IT is Scottish football’s great survivor. The League Cup, so often unloved and unwanted down the years by those who run the game in this country, has now outlasted the organisation which created it.
The 68th final tomorrow will be the first staged under the auspices of the Scottish Professional Football League, the body which emerged last summer from the Scottish Premier League’s ruthless subsumption of the Scottish Football League.
It is a tournament which simply refuses to bow to its detractors, to those who stripped its winners of a European place almost 20 years ago in a bid to diminish its significance. The triumph of the League Cup, one which promises to be illustrated again at Celtic Park this weekend, is that it so regularly delivers an occasion which captures the essence of football’s capacity for thrills, joy and despair.
The potential narrative from this season’s final is engrossing regardless of which team get their hands on the famous three-handled trophy. For Aberdeen, resurgent under the meticulous and determined management of Derek McInnes – who signed a new contract yesterday – there is the prospect of lifting the club’s first silverware since they last won the same tournament back in the 1995-96 season.
For Inverness Caledonian Thistle, still adjusting to their change at the helm from Terry Butcher to John Hughes, there is the chance to annex a first major trophy for the upwardly mobile club, created just 20 years ago from the acrimonious merger of two fierce Highland League rivals.
Aberdeen are odds-on favourites to triumph, understandably so. They appear to have developed a stronger mentality under McInnes, as evidenced by both their 4-0 League Cup semi-final win over St Johnstone and the 2-1 Scottish Cup fifth-round success away to Celtic last month. So often found wanting on the big occasion in the past two decades – losing seven semi-finals and two cup finals since that previous League Cup triumph – Aberdeen seem to have been freed from the fatalism which had bedevilled them for so long.
While some managers regard the dread of defeat as a powerful motivational tool, McInnes adopts a very different approach. “I don’t like fear of failure,” he says. “For me, I don’t believe that you can play at your best if you have any fear or you start thinking of failing. For me it’s always about believing you’re going to win and not having any anxiety. Just trust where you work, trust how you are, trust what you are, trust what you’re good at. If you’re good at passing or heading or tackling or running or going past people or goalscoring, then just bring that to the game. Fear and anxiety is for the fans. That’s for them to get nervous about.”
But the migration of around 40,000 Aberdeen fans to the east end of Glasgow tomorrow indicates that they have embraced McInnes’ positivity and fully anticipate victory. It is instructive to note that the total attendance at Hampden when Roy Aitken’s Dons side defeated Dundee 2-0 in the 1995-96 final was just over 33,000.
With a potential domestic cup double in their sights – Aberdeen will return to Glasgow next month to face St Johnstone in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Ibrox – these are heady days for the long-suffering Pittodrie support.
“The energy about the club, the energy about the city, is exactly how we wanted it,” adds McInnes. “We want that to continue and the best way for it to continue is to keep getting to cup finals and hopefully winning.”
Having been spoiled with ten major trophies in just seven seasons under Alex Ferguson’s peerless management, Aberdeen have lifted just three in the subsequent 27 years since he departed for Manchester United – a cup double under Alex Smith in 1989-90 and Aitken’s League Cup win six seasons later. “I don’t know why the club hasn’t won a trophy for so long, because there have been really good managers and a lot of good players here,” says McInnes.
“But we’ve tried just to get an honest team on the pitch. The support recognise that, if you lose a game, there are ways of losing games that are acceptable. They know that the players are totally committed, they’re fit, they’re full of energy – and they play the game the way any supporter would want their team to play. That gives them a level of appreciation and understanding that has helped us create a bond between players and fans.
“Are there any additional pressures I needed to deal with on taking the job? Not really. On the football side, there were things that I felt needed addressed. But it was all on the playing front. Once we had a way of working and the players recognised what was expected of them, we’ve just given them every opportunity to be successful – because they are the most important part of it, and they’ve got to be made to feel important so they can perform on a match day. I don’t think we were doing that before.”
As much as Aberdeen merit the status bestowed upon them by the bookmakers tomorrow, however, they remain far from immune to the kind of sub-par performance which could undermine them. They required a penalty shoot-out to scramble past Alloa at the first hurdle of this competition, before dispatching Falkirk, Motherwell and St Johnstone more convincingly. Three league meetings with Inverness this season have all been won by single-goal margins – two of them by Aberdeen, but most recently a 1-0 win at Pittodrie for the Highlanders, which was arguably their most impressive display so far under Hughes.
Inverness’ recent form has provided real cause for concern among their supporters, although a midweek goalless draw at home to Hibs did at least stop the rot after successive 5-0 drubbings at the hands of Celtic and Dundee United.
If Hughes’ side can successfully plug the leaks that troubled them in those matches, they undoubtedly have the capacity to compete with Aberdeen. In captain Richie Foran and top scorer Billy McKay, they have potential match-winners in their armoury. Inverness are also well served by the kind of spirit and resolve that helped them defeat Hearts on penalties in the semi-finals despite being reduced to nine men.
It is, though, difficult to ignore the feeling that this is an occasion set up perfectly for Aberdeen to emerge from almost 20 years of under-achievement. The experience of Barry Robson and Willo Flood perfectly complements the pace and invention of Peter Pawlett and Jonny Hayes, while in former Inverness striker Adam Rooney they have added a cutting edge to their play.
Aberdeen look better equipped in most departments. With momentum, self-belief and a Red Army of 40,000 behind them, it should be the turn of captain Russell Anderson and his team-mates to write another memorable chapter in the League Cup’s compelling story.