WITH the Lowland League set to kick off on Saturday, July 29 we asked an excited David Knox to offer his predictions for the season ahead.
1st Spartans: This will come as a surprise for many but I believe the Ainslie Park club will return to winning ways during 2017/18. Since claiming the very first Lowland League title, Spartans have since underachieved by their own high standards - finishing 19 points adrift last season in third. But Dougie Samuel has brought in former Leith Athletic manager Derek Riddell as his assistant and signed the experienced trio of Ross Guthrie, Ian McFarland and Andrew Stobbie from Edinburgh City. Several exciting young Leith players have also moved across the city, and going by impressive pre-season results Spartans could well provide a shock this season.
2nd East Kilbride: Former St Mirren, Aberdeen and Celtic star Billy Stark makes his first move into non-league management. The former Scotland Under 21s boss is inheriting the vast majority of last season's title-winning squad and has added wisely with the likes of former Hibs midfielder Kevin McCann, former Huddersfield forward Liam Coogans and BSC striker Aiden Ferris. It is fair to say that expectation is high at K Park. But with the majority of other teams strengthening during the summer I can't see Kilby dominating like they did last season - only losing three league games - and Spartans could well pip them to the post in what will be a very tight battle at the top.
3rd East Stirlingshire: It took John Sludden's team a couple of months to find their feet in the Lowland League last season, and by that time Kilby were away. The attacking force of Andy Rogers, David Grant and Paul Sludden has been strengthened with the arrival of former Morton goal-machine Kevin Kelbie, and they have shored up their defence as well with the signing of former Hearts and Wigan utility player Jamie McCormack and centre-half Jordan Tapping. The Ochilview club were a welcome addition to last season's Lowland League but I think they will come up just short yet again.
4th BSC Glasgow: Manager Stephen Swift has made sweeping changes during the summer at the Indodrill Stadium - and the big signings could well progress BSC into one of the league's top clubs. Around half a dozen former SPFL players have joined the Broomhill ranks, including former Kilmarnock midfielder Stevie Murray, Martin Grehan and Jamie Mills from Stirling Albion, and Dumbarton's Ryan McStay. There is an opportunity to make a statement of intent on the opening day as they travel to Ochilview to face East Stirlingshire. Management changes last season didn't help BSC as they eventually finished seventh in the table - with a little stability this time round I can see them making the top four.
5th Selkirk: Selkirk have struggled to compete in the Lowland League since its inauguration in 2013/14, but the arrival of manager Ian Fergus towards the end of last season has led to major changes and a more ambitious approach. The Yarrow Park club has recruited wisely during the summer - including former Hearts and Hamilton player Sean McKirdy among the nine new arrivals - as well as appointing David Bingham as assistant manager. Impressive pre-season performances are lifting the bar of expectation at Yarrow Park, and with a new Under 20s team for back up this could be a season where Selkirk sustain a challenge towards the top end.
6th Dalbeattie Star: For me Darren Kerr deserves enormous credit for Star's fifth-place finish last season. His hard-working approach rubs off on his team and they proved time and time again last season that they are difficult to beat. The loss of striker Iain Anderson is a blow but Kerr has found a replacement in Farrell O'Sullivan. The Galloway club will also be boosted by the return of former favourite Scott Milligan. Expect another battling campaign from Kerr's troops that should keep them in the top six.
7th Stirling University: Uni teams are always the enigmas of the Lowland League as there is no way of knowing any additions to the squad until the season starts. But we do know that the team's former top scorer Chris Geddes has taken over from Scotland-bound Shelley Kerr, and that he'll be assisted by former BSC boss Mark Adams. There will be plenty of scholarship talent within the Stirling ranks, as always, but without Geddes' 20-odd goals and the experience of Kerr I can't see the Students equal or better last season's fourth place finish.
8th Gala Fairydean Rovers: There was a brief week or two last season when Gala Fairydean Rovers looked as though they would finish in the top six. The lack of consistency, which has plagued them throughout the past four campaigns, saw them eventually drop to tenth. Steven Noble's squad, which has been bolstered by the arrival of exciting midfielders Rhys Craigie and Daniel Pattenden, is capable of better this time round. The only worry about the Fairydean Rovers is their lack of fire power with little in the way of back up for former St Johnstone striker Stuart Noble.
9th Vale of Leithen: Expect the unexpected at Victoria Park this season. Several of last season's senior players have now retired but with the arrival of Jack Hay from Spartans, Jordan Finnie from Civil Service and Jon McInally from Hawick, Chris Anderson has injected a fair amount of match winners as well as unpredictability to his squad. The retention of Jason Stevens as well as the addition of Euan Saunderson and Ross Gilpin make Vale serious contenders for finishing in the top half of the league.
10th Cumbernauld Colts: Promising pre-season results have raised expectations at Broadwood despite the loss of around half a dozen of the squad who finished sixth last season. James Orr and Craig McKinlay have recruited reasonably well with striker Andy Selkirk returning and talented midfielder Liam McGroary signing from Stenhousemuir. Several younger players have also joined the Colts ranks from nearby junior and amateur clubs. It's a difficult one to call but I can't see Cumbernauld doing much better than a top ten finish.
11th Whitehill Welfare: It's fair to say Whitehill will be almost unrecognisable from the team that finished eighth last season. Gary Small has replaced David Bingham in the dug out and he's been faced with the unenviable task of finding replacements for the majority of his departing squad. Steve Manson, Michael Osbourne, Dale O'Hara, Charlie Denton and Daryl Healy are just a few of the players who've gone through the exit. Experienced defenders Chris Gordon and Ryan McKenzie have arrived as well as former Hawick duo Hamish Hunter and Ryan Stevenson. Whitehill will always be strong competitors but it's difficult to see them better last season's finish.
12th Gretna: Matt Henney's team picked up some late wins last season for a ninth place finish. The manager has yet again done most of his business south of the border with Penrith midfielder Matthew Read arriving at Raydale. Striker Kevin Connolly and defender Steven Black are also amongst Henney's summer signings. Gretna will be well organised and will pick up some good wins during the season but it's unlikely they will be challenging towards the top.
13th Civil Service Strollers: After a disastrous start to life in the Lowland League - beaten 5-0 by Hawick in their opening match - Alex Cunningham's team went on to do well in their first season. The loss of Jordan Finnie and Joe Dingwall will be a blow but Cunningham has welcomed back striker Kyle Boggie and added a few good youngsters from the Leith Athletic academy. Civil have the potential to be a top ten club but with others around them strengthening well during the summer I think they'll be nearer the bottom.
14th Hawick Royal Albert: Kenny Aitchison, at the tender age of 23, is Scottish senior football's youngest manager. What he lacks in years he makes up for in hard work and enthusiasm. Most commentators will be expecting Hawick to prop up the table but Aitchison has moved wisely in the market bringing in experienced coaches Jamie Hamilton and Alan Sinclair as well as around a dozen new players - including former Rangers youngster Curtis Rose. Pre-season results have been okay and I expect this will be an improving team as the season progresses.
15th Edinburgh University: For a while last season it looked as though Dorian Ogunro's team would be dragged into the Lowland League relegation battle. A series of good results in the final month took them all the way up to 11th. While others around them have strengthened Ogunro will have to wait to on the new intake at Peffermill to find out if his team will be any better, although there may be a gem or two, as has happened in the past, among the new arrivals in the capital campus. Difficult to see them do any better than last season.
16th Edu Academy: Edu is a six-year-old academy for young French footballers. It ground-shares with Annan Athletic and won promotion from the South of Scotland League with almost the last kick of the ball last season. From the former Edu players that had a spell at Selkirk I know there will be quality within Ricky Waddell's ranks but, going by last season's results, I think they will find this step up to the Lowland League a tough one. Really difficult to call but I don't think Edu will hang onto their Lowland League place.