Celtic and the League Cup – Part 2
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 Two – Celtic’s early history in the competition.
To be honest, I can’t say I’d miss it. As a Celtic supporter, I’ve seen more misery in this one tournament than in any other. Which, I’ll admit, is a bold statement given some of our European campaigns and the fact I grew up through Rangers nine in a row! Nevertheless, it is one which I stand by, because I’ve also seen some great European nights and we did stop the ten. The League Cup? Well… let’s start from the beginning again, and this time look at the competition from a Celtic perspective.
After the Second World War, Celtic were a shadow of their former selves. Willie Maley was gone as the manager, and Jimmy McStay had come and gone through the war years. Jimmy McGrory was now manager, and as many have said about him he was a gentle, kind man. Really not the kind of person you’d think of as a strong manager, and indeed much has been written about how it was really the likes of Chairman Bob Kelly who was the man to do things like pick the team.
It wasn’t just the manager though. Celtic had done little in the regional league years and after the war things were not looking any better. Indeed, Celtic were almost relegated in 1948, such was the plight of the club at the time. No wonder then that it took until 1950/51 to even advance beyond the group stages in the League Cup – where they promptly lost to eventual winners Motherwell. The following year saw Celtic go one better and reach the semi finals, only to lose to Rangers who then lost to Dundee in the final.
Celtic wouldn’t get out of the group stages again until 1956/57, but this time they would go all the way. Having topped a group with Rangers in it, Celtic then beat Dunfermline Athletic 6-3 on aggregate in the quarter final before beating Clyde 2-0 in the semi final. After a 0-0 draw against Partick Thistle in the first match, Celtic won the replay 3-0 and finally had their hands on the trophy ten years after it had begun. But it was the following season which would pass into folklore.
The holders once again advanced from their group where they would meet Third Lanark in the semi final. Winning 6-1 in the home leg and 3-0 in the away leg, Celtic advanced to the semi final where – like the previous season – they beat Clyde, this time by a scoreline of 4-2. Waiting in the final were Rangers, a gorgeous October day, and history.
“Oh Hampden in the Sun, Celtic 7, Rangers 1”
The song itself came from “Island in the Sun”, a 1957 number one hit for Harry Belafonte from the movie of the same name. It’s all in the timing as they say.
The scoreline was as brilliant as it was unexpected. Rangers as reigning Scottish League champions were expected to win the match, but this first meeting of the two teams in the final of the tournament was not for living up to such a billing. Celtic were simply on fire for the final, while Rangers weren’t quite at the races. Sammy Wilson put Celtic ahead midway through the first half while Neilly Mochan made it 2-0 to Celtic just before half time. Billy McPhail added to Celtic’s lead just before the hour mark, but Rangers pulled one back a minute later through Billy Simpson. There would be no sense of a comeback though as McPhail scored his second and Celtic’s fourth just minutes later, while Mochan got his second and Celtic’s fifth with fifteen minutes remaining. Still time then for McPhail to complete his hat-trick and Willie Fernie to complete the rout from the penalty spot in the final minute of the game.
On the plus side for Rangers, Celtic did hit the woodwork four times. 7-1 is bad enough without the score reaching double figures!
While John Valentine, a Rangers defender who had signed earlier that season from Queen’s Park, never kicked a ball for the club again it wasn’t just him who would suffer in the aftermath of the game. This 1957 victory was Celtic’s last trophy for almost eight years – until Billy McNeill’s header in the 1965 Scottish Cup final ended the drought. Celtic’s hold on the League Cup ended when Partick Thistle won the 1958/59 semi final 2-1. Celtic would fail to even get out of the group again until that 1964/65 season when they would lose 2-1 to Rangers in the final. However, with Jock Stein taking over at the helm shortly after that defeat in October of 1964, it would turn out to be the start of a remarkable run of consecutive appearances in the final of the tournament.
Celtic would beat Rangers 2-1 in 1965/66 final and 1-0 in the 1966/67 final. They would then go on to beat Dundee 5-3 in the 1967/68 final, Hibernian 6-2 in the 1968/69 final and St Johnstone 1-0 in the 1969/70 final. Five consecutive victories in the tournament had never been done before, and at the time of writing no team has even come close to emulating this achievement of Jock Stein’s Celtic. Indeed, in 1966/67 and 1968/69 the League Cup triumphs were part of Celtic’s two domestic trebles under Stein in what was a truly remarkable period under the legendary manager.
But just as winning 7-1 in 1957 had then been followed up by a pretty abysmal performance in the tournament for the next decade, so to the terrific five in a row was followed up by a remarkable run of disappointments. In October 1970, Rangers finally ended Celtic’s stranglehold of the League Cup by defeating the holders 1-0 in the final. If anyone was to stop Celtic, few would be surprised that the name doing so would be Rangers.
