UP FOR THE CUP?
In the five seasons preceding the establishment of
the SPL, five Scottish clubs outwith the Old Firm won silverware.
Raith Rovers and Aberdeen were successful in the League
Cup while Dundee United, Kilmarnock and Hearts
all had their names engraved on the Scottish Cup.
Halfway through the fifth season of this grave new world and every
domestic trophy since has ended up at either Ibrox or Parkhead.
We already know the League flag will flutter over one or the other
come the end of the season and both Glasgow giants are just 90 minutes
away from the League Cup Final.
So, if there is any hope of the Old Firm duopoly being broken this
term, (and with no disrespect intended to League Cup semi-finalists
Dundee United and Hearts) the Scottish Cup appears to be the
At first sight, the oldest trophy in the world looks to have lost
some of its lustre for the Old Firm. The only European guarantee
it brings is a place in the UEFA Cup. And they moan about the extra
fixture demands both knockout tourneys bring - even though they're
happy to fly halfway round the world for a friendly if it brings
in some cash.
Yet the Old Firm's record in the Cups is getting ominously better.
Since the birth of the SPL both clubs have lost just once in the
League Cup other than to each other. Celtic were beaten at
Airdrie in 1998-99 and Aberdeen squeezed past Rangers
at Pittodrie the following season.
It's the same story in the Scottish Cup. Celtic lost in that never-to-be-forgotten
match against Inverness CT in 2000 and Rangers were beaten
at Tannadice a year later. But that's it. These days it
seems the only way for any other team to get to a Cup Final is if
the Old Firm are drawn together in a previous round.
At least now that draws are made in public this happens with
But the draw for the third round of this year's competition couldn't
have been kinder to the OF if the SFA had let Martin O'Neill
and Alex McLeish make it themselves.
Apart from Queen's Park in 1893 and East Fife in
1938 the cup winners have always come from the top division
ever since League football began. It is reasonable to assume that
2003 will not see a break in this pattern.
Yet this round alone will see a minimum of four SPL sides
eliminated. The lopsided nature of the draw means that while exciting
ties are in prospect such as Kilmarnock v Motherwell, Dundee
United v Hibs, Partick v Dundee and Livingston v Dunfermline,
the bottom line is that four of the big guns will be silenced at
the first time of asking.
Add in tricky trips to Dumfries and Falkirk for Aberdeen
and Hearts and no wonder the Old Firm are laughing.
Of course the other side of the coin is that a few lower division
sides can look forward to an extended cup run. While there are still
eight second round ties outstanding, we already know that the last
sixteen will comprise one from Forfar, Stenhousemuir, Stirling
or Stranraer. Either Cowdenbeath or Alloa will
enter the hat for the fourth round draw. And one from the quartet
comprising Queen's Park, Albion Rovers, Hamilton and East
Fife will still have their dream alive while at least one third
of the SPL will be out.
Of course that's the beauty of the Cup. At this stage a quarter-final
tie between Gretna and Ross County doesn't look like
a ridiculous prospect. Alternatively, there could still be an all-SPL
However, while in no way wanting to dampen the dreams of the
minnows or diminish the romanticism of the Scottish Cup, it seems
a shame that at a time when our game desperately needs a non-Old
Firm success, so many of the potential winners are fated to fall
at the first fence.
And it has been the Scottish Cup which, in the past, has
provided the avenue to glory for the 'rest' of Scottish football.
There have been lean times for the big two. It took Rangers
nearly 20 years to win their first trophy and the Ibrox side went
from 1903-28 without success. More recently they spent over a decade
in the Cup wilderness in the 1980s and early 90s.
Graeme Souness may have revolutionised Scottish football
but teams like Hamilton and Dunfermline ensured he
departed back over the border without a Cup win to his name.
Celtic too have struggled. Notably in that barren period
between 1954 and 1965 when they were without Cup success. And between
their victories in 1989 and 2001 they managed just one success in
the eleven tournaments in between. To this day they have never won
the Cup three years in succession - a feat achieved not just by
Rangers (three times) but also by Queen's Park
(twice), Vale of Leven and Aberdeen.
