Who wants it more and who needs it most? Who’d like it and who’d really love it? I’m talking about a win next weekend at Hampden but unsurprisingly, because this is Scottish football and therefore much more complicated than real life, the four contenders are refusing to be categorised and squashed into the boxes I’ve tried to allocate them.
For instance, we could argue that Celtic would like to beat Rangers and go on and win the Scottish Cup, but do they need to win the Treble? Admittedly, one club scooping up all three domestic trophies doesn’t happen all that often, but surely if you can’t have everything and you have to give up something, Celtic’s fans if offered the choice might prefer to win that last Old Firm league game instead and go the whole championship unbeaten. The opportunity to become Les Invincibles is even more rare – rarer than hen’s teeth, in fact, which possibly don’t appear as frequently as Brendan Rodgers’ gnashers, generally on show all of the time.
Then there’s Hibernian. They want to win the cup again but after smashing football’s biggest curse last season, all 114 years’ worth, the Leith team might struggle to advance a claim for retaining it being an imperative. Then again, the victory parade went absolutely everywhere. To schools, youth clubs and old folks’ homes where Hibs-supporting residents thought that, having paid all their taxes, it would be a gentle and excitement-free procession of warm soup and afternoon bingo towards that other great certainty. The parade went to ghost grounds like Kilbowie and Muirton and Cathkin Park where, previously, interest in the cup had abruptly ended. If they could have sent the holey pail on a moon-shot, Hibs would – to Mars even. If they could have stuffed it in a Blue Peter time capsule so no one else could win it in this lifetime, they would. So, yes, giving it up could well be traumatic for the players and supporters. An entirely new strain of Hibee grief may be about to spill over Hampden’s slopes.
But when it comes to loving a semi-final victory maybe Rangers have the edge. And when it comes to needing one surely that’s Aberdeen. For Rangers, the return to the top flight hasn’t gone as well as they’d hoped. Joey Barton will figure in all the soon-to-be compiled reviews of season 2016-17 under biggest embarrassments, then he’ll be moved to the roll-call of the Ibrox side’s worst-ever signings, then he’ll vanish completely from the collective memory. The Premiership had heard a lot about manager Mark Warburton’s magic hat from his romp through the second tier and were intrigued. It wasn’t of the chaotic nature of Tommy Cooper’s fez when it emerged at Rugby Park and Tynecastle; rather it was too rigid. Warburton, right, plonked it on his head at a certain angle and he wasn’t going to change it for anyone. And the angle wasn’t a jaunty one. The man became quite charmless by the end but, looking back, even at the beginning when he wouldn’t mention the opposition by name, it never looked like he’d stick around in Scotland very long.
By contrast his successor Pedro Caixinha has been charm personified. Admittedly this is fairly easy to do when you show up with an Iberian tan, an x in your name – suggesting you’ll be quixotic – and a back story of having been a matador. Honestly, for a CV’s previous jobs column, that’s almost unbeatable. I’m pretty sure 1980s pop crooner Rick Astley once sold collapsible greenhouses for a living. Matador is at the opposite end of the spectrum from that.
Last Sunday I went up to Pittodrie preparing to be underwhelmed. When a foreign manager arrives on our shores, the first reaction is to swoon. In England they do this all the time and we do it too. Caixinha’s early swish of the cape – substituting three of his back four when Rangers were losing – had been written up as proof that, in contrast to Warburton, he was willing to change things when they weren’t working. Later it was found out the switch had been forced on him by injuries. We can be too quick to hail these guys’ genius.
Caixinha predicted the Aberdeen line-up before the match. On the long walk to his dug-out he’d flashed his matinee-idol smile at the crabbit locals in the old main stand. The real test would come in the game – the fixture that would be like “going to hell”, the Portuguese was told – so a 3-0 victory was impressive work. Afterwards the press corps got a close-up view of Caixinha’s shoes – powder-blue loafers in suede with patent leather trimmings which you could only really wear if you used to be a matador and had just won 3-0 at Pittodrie. As the voice recorders were plonked down he re-arranged them into a progressive pattern. “My next formation?” he beamed.
Now, there’s only one result the Ibrox hordes cherish more than victory over Aberdeen and that’s beating Celtic. Still new in the job, Caixinha could ride out respectable defeat against the city rivals in many countries but not here – not in both Old Firm fixtures that remain, anyway. Rangers fans will demand that Celtic’s bubble is burst and much as it would pain them to see Brendan Rodgers’ side go unbeaten the entire league campaign I reckon they’d prefer to win next Sunday, especially if lifting the cup could come at Hibs’ expense. They’ll be desperate to gain revenge for what happened in last season’s final, and beating Neil Lennon would be a bonus.
The public-order precautions for such a showdown – 9am kick-off? On a Tuesday? All police leave cancelled? – would be a logistical nightmare. Aberdeen can prevent this and, for their sakes, they simply have to be in the final themselves. They have to start living up to all those comparisons made with fine Dons sides of the past. They have to redeem themselves after that insipid showing in the League Cup final that bordered on the wimpish. They have to win more than one trophy – fortunately achieved on penalties against plucky Inverness Caley Thistle – following their manager’s bold talk of “legacy”. They have to start turning up in big games because, for want of a better phrase, they don’t want to end up with a reputation for “Aberdeening it”.