JIM Jefferies would have been forgiven a journey or two down memory lane this week as he sought to pass on his impressive levels of managerial experience to the Kilmarnock players. However, the manager yesterday opted to offer the relatively youthful Ayrshire squad a look into the future, and towards what awaits them at Hampden tomorrow.
Jefferies failed in what he labelled a "cheeky" request for his team to be allowed a pre-match training session at the national stadium. "You can only ask, can't you?" smiled the former Hearts and Bradford City manager, but he did take his players on a 20-minute tour of Hampden, with a view to calming what will unquestionably be a tense occasion for many of them against Hibernian.
"It isn't easy for the players because their minds wander; it's a great occasion," explained Jefferies. "One or two of the lads haven't been to Hampden so I decided to take them across for a look. Earlier in the week we made a call to see if it was possible and everybody was very accommodating.
"A lot of them have never played in a similar atmosphere before, it will hit them when they walk down the tunnel. How will they react? I'll tell you at quarter to five."
The stadium, of course, is markedly different to when Jefferies last managed a team there, in 1996 when his Hearts side were humbled 5-1 by Rangers. Two subsequent finals with the Tynecastle outfit took place at Celtic Park and, while the Kilmarnock manager says he had no issues with the atmosphere or arrangements there, he feels Hampden offers "something special" on a cup final day.
Yet Jefferies readily concedes there is only so much information he can furnish his players with before such a match. The manager, in noticeably genial form after training yesterday, joked that his assistant, Billy Brown, now reaches a higher state of anxiety before games than he does; a true turnaround from their earlier days together at Berwick Rangers, Falkirk and Hearts.
"These days, Billy gets upset and I get the blame for it," Jefferies quipped. "You can plan, speak and prepare but all you can hope when they go over the line is that they take everything on. Hopefully on the day they don't let themselves down by not performing.
"Financially to the club, it doesn't mean that much more if they win or lose, it's now about a chance for them to become heroes and legends. We are looking forward to it, we are keyed up, the same as John Collins and Tommy Craig will be."
Jefferies will assess the fitness of his goalkeeper Alan Combe and full-back Grant Murray during the squad's final pre-match training session today before confirming his starting XI. Momo Sylla, who has been plagued by hamstring trouble since moving to Rugby Park in January, trained yesterday.
The manager insists the loss of Combe, while significant given his experience, would be offset by the fact that the former Dundee United man's deputy, Graeme Smith, played in the first team regularly earlier in the season.
"We'll give Alan every chance but it is not as if Graeme has only played two or three games," emphasised Jefferies.
David Lilley injured a hamstring during a reserve game on Monday and is almost certain to join long-term absentee Danny Invincibile on the sidelines.
Another certain absentee is David Fernandez, the striker who will not play again until next season after suffering a serious knee injury in a match against Celtic last October. The Spaniard, part of the Livingston side which overcame Hibs in the CIS final of 2004, will however join his team-mates for their trip to Hampden and has stressed that a sense of disappointment over his lack of involvement will not reduce the significance of the occasion in any way.
"It is not really a big deal for me because I have been injured for so long," said Fernandez. "It is not as if I was playing regularly, and picked up an injury just a couple of weeks before the final.
"I am delighted for the lads. The most important thing for them now is to go on and lift the trophy. I already feel as though I am part of things, everybody has amazing in supporting me through the injury."
Jefferies' cup finals
B&Q Cup, season 1993-1994
Falkirk 3, St Mirren 0
Goals from Neil Duffy, John Hughes and Richard Cadette hand Jefferies his first piece of silverware.
Scottish Cup, season 1995-1996
Rangers 5, Hearts 1
Tynecastle manager endures a heavy defeat as Gordon Durie hat-trick and Brian Laudrup double ease Rangers to a convincing victory.
League Cup, season 1996-1997
Rangers 4, Hearts 3
Second-half Paul Gascoigne double proves decisive as Rangers edge thriller at Celtic Park.
Scottish Cup, season 1997-1998
Hearts 2, Rangers 1
Colin Cameron and Stephane Adam give Jefferies his greatest victory.
Sorry record of four finals, four defeats and no goals
25 October, 1952 (Hampden)
KILMARNOCK's dismal record in League Cup finals began in season 1952-53.
