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 sides 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 Ayrs 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
And while it may have been two years since their last celebration,
the Ibrox fans showed they hadnt 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 Ayrs Somerset Park
midden look positively lush.
Surprise, surprise! That all-important 24/7 youth
job at Celtic Park that prevented Tommy Burns from returning
to management at Kilmarnock isnt that important that it
will prevent him from travelling all over Europe as No 2 to
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. Thats 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 SPLs
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 terms 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 lets
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
SPL chief Roger Mitchell claims that youd
have to be smoking dope to believe such results
could be sustained over a season. Theres a way to find out
without resorting to the ganja. And thats to have sixteen
teams in the SPL. To those who think thats 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 SPLs 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.