Celtic and the League Cup – Part 1
This seems as good a week as any to publish a blog on the League Cup. Actually, this blog comes from a chapter of a book I’ve been working on for some time, but whether or not I’ll ever do anything with that book remains to be seen. So, rather than keep it hidden away for all of time and let it get more and more obsolete – this was last looked at in September 2013 after all – I figure it may as well go up as a blog. So, here we are. Part One – a history of the competition.
I hate the League Cup.
Okay, maybe hate is too strong a word, but I really do have a strong disliking for the tournament. There’s two main reasons for that. One, I don’t see the need for it. Two, Celtic have a bizarrely dreadful history in it for no apparent logical reason. But to fully explain this, it’s probably best if we start at the beginning. For the League Cup that means going back to war time.
During the First World War, the Scottish Cup was suspended between 1914 and 1919. Since Celtic had beaten Hibernian in the final of 1914, that meant holding onto the prestigious trophy for the next six years until Kilmarnock won the final against Albion Rovers in 1920. However, the league championship continued throughout this period – albeit without it’s second tier counterpart which was suspended. The reason for this was to ensure that the people had something to enjoy during wartime. After all, the depressing news from the continent meant they needed lifting. Besides, with the fighting taking place on foreign shores there really wasn’t much need to stop football altogether, and everyone initially thought it would be over by Christmas anyway.
However, that wasn’t the case when the Second World War came about in 1939. Once more the Scottish Cup was suspended following Clyde’s victory over Motherwell and did not resume until 1946 and ultimately Aberdeen’s 1947 triumph over Hibernian. But this time the Scottish League was also suspended with Rangers winning the 1938/39 and 1946/47 leagues on either side of that war time break. Of course, that’s not to say there wasn’t any football during the period in between.
During the period of the war, regional leagues took the place of the national league. The first season saw an Eastern and Western split in the regions, but with money concentrated in the west, the Edinburgh clubs were set to lose out. Nevertheless, the Scottish League had hoped to resume quite quickly and it was only ever a temporary solution. That is until Dunkirk saw the British forces kicked out of the continent, at which point the Scottish League gave up entirely.
The clubs themselves then took over. The original setup was reorganised into Southern and North-Eastern leagues, allowing the Edinburgh clubs to once again meet up with their Glasgow counterparts. However, the setup of the new leagues meant that they were several games short of the number they had played previously. In 1938/39, the league season had lasted 38 games. The new setup of 16 teams meant only 30. Something had to be done to increase the number of matches and so the Southern League Cup and North-Eastern League Cup were introduced.
When wartime ended in 1945, the Scottish League couldn’t organise quick enough to get the 1945/46 season up and running and so the clubs own competitions continued in a newly merged state. The North-Eastern League was scrapped and the Southern League played out it’s league and cup competitions under the now somewhat inaccurate name for one final season. This was never more evident than when the final Southern League Cup was won by a team from the North-East: Aberdeen.
With the SFA restarting the Scottish Cup, and the Scottish League finally ready to resume the proper league championship, you would have thought that things would have returned to their pre-war state. The Southern League was finished – although the Scottish League made use of the setup to bring in a three tier system – and the Southern League Cup would go with it. After all, while the Scottish Cup was open to non-league clubs, the Southern League Cup had been a “league members only” competition.
Nevertheless, the competition was popular and so remained in place, league members only rule and all. Although officially the League Cup was introduced in the 1946/47 season and saw Rangers beat Aberdeen in the final, Aberdeen still lay claim to the 1945/46 title as an official honour. To put that into perspective, all five of the Southern League titles as well as the Western League title were won by Rangers, however those six league victories do not count in their total haul of 54 championships prior to liquidation in 2012.
The Scottish League Cup did initially offer something different. The early stages of the tournament were organised as a group phase, very similar to that of today’s Uefa Champions League and Europa League. The competition saw 8 groups of 4 teams each, where both teams would play each other home and away before the best teams from each group would advance to a knockout phase.
Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that as the Scottish Football League quickly grew to have more than 32 teams. A ninth group comprising of five or six of the lower teams – who would only face each other once – would see the winner play another group winner for a place in the final rounds which consisted of two legs, home and away, up to and including the quarter final stage. Often the quarter final stage was the only stage after the playoff, but occasionally more than one team would advance from the group stage and a second round was also necessary. Both the semi final and the final were contested at a neutral venue.
With the advent of the Scottish Premier League in 1975, and the introduction of a smaller top division where teams played each other four times a season rather than twice – as well as increased European competition – meant that the League Cup’s group stage configuration began to lose it’s popularity among the clubs. In the 1977/78 season the tournament switched to an all two-leg setup from the first round. This setup lasted for four seasons until the group stages returned in 1981/82. By 1983/84 the group stages had been moved to the third round, meaning only four groups containing the sixteen teams to make it through the first two rounds were needed.
By 1984/85 the groups had been removed altogether and a shorter tournament with just one tie at each round except the semi final stage was introduced, and even that two leg setup was switched back to a single tie for the 1986/87 season. With some teams getting byes through the early rounds, by this point in the tournament’s history it was now possible to win just five matches for a team to get their hands on the trophy. Compare that with six matches just in the group stage alone and you can see just how much the tournament has been reduced in forty years.
The 1990s also saw the tournament’s prestige killed off further. Prior to 1995, the winners of the tournament had been rewarded with a place in the following season’s Uefa Cup competition. However, with Scotland’s European places being cut, this privilege was removed and the places were reserved for the league. When the Uefa Cup Winners’ Cup was scrapped in 1999, the Scottish Cup winners were given a Uefa Cup berth as a replacement.