A team of mainly part-time journeymen had done well to get to the showpiece occasion having been languishing in Scotland's second tier at the time, but the class of Dundee's Scottish internationalists Doug Cowie and Billy Steel and the shooting of Bobby Flavell, another internationalist, who scored both goals, took Dundee to a 2-0 win and kept the trophy at Dens Park.
Kilmarnock team: Niven; Collins, Hood, Russell, Thyne, Middlemass, Henaughan, Harvey, Mays, Jack, Murray.
29 October, 1960 (Hampden)
WHEN Kilmarnock next reached the League Cup final, on 29 October, 1960, much had changed at Rugby Park. Under the managership of Willie Waddell, they were back in the top-flight and were the leading provincial team in Scotland. And with Celtic in the doldrums, they and Hearts were the biggest threat to Rangers' pre-eminence. But having beaten Kilmarnock 2-0 in that year's Scottish Cup, Rangers repeated the scoreline here courtesy of goals from Ralph Brand and Alex Scott.
Kilmarnock team: J Brown; Richmond, Watson, Beattie, Toner, Kennedy, H Brown, McInally, Kerr, Black, Muir.
27 October, 1962 (Hampden)
AS THE early '60s continued, Kilmarnock and Hearts continued to be Rangers' biggest rivals in the pre-Stein Celtic days and in October, 1962, after beating Rangers 3-2 in a Hampden semi-final thriller, the pair met in the League Cup final. Norrie Davidson gave Hearts a deserved lead, but Kilmarnock thought they had equalised through Frank Beattie. But their celebrations were cut short as referee Tiny Wharton chalked off the goal, much to the anger of the Kilmarnock fans.
Kilmarnock team: McLaughlin; Richmond, Watson, O'Connor, McGrory, Beattie, Brown, McInally, Kerr, Black, McIllroy.
18 March, 2001 (Hampden)
SEMI-FINAL appearances in 1965-66 and 1973-74 were as close as Kilmarnock came to League Cup glory after 1962 until the arrival of new sponsors, CIS Insurance, in 1999-2000, whetted the team's appetite for the competition. They reached the inaugural semi-final and 12 months later Bobby Williamson and his men were back at Hampden. However, Henrik Larsson grabbed a hat-trick in an emphatic Celtic win.
Kilmarnock team: G Marshall; McGowne, Dindeleux (Canero), Innes; MacPherson, Holt, Durrant (Reilly), Mahood, Hay; Cocard (McLaren), Dargo. Subs not used: McCoist, Meldrum.
Ten reasons why Kilmarnock will bring cup home
1 Jim Jefferies. Never has a manager been more deserving of a reward for his work. In the five years at Rugby Park he has built a team from scrap.
2 Collective team spirit. When the players were offered a pay cut three years ago, there was not one dissenting voice in the dressing room. Part of the reason was that the players recognised that the group was capable of occasions like tomorrow.
3 Steven Naismith. The biggest surprise about this nomination is that it's number three and not reasons 1 to 10 on its own. Ever since the Youth Cup final of 2004 he has stood out as a natural leader. He will not be intimidated by the big stage, and always seems to be involved in the good things Killie do.
4 Colin Nish. Billy Brown shocked a fair few people when he described Nish as "the best finisher at the club" when Kris Boyd left for Rangers. But Billy knows what he's talking about, and the Nish/Naismith partnership is a potent force.
5 The yellow strip. Killie seldom lose when they wear their fluorescent yellow change strip. The strip certainly seems to help the team's high tempo passing game. It's a shame they're not wearing it tomorrow.
6 Hibs' away form. The only top-six team Hibs have beaten away from Easter Road is, erm, Kilmarnock in January. But that is their only away victory against Premierleague opposition since November.
7 Alan Combe. The Killie keeper was brought up a Hibby, but has never performed better than he has since reclaiming the No 1 jersey from Graeme Smith. He was deemed too important to be risked against Caley last weekend.
8 Frazer Wright. This has been his tournament. He has been outstanding on the road to Hampden, and scored three goals en route to the final.
9 Rolf Harris. He's got the biggest didgeridoo in Ayrshire and the Aussie superstar has galvanised all the Killie fans pre-final with his enthusiasm in re-working his classic hit Fine Day in a Killie-stylee.
10 The semi-finals. The way Killie romped past Falkirk thanks to the brilliance of Steven Naismith, when compared with the laboured passage of Hibs past First Division St Johnstone, shows that Killie want it more.
BRIAN MURRAY A KILMARNOCK SUPPORTER