Aidan Smith: Hearts and Celtic could be a much-needed cup classic

Murrayfield hosted Hearts v SC Braga.  Pic: Neil Hanna
Murrayfield hosted Hearts v SC Braga. Pic: Neil Hanna
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Murrayfield. I didn’t want to have to write about the place again. At least not until I was due to go there for the purpose it was built – rugby and the autumn Tests beginning on 10 November with Scotland vs Fiji, two teams who love having the ball in their hands.

I didn’t want to have to write about Murrayfield in a football context any more, having voted for Hampden in the great debate and I thought that conversation was over. Yet here we are preparing for the biggest game there’s even been amid the swish crescents of EH12 involving those whose preference is to kick.

What a palaver, what a farce, what an embarrassment. You could call the Betfred Cup semi-finals imbroglio the basis for a good-going soap opera but that would be an insult to the likes of River City where there’s never been an attempt at overblown storylines which involve such violent lurches as we’ve witnessed over the past week, detonating the very last of the credibility.

Here’s a recap: both semis would be played at Hampden on the same day. Everyone agrees, it’ll be brilliant. Er, no it won’t. Train-travelling Aberdeen fans would arrive too late for their team’s exchange of gifts with Rangers – an ancient tradition and always such a tender and touching moment when these sides meet. Furthermore, the supporters would miss the first few occasions when a player helps a fallen opponent back to his feet, acts which never fail to restore one’s faith in humanity.

All right then, the kick-off in that match would be put back a few hours and the Celtic-Hearts semi moved 50 miles east to the home of rugby and a stadium rejected by football for its glamour games as recently as three weeks ago. Happy now?

The decision to go for a Hampden double-header had been completely random, unprecedented in football. But it was probably not as completely random as the decision to slink back over to the offices of the SRU and gingerly inquire: “You know you said that sharing a stadium with you would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity … do you think you could see your way to making it twice-in-a-lifetime and letting us have a wee shot of Murrayfield for the afternoon?”

As I wrote last week, a small part of me was intrigued to see if Hampden could have kept two plates spinning in the air on 28 October. If the day went smoothly and both semis were zingers, I thought this could be a feather in the old place’s bunnet, which has been pretty mangy of late, with all the ground’s faults having been heavily scrutinised in the discussion about whether football should give up on it and flit to Murrayfield.

The police, we were told, had been consulted about the double-whammy. Of course this was no comfort to the Dons fans facing a 12 noon kickoff. Hearts, booked for 7.45pm that night, were also unhappy. Indeed they probably, through Craig Levein, complained loudest, the Hearts manager pointing out that kids wouldn’t be able to see the game.

Then we learned that consultation didn’t necessarily mean agreement. Or not the agreement of the polis rank-and-file, the guys having to cope with the march of the 100,000.

Of course it couldn’t happen. I’d gone right off the idea, although not wholly out of sympathy for junior Jambos. Semi-finals have never been family days like finals. Wives and children tend to keep their powder dry for the big one, enabling the Old Firm to get aerated about the provincials requesting too many tickets – that’s a tradition. For a long time, too, League Cup semis were played at night. That made the winning of them all the sweeter but three times as the 1960s turned into the 1970s I was deemed too young to attend last-four encounters after dark. That’s life.

Now, though, I’m no less intrigued by the prospect of Murrayfield staging its most prestigious round-ball encounter in the stadium’s history. Some Hearts chums point out that the 2006-07 Champions League qualifier against AEK Athens was a fairly important football match but surely this is the weightier affair. It’s one step from a final for Hearts and the first serious test of whether there’s to be a treble-treble for Celtic.

Hearts insist that, kickoff time apart, they didn’t mind where their semi was going to be played but privately they must be delighted with Murrayfield. Celtic wanted the toss of a coin to decide who would come away from Hampden which seemed a fair-enough request, because have we had an explanation as to how the decision was made? Mind you, this has been a kerfuffle without rhyme or reason, with right foot on a different mental plane from left foot, with plenty of bluster and vested interests to the fore, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised about that.

Brendan Rodgers had recently talked up Murrayfield over Hampden so why the issue with it now? Is it because his team are behaving less than imperiously? Hearts claim that few playing in maroon currently know Murrayfield but can they really pretend that a ground just a mile from Tynecastle does not present some sort of benefit?

My hope, still, is that both semis are utterly sensational. The poor, kicked-about League Cup, recently revamped, doesn’t need any more hassle. It will be the hope of Neil Doncaster, left, too. Thwarted in his attempt to spin both those Hampden plates, he’s been portrayed as Coco the Clown, and not for the first time. When something goes wrong in Scottish football he frequently takes the rap. Sometimes that’s deserved but, as my colleague Stephen Halliday pointed out in The Scotsman the other day, it’s too simplistic to blame the chief exec for all the maladies in our game when for any decision made 42 member clubs bear a collective responsibility.

I don’t want football to move to Murrayfield, lock, stock and long-term, but Celtic vs Hearts there might belatedly introduce some doubt in the minds of some of the Hampden lobby. After Barcelona friendlies, early-stage Euro ties and a handful of league games, this will be a proper, grown-up contest at last. It could attract the largest semi-final crowd for years, provided Craig’s weans turn up.