AMID all the sub-plots which have attached themselves to the 69th League Cup Final, it will be difficult to ignore the overriding narrative of the potential domestic treble at Hampden tomorrow.
In one technical area will be Ronny Deila, bidding to claim the first leg of Scottish football’s grand slam which he has publicly declared as his target since the early days of his debut season as Celtic manager.
Opposing him is Jackie McNamara, a member of the last Celtic team to win the treble back in 2001, when his goal at the national stadium set them on their way to completing the feat with victory over Hibs in the Scottish Cup Final.
McNamara is now bidding to prove just how difficult it is to claim all three major honours in the same season as he seeks his first trophy as Dundee United manager.
The League Cup has often turned out to be the stick in the spokes of Celtic’s efforts to emulate their three previous treble-winning teams led by Jock Stein (1967 and 1969) and Martin O’Neill (2001).
Indeed, the famous three-handled trophy has only been claimed twice in the past 13 seasons by Celtic.
You have to say you want to win. You have to reach for something. It’s in your head mentally.Ronny Deila
In the past three years alone, the Parkhead side have been undone by surprise defeats against Morton, St Mirren and Kilmarnock at different stages of the tournament.
But if that suggests Deila has been needlessly making himself a hostage to fortune by consistently talking up his treble ambitions, he has no qualms about his bullishness.
“What’s the worst thing that can happen,” says the Norwegian.
“That you don’t reach your goals? I could say I would be happy to win one trophy this season and reach that goal, but that’s boring.”
“I could say something else, but everybody knows the demands of this club,” added Deila.
“I have said it all season about the treble. There is so much hard work and so many games but we now have a good chance to win a trophy on Sunday and we have prepared for that.
“When I was manager of Stromsgodset in Norway, I learned that if you say you are satisfied to be number six, then you come sixth.
“If you say then that you only want to get to the cup final, then you lose the cup final.
“You have to say you want to win the league or League Cup. You have to reach for something. It’s in your head mentally.
“Celtic is so big and has such a good team that the treble is possible. If I didn’t think it was possible, I wouldn’t say it. But I know it’s possible and that’s why I set high goals and make high demands.”
The bookmakers expect those demands to be met tomorrow, with Celtic unsurprisingly odds-on favourites to win the final, while United are rated as long as 4-1 shots.
Deila’s side have been serenely untroubled in the competition so far, swatting aside Hearts, Partick Thistle and Rangers without conceding a goal in their previous three ties.
United’s road to the final has been less straightforward, however.
They earned narrow victories over Dundee and Aberdeen either side of a penalty shoot-out success against Hibs in the quarter-finals.
For McNamara’s men, it has been a hard-earned opportunity to make up for the despair that they experienced at Celtic Park last May when they lost 2-0 to St Johnstone in the Scottish Cup Final.
“It would be fantastic to win a trophy as a manager for the first time,” said McNamara, “but I don’t see it that way. I look at it from the players’ point of view. I want them to experience it, win it and be part of history. That’s what it’s about.
“I was fortunate enough to win a lot of things in my playing career and it’s a great feeling.
“The players go into Sunday as massive underdogs but they have a chance to go down in the history books. Medals and the like – for me that’s what it’s all about.
“Not the other side of things, the money and everything that goes with it. It’s medals you can show your kids. It’s memories and being part of something special. The players have the disappointment of last May but they’ve got a chance to put that right on Sunday.
“It probably would be more special for me to win as a manager than it was as a player. I’d rather be playing on Sunday than managing, to be honest with you. But this is the next-best thing, kicking every ball, trying to keep cool, challenging every decision.
“It’s difficult, you’re putting so much into it. There are the sleepless nights, you have the thoughts in your heads.You wake up thinking about formations. You never stop. Although you go home and you’re sitting about, your mind is constantly active.
“I originally never wanted to be a manager when I played. But, when I got to 31 or 32, it kind of changed. You start to see things differently and what you might do differently. Working with so many good managers and coaches, you take wee things from all of them. Maybe subconsciously I’ve taken bits from all of them.
“It changed for me, as I when I got older I saw how I would do things differently: how I would treat the players, treat different situations, do training, everything. I think that’s how I’ve tried to do things as a manager – how I’d like to be treated, how I would like training, how I would like the players to be told if they were going to be left out – things that possibly happened to me.”
McNamara’s big decision will be who he calls into his side as a replacement for the suspended Nadir Ciftci up front. It is a straight choice between Henri Anier and Mario Bilate, but there is no doubt Ciftci’s absence is a blow.
Celtic are boosted by the availability of Virgil van Dijk after his red card in last Sunday’s explosive Scottish Cup quarter-final at Tannadice was rescinded, while Deila is also hopeful Nir Bitton and Kris Commons will recover full fitness in time to play.
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