Hearts, Dundee clubs, St Johnstone and more: Premier Sports Cup - all you need to know as the road to Hampden begins

With a new title sponsor in the shape of Premier Sports, the 76th edition of the League Cup will provide the curtain raiser to the new season of competitive action in Scottish football.

Callum Davidson's St Johnstone will defend the League Cup trophy they lifted for the first time in the club's history when beating Livingston 1-0 in the 2020-21 final at Hampden in February. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)
Callum Davidson's St Johnstone will defend the League Cup trophy they lifted for the first time in the club's history when beating Livingston 1-0 in the 2020-21 final at Hampden in February. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

The group stage, which gets under way on Friday night, sees 40 clubs split into eight sections of five teams.

The eight group winners will progress to the last 16 knockout stage, along with the three best-ranked runners-up. They will be joined there by Scotland’s five representatives in European football this season – Rangers, Celtic, Hibs, Aberdeen and trophy holders St Johnstone.

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It’s the sixth year of the group stage format in which, once again, teams will receive three points for a win but any fixture which ends in a draw after 90 minutes will have a penalty shoot-out with a bonus point at stake.

Hearts will open their campaign with a trip to Peterhead where they suffered a shock 2-1 defeat in the tournament four years ago. Arnauld Djoum is pictured fouling Jordon Brown for the penalty which decided that match at Balmoor. (Photo by Alan Harvey/SNS Group).

The impact of Covid-19 meant last season’s tournament had an extended schedule with the final not taking place until the end of February.

This year, it will revert to a more condensed timeline with the final – hopefully with a full crowd at Hampden – due to be staged on December 19.

Here’s the group-by-group guide to the action about to unfold.

Group A

New Kelty Hearts manager Kevin Thomson will begin his tenure with a home tie against Dundee United which kicks off Premier Sports live coverage of the tournament on Friday night. (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)

Top seeds Hearts will open their campaign against Peterhead at Balmoor. It’s only the second ever competitive fixture between the clubs and Hearts supporters will shudder at the memory of the first, a 2-1 defeat in this competition four years ago under Ian Cathro.

Robbie Neilson’s side will be favourites to top the group but could face a strong challenge from Inverness Caledonian Thistle who now have Billy Dodds at the helm.

Ambitious Cove Rangers will also seek to make an impact in what looks like a daunting section for League 2 outfit Stirling Albion.

Group B

It’s a big night for SPFL new boys Kelty Hearts with Kevin Thomson replacing Barry Ferguson as manager, when they kick off Premier Sports’ live coverage of the tournament on Friday with their home game against Premiership side Dundee United.

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Dick Campbell’s Arbroath are always competitive and will fancy their chances of progressing, if not as group winners then as one of the best-ranked runners-up as they did last season.

Three-time winners of the tournament East Fife, who last made it to the last 16 just two years ago, and Elgin City complete the group.

Group C

Malky Mackay gets his managerial tenure at 2016 League Cup winners Ross County under way with a trip to face Forfar Athletic on Saturday.

Top spot in this group seems likely to be a shoot-out between the Dingwall club and Dundee who will look to build on the momentum of their return to the Premiership.

But both Montrose and Highland League champions Brora Rangers, who face each other at Links Park on matchday one, will feel they are capable of upsetting the odds.

Group D

Last season’s beaten finalists Livingston are the top seeds in this section and will start with a trip to Brechin City who are preparing themselves for life in the Highland League after their defeat in the League 2 play-off final.

There is also a Fife derby at Central Park between Cowdenbeath and 1994 winners Raith Rovers on matchday one.

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The group is completed by Alloa Athletic, now under the management of Barry Ferguson who was no stranger to lifting the famous trophy during his glittering playing career with Rangers.

Group E

With no Premiership side involved, this section looks very much up for grabs.

Edinburgh City get the action under way when they welcome Hamilton Accies, relegated to the Championship last season, to Ainslie Park on Friday night.

Albion Rovers play host to Ayr United on Saturday with the group line-up completed by Falkirk who are looking to bounce back from their miserable end to last season under the new management of Paul Sheerin.

Group F

Top seeds Motherwell, idle on matchday one, are strong favourites to win this group in what will be manager Graham Alexander’s first experience of the tournament.

Their Lanarkshire derby at Airdrie on July 20 has been selected as one of the live televised matches by Premier Sports.

The group kicks off on Saturday with Airdrie playing host to Annan Athletic, while Queen of the South welcome the newly professional Queen’s Park to Palmerston Park.

Group G

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Tommy Wright’s rebuild at Kilmarnock, whose 28-year stay in the top flight came to an end last season, will begin at ambitious Lowland League side East Kilbride whose summer signings include veteran former Scotland striker Lee Miller.

Morton, having preserved their Championship status in the play-offs, travel to Stranraer on matchday one. It will be the first match in charge of the Stair Park club for former Hearts and Kilmarnock midfielder Jamie Hamill.

Clyde manager Danny Lennon, who won the tournament while in charge of St Mirren in 2013, will look to be in the mix in what promises to be a closely contested group.

Group H

Partick Thistle would love to follow up their League 1 title-winning campaign by making an impact in a competition which will always hold a special place in their history.

The 1971 winners will kick off the section when they welcome fellow Championship side Dunfermline, now under the management of Peter Grant, to Firhill on Saturday.

St Mirren, beaten semi-finalists in both domestic cup competitions last season, travel to face Dumbarton – where Stephen Farrell has replaced Jim Duffy as manager. The group line-up is completed by Stenhousemuir who are idle on matchday one.

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