League Cup: Past, Present and Future

By Martin Kelly….

The impending Old Firm League Cup final may, depending on your allegiances, cause your jaws to widen in boredom or salivate with excitement, but there can doubt that the history of this fine tournament is one which should be savoured by football fans throughout Scotland.

By virtue of the League cup losing its added incentive of European qualification in recent times, it has in turn rather lost some of its allure but the desire for silverware for teams outside Celtic and Rangers is one which cannot be understated in a country which is so dominated by two teams. If the equivalent event in England now apparently means little to its top class entrants the same can’t be said for Scotland, where finals always matter and bragging rights treasured almost as much as silverware.

 

Cup upsets


Birthed in the aftermath of World War II as a consequence of the success of the Southern League Cup, the tournament we know so well now first adopted a format which was friendlier to lower league clubs and afforded the possibility of shocks galore.

By virtue of the lower leagues and top flight remaining separate in group stages until the two-legged quarter-finals, upsets were not uncommon. The strong Rangers team of the day won the first trophy but the following season, East Fife defeated first division Falkirk after a replay – the first of their three victories in the tournament. That the underdogs from Methil could win the trophy was an indication that the League Cup was there to be won by any side and a sign of how open football was in the 1950s, the last decade of sheer unpredictability in the Scottish game.

Since, the propensity for upsets has significantly lowered and that is not simply down to the change of format which was established upon the formation of the Premier League. Celtic and Rangers began to dominate the Scottish game from the mid-60s onwards, but the League Cup did offer some hope for outsiders to penetrate the duopoly.

 

Celtic’s inexplicable failures


In 1971, Celtic lost 4-1 to newly-promoted Partick Thistle. After 37 minutes, the Jags were four goals up and Kenny Dalglish’s second half strike wasn’t enough to inspire any kind of Celtic comeback. It was and still remains Thistle’s single greatest achievement.

1971 final:

With hindsight, the defeat for Celtic is not as shocking as it was at the time. Despite initially winning five league cups in succession under the guidance of Jock Stein, even the great man failed to lead Celtic to consistent success in the competition.

After the Thistle defeat, Celtic also lost to Dundee and Hibs. In this era, the Bhoys reached a staggering fourteen finals in a row, but their success rate was only above average – a poor return for arguably the most talented side in their history.

Even at their lowest ebb, Celtic found no solace in the League Cup and lost to first division Raith Rovers in 1994. It was the great opportunity for new manager Tommy Burns to win his first trophy at the club and similar to 1971, the Bhoys were favourites. But Raith had been enjoying a great period and Celtic, almost on the brink of extinction and without a trophy for five years, lost on penalties, with stalwart Paul McStay missing the crucial kick.

1994 final:

Since then, only Dundee and Ayr United have been lower league representatives in finals, which is a disappointing statistic. Have the days of the underdog in the League Cup finally died?

 

Wee Jim couldn’t win at Hampden


For the Dundee clubs, the League Cup has not been kind. In particular, Jim McLean ironically failed to win the trophy beyond the proximity of the city. Alex Ferguson may have ultimately become the more successful manager but it was McLean who won the first League Cup final when United defeated Aberdeen 3-0 in the 1979 replay at Dens Park. The following year, United won the trophy again, beating Dundee at Dens Park.

The League cup should have been the great springboard for further success for McLean but it didn’t happen. United lost the 1982 and 1984 finals to inferior Rangers sides and also finished runners-up a heart-breaking five times in Scottish Cup finals.

If Celtic’s League Cup failure in the 70s was baffling, United’s wasn’t. Jim McLean was hopeless at the final hurdle and seemingly cursed at Hampden.

 

Light relief


Although the League Cup had no remedying effect for Celtic when the club was in despair, the tournament has nonetheless provided relief for other clubs not in the best shape at the time of reaching finals. In 1991, Hibs, also in huge financial difficulties, defeated Dunfermline 2-0. And in 2000, Aberdeen enduring their worst ever season, reached the final. They lost, but to reach both domestic finals in that same, horrific season was an amusing achievement by boss Ebbe Skovdahl, which went a long way to making him a favourite with supporters when the opposite should really have been the case.

 

Capital underachievers


Like Dundee, the capital has underperformed in the League Cup in relative terms. Hearts’ great teams of the 50s and 60s notched up wins, but their last success came in 1963. However, considering Hibernian’s abject failures in the Scottish Cup, their only big disappointment can be the defeat to Livingston in 2004, having beaten Rangers in the semi-finals. By defeating Kilmarnock 5-1, John Collins won his only honour as Hibees coach. Speaking of Killie, their luck has to change someday. With five final appearances to their name and no victories, they have the ignominious honour of carrying the lowest success rate and having scored only one goal in their appearances in the finals.

