OK, let’s get the jokes out of the way: Aberdeen have to go early and Hearts should be allowed to come later. The Dons play a difficult brand of football and I’m not sure it’s suitable for the primetime slots. If they were a film, Aberdeen would be a complex art-house movie, defiantly shunning easy, mainstream crowd-pleasing tricks such as strikers and goals as they seek a more cerebral appreciation of their craft. The manager Derek McInnes isn’t a director, he’s an auteur. Cries of pretentiousness are water off un canard’s dos as he sends out his players with detailed scripts. “That’s a journal,” quipped BT Sport’s Chris Sutton at Easter Road last Tuesday night, as yet more instructions were carried on to the pitch.
Hearts fans, on the other hand, may struggle to remember how to get to Hampden, given their favourites haven’t been there for so long, and might need a few extra hours to find the place. Since the last appearance, dear neighbours Hibernian have visited no less than eight times. The Leith hordes have amassed so many loyalty points at the Asda at Toryglen – behind what they call the “Hibs End” of the stadium – that they now enjoy the black-card benefits, triggering generous discounts on Wagon Wheels and scented candles. The staff at the store know many of the Hibbies by name (“Hullo Irvine, hullo Craig and Charlie, hullo Fish … ”).
But seriously, two League Cup semi-finals at the same ground on the same day? On that oft-criticised playing surface? With those poor transport links to Glasgow’s city centre? With, in Aberdeen’s case, no trains to even get supporters to Queen Street? It sounds like madness. It’s already inspired the screeching newspaper headline “Hamdemonium”.
For the fourth time in three seasons Aberdeen will be forced to compete in national cup semis with a lunchtime kick-off. Not for nothing did Alex Ferguson warn his Dons that scaling the walls of Glasgow’s citadels would be Eiger-tough. This is hard on The Sheep, no question. Hard on the environment with those north-east fans not able to afford an overnighter in a Glasgow hotel all having to hit the road together. Hard on the good folks of Mount Florida who are accustomed to one big game disrupting their Sundays but not two.
But some without any vested interest might be intrigued by this two-headed beastie, and you can bet the double-bill will be presented by TV as a football fiesta, a 100,000-strong gathering of diverse tribes: the one usually rejoicing in the winning of everything; the one desperately trying to stop them winning anything ever again; the one still attempting to turn a League Cup claimed on penalties five seasons ago into a legacy; the one with a song referencing the lifting of the League Cup but who haven’t actually done this since 1962.
The two-headed beastie has already been called unprecedented, but is it? Strictly speaking, no stadium has hosted two matches of this stature on the same day before, but 19 April, 1972 was a notable night in the annals of Glasgow football: European Cup semi-final, Celtic vs Inter Milan; European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final, Rangers vs Bayern Munich. Yes, these games took place four miles apart, but who’s to say cheers from one ground didn’t carry on the wind to the other when there were 75,000 squeezed inside Parkhead and 80,000 packed into Ibrox with the latter sent into delirium by Sandy Jardine’s first-minute goal? Rangers went on to win their semi, and to Barcelona glory, while Celtic lost on penalties. Those four miles would have kept the Old Firm denizens a suitable distance from each other. Now the hope will be that the five-or-so hours between the League Cup semis ensures the day passes off without incident. But there’s maybe a better comparison we can make with the two-headed beastie, half a century ago in Dundee. When Dundee drew Rangers in the Scottish Cup and Dundee United were paired with Hearts, the city by the Tay wasn’t perturbed. TV wasn’t intruding so on 18 February, 1968 two venues separated by just 200 yards staged their rival spectacles.
Staggered kick-offs were the only acknowledgement that four sets of highly excitable people might put local by-laws under some strain. United and the Jam Tarts, as they were known back then, went first, but if they were supposed to be the warm-up act for the mighty Rangers, they didn’t comply. “One of the most exciting cup-ties ever,” declared Edinburgh’s sports final, “the Pink”. The icy surface was treacherous but Hearts’ blond bombshell from Denmark, Rene Moller, demonstrated typical Scandinavian mastery of such conditions, suggesting he’d probably fitted snow-chains. “Hearts go crazy in mad tie” declared The Scotsman as the Gorgie Boys won 6-5 but football correspondent John Rafferty had elected to cover the Rangers game – bad move. His report began: “We sat at Dens Park on Saturday burdened with the uncomfortable feeling of having done the wrong thing. From across the the road were wafted disturbing flashes of the extraordinary happenings which involved 11 goals being piled up … ” Rafferty’s dismal game finished 1-1 – “A draw with nae fitba” was the headline.
The crowd at Dens was 33,000 while the 9,000 at Tannadice – gate receipts: £1,941 – must have thought they’d entered a portal to a heightened state of consciousness. Maybe this was what dropping LSD was like, the hallucinogenic having been all over the news at that moment. The attendance was modest but boosted after half-time – when, as was traditional and generous, the gates at Scottish grounds were opened and anyone could wander in for free – by a large number of Rangers supporters waiting for their game. As the Pink reported, some couldn’t tear themselves away from the goal deluge and missed kick-off. What a lovely story. Around that time, fans would often watch the local rivals. You went in search of a game, any game, and sometimes you found the fantastical. Tribalism soon put a stop to all that hippy nonsense. There’s not much chance of the spirit of ’68 being revived at Hampden. Supporters from the earlier match should probably clear off and leave the Jambos to stumble around with their maps.