DCSIMG

Aidan Smith: Might the League Cup be superior?

Partick Thistle celebrate with the League Cup after the Jags stunning win over Celtic in 1971. Picture: Contributed

Partick Thistle celebrate with the League Cup after the Jags stunning win over Celtic in 1971. Picture: Contributed

  • by AIDAN SMITH
 

The Scottish Cup is the oldest national trophy in the world so respect to it for that. Unlike in England, where the FA Cup has lost its lustre, the final is also a finale, a showpiece end to a season’s hopes, dreams and general scuffing about. But might the Scottish League Cup, which has suffered some neglect, be the superior competition?

Timing is everything

The final of the League Cup is played when our footballers are not yet knackered from the league grind, unlike the Scottish when they often are. It used to be even kinder to battered hurdies when it took place in December, a quick competition completed before Christmas and usually in highly atmospheric wintry gloom. The current March conclusion avoids the risk of The Dreaded Seventh. Strictly speaking this no longer happens: finalists in the Scottish who’ve met four times in the league can’t have played each other twice in the League Cup as well. But, come May, it can still feel that way.

Nostalgia is everything too

In recent history, the manner in which the League Cup used to begin is Scottish football’s equivalent of the Aztec bar, the Chopper bike or the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show. If you’re a fan of a certain age and first fell in love with the game after Lisbon ’67 or Mexico ’70, then you probably pestered your father to take you to the next available match in the raw, played in your town. That would almost certainly have been the old League Cup sections, groups of four playing each other home and away. You never forget your first time, and Eric and Ernie simply weren’t the same after they dispensed with sections and moved to ITV.

Innovation!

Football is supposed to be beautiful in its simplicity, its rules perfect, but back in the early 1970s the League Cup dared to change them. The 18-yard line was extended right across the pitch and there would be no offside until this point.

The aim was to encourage more attacking play, and as a scientific experiment it was one the era’s pre-eminent boffin, Magnus Pyke, would have been proud to call his own. Admittedly the wheeze was first used in the Drybrough Cup, the warm-up to the League Cup when the latter was a fluffer for league business. But where’s the Drybrough now?

Dreams come true

The Scottish Cup is supposed to have more romance about it, as if our two most romantically named clubs, Queen of the South and Heart of Midlothian, are the two teams to contest the final every year. But while the stories of Gretna and Ross County were great page-turners with heavily embossed covers, these romances were ultimately unfulfilled.

The League Cup is the trophy that will remember your name in the morning. Last season, the name was St Mirren. The year before that, Kilmarnock. Both were unfancied winners, especially when they were asked to overcome Celtic, Killie in the final. Raith Rovers did this too, in 1994.

And maybe there have never been more romantic winners of the League Cup, more gobsmacking conquerors of Celtic in a final, than Partick Thistle.

The man’s quite clearly drunk

In 1971, when the Jags raced to a four-nil lead, this was what my father said as the half-time scoreboard operative relayed the news from Hampden to our far less epic match. Still able to hear the crowd’s gasps, I was young and so believed in fathers, schoolteachers, ministers and men with square cloth bags full of numbers.

My father was convinced the score had been displayed the wrong way round until later the car radio could confirm Thistle’s victory. That was the start of four lost finals in a row for Celtic, who’ve also appeared in 14 consecutive finals, but it took them all of the League Cup’s first decade to get their name etched on the trophy, by which point Dundee had won it twice, and East Fife three times. You don’t really get that kind of eccentric behaviour in the Scottish Cup.

“When the Hibs go up/To lift the Scottish Cup/We’ll be dead.”

Apart from this, the most eccentric behaviour of all: 111 years and still no wins. But on a scale of one to 111 how bored are you of being reminded that when Hibernian last won the holy pail Buffalo Bill was able to be present at the final skirmishes of the Boer War by testing out a prototype for the Titanic?

Conspiracy theories

Does the Scottish Cup have them? Can’t think of one. But the League Cup has and always will have the Great Rogue Lens Cap Outrage. In the 1957 final, Celtic beat Rangers 7-1 and five of the goals were missed off the TV coverage. Thus the tournament has its place in Scottish football’s biggest stramash: which half of the Old Firm is the most wronged?

Come on everybody!

The semi-finals of a tournament that doesn’t try to fill Hampden at the penultimate stage, often failing miserably, will feature four teams with grand claims.

St Johnstone or Inverness Caley Thistle winning with their modest supports would be amazing.

Aberdeen’s 1976 success heralded great things; they’ll be hoping for the same again. And who’s to say a Hearts triumph in their current state wouldn’t surpass recent wins in that other competition?

 

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