Review of 2016: Glory for Hibs, Celtic dominate, Rangers return

It was a year of neighbours behaving in very un-neighbourly fashion. Hibs knocked out Hearts after coming back from two goals down en route to smashing a 114-year Scottish Cup curse, Dundee relegated Dundee United and pink-shirted Scotland were sent home to think again by England having had their World Cup qualifying hopes all but extinguished.

David Gray celebrates his dramatic late winner against Rangers which delivered the Scottish Cup to Hibs for the first time since 1902. Picture: Greg Macvean

The Old Firm narrative was also given a re-boot, Celtic and Rangers clashing in the league for the first time in four years. However, it wasn’t an afternoon to cherish for the Ibrox club’s fans, with Joey Barton, Scottish football’s highest profile signing of the year, faring badly in the hotly anticipated battle with opposite man Scott Brown. Mark Warburton’s side were thumped 5-1 at Celtic Park in September.

But a Scottish Cup semi-final win for Rangers over Celtic had earlier provided cheer, the penalty shoot-out win after a pulsating 2-2 draw at Hampden setting the scene for a final pitching together two teams from the second tier – Hibs v Rangers.

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Whatever happened East Fife knew they were going to be robbed of their proud boast as last club from outwith the top flight to lift the Scottish Cup, a distinguished achievement dating back to 1938.

Celtic's Scott Brown lifts the Betfred trophy after his side defeated Aberdeen in the 2016-17 League Cup final. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

It was only a matter of time as soon as Celtic’s Tom Rogic missed his decisive penalty v Rangers, sending the ball into orbit over Mount Florida.

In the other semi, Hibs’ Jason Cummings atoned for a ridiculously chipped miss from the spot when slotting home the winning kick in a shoot-out v Dundee United after a 0-0 draw.

If there’s a moment when time stood still in Scottish football this year, it was around 4.45pm on 21 May at Hampden Park. Even Hearts fans would agree on the significance having delighted in Hibs’ frankly pathetic efforts to win the Scottish Cup since the Easter Road club’s last victory in 1902; this was big news.

Skipper David Gray stooped to head home the winner in time added on, securing a 3-2 win for Hibs over Rangers. Not even they could sabotage things from such a thrillingly close position. But delirious fans flooding on to the Hampden pitch, bringing down a set of goalposts in the process and also goading Rangers fans, ensured most front pages focused on this aspect rather than the romance of a club finally making their appointment with destiny.

Ross County won the League Cup, their first major trophy, defeating Hibs in the final at Hampden. Picture: John Devlin

“Over-exuberance,” muttered Hibs chairman Rod Petrie. “A complete insult to Rangers, our supporters, and those individuals who were attacked and threatened,” responded an angry and lengthy statement from Rangers, issued the next day.

But while the SFA instigated an inquiry, Hibs got on with the celebrations. Over 100,000 flooded the streets of east Edinburgh the next day. The trophy itself continues to be displayed around schools, bars and clubs as part of the club’s ‘Perservered’ tour.

But before such joy, Hibs were forced to endure another dose of Hampden pain in the League Cup final. Their anguish was Ross County’s delight. The Dingwall club, who only joined the Scottish senior league system in 1994, won their first major trophy at Hibs’ expense.

Again a last-minute winner separated the teams. But it was Ross County who enjoyed the comfort of knowing Alex Schalk’s 90th-minute goal meant the League Cup was theirs to lose. Jim McIntyre’s side saw the game out and a cup parade through the streets of Dingwall underlined how every club can have their day, eventually.

Celtic's Scott Brown lifts the Betfred trophy after his side defeated Aberdeen in the 2016-17 League Cup final. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

Dundee have suffered at the hands of Dundee United for going on 40 years, including when their rivals won their first and only Scottish league title at Dens in 1983. So a sense of schadenfreude was in the air on the night of 2 May when a number of factors, including Dundee’s inability to reach the top six, combined to leave United contemplating the nightmare scenario – being relegated at the home of their fiercest rivals.

United looked set to ward off this prospect when they opened the scoring but two late goals from Dundee, including a winner from teenage Dundee fan Craig Wighton, meant Mixu Paatelainen’s side were doomed. The Finn lost his job the next day, replaced by Ray McKinnon.

United finished eight points adrift of Kilmarnock, with the Rugby Park club securing their own survival courtesy of a 4-1 aggregate win over Falkirk in the Premiership play-off final.

At the other end of the table, Celtic, as expected, took the glory. The Parkhead side, then managed by Ronny Deila, secured a fifth successive league title by 15 points from runners-up Aberdeen, who also lost the League Cup against Celtic in November, with the final having been brought forward from March following a change in format.

Ross County won the League Cup, their first major trophy, defeating Hibs in the final at Hampden. Picture: John Devlin

Deila left his post at the end of the season, as he announced he would do in April. This meant the final weeks of the season were taken up with speculation about the identity of the next manager at Parkhead. With Championship winners Rangers joining Celtic in the top tier again and a desperate desire to return to the Champions League group stage, the stakes were higher, hence the recruitment of Brendan Rodgers, last seen at Liverpool.

Qualification for the group stage was duly secured under Rodgers despite an embarrassing 1-0 defeat to Lincoln Red Imps in his first competitive game. Celtic have made sure the extra investment has been worth it, with Moussa Dembele, an inspired signing from Fulham, proving an early season hit.

The French striker hit a hat-trick in the 5-1 win over Rangers, and Celtic remain unbeaten domestically to date – with a visit to Ibrox to come in both sides’ last fixture of 2016. Meanwhile, Hearts unwittingly started a country-wide debate after appointing 30 year-old Ian Cathro, who has never played football professionally, when Robbie Neilson left his position of head coach to join MK Dons this month.

Elsewhere, Dunfermline returned to the second tier. The East End Park club became British football’s first league title winners in 2016 with five games to spare when securing the League One crown with a win over Brechin City, while Edinburgh City became the first side to be promoted through the new pyramid system with a 2-1 aggregate victory over East Stirlingshire. The result ended East Stirlingshire’s 61-year tenure in senior Scottish football.

East Fife at least found some compensation after seeing Hibs emulate their Scottish Cup achievements by winning League Two. On the international front, and despite it starting with friendly victories over Czech Republic and Denmark, this year has been one to forget for Scotland, whose World Cup ambitions hang by a thread after four games.

Dropped points at home to Lithuania as well as a comprehensive 3-0 defeat to England at Wembley means Gordon Strachan is under severe pressure before the first competitive match of 2017 even kicks off – at home against Slovenia in March. After days of speculation following the loss against England a statement from the SFA confirmed the manager would remain in place, with Strachan vowing to “turn things around”.