Billy Stark is something of a specialist when it comes to the Scottish Cup. He collected four winners’ medals as a player – two each with Aberdeen and Celtic – before enjoying another triumph in the tournament with the Parkhead club as assistant manager to Tommy Burns.
Now filling the same role at Albion Rovers, Stark is trying to help plot what would be one of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s history when the League One part-timers face a relentlessly dominant Celtic in the fourth round on Sunday. The 60-year-old’s wisdom and experience has proved invaluable for Darren Young, the former Aberdeen and Dunfermline midfielder who is cutting his managerial teeth in impressive fashion at the Coatbridge outfit.
Stark is a man for whom the unexpected never comes as too much of a surprise. He has been on both sides of some of Scottish football’s biggest upsets – in the dugout with Burns when Celtic lost to second-tier Raith Rovers in the 1994-95 League Cup final, then managing fourth-tier Queen’s Park to a stunning win over Aberdeen in the second round of the tournament in 2006. So, while Stark is under no illusions as to just how daunting a task faces the wee Rovers this weekend, he believes talk of Celtic winning the domestic treble is as foolish as it is premature for his former club. Stiliyan Petrov, a member of the last Celtic side to achieve the clean sweep back in 2001, has even predicted back-to-back trebles this year and next for Brendan Rodgers’ side who remain undefeated in domestic competition so far under the Northern Irishman.
“It’s stupid to say that,” insisted Stark. “I recall Ronny Deila got caught up talking about trebles when he was Celtic manager, which is exactly what the media are looking for. Okay, I can understand talk about a treble this season, with where Celtic are now, but who knows about next season. One day is a long time in football, so you just need to wait and see. Yes, they are in good shape just now. They’ve already won the League Cup, the league title is a foregone conclusion, so the Scottish Cup is the big one. That’s why I don’t think they’ll take any kind of risks against us on Sunday. Shocks do happen, like that Raith Rovers final for Celtic. We’ve seen them before and since then, football is like that. But you have to put it in context. Last season, Celtic played East Kilbride at this stage of the Scottish Cup and people will talk about how well they did in only losing 2-0 that day. But you’re talking about two very different situations and the momentum Celtic have under Brendan, the motivation, the energy, the organisation, the plan they have to play the game means it’s going to be a very difficult game for us.
“You have to get the balance right talking to the players, in terms of being positive, but we’re going to be chasing the ball for long periods of time. That’s not something players enjoy but they’re going to have to face up to that.
“Celtic are averaging three goals a game away from home in the Premiership, so they’re putting Premiership teams away by that scoreline. We want to make it as difficult as we possibly can for Celtic and who knows after that. Be organised, have a positive frame of mind. That’s something that’s easy to say but so many things can happen in the game. When I’ve faced these games as a coach, I’ve never said to players ‘try to not let them score in the first 15 minutes’. Because if they do, then players immediately say ‘that’s that out of the window’. Celtic could score early or we could hold out for a wee bit. They are a team that goes for the throat. If we come out with credit and people see we’ve got a bit about us and were brave on the ball and put ourselves up against our opponents and made ourselves difficult to beat, that’s what we’re looking to do.”