Then in 1999/2000 the tournament became even more farcical when it was decided to move the final two rounds from their customary place on the calendar. In 1946/47 the final had been played in April, however from 1947/48 until 1998/99 the final would regularly take place in the Autumn. There were occasional exceptions to this during the group stage years due to weather – and in 1968/69 due to a fire at Hampden – but most of the finals had been played somewhere between October and December each season.
The reason for moving the latter stages to the new year was simple. Scotland was trying to improve its lot in Europe. The hope was that Scotland’s representatives would be too busy in the Champions League and the Uefa Cup to play in the tournament, and since most – if not all – of them would be out of the competitions before Christmas then the League Cup could easily be finished in the new year. To back this up, all European competitors were now granted a bye to the third round of the tournament. Yes, that meant it could now take only four wins to get your hands on silverware! It also meant that on occasion the holders of the tournament, who were not granted entry into Europe, could be knocked out of the competition before some teams had even entered it.
The sad truth of the matter is that the League Cup has lost its meaning – if indeed it ever had one to begin with. The trophy is the third domestic prize of three. Yes, it’s great to win it if you don’t get near silverware often. Yes, it’s great to win it if you haven’t won anything in a while. Yes, it’s great to win it if you’re going for the treble. But what’s it worth?
It shouldn’t be possible to win a trophy after just four matches. Mind you, it only takes five to win the Scottish Cup due to the byes given to most of the top teams, so maybe that’s a harsh criticism of the competition in the 21st century. But when you factor in the lack of European competition for the winner then you have to wonder what’s going on. In 2013, St Mirren won the League Cup. To do that, they had to beat Ayr United, Hamilton Academical, Aberdeen, Celtic and Hearts. That’s five teams, including three from the top division in Scotland. Meanwhile in the Scottish Cup, Hibernian beat Hearts, Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, and Falkirk before losing to Celtic in the final. That’s only four teams, again three of them from the top division in Scotland, but ultimately they didn’t win the tournament. Yet if you take a look at Scotland’s representatives in Europe for 2013/14, you’ll see that they included Hibernian and not St Mirren.
Even if Hibernian had won the Scottish Cup, why should they get the place in Europe and not St Mirren? Yes, they won the more prestigious tournament, but it would have been the same number of wins to do so. They would both have had to beat the Scottish champions to do it as well, so surely these are two teams that are more than capable of stepping up their game when required, as is the case in Europe?
Of course, many will suggest that the European places should be reserved for the league. Apparently, not winning across 38 matches is better than not winning across 5. It’s difficult to argue against that, and indeed Inverness Caledonian Thistle who finished fourth in the SPL and missed out on a European spot on the final day of the 2012/13 league season may very well have been a better option than Hibernian for 2013/14 who lost to Swedish team Malmo in the second qualifying round – the same round they had entered to the competition. Unfortunately, we’ll never know if either St Mirren or Inverness Caledonian Thistle would have fared better than Hibernian.
There may be a chance to revive the League Cup. The group stages had offered something different than was offered by the Scottish Cup, but with the increased number of games between teams at the top level that appeal diminished. With league reconstruction almost habitually on the table for discussion as teams seek the latest way forward for the game in Scotland, a return to larger leagues is always possible. In fact, a reorganised league Cup may indeed be the way to solve some of the issues many have with the larger leagues.
Prior to their demise in 2012, Rangers matches against Celtic had been the big draw for television companies. With three guaranteed a season – four realistically given neither team would finish outside the SPL top six – they were the money spinning ties. For the teams outside the big two, the draw was getting two home games against each and all the money the large travelling supports would bring. Increasing the size of the league would cut both the big games on offer to the television companies and the travelling support numbers for the other clubs in half.
Rangers may be gone, but their replacement still has the same following. The top flight teams are now used to the reduced number of big travelling support matches and should the new Rangers reach the top flight as many expect then it would be of no loss at all to expand the size of the league. The two visits by Celtic supporters would become one visit by both clubs and everything would be as it is now. The only thing missing would be the four games between the big two.
Unless, of course, you reorganise the League Cup into regionalised group stages. With the big two in the same group they would meet each other an additional two times. Added to the league matches, the Glasgow derby between the two biggest supported teams in the city would suddenly be back up to four a season from it’s current zero a season – a return to the pre-2012 number of matches. Indeed, in a truly regionalised setup there would be more Glasgow derbies than you could shake a stick at with Partick Thistle and Queen’s Park joining the party on a regular basis.
Of course, the issue then would become the number of extra games the teams were playing. A return to the group stages would mean more than four fixtures for the European competitors to win the tournament. Aside from that possibly being a good thing for the competition’s credibility, a new league setup would actually make room for it. Currently the SPL consists of 38 games a season with 12 teams. Increased to 16 teams, each playing each other twice, would mean a drop to 30 league games a season while 18 teams would mean a smaller drop to 34. The additional 4-8 games would certainly not be difficult to find in a newly reconstructed League Cup if coupled with league reconstruction as well.
Of course, Uefa will no doubt have the final say in what happens to the League Cup. Increasing the number of matches in Europe has certainly been a driving force in what happens to domestic cup competitions. The reduction of the League Cup coincided with the expansion of the European competitions, while the decision to move the Champions League final to a Saturday from a Wednesday even saw the Scottish Cup final of 2013 take place on a Sunday for the first time. Chances are, the League Cup is more likely to be consigned to the scrapheap. Or at least follow the Glasgow Cup path to youth level.