League Cup more than just treble chance for Celtic

Neil Lennon may never have a better chance. Perhaps he may never have another chance.
Neil Lennon joins in the celebrations of Celtics League Cup win in 2001  the last time they won a treble. Picture: PANeil Lennon joins in the celebrations of Celtics League Cup win in 2001  the last time they won a treble. Picture: PA
Neil Lennon joins in the celebrations of Celtics League Cup win in 2001  the last time they won a treble. Picture: PA

The winning of the Scottish domestic treble does not come easily to any manager, as Lennon has discovered in the last three years. The League Cup has been his bete noire as Celtic boss so far, with final defeats in 2011 and 2012 by Rangers and Kilmarnock, followed by last season’s semi-final exit to St Mirren.

Who knows how many more opportunities Lennon will have to complete a full set of domestic honours in his current job before he is tempted into a fresh challenge south of the border, where his stock continues to rise?

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That is why Lennon, despite having far bigger fish to fry this season as he looks to again make a significant impact in the Champions League group stage, will not be treating Celtic’s League Cup campaign lightly.

It begins tomorrow night with the visit of Championship strugglers Morton to Celtic Park and, while Lennon is likely to rotate his squad to some extent, he will leave his players under no illusions as to how much he desires success in the tournament.

Such is Celtlc’s glaring superiority over their current domestic opponents, even this early in a campaign in which they are still off the top of the Premiership table on goal difference, annexing the club’s first treble since Lennon’s great mentor Martin O’Neill achieved it 13 seasons ago is a more than realistic target.

Even with the severely diluted condition of traditional rivals Rangers taken into account, leading Celtic to a clean sweep of domestic prizes would earn Lennon a place in the pantheon of the most successful managers to have operated in Scottish football since the Second World War.

In the 67 seasons in which the treble has been possible, following the inception of the League Cup in the 1946-47 campaign, it has been achieved only ten times so far. Three managers were able to pull off the feat twice – Scot Symon (1949 and 1964) and Jock Wallace (1976 and 1978) for Rangers and Jock Stein (1967 and 1969) for Celtic.

The aforementioned O’Neill in 2001 is the only other Celtic manager to claim it, while Walter Smith (1993), Dick Advocaat (1999) and Alex McLeish (2003) added to Rangers’ status as the most prolific treble- winning club.

Ronald de Boer, one of McLeish’s side in that triumphant campaign, once drily observed that he would not be putting the winning of the League Cup on his CV. There is no doubt that, outwith being a component part of a treble, the competition has carried diminished relevance for both Rangers and Celtic in recent years.

It will be interesting to see how many Celtic supporters are willing to pay the £17 it will cost to watch tomorrow night’s tie, having already shelled out for Champions League packages which start with next week’s visit of Barcelona.

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Now without a sponsor and removed from the nurturing care of its founder organisation, following the winding-up of the Scottish Football League, the League Cup faces an uncertain future. It remains to be seen how highly those running the Scottish Professional Football League value a tournament for which they had minimal regard during the Scottish Premier League era.

The SPFL must either embrace what is the oldest established League Cup in world football or make a firm decision that it is now surplus to requirements.

A look at the success of the tournament’s counterparts in both England and France might convince them that it should have a future.

What is now the Capital One Cup in England has thrived in recent years, while French football now give their Coupe de la Ligue equal prominence to the Coupe de France. The last 16 finals have been staged at the Stade de France, all attracting attendances in excess of 70,000.

Both the English and French versions enjoy greater stature as a consequence of the winners being awarded European qualification, providing clubs such as Swansea City with the kind of joy they experienced last week when they recorded a notable 3-0 win over Valencia in Spain.

Not since Raith Rovers earned a place in the Uefa Cup with their shock defeat of Celtic in 1995, taking them on a memorable adventure which culminated in facing Bayern Munich at the Olympic Stadium, has a European place been given to the Scottish League Cup winners.

When asked at the start of this season whether restoring that incentive would enhance the competition, SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster said that concern over the damage it would do to Scotland’s Uefa co-efficient ranking prevented such a change.

But, given the calamitous results recorded in Europe by various Scottish Cup runners-up in recent seasons, that is surely a spurious argument. Could St Mirren, last season’s League Cup winners, possibly have fared any worse in the Europa League this season than Hibs did in a Scottish record 9-0 aggregate defeat by Malmo?

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More often than not, the League Cup winners qualify for Europe by other means in any case. But it is surely better to get there by winning a competition, rather than losing a final. It is time for Scottish football to learn to love the League Cup again. If not, then it should be allowed to have a peaceful and dignified demise.