Indeed, at times in our history the Cup has been synonymous with
success for our 'other' teams. It was won seven times
by Edinburgh clubs in just less than 20 years from 1887-1906
(four times by Hearts, twice by Hibs and once by St Bernard's).
Yet it has been on display in the capital just twice since
then when Hearts broke a 50-year jinx in 1956 and a famine lasting
more than 40 years in 1998.
There was a glorious period in the 1920s when Kilmarnock,
Partick Thistle, Morton, Airdrie and St Mirren were all
triumphant. And a marvellous era in the 1950s when for five
successive years the big two didn't get a look-in as Clyde, Hearts,
Falkirk, Clyde (again) and St Mirren all won.
In the last three of these, there wasn't even an Old Firm presence
in the Final.
Move on to the 1980s and that great Aberdeen team
that won three years running between 1982 and 1984 and added in
victories in 1986 and 1990 as well. Dundee United too played
their part. They lost six Finals before finally winning in 1994
but they took part in one of the best Finals of modern times when
Motherwell won in 1991. United were also present as St Mirren
pulled off an unlikely victory in 1987.
The last Final not to feature one of the Old Firm was in 1997
when Kilmarnock edged past first division Falkirk.
Twelve months later Hearts were triumphant and that is where
the story ends.
Perhaps all this gloom about this season's contest is wrong. Maybe
St Mirren at Parkhead and Arbroath at Gayfield will
surprise us all by eliminating the Old Firm. St Mirren are overdue
some Cup success. Since winning in 1987 they've only got past the
third round three times and have never reached the last eight. Although
they've lost fifteen times to Celtic over the years, they've
managed to beat them five times as well. Just one of these
wins was at Parkhead and that was over 70 years ago. Maybe they're
due a second?
As for Arbroath, the record books say they've lost all nine previous
cup encounters with Rangers. But that's not quite right. Back in
1884-85 Arbroath actually defeated Rangers 4-3. The Gers
protested about the size of the playing area, famously claiming
they had been "beaten on a back green." The
SFA ordered a replay which Rangers won 8-1. To little avail as they
lost in the next round to Renton. The Red Lichties first
cup tie after this was the one that still sees them in the record
books today - that 36-0 win over Bon Accord.
But if the 1880s is going back too far to draw inspiration, there
is some hope for our would-be giant-killers from much closer to
the present day. For St Mirren a reminder that the last mid-table
1st division side to go to Parkhead in the Scottish Cup hailed from
Inverness. And for Arbroath the recollection that just twelve months
ago Rangers travelled to Berwick in the Cup and came away grateful
to have scraped a draw.
JAIL! JAIL! The
Celts are here
To say it's not been the best of fortnights for
Martin O'Neill is an understatement. For thirty months now,
the Celtic boss has impressed all and sundry not just by producing
a winning team on the park, but also by his demeanour off it.
O'Neill the pundit can be an impressive sight. The man has a superb
knowledge of the game and is effortlessly articulate in expressing
himself. A dream for TV studios to deal with and respected by his
But the past two weeks have given us an insight into a different
O'Neill. For the first time since his arrival at Celtic, he is under
pressure and his reactions have been less than edifying.
O'Neill should be basking in the glow of success over Celta Vigo
and ensuring Celtic's first appearance in Europe beyond Christmas
for 23 years. But the first indications of the internal turmoil
he is in came after defeat by Rangers. His outburst at BBC
reporter Charlie Mann when he described his beaten side's
performance as "astonishingly brilliant" will
go down in broadcasting history. It's a pity the tape is no longer
available on the BBC website as those who missed it have lost out
on the chance to hear an incredible performance.
In the interview O'Neill became the personification of the paranoid
mentality which afflicts much of the Celtic support. A simple question
on team selection was transformed into an assertion that only Celtic
face this kind of query. Poor Charlie Mann tried his best and stayed
civil - an achievement in itself. Many reporters would not have
put up with the insulting innuendo O'Neill was spouting.
