this stage, has the proclivity to introduce or increase pressure on managers who, if not starting on the back foot, really don't want to be put on the back foot by the time the league season starts. Twelve months ago, the Premiership trio of St Mirren, St Johnstone and Hibs failed to progress from their respective groups. Buddies boss Stephen Robinson and then Perth Saints manager Callum Davidson had work to do after a difficult end to the 2021/22 campaign, while it was an inauspicious start for Lee Johnson at Easter Road. No top-flight manager is in quite the situation Davidson and Robinson were in but there is a new face in Tony Docherty at Dundee and Steven MacLean is now in permanent charge of St Johnstone.
Some managers could see this as an extension of pre-season. But there will be many who would bristle at such a suggestion, spotting an early opportunity to lay down a marker and hit the ground running when the league campaign begins in August.
Two particular groups stand out. Dundee United come up against Partick Thistle, Falkirk, Peterhead and SPFL Spartans in Group B, and Group F, consisting of Kilmarnock, Raith Rovers, Dunfermline Athletic, Annan Athletic and Albion Rovers who are preparing for life outside the SPFL.
United and Dundee
The Tannadice side, for the fifth time in the last eight summers, start the campaign as a second tier outfit. You have to go back to the 1950s for the last time the club spent so long outside of the top-flight. Jim Goodwin has been charged with getting them back at the first time of asking following the calamity that was the 2022/23 campaign when the club went through three managers on their way to relegation. A raft of experienced players have already left with five additions made, including a new No 1 goalkeeper.
These games in a tricky group are massive for Goodwin, his squad and the club. A positive showing will begin to help create a more positive atmosphere with an impressive 5,100-plus season tickets sold. The goodwill of the punters needs to be earned and earned quickly after they had to ensure and suffer a number of embarrassments last season.
Yet, it is not just United providing the storylines in Group B. Partick Thistle have lost eight first-team players after missing out on promotion to the Premiership in heartbreaking fashion. Falkirk will be desperate to end what is beginning to feel like purgatory in League One. Peterhead, under co-management, will be looking to bounce back after, impressively, a worse season than Dundee United and then there is Spartans, promoted from the Lowland League last season.
Staying in the City of Discovery, barely 200 metres along the road, Dundee begin a new era after parting company with Gary Bowyer, the Championship title-winning boss. In keeping with the city’s football clubs' penchant for entertainment. Nothing quite beats an exotic signing no one has heard of. So the Dens Park club have signed two such players, Mexican duo Diego Pineda and Antonio Portales. Meanwhile, it is fascinating to see how Docherty does stepping into the head coach position having been Derek McInnes’ trusty lieutenant for so long. Their campaign begins against Bonnyrigg on Tuesday.
Game of the weekend
Equally fascinating will be Motherwell. Stuart Kettlewell did a fantastic job last season, taking over a side which looked primed for the drop. They will be without their Dutch talisman Kevin van Veen, however, and will be tested by Queen's Park – plus their eye-catching signings Ruari Paton and Barry Hepburn – and Queen of the South.
Yet, the game of the weekend is in Fife. Raith Rovers v Dunfermline Athletic, live on Viaplay. The first of at least five derbies between the sides this season as they look to earn the King of the Kingdom title. The Pars are back in the second tier after a hugely impressive first season under James McPake, who now has two promotions on his CV. They are a club who have been out of the top-flight for far too long and will be hoping to use the League One title as a springboard. Raith on the other hand have recruited, on paper, very well and throughout the spine of their team. They should be viewed as Championship title contenders.
But, for now, it is about the Viaplay Cup and the return of competitive Scottish football. It’s been both too long and too short a time period. Strap yourselves in, the nonsense begins once more.
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