The Final Hurdle

CELTIC’S ROLLERCOASTER RELATIONSHIP WITH THE LEAGUE CUP

 scottish-league-cup-trophy

 

Celtic’s relationship with the League Cup has never been an easy one.  From awkward first liaisons to moments of sheer bliss (Hampden In The Sun) and a period of sustained love and harmony, it has ultimately proved a bitter and painful coupling – with only occasional moments of satisfaction in recent times.  Could all that be about to change this weekend?

It took Celtic ten years after the League Cup’s introduction in 1946 to reach a final.  This was one of the club’s most barren periods and it took a replay in that first final – against Partick Thistle – for it to sit proudly on the old Celtic Park sideboard, where the Scottish Cup and the old League trophy had been regular residents.  That Celtic team, managed by Jimmy McGrory, liked it so much they went right back out and won it the following season, in the most amazing circumstances:  7-1 against Rangers, a record British senior cup final score to this day.

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United Irishmen:  Captain Bertie Peacock and Charlie Tully celebrate the 7-1

Yet, seven years would pass before we made it into another League Cup final, losing 2-1 to Rangers in front of 91,423 fans in 1964.  This was the first of an incredible run of FOURTEEN straight appearances in the competition’s Final tie, from season 1964-5 through to 1977-8.  After that initial disappointment, Jock Stein’s team won it five years in succession.  Rangers were defeated the first two years of the five, 2-1 (Hughes 2) and 1-0 (Lennox) respectively.  This was followed by an extraordinary final against Dundee in 1967 where the teams shared eight goals, Celtic running out 5-3 winners (with five goals being scored in the last 17 minutes!).

A feast of goals was repeated the next year when Hibs were beaten 6-2 with Bobby Lennox grabbing a hat-trick. A more straightforward 1-0 victory over St Johnstone in October 1969 thanks to a Bertie Auld goal meant it was five League Cups in a row for Celtic – a feat that has not been equalled in the competition – and the club were developing a strong attachment to the trophy, as were the support.

Cheers soon turned to jeers though.  Despite reaching the final in the following eight years, Celtic would only record a single victory – the memorable 6-3 thrashing of Hibs in 1974 when Dixie Deans scored three.  The lamentable stretch either side of that final included three defeats to Rangers, a shock 1-0 loss to Dundee who had Celtic favourite Tommy Gemmell in their side – as well as the barely believable (even after more than 40 years!) 4-1 hammering from Partick Thistle, with the Jags having scored the four goals without reply by the 37th minute.

From the mid-70s onwards the League Cup was as popular with the Celtic support as a fart in an elevator.  The Celtic players became disenchanted too with four years elapsing before another final appearance, leading this time a rare victory:  2-1 against Rangers in December 1982, thanks to Nicholas and McLeod.  Was Celtic’s luck in the competition beginning to change?

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Sombrero-sporting Tommy Burns and Davie Provan celebrate in ’82

Not a bit of it.  The competition was now in the midst of a myriad of name-changes thanks to sponsors ranging from Skol Lager to Coca-Cola and Bell’s Whisky to CIS Insurance, and underwent various changes in formats and times to make it more popular with fans and to work around ever-increasing European commitments.  (It is now sponsored by what sounds like a bookie’s stall in the Barras).

The fine trophy lost a bit of its lustre along the way and remained a stranger at Celtic Park.  From the 1982 success Celtic did not win it again until 1997, fifteen ridiculously long years.  In that time another three miserable finals were lost to Rangers but the 1994 loss on penalties to First Division Raith Rovers was much, much more painful to endure (you may have heard of it – it’s on virtual auto-replay on the BBC Sport Scotland website and their radio and TV platforms).  It took goals from Rieper, Larsson and Burley beat Dundee United 3-0 at Ibrox in November 1997 to finally end the miserable sequence, allowing Wim Jansen to claim the trophy in what was to prove a momentous season for Celtic.

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AwNawThere’sAnnoniOanAnawNoo – Rico enjoys the moment in 1997

It was next won two years in succession in very different circumstances.  A 2-0 win over Ebbe Skovdahl’s Aberdeen (Riseth, Johnson) in March 2000 was scant consolation for a club and support still reeling from a home Scottish Cup KO by Inverness Caley Thistle and the resulting departure of manager John Barnes.  Things were so, so different a year later though when a Henrik Larsson hat-trick against Kilmarnock secured Celtic’s first Treble since 1968-9 (only the 3rd in the club’s history) in Martin O’Neill’s first season in charge.

That was as much joy as the Blessed Martin had in the competition.  Gordon Strachan’s team were the next Celts to win the cup in 2006, beating Dunfermline 3-0 (Zurawski, Maloney and Dublin) and it was the current Scotland manager who struck silver again three years later, beating Rangers 2-0 after extra time with goals from Irishmen O’Dea and McGeady making it a memorable St Patrick’s celebration.

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Big Mick McManus captains Celtic to victory over Walter Smiths’ Rangers in 2008

Only once has the League Cup been in Celtic hands since – in March last year when Kris Commons and James Forrest delivered a 2-0 Hampden win over Dundee United.  Ronny Delia was to be denied a Treble in both his seasons in charge but there is real optimism abounding that Brendan Rodgers will be able to go one better.

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To do so he has to tip the weight of League Cup Finals in Celtic’s favour:  at present we’ve reached the final thirty times but won only fifteen of them.  It is truly a lamentable record and one that needs to improve.  If Celtic are to ever fall in love with the competition again, a sustained run of success is needed.  Reverting to an early season competition with a final before Christmas might just help, especially if this season’s form can be repeated in the years ahead.

While Celtic are unbeaten domestically, Aberdeen will prove tough opponents on Sunday.  Their form has improved of late and they have a decent strike-force to select from.  It should be a memorable encounter.  It is hard to escape the feeling though that Celtic have rarely been better placed to win this trickiest of trophies than right here, right now.  If anyone can deliver that fine old piece of silverware – and perhaps lead us on to a much sought-after and historic Treble – the man from Carnlough can.

Amen.

 

 

EDIT:   Job done!  16-15

 

Aberdeen v Celtic - Scottish League Cup Final

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Read more Celtic retro pieces in our magazine:  The Shamrock  Issue 3 out now

£3 digital; £4 by post 

On sale at Celtic Park on matchdays and at Calton Books on the London Road (at the Barras)

More info here:   https://theshamrockglasgow.wordpress.com/magazine/

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Covers of Issue 1and 2 together small


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