Lower League Lions

Ayr United play their Cup Final. Giant-killing in the cups. And, unlike the SPL, fierce battles are raging in the SFL.


 

AYR BRUSHED OUT

So Rangers have won the first trophy of the domestic season. The League Cup has been much-criticised in the past from within Ibrox as a tournament of little value but it was interesting to see just how highly prized it was by both Rangers management and support when winning it ended their two year trophy drought.

Not that Rangers had it all their own way in the Final against Ayr United. Indeed, the Somerset Park side had much the better of the first half and were unlucky not to be ahead before a sublime piece of skill from Claudio Caniggia laid on the opening goal for Tore Andre Flo just before the interval. Indeed, 65 minutes had elapsed before Rangers won their first corner of the match.

But by that time the game was effectively over, ended as a contest when Ayr needlessly conceded a penalty shortly after the break, which was converted by Barry Ferguson. Two further strikes from Caniggia sealed his man-of-the-match performance as the Gers ran out 4-0 winners.

For Ayr the second period was simply a fight to prevent humiliation. In the end their supporters need not have worried. A repeat of their 7-0 thrashing by Rangers in the Scottish Cup two years ago was never in prospect. The First Division side can look back – mainly - with pride at their first ever Cup Final in their 92-year history.

I qualify the statement because there were a couple of disturbing aspects of the Ayrshire side’s play. To describe Paul Lovering and John Hughes as robust is a little like saying Burns could churn out a couple of rhymes – a vast understatement. And constant attempts to con a penalty out of referee Hugh Dallas were unworthy of the occasion. Though, as much of Ayr’s cup success this season has been based on dodgy penalties, perhaps they felt entitled to give it a go one last time.

For winning manager Alex McLeish, this was an occasion for relief rather than celebration. Victory was simply what was expected. Defeat would have been disaster. With this trophy under his belt, McLeish need no longer worry about joining Davie White – the only Ibrox boss in 130 years to never win a major trophy.

But the Rangers boss surely knows his side still needs rebuilding. With only one Scot in the starting line-up (though all three subs were Scottish) Berti Vogts' idea of making this a competition for Scotland-qualified players only has a certain attraction.

And while it may have been two years since their last celebration, the Ibrox fans showed they hadn’t forgotten their repertoire as, if I may paraphrase Prince, they partied like it was 1690. All the old sectarian favourites were given an airing so it was particularly sweet to hear the Ayr fans respond to ‘Rule Britannia’ with a chorus of ‘Flower of Scotland.’ An idea here perhaps for supporters of other clubs to follow.

The one undoubtedly poor feature of the Final was the state of the Hampden turf. So bad it makes Ayr’s Somerset Park midden look positively lush.

TOMMY TURNS

Surprise, surprise! That all-important 24/7 youth job at Celtic Park that prevented Tommy Burns from returning to management at Kilmarnock isn’t that important that it will prevent him from travelling all over Europe as No 2 to Berti Vogts.

DOES SIZE MATTER?

SPL teams have taken a battering at the hands of First Division sides in both knockout tournaments this season. If we discount the Old Firm then the eighteen clashes between first and premier have resulted in seven victories for the lower league sides as against five for the SPL and six draws. That’s bad enough, but three of those tied games were in the League Cup and were won on penalties by the First Division teams. In other words the lower league teams have triumphed twice as often as the SPL clubs when teams from the two divisions have met.

Those are incredible figures, especially since it was beginning to look like giant-killing was a thing of the past. In the SPL’s first season the first division teams acquitted themselves well, winning five, losing five and drawing three times. In addition, the 3rd Division claimed a win and two draws against the SPL while the 2nd mustered three wins and a draw. The 1st division tally fell to one win, seven draws and seven defeats the following season with the 2nd division claiming a win and three draws. 2000-2001 saw one win, four draws and nine defeats for 1st division clubs. Which makes this term’s results all the more remarkable.

In the Scottish Cup, Hearts, Dundee and Dundee United have all lost - the first two at home. In the League Cup Hibs, Hearts, Kilmarnock, Dundee, Motherwell and Dunfermline have all succumbed to supposedly inferior sides.

And while we have discounted the Old Firm from this survey let’s not forget that its not that long since Inverness Caley Thistle knocked Celtic out of the cup at Parkhead while Rangers were forced into a replay by their namesakes from Berwick this season.

SPL chief Roger Mitchell claims that “you’d have to be smoking dope “ to believe such results could be sustained over a season. There’s a way to find out without resorting to the ganja. And that’s to have sixteen teams in the SPL. To those who think that’s too many, consider this: of the five clubs promoted to the SPL since its inception, just one has been immediately relegated. The others have finished 5th, 6th, 9th, and 4th, (at the time of writing) – respectable by any standards. Sixteen teams allows for 30 League matches, giving the big clubs the time off they claim they need for European ties.

Of course it reduces home games against the Old Firm to two a season. But under the present system, only four clubs have four Old Firm fixtures so most teams would only lose revenue from one game against the big two. And who knows, if it meant the reintroduction of derby matches in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Fife, maybe no financial loss at all.

One thing is certain- the present system stinks. Splitting the League with five games to play has been disastrous in the two seasons it has been operative. As for the SPL’s plans never to allow an Old Firm game to be a title decider ever again, the present system actually encourages that outcome. The Old Firm will always meet once during the last five games and the title will usually be won in one of the last five fixtures.

The addition of four new teams (subject to SPL rules on grounds and finances) would do much to enliven the SPL and give the 1st division sides the chance they deserve.

ON THE UP

Want to see a competitive football league? Come to Scotland. No, not the SPL. That league has been even worse than usual this season. It was clear that Celtic were going to win the title and that St Johnstone would go down before a single leaf fell off a tree. But the three divisions of the Scottish Football League are providing genuine excitement as the season heads to its climax.

In the First, Airdrie and Partick Thistle have engaged in an Old Firm-like battle at the top and it is still anyone's guess which of the pair will triumph. Below that, everyone is battling against the drop. At the time of writing Ross County are in a relegation position but if they win their games in hand would be a single point behind third placed Ayr! Perm any two from eight to go down.

The second division is always the tightest, losing 40% of its members each season, and this term is no different. At one stage, Clydebank looked like running away with the flag but they have been pegged back by Alloa and QoS. The Wasps, with seven of their remaining eleven games at home, may be favourites but it's going to be a thrilling run-in.

Relegation from this division is also too close to call. Second bottom Stenhousemuir can overhaul Hamilton in fourth if they win their outstanding games. And while it's sad to see a club with the history of Morton in trouble, it goes to show that this division is no respecter of reputations. Indeed, it took Partick three years to escape it and they now top the first! Reasons for this are not hard to find. The likes of Berwick, Forfar and Cowdenbeath need a Partick or a Morton in their league as these clubs provide more supporters away than most in this division get at home.

Only in the third division does anything look settled. Brechin are running away with the title but even here there is a four-way chase to join them as Peterhead (in only their second league season), Montrose, Dumbarton and Albion Rovers all hold legitimate promotion ambitions going into the final quarter.

So, while attention in the SPL focuses on the secondary issue of European qualification, the SFL enters the final furlong with over 80% of its members still having something to play for. Coupled with this season's cup exploits - notably the achievements of Ayr United and the Thistles from Maryhill and Inverness - 2001-02 has been a great advert for the smaller teams. Just a pity it hasn't been reflected in attendances.

 

 

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