Aidan Smith: Let’s play the Scottish Cup as a curtain-raiser to next season

When the postponement of the Scottish Cup was announced it was well down the news agenda. Sport as a whole was starting its plummet in the schedule of Most Important Things, but you know what I mean. Final league positions were the story, and still are.

Hearts won 5-1 the last time they met Hibs at Hampden.  Picture: Ian Rutherford
Hearts won 5-1 the last time they met Hibs at Hampden. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Was it Celtic’s title? Not so fast, said Rangers, we can technically still catch our dear rivals, so the Premiership should be played to a finish. Would Hearts be relegated? Not so fast, said the Jambos, and our lawyers are watching.

The cup, the oldest association football trophy in the world that is still played for? It didn’t figure in these heated debates and even now – amid all the speculation about football resuming in May or if not then June, or carrying right on through the summer or failing that the held-over games kicking off season 2020-21, whenever that might be – no one is talking about when it will be concluded.

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For some time now cups have had to get used to being the wallflower at the dance. All the glamour, all the heat, has centred on the leagues. This is especially true of England where the League Cup has become an inconvenience to the top teams and while in the FA Cup they’ll field reserve XIs.

Scott Brown could lead Celtic to a fourth treble. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Here, the Scottish Cup is secondary to league success and survival but just recently has it been treated to slightly more frequent buffing with the silver polish?

This could be an illusion, or wishful thinking on our part because the sister trophy down south has been kicked around so much.

But before this season was brought to a juddering halt, a Champions League winner and England great had been desperate to get his hands on the Scottish Cup. That was Steven Gerrard and the prize proved beyond him.

The triumphs by St Johnstone in 2014, Inverness Caley Thistle the following season and Hibernian in 2016 were hardly humdrum. The Saintees and the Highlanders had never won the cup before and the Leith team had become such strangers to success that every quest brought less than subtle reminders about Queen Victoria and Buffalo Bill leaning on a stanchion together the last time the pot was hoisted. Or something like that, anyway.

In each of the three seasons since, the cup has completed the Treble for Celtic, so if emerging victorious previously had ever been ho-hum for the supporters – and come on, once or twice it surely must have been – then perhaps these Hampden clinchers reminded them of the cup’s stirring history, Celtic’s part in that heritage with those famous victories over Dunfermline in 1965 to begin the Jock Stein era and the 4-0 hammering of Rangers in 1969 and also the fact that even winning machines don’t do it every time.

This season’s semi-final line-up is hardly ho-hum either. The Celtic faithful are preoccupied – make that obsessed – with nine-in-a-row. While everyone seems in agreement that the campaign should be played to a conclusion somehow, some way, some time, there will be Celtic fans who won’t be able to sleep for the ultimate conspiracy nightmare depriving them of the championship flag.

Presuming that is achieved they will then be able to turn their thoughts to the cup. This is the elusive last piece of the great quadruple domestic clean-sweep jigsaw. Just imagine if it got lost in the folds of one of the rusting camp-beds assembled in 10 Downing Street because a government working round the clock to combat Covid-19 got too stressed and randomly cancelled the tournament? We would never hear the end of it.

For Celtic to claim a fourth Treble they will first have to defeat semi opponents Aberdeen who must surely beat Celtic in Glasgow eventually. They have worked out how to ambush Rangers and must hope that since having failed to turn up against the other half of the Old Firm at the beginning of the Treble tyranny, the Dons made more of a game of it in subsequent Hampden encounters. Surely, they will be thinking, it’s our turn?

The other semi, when it comes round, will hardly need any hype, trumpet voluntary or explanatory note in the match programme. An Edinburgh derby affords Hibs the opportunity to avenge two horrible defeats by Hearts at Mount Florida, 4-0 in 2006 at the same stage and 5-1 in the 2012 final. For Hearts, assuming they salvage their top-flight status, could another victory expunge the memory of one of the club’s most miserable seasons of recent times? Very probably.

No one wants to see season 2019-20 expunged from Scottish Cup history, even if the plinth containing the names of recent winners is getting mighty crowded. The Bonnyrigg Roses and Banks O’ Dees, whose solid silver dreams might merely have been the chance of three and a half minutes on 
Sportscene, would hate that as much as Celtic.

Resuming the competition as a curtain-raiser to next season sounds like a good idea. The final is normally played in May when, unless the memory is playing tricks, the sun is always blazing down on Hampden.

We’ll be so glad to have the cup back that we wouldn’t even notice the grottiest of downpours.

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