Roger Nouveau-Football-Fan, that Fast Show roaster who kept putting his foot in it with his lack of knowledge, probably wouldn’t believe it. And neither might some of the gold-card members of Manchester City’s Tunnel Club where instead of pies the sample menu features pumpkin gnocchi and aged parmesan cheese.
I’m talking about a little bit of history. Next weekend at Hampden will see Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Hibernian contest the semi-finals of a national cup competition. This has never happened before, which might surprise you and will certainly astonish those in the wider world who might struggle to name a Scottish team beyond these four. The InterCity classic. The Central Belt deathmatch double-header. Edinburgh vs Glasgow. Scotland’s official capital taking on the unofficial one. “You’ll have had your tea” and “Come ahead” fighting it out for the best welcome. Irvine Welsh’s “Worst toilet in Scotland” and Alasdair Gray’s Unthank, the alternative Glesca where there’s no daylight. Greyfriars Bobby and Billy Connolly’s Jobby. All that stuff, all those cliches wrapped up in two titanic duels featuring the country’s best-supported teams. It should be fascinating.
Or… it will go to form in accordance with the natural order beyond Craig Levein’s natural order and the Old Firm will prevail. This might explain why the third and fourth best-supported teams in the land can’t sell all their tickets. It’s part of the reason, certainly. There’s also the fact this is the Betfred Cup, the slightly less glamorous wee sister of the Scottish Cup. In Hibs’ case there’s the inconvenient kick-off time of next Saturday at 5.30pm. And there’s also this: Hibs fans and their dear rivals across Edinburgh are pretty grumpy right now. They’re not enraptured with the football they’re watching. They haven’t been thrilled by recent results (before yesterday Hibs sat second bottom in the Premiership, Hearts one place above). And they’re finding their managers difficult to love.
Most likely the supporters fear the worst. In Gorgie they reckon the only way Hearts can beat Rangers is if the Ibrox club forget to put their clocks back, turn up at Hampden next Sunday an hour early, assume by Hearts’ non-appearance that they’ve forfeited the tie and disperse, only for the Jambos to arrive at the correct time and win by default. Meanwhile in Leith there’s the feeling Christian Doidge must score a goal at some point – but that’s what everyone used to say, with a patronising pat on the head, about the Hibees’ Scottish Cup hoodoo and look how long that lasted.
If the Edinburgh teams were to contrive victories, though, the angst wouldn’t end there. Indeed, an all-Capital final would launch it into a whole other dimension. Hearts fans would be terrified at the prospect of Hibs avenging that 5-1 thrashing in 2012. The Hibs lot would simply be terrified. But I can’t be doing with all this negativity. I hear enough of it from my kids. Whenever they moan about the odds being stacked against them and disappointment being inevitable, I say: “That’s ‘One-nil down to Hutchie’ talk.” This dates from when my eldest’s football team often found themselves behind in games against Hutchison Vale, the illustrious Edinburgh juvenile outfit. One-nil down, the heads would go down. Eventually, though, the tide turned and Hutchie have stopped being the Nemesis.
So, the last time I checked, Hibs are not one-nil down to Celtic and Hearts are not one-nil down to Rangers. Oh ye of little faith: technically, no one next weekend is walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Your players, including Doidge, inset, and the equally enigmatic, similarly underwhelming Sean Clare, are travelling by coach, past Asda and the Cathcart polis station, and being deposited at the national stadium where the opposition will start with 11 men, just like your favourites.
Levein and Paul Heckingbottom have been stressed pretty much all season long but which manager is under most pressure next weekend? Steven Gerrard, that’s who. Rangers need to win a trophy more than Hibs and Hearts. Their very Rangersness demands this. Celtic? Well, Neil Lennon might be right behind Gerrard in the pressure stakes. Does he want to be the Parkhead boss who spoils the immaculate cup record?
It would be nice to be able to report that Hearts and Hibs have it in them to match the Old Firm for bold, buccaneering football but I don’t think that’s the case. Semi-finals don’t require it; a win at this stage is a win. Thus, the boredom debate – fans of both clubs simply don’t like what they’re watching – can be shelved. Temporarily, anyway.
A large part of the frustration at Tynecastle and Easter Road concerns team personality, or lack of. Alan Stubbs’s Hibs were full of it, from emergency goalie Conrad Logan to Jason Cummings up top. Another thing: there were no fewer than ten Scots among the 2016 “Time for heroes” guys. Players move on, rebuild happens, that’s understood, but none of Heckingbottom’s signings has yet put his head above the parapet. The time to do more than utter warm words about the club, the training complex, the city, Edinburgh Castle and Harvey Nicks would be half-past five on Saturday.
At Hearts, if you’d asked the faithful in August to name the four players they considered most-valuable to this campaign, they would probably have answered Steven Naismith, Peter Haring, John Souttar and Jamie Walker. So, with the club having to soldier on without the quartet, I’m going out on a limb and suggesting Levein doesn’t deserve all of the criticism which has come his way. Back in May this contrary character – professorial one minute, big kid the next – devised a scheme which almost ruined Celtic’s treble treble. With the personality injection of Ryotaro Meshino he could yet gets Hearts to another final.
Hibs eclipsing the Hoops with Doidge-ball seems less likely but both Capital clubs – and their fans – must first believe. An all-Embra final might not surprise those lazy football types who assume the Hibees and the Jambos must have an occasional right to such a thing. But, trashing my own argument, if it happens you won’t see me for dust.