Then came Celta Vigo. It was an excellent display by Celtic with
a fine John Hartson strike ensuring victory over Spanish
opposition for the first time ever. As we said here earlier, beating
Celta was a much harder business than overcoming Blackburn. Only
the constant desire to put one over on the English prevents us from
The next round sees Celtic face a similar task in opponents Stuttgart.
A good team from one of the footballing superpowers but not a side
with a reputation to leave Celtic quivering in their boots before
kick-off. Expect an equally close fight. Celtic have a 50/50 chance
But O'Neill had scarcely time to savour the moment when events he
can have no control over came into play as a Celtic supporters plane
was forced to land at Cardiff and six fans were arrested. Claim
and counter-claim are in full flow but the facts will emerge in
Next up was the match at Rugby Park. True, Celtic created a lot
of chances in the second half but a draw was a fair result. Kilmarnock
fought for every ball and were worthy of their point. But O'Neill,
usually generous after a hard encounter, couldn't find a good word
for the Ayrshire team. He blamed referee Willie Young for
the dropped points that saw Celtic slip to four points behind Rangers
in the League.
O'Neill accused Young of refusing Celtic a goal when, in truth,
the incident in question was less of a clean strike than Geoff Hurst's
infamous 1966 effort. He demanded a penalty when John Hartson took
a tumble - outside the box - in injury time.
Now it's well known that your correspondent here was born singing
'Paper Roses' so there may well be suspicions of something less
than objectivity in this account. But on this occasion the writer
was seated beside two Celtic fans, neither of whom demurred at Young's
refusal to give either award. Nor were the Celtic directors a few
rows in front animated in the slightest.
Two days later, four players were arrested in Newcastle. This website
has to applaud the constabulary here. In our view anyone who sets
foot in tacky theme pubs with a name like 'Buffalo Joe's'
should be locked up and have the key thrown away!
It seems that no one is quite innocent here. Why the Daily
Record should want to pursue the players to Tyneside is
a fair question. Their Editor's claim that he only wanted a happy
photo is disingenuous to say the least. It seems the paper wanted
a few snaps of men behaving badly - and they got them. Or they thought
they did until some of the players decided to part the cameraman
from his equipment.
Neither side deserves any sympathy. The press shouldn't be targeting
players on a night out and the players shouldn't be responding like
Maybe it's what they're used to. If they can con the men in black
week in week out, maybe they thought they'd get away with it with
the boys in blue.
To cap it all, The Herald reports that Raphael
Scheidt is on his way back to Celtic next month!
So, as he faces his third Hogmanay at Celtic, O'Neill must be pondering
what the future holds. As will Celtic's legion of supporters. The
season is past the halfway point but they still don't know if he
will still be there next season. The saga of O'Neill's contract
has become a long-running farce but the manager knows he is in a
strong bargaining position.
The supporters are solidly behind O'Neill. If he wants better terms
and,say, just a twelve months extension to his contract, then the
Board will find it impossible to refuse. Money for team-building
is another matter entirely. O'Neill knows several of his squad need
to be replaced in the next year and also that Henrik Larsson
will be on his way in under eighteen months time.
Such factors may well influence his decision. The situation in England
couldn't be brighter for O'Neill should he decide to return south.
The Leeds-Venables relationship is surely heading for divorce
by the end of the season at the latest. Poor form and health worries
pose a question mark over Gerard Houllier at Liverpool
and who is to say that should Man Utd lift the European
Cup at Old Trafford, that Alex Ferguson doesn't
decide to spend more time with his horses?
Martin O'Neill - for all his recent worries - is in the luxurious
position of being able to name his price for his services. His next
move will be the one that defines him as a manager and he knows
it. The poor punters who shell out large amounts of their hard-earned
cash to follow Celtic have no such options. If the manager cares
as much about the support as he says he does, then he needs to tell
them his intentions. And he needs to do it now.