 

The other derby: Aberdeen v Rangers


Ally McLeod may not have served Aberdeen for an especially long period but in winning the 1976 final against Jock Stein’s Celtic, the wheels were set in motion for a seismic change in Scottish football. For years, Celtic and Rangers had dominated the domestic scene with only fleeting interventions from other clubs, but a new era ushered in by the likes of McLeod, Billy McNeill, Alex Ferguson and Jim McLean were set to push the Old Firm to its very limits – overtaking them on occasion.

If the Old Firm clashes carried all the usual hatred, thunder and occasional flashes of brilliance, the other great rivalry of the 80s was contested between Rangers and Aberdeen. They partook in a breath-taking trilogy of finals at the tail end of the decade which still rank as some of the greatest games ever played at Hampden. In the 1987 final, Davie Cooper, Ian Durrant and Robert Fleck inspired Rangers to victory on penalties following a thrilling 3-3 draw.

The following year, Rangers won again, 3-2. Back to back successes against a side with names such as Leighton, McLeish, Miller, Nicholas, Bett and Simpson were astonishing feats.

But the Ibrox revolution was truly underway with the Rangers side peppered with internationalists from Scotland and beyond. The Dons side, almost entirely Scottish, did ironically have to rely on two non-Scots to finally defeat a Rangers side in 1989 which featured more Englishmen than it did home-grown talent. A Paul Mason double and an inspired performance from Theo Snelders helped Aberdeen to a 2-1 win in another Hampden classic.

 

The Old Firm


It would be perverse to overlook the history of the fixture which will take place on the 20th of this month at Hampden Park. The volatility of this game has proven no less severe in the League Cup than it has in Scottish League and Scottish Cup competition with memorable moments aplenty.

For Celtic fans, the sentimental choice would the first meeting between the sides in a final, in 1957. Their 7-1 win still stands as a record victory in the fixture (also Rangers’ record defeat and a record score line for a major British final) and it was completely unexpected. Celtic, not the strongest side in Scotland by any means, were the holders but Scottish champions Rangers were the favourites. The Bhoys were two goals up at half-time and showed no mercy after the break, Billy McPhail scoring a hat-trick. The win even inspired a song, ‘Oh Hampden in the Sun’, which is still popular among Celtic supporters.

1957 final:

In response to this, Rangers fans delighted in 1970 in seeing a 16-year-old Derek Johnstone score the only goal of the game against a Celtic team which was dominating not merely the domestic game but the European stage too.

Rangers have traditionally been the League Cup connoisseurs in Scotland and this was best exemplified in the 80s when they struggled in Premier League competition but still rose to the occasion as far as the cups were concerned.

In 1984, they edged out Celtic with a thrilling 3-2 extra-time win and they defeated their rivals again in 1986 in an extremely heated final. Ian Durrant gave Rangers the lead but a superb equaliser from Brian McClair levelled the score. Roy Aitken, however, fouled Terry Butcher to allow Davie Cooper to net the winner from the penalty spot with five minutes remaining. It was then that the game boiled over with Celtic’s Mo Johnston red carded for head-butting Stuart Munro. Celtic’s Tony Shepherd was then shown a straight red with the referee thinking the player had assaulted him. With manager David Hay on the pitch, ball in hand, the red card was dramatically overturned. It didn’t matter, however, and Rangers held on to add another League Cup to the cabinet.

1986 final:

John Hartson’s penalty miss in the final minute of the 2003 final, however, is arguably the most dramatic moment to date in an Old Firm League Cup final.

2003 final:

 

Yet it would be no surprise if all that was to change in a fortnight’s time. Walter Smith’s record in this tournament is excellent, with five wins to his name. And although Ally McCoist has supposedly been given some power for cup competition, you can be sure that Smith will be fully in control for a match which is perhaps Rangers’ last chance at silverware this season.

McCoist himself has done not too badly from this tournament. Scoring the winner in the 1992 final, he notched an Old Firm hat-trick in 1984. Lennon has two winners medals, but was red carded in the aforementioned 2003 final.

There won’t be much doubt that the focus for this game will be as much on the ills of society and the combustible personalities of those on the side-lines as much as the action on the pitch.

But here’s hoping that this year’s League Cup final is above all else a great game and one which demonstrates that this is a trophy still valued in Scotland.

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