When Celtic reached the final for an eighth consecutive time the following season, many assumed that Partick Thistle would be put to the sword and Celtic would reclaim the trophy once more. Unfortunately for Celtic, that may have crossed the minds of the players too. Alex Rae, Bobby Lawrie, Denis McQuade and Jimmy Bone had Thistle 4-0 up by half time, and I’m sure many would love to hear what Jock Stein said in the dressing room at half-time that day! Curiously, despite the abysmal scoreline, my dad tells me that the attitude in the terracing wasn’t quite as angry as you’d expect. Indeed, as the Thistle goals had rained in, he tells me that the Celtic support’s response was a far more patronising one.
“Oh look, they’ve scored! Aww how nice for them.”
“Oh look, they’ve scored again! Oh they’ll be in for it now!”
“3-0! We’re really making a game of this today!”
“4-0? Wait a minute…”
Which was then finally followed by “Hurrah! 4-1! Leaving it a bit late today, aren’t you Kenny?” as Dalglish scored Celtic’s consolation in the 70th minute.
Dalglish would score the consolation again the following year as Hibernian won the 1972/73 final 2-1, while 1973/74 saw Dundee beat Celtic 1-0 in what was Celtic’s tenth consecutive final appearance. You’ll note that five in a row had now become five wins and five losses.
Celtic did win the cup again in 1974/75 as Hibernian were roundly beaten 6-3 thanks to a Dixie Deans hat-trick, curiously one of two hat tricks scored that day as all three Hibernian goals came from Joe Harper. It’s not often a player scores a hat trick in a final and still has to pick up a runners-up medal! Nevertheless, that first final victory in five was merely a blip as defeat once more came round in the final of 1975/76 as Rangers won 1-0.
And then 2-1 to Aberdeen in the 1976/77 final.
And then 2-1 to Rangers in the 1977/78 final.
Celtic’s run of fourteen consecutive final appearances finally came to an end in 1978/79 when Rangers won 3-2 in the semi final before going on to retain the cup against Aberdeen in the final. I’m sure it was a shock to the system to see the final played without Celtic for the first time in well over a decade, but perhaps it was a blessing. After fourteen final appearances and only six victories, maybe it was getting a little tiresome trudging out of Hampden Park disappointed more often than not.
1979/80 saw Aberdeen knock Celtic out in the quarter final stages, while Dundee United would win the semi final against Celtic in 1980/81 to set up a Dundee derby in the final which they would win 3-0.
1981/82 is where I come in. Despite the fact I have no love for the League Cup – as should be abundantly clear by now – in actual fact Celtic played in the tournament on the very day on which I was born. The very first game Celtic played after I had come into the world was a 4-1 victory over St Johnstone thanks to goals from Frank McGarvey, two from Davie Provan, and one from Charlie Nicholas. I guess it was fitting that Nicholas should score on that day, given he had went to the same school as my dad – albeit a few years younger. He tells me Charlie was a dreadful basketball player.
The St Johnstone goalscorer that day? A young up and coming striker named Ally McCoist. Although it was only a consolation, he ruined the chance of a clean sheet on the day of my birth and it wouldn’t be the last time he’d be along to mess things up for me.
Despite that 4-1 win, Celtic had got off to a bad start in the group and it wasn’t enough to overhaul St Mirren at the top of it. Yet another season of failing to get out of the group stage. Fortunately, the 1982/83 season saw Celtic once more get their hands on the trophy thanks to a 2-1 win over Rangers. It was the first time Celtic had won the League Cup in eight years. It was also the last they would win it for another fifteen.
Clearly I’m not old enough to remember that final in the December of 1982, so my first memory of Celtic getting their hands on the League Cup didn’t come until the November of 1997. This just wasn’t a trophy Celtic won as far as I was concerned. Need any more proof of this? Well lets continue then, because the story gets worse from here.
It starts off in March 1984 – yes, a late League Cup final – and sees Rangers beat Celtic 3-2 thanks to an Ally McCoist hat trick. Told you he came back. 1984/85 was defeat to Dundee United in the quarter final. 1985/86 was defeat on penalties to Hibernian at the same stage. 1986/87 was a 2-1 defeat to Rangers in the final.
Then came 1987/88. Celtic’s centenary year is another one of those fairytales in the club’s history. In our 100th year, we came off the back of a disappointing 1986/87 season to win a league and cup double and in so doing became the first ever centenary club champions. What’s missing from that story? The League Cup. A 1-0 defeat to Aberdeen in the quarter final made sure of that.
This is another habit of the League Cup, it crops up to slightly spoil wonderful seