Friday, March 09, 2012

Scottish Cup: Dream on

That time of year when each paper has a riff on the same theme: "Hibs fans don't need reminding that it's been 110 years since their side won the Scottish Cup."

Well, no. We don't.

Yet everybody does remind us. Constantly.

The scraggy punchline of a 110 year joke. Mostly a joke that bludgeons you about the head with no attempt at subtlety. Or, largely, any attempt at humour.

But you can't point that out. Because it's been 110 years. And that, even in the hands of a bar room bore or a five year old in the playground, is indeed a joke.

1902 and all that. The journey continues.

2012 and all that. A season's journey of some discomfort. Tomorrow Ayr United and a shot at redemption in a tournament that so rarely offers Hibs any succour.

Ayr dumped Colin Calderwood's Hibs out of the cup last season. It's not that many years, but many a manager, since they dumped Franck Sauzee's sorry soldiers out of the league cup at Hampden.

Pat Fenlon will know that you don't need to beat Ayr to enjoy a fruitful reign at Easter Road. But it helps.

It won't be easy. An away tie against a lower division team that have already conquered Inverness, Hearts and St Mirren this season.

Cup assassins, stalking the Brylcreem boys of the SPL.

That's the chosen narrative.

Mind you, Ayr have only won four league games at home this season and lost to Annan Athletic, two divisions below them, at home in the Challenge Cup.

Lies, damned lies and peculiarly ambivalent statistics.

It won't be easy for Hibs. Partly because it's rarely ever easy for Hibs.

And partly because Ayr are a sound team who have been here before. They'll be lying in wait, ready to offer the hand of friendship with a traditional Somerset Park welcome.

Prediction?

Not on your nelly. I wouldn't want to jinx it.

Jinxing things is something I often do.

Last week I wrote a hagiographic appraisal of Celtic's season so far. The very next day they only managed a draw at Aberdeen.

That's the thing about football.

You build up your aura of invincibility, you look like you might finish the season undefeated. But there's always something lurking round the corner ready to bite you on the bum.

Often that something is shaped like a dogged Aberdeen, drilled to within an inch of their lives by a pair of unimpressed curmudgeons like Craig Brown and Archie Knox.

That's the way soccer's cookie crumbles.

But the treble chase is still on, a tricky quarter final trip to Tannadice notwithstanding.

Tricky? United are bubbling along quite the thing, Houdini Houston is fair putting the season's earlier struggles behind him. United are reaching for the European stars.

Unfortunately for United it's Celtic who have the better of these Tannadice tear-ups. And the last time somebody knocked both Rangers and Celtic out of the Scottish Cup Alex Ferguson was using Doug Rougvie as a human gargoyle.

Celtic's dominance at Tannadice has lasted slightly longer than Motherwell's over Aberdeen. It won't feel like that for Craig Brown and Archie Knox.

Since they hot-footed it to the greener pastures of Pittodrie our dynamic duo have seen their current side huff and puff against their former charges with little success.

On one occasion Brown even found time to have actual physical fisticuffs with John Boyle. Really.

Aberdeen look a different proposition now. It's taken longer than he'd have hoped but Brown has located a backbone in his team. They're much harder to beat, if still not exactly licensed purveyors of the beautiful game.

So a better Aberdeen. But Motherwell are better still.

A strange one this for Motherwell. They're now just a few games here and there away from consecutive Scottish Cup finals. And a Champion's League qualifier.

I'm sure Stuart McCall has every confidence in his own ability as a manager but I suspect even he wouldn't have thought this season had the potential to turn out quite as well as it might.

The man with the ginger mane has become the man with the golden touch.

Which just about seamlessly segues to Hearts whose ginger touch in front of goal has hamstrung them in recent weeks.

A five game run that was unrivalled in the league for the paucity of points gathered was finally halted with victory at Ibrox last week.

Whatever the circumstances, victory in Govan should replenish and revitalise like a weekend spa. Hearts need to build on it.

Wins have proved even more elusive for St Mirren. Danny Lennon has built a side that concedes very little and scores not a lot.

The result is the current sequence of low scoring draws. Those of us of a certain age will recall that Lennon's first tentative footballing steps were taken at Easter Road under the dourly defensive tutelage of Alex Miller.

Nobody's ever rocked a sequence of dull draws like mid to late eighties vintage Lexo Miller. The apprentice is paying homage to the master.

St Mirren's last visit to Tynecastle was in January. They conceded in the first minute, were 2-1 up inside 20 and eventually lost 5-2.

The current run is perhaps an antidote - maybe not the most inspiring one - to that sort of result.

Will they be doughty but blunt again tomorrow? Will Hearts be enterprisingly comfortable but toothless?

Eight teams. 90 minutes (or 180 or 200 or 200 plus penalties) away from a Hampden semi-final.

Dreams used to be made of this. It would be nice if this weekend could go some way to proving that they still are.

Heart v St Mirren: Draw
Ayr United v Hibs: No comment
Dundee United v Celtic: Away win
Motherwell v Aberdeen: Home win