Aidan Smith: Hampden too big for semis, too small for finals

Both ends of Hampden were empty for the Betfred Cup semi-final between Morton and Aberdeen. Picture: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Both ends of Hampden were empty for the Betfred Cup semi-final between Morton and Aberdeen. Picture: Michael Steele/Getty Images
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In the car park in front of Hampden, Aberdeen dads stretched their legs after the long drive south and opened up the tailgates for wide-eyed kids to retrieve their scarves and flags. It would be difficult to persuade them that anything other than an exciting day lay ahead.

Similarly, a bit farther on, you’d have a hard job convincing the gang of Morton lads excitedly running up the steps in their team’s fantastically hideous away strip that last Saturday was not going to be a completely thrilling occasion.

So Aberdeen played Morton in the Betfred Cup semi-final in front of these rival groups and just a few more – 16,183. The Dandy Dons won the day so the fleet of 4x4s would have gone home happy, possibly stopping for an early fish-and-chips tea in Stonehaven with meal-times already out of synch thanks to the anti-social kick-off – but who cares about such things when your team are marching to the final?

Meanwhile, tenacious Ton left the national stadium having given a good account of themselves. They played with spirit and bothered Aberdeen for a bit, and those boys in the yucky yellow-and-blue shirts advertising “The tiny, tasty, chewy sweets” would have cherished their visit to Mount Florida as their club don’t get there all that often.

So what’s the problem that only 16,183 turned up for the tie? Well, Hampden looked terrible with both ends empty and didn’t sound much better. The fabled roar was reduced to a whimper. If you’d turned on the TV coverage unwittingly you would have been astounded to learn that it was the semi-final of a national cup competition. If you didn’t know any better, watching the Dons score their goals against a backdrop of unused, popped-up seats, you would have asked yourself: “How is Scottish football even surviving?”

Fact: Hampden is too big for semi-finals and too small for finals. Okay, some semis and some finals. It was obviously too small for Aberdeen-Morton while being jam-packed and frenzied for Celtic-Rangers. Now that the Dons are to get half the tickets for the final on 27 November – and rightly so – thousands of Celtic fans won’t be able to see the showpiece.

So why did the Aberdeen-Morton match go ahead there as opposed to say, Easter Road where 16,183 would have produced a cracking atmosphere? Aberdeen’s gripe beforehand wasn’t so much with the venue as the kick-off. This was understandable. A 12.15pm start was cruel on their fans. Since usurping Rangers as Celtic’s main challengers, more and more of their big games in Glasgow have been grabbed by TV and moved to lunchtime. They’ve become victims of their own success.

That doesn’t make the trek any easier and there was small consolation for Dons supporters that theirs wasn’t the Sunday semi. When they’ve played Celtic away on the Sabbath in the league the kick-off has been too early for them to have got there by train.

The prime movers for Hampden on this occasion were Morton. Said Cappielow director and former striker Warren Hawke: “How can I ask our fans to travel past the home of Scottish football – the iconic venue – to the other side of the country at an additional expense?”

The view at large right now seems to be that it has to be Hampden. The place may not be perfect, the argument goes, but we should use it. Easter Road, though, was the venue for the League Cup semis between Hearts and Inverness in 2013 and 2014. And last season Tynecastle hosted the semi in the same competition between Hibernian and St Johnstone.

I was at the latter and also the 2014 tie. The grounds were packed and helped make for two exciting games. You could argue that with the Edinburgh clubs being allowed to play their matches in the capital, Aberdeen vs Morton at either venue would have been an even more neutral semi.

So Morton’s plucky young players got to perform on the hallowed Hampden turf – good for them. But who’s to say that the crucial phase of Saturday’s game when it looked like they might score the opening goal wouldn’t have had a different outcome at Easter Road or Tynecastle? Maybe the boos from the Dons supporters as their team struggled would have sounded like thunder rather than a hollow echo. Perhaps the Morton fans, sensing this was their moment, could have roared their side home.

Hawke admits that, venue-wise, while Scottish football has the “three biggies” at 50,000-plus and some fine stadia around the 20,000 mark, there is nothing in between. In that regard it’s “a little bit stuck”. That’s a situation which isn’t going to change. Tynecastle is the only ground with scope for increasing its capacity – the old main stand is about to be knocked down and rebuilt – but the attendance will come in just under that of Easter Road.

Meantime the old lady of Mount Florida struggles to get by with a highly questionable facelift, now and again evoking former glories but sometimes looking like she’s turned up for a party on the wrong day.