Fourth round weekend is a key date in the football calendar as the Scottish Cup retains its significance unlike the English equivalent, writes Joel Sked
Saturday brings with it one of the most anticipated weekends of the Scottish football calendar. Thirty two teams can forget about the pressures of the league; relegation concerns put to one side, promotion stresses shelved. There are dreams to be chased.
For one weekend thirty two teams share the same goal.
The 12 Premiership clubs emerge from hibernation and are immediately put to the test as they join 20 teams from the lower tiers in the fourth round of the William Hill Scottish Cup. Each and every lingering cobweb must be blown away before the action gets under way on Saturday afternoon when Rangers welcome Motherwell to Ibrox in front of the Sky cameras.
There is something special about the fourth round – previously the third round – being played on the first weekend after New Year. But the pause in the Premiership season has only whetted the appetite for cup weekend that bit more. The anticipation has been notched up a dial or two.
In the comings days, weeks and months who are going to be the heroes and who the villains? Who is going create history, who is going to allow greatness to slip agonisingly through their fingers? Who is going to prevail in the face of adversity, who is going to fail when it matters most?
In Spain they talk about ilusión. Dream, ambition, hope. Feelings which resonate with football fans all around he world. Feelings which have been prevalent in this competition in recent years, with seven different winners from the last eight editions.
One only has to look at Hibernian Football Club. Each year for 114 years the ilusión grew stronger and stronger. For some the curse was too much, the ilusión a mere speck in the distance. Cup final defeats in consecutive years, 2012 and 2013, the former a harrowing defeat to rivals Hearts of Midlothian, then a semi-final loss to Falkirk in 2015 suggested this was a hex which would never be eradicated.
But just when fans had begun to accept their fate, 2016 arrived and brought new hope. The year of the underdog. The year the world turned on its axis. The year picture book stories were made.
As David Gray ran, leapt, headed, scored, careered and celebrated, the curse was vanquished and another story had been penned in the world’s second oldest football competition. Ilusión became reality.
The same way it became reality for Inverness Caledonian Thistle in 2015, their first major silverware. The same way it became reality for St Johnstone the year before that, their first major silverware. The same way it became reality for Hearts in 2012, the most famous of derby wins.
But where ilusión becomes reality for some, others have to suffer heartbreak. The two go hand in hand. Some have had to suffer before they could succeed. Others continue to suffer, and will do so for years to come.
However, it is another year, another chance. Each year a new chapter emerges with new stories and new memories. Casting a glance at the runners and riders taking to the field over the weekend, there are some who are more hopeful than others. A few teams just want the adventure to continue for another 90 minutes, hoping for an upset, hoping for a fairytale. Others will be expecting a cup run, cup success. Then there are the hopeless romantics, all but resigned to going home without the prize, but a smidgen of hope which they cling to dearly. Ilusión.
Everyone will be hoping for Celtic to stumble and fall. If not this weekend then next month or the following month. Albion Rovers may not be welcoming the Premiership league leaders to the antediluvian surrounds of Cliftonhill, yet The Wee Rovers will still go in to the game, live on Sky, with the thought ‘why can’t it be us?’. It would be one of the biggest shocks in world football, let alone the history of the Scottish Cup.
It is a vision, some may see delusion, that will be shared by Stranraer, who make the 462 mile round-trip to Pittodrie to face Aberdeen, Formartine United, pitted at Partick Thistle, Stenhousemuir, who visit St Johnstone.
And, of course, there is the Rosey Posey. If one team has enjoyed their moment in the spotlight, afforded to them by their admirable travails in the cup, it is Bonnyrigg Rose. Players, staff and fans have embraced the exposure. Players have taken the opportunity to have a bit of fun, their day jobs have been brought in to the occasion and they have bought in to every photo shoot, every interview.
The team second in the McBookie.com Super League have sold out their 5,000 allocation for the tie with cup holders Hibs at Tynecastle. It is a tie which is a no lose situation for the club. With the locality of Bonnyrigg to the capital there are a number of Hearts and Hibs fans, as well as former Hearts and Hibs players. Every member of the eclectic squad will lie in their bed tonight, eyes wide as craters, staring at the ceiling thinking one word, ‘imagine . . .’
At the other end of the scale there’ll be a whole host of managers having a sleepless night running game plans, systems and line-ups through their head, but they will keep coming back to that same word. ‘Imagine . . .’
With Hibs liberating themselves of their 114-year burden the focus now switches to Dundee, without a Scottish Cup victory since 1910. Although ‘since 1910 . . .’ doesn’t have the same ring to it. Partick Thistle haven’t had it quite as bad, last winning the trophy in 1921, but no final appearance since 1930. How the fans would love it if club legend Alan Archibald was to end that wait.
Everywhere stories abound. The Scottish Cup retains its lustre, its meaning to clubs, players and supporters. Even neutrals, fans of teams who fell at previous hurdles or will perish in the coming weeks, look forward to the ties, the shocks, the mania.
It’s a feeling which only crystallises north of the border as clubs in England continue to treat their national cup competition as an irrelevance. There is promotion to the Premier League gold mine to be won, relegation to be avoided, Champions League places to secure, partnerships with kettle manufacturers to promote.
When the top tier teams enter the FA Cup there is no longer the sense of excitement. The draw for the third round has lost its anticipation. It is different in Scotland. As the chasm grows between European football and Scotland’s clubs, the connection with the cup grows stronger. The visceral feeling remains.
Once Craig Thomson blows his whistle madness ensues, it’s a sprint to the finish. Four wins from the final, five wins from glory. And when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of supporting a football team that is what it is all about. The glory.
Stories old and new have been told to the press. Famous, and infamous, figures have posed with the Scottish Cup. The action is about to hit fever pitch.
For all the talk of plans, projects and philosophies, they mean little when cup football arrives. Sometimes the road is the goal, where pleasure is derived from the process in moving forward, progressing. Cup football, more than anything, is about the end result, doing whatever it takes to move forward, to get to that day in May where the sun shines on Mount Florida.
All roads lead to Hampden Park. Expect bumps, bruises and tantrums. Celebration, success and ecstasy. The dream starts now. The ilusión is real.