Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Scottish Football Decade: League Cup

Scottish League Cup final 2001The Mickey Mouse Cup. The Diddy Cup.

Funnily enough it's always the fans of teams who have just been knocked out that are quick to dismiss the League Cup with any number of witty nicknames.

Sour grapes, perhaps, but there is no getting away from the fact that the Cooperative Insurance Cup is the poor relation in Scotland’s triumvirate of top trophies. Not even always the bridesmaid, more always the wedding guest that we only invited at the last minute because a lot of people couldn’t make it.

Given such a downtrodden place in our footballing psyche you might half expect the League Cup to be the spiritual home of the lesser lights of the Scottish game. By which I mean every team that is not called Rangers or Celtic.

Alas, in the “noughties,” this was not to be. Like Japanese Knotweed the Old Firm combined to smother the life out of everyone and everything else, determined to snatch even the lesser of Hampden’s two days in the sun each year.

Of the ten finals played since 2000 only two have not featured one side of the Glasgow divide. Given their individual success it is perhaps a blessing that we’ve only seen two Old Firm finals: Rangers winning 2-1 back in 2002/2003 and Celtic taking the 2008/2009 game 2-0 in extra time.

We should also be thankful that the stranglehold was at least broken twice. And both winners had a tale to tell.

Hibs were clear favourites in the 2003/2004 with Bobby Williamson’s young side overcoming the inhibitions their manager placed on them to beat Celtic and Ranger en route to what most expected to be a walkover against plucky little Livingston.

So it was that a stunned Hibs support sat in silence as manager Davie Hay and Stuart Lovell, Livingston captain and a much maligned former Hibee, marshalled the West Lothian side to a 2-0 win.

Having lost a semi final to Ayr United in 2001/2002 Hibs again proved that there are few like them in Scotland when it comes to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. That made Ayr the only side from outside the top flight to make the League Cup final so far this century.

As a personal footnote to that final I witnessed Williamson in conversation with a revered former Hibs player in the days before the game.

Within earshot of his young charges Williamson said: “I cannae agree. The last thing they’ll be doing at Hampden is enjoying it.”

We'll never know how damaging to the nerves of the team Williamson’s attitude was but it hardened my opinion that, whatever people say, there are sections of the “Largs mafia” who have been a cancerous growth on our game. Uganda is not far enough away for Bobby Williamson.

As for Livingston, a first national trophy seemed evidence that their 3rd place SPL finish the previous season was no fluke. Sadly they flew too close to the sun and have suffered myriad disasters both on and off the field since then. That day, however, brought memories that will sustain those trying their hardest to restore their club to the top flight.

Hibs fans eventually got their own day of joy when John Collins guided them to a 5-1 win over Kilmarnock in 2006/2007. A late spring snow shower did little to halt Hibs as they ran riot in the second half and the massed choirs of Leith cleared their throats in memorable style. Some would be forgiven for thinking that the future was once again bright. First John Collins and then Mixu Paataleinen would soon given them reason to reconsider their optimism.

Livingston and Hibs made but brief cameos in a League Cup decade that was again dominated by the Old Firm. As well as beating each other, between them they chalked up victories over Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Dunfermline, Ayr United, Motherwell and Dundee United.

Before Dundee United took Rangers to penalties in 2007/2008 only Motherwell had managed a goal against the Old Firm in a League Cup final in the 2000s. And that was in a 5-1 defeat against Rangers.

The result has been a series of anti-climatic finals that have served little more purpose than to be extended celebrations for one half of Glasgow. The sponsors, of course, dream of the final being between the Glasgow giants. Well, last year their dream came true and it was probably as woeful a match as the previous nine combined.

The League Cup still soldiers along and those clubs that make it to Hampden will always enjoy it.

It is possible, however, that the next decade will see further moves towards some form of European league or even tentative moves towards some form of British knockout trophy. If that happens then the League Cup is likely to fall off the schedule.

Would there be mourners? Probably, but even they would be hard pushed to deny that the last decade has hardly been a persuasive argument for the unique selling points of our least cherished trophy.

1999–00 Celtic 2 – 0 Aberdeen
2000–01 Celtic 3 – 0 Kilmarnock
2001–02 Rangers 4 – 0 Ayr United
2002–03 Rangers 2 – 1 Celtic
2003–04 Livingston 2 – 0 Hibernian
2004-05 Rangers 5 – 1 Motherwell
2005–06 Celtic 3 – 0 Dunfermline Athletic 2006–07 Hibernian 5 – 1 Kilmarnock
2007–08 Rangers 2 – 2 Dundee United
2008–09 Celtic 2 – 0 Rangers