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Best of the rest, but for how long can it last?

THE saddest aspect of Derek McInnes' plaintive observation about the yawning gulf at the top of the SPFL Premiership was that he could have been describing any season in the last 15 years.

Mark Reynolds may be poached and Russell Anderson, at 35, is nearing the end of his career. Picture: SNS
Mark Reynolds may be poached and Russell Anderson, at 35, is nearing the end of his career. Picture: SNS

The Aberdeen manager did not disguise his dismay about the fact that despite his team's much-improved form this season - they are 12 points better off than at the same stage last time - they would still require a telescope to see the champions-elect.

Aberdeen are marginally the best of the rest in the league right now - Motherwell are one point behind them with a game in hand - but there is nothing to cause Celtic any lost sleep. Celtic's unbeaten procession towards their defence of the title has them an uncatchable 21 points ahead with only 14 games left.

Celtic's points total is 14 higher than it was after the same number of league games last season. By this point in 2013 they had lost four league fixtures, compared to the current campaign which remains unblemished by defeat.

"When I see the gap in the table between ourselves, the rest of the league and Celtic that's not something I'm totally comfortable with," said McInnes. "It doesn't sit well with me because we want to be as close as we can to them." Still, Aberdeen's manager is shrewd enough to recognise the gulf is more likely to widen than narrow in the season's remaining weeks.

It was ever thus, at least since the SPL was formed in 1998 and reconstituted as the SPFL last year. In the SPL's first season the gap between the champions and the best non-Old Firm team, St Johnstone, was 20 points. By 2002 that had increased to a 45-point difference between Martin O'Neill's Celtic on 103 points and Livingston as leaders of the, ahem, chasing pack on 58.

Whenever Celtic or Rangers have won the league in the modern era the gap between them and the best non-Old Firm club has been huge. In consecutive seasons the difference in points has been 20, 36, 31, 45, 34, 30, 32, 17, 19, 29, 27, 24, 30, 31 and, last season, 23. The smallest gap was the 17-point difference between champions Celtic and Hearts when the Edinburgh club split the Old Firm in 2005-06. McInnes is not the only one who feels uncomfortable about the unalterable control of Scottish football by the big Glasgow clubs. But the current gulf of 21 points is actually smaller than the usual finishing gap, which since 1998 has averaged out at 28 points.

Scottish football has never had a league race beyond a Celtic-Rangers head-to-head during the SPL/SPFL era, and there is no evidence that it will in the foreseeable future. The "rest" are always so far off the pace it would be a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act to refer to them as a chasing group. What they are actually pursuing this season is not Celtic but the second and third positions in the league which bring the rewards of places in the 2014-15 Europa League qualifying rounds.

Aberdeen are narrowly ahead of Motherwell in the table and in the coming weeks they may be acquainted with exactly the sort of issues which befell Fir Park last summer. Finishing high up the league attracts praise but it also draws attention from predators.

Motherwell finished second last season in the first top flight without Rangers, and financial restrictions meant their admirable squad was then scythed down. Michael Higdon, Nicky Law, Darren Randolph and Henrik Ojamaa all left, making it all the more commendable that manager Stuart McCall has them so firmly in contention to finish second again this season. Hearts and Dundee United have also found themselves vulnerable to being cherry-picked after finishing closest to the Old Firm.

The work of McInnes in building a team to challenge this season has been excellent and he knows the game well enough to recognise that players can go as well as come. Peter Pawlett always had exceptional pace and this season he has added strength and goals. That is a seductive array of attributes in a 23-year-old midfielder.

Ryan Jack, Mark Reynolds, Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn could all attract English clubs with the resources to pay far higher wages. Russell Anderson and Barry Robson are both 35, and who knows if this season will be the last in which they both make enormous contributions?

McInnes himself will attract attention if he delivers the League Cup, and even more so if the Scottish Cup also comes back to Aberdeen. After 18-and-a-half years, the man who brings a trophy to Pittodrie is going to make the news.

All of this is relevant to the point made by McInnes about being scunnered by a 21-point deficit to Celtic and his determination to do something about it next season. Supporters, and clubs themselves, like to think of having momentum, constantly building and improving. But that has been desperately difficult for SPFL clubs when they can become prey to so many clubs.

It was not intended as a loaded remark when Neil Lennon said "I'm a big fan of Pawlett, he's had a very good season" but, even so, it was a reminder that Celtic, too, have the financial power to cherry-pick from the rest of the league if they wish.

Only a few hours after Lennon's words last week, Celtic reported they were debt-free with £5.7m in the bank. There were various ways to interpret that, and one of them was the near certainty that they will be champions again next season by 21 points or more.

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