ANYONE attempting to predict the results in the SPFL Championship on any chosen weekend can be considered either very bold or very foolish.
The first division, as it was before last summer's rebranding, was always one of the most competitive leagues around and the introduction of promotion play-offs this season has made that increasingly so. With so much to play for and so little between all of the teams, there will not be many punters boasting healthy bank balances on the back of picking weekly winners from a closely-contested fixture card.
Most of the sides in this season's Championship have just 12 matches remaining but there is little prospect of any enjoying the luxury of winding down gently. There will be few meaningless matches in this division. It is particularly tight at the top where Dundee lead Hamilton Academical by four points.
In seasons gone by, when only the champions went up, that would have meant the chasing pack starting to lose heart around this point of the campaign but the play-offs have changed the landscape. With the sides finishing second, third and fourth being afforded a crack at a possible second promotion berth, it has given at least eight of the clubs this year a realistic target to aim for.
Hamilton, who play Livingston at home on Friday night, hope to still be in contention come the end of the season. Under a new player-manager in Alex Neil, the hope at the start of the campaign had been to make the play-offs but a strong start, accompanied by the realisation that no side was going to run away with it, soon allowed them to reappraise their goals.
There will be a sense of disappointment if they do not go on to win the title, although the play-offs will still make for a decent consolation prize. "At the start of the season our aim was to try to finish in the top four," said Neil. "The bookies had us as sixth or seventh favourites so that's where they thought we would finish, and generally they're not too far away which shows how well the squad has done. If we finish fourth then it will be mission accomplished but there will also be a bit of disappointment given we were the team that led the league for the first half of the season.
"But we got back to winning ways last weekend and I've said to the players we need to focus on performance now. We got carried away a wee bit looking at Dundee and Falkirk and other results. One of our strengths at the start of the season was focusing on our game, and not worrying about anyone else. We need to get back to that."
Scottish football's league reconstruction saga went on for so long there was danger of it overtaking Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap as the longest-running continuous drama. When a deal was eventually thrashed out, certain compromises had to be agreed upon. If play-offs were to be introduced between the Premiership and the Championship, they would need to be done in a way that improved the chances of the top-flight team staying up. Thus, the sides finishing in third and fourth place in the Championship will need to win three two-legged ties to gain promotion, while the team in 11th in the Premiership need only prevail in one. Neil, though, believes it is still better than what went before.
"Something had to give and that was it - it was weighted in the Premier teams' favour," he said. "At least now we've got an extra chance of promotion. The distribution of money is a lot better as well, based on your finishing position, which is a great thing for the clubs. In years to come you can maybe build up a bit of capital so you can prepare better for stepping up to the Premiership."
Hamilton's dip in form has coincided with Neil being stuck on the sidelines for the last four months through injury. The 32-year-old hopes to return soon to help his side in the run-in. "I've started running now so it will be another three to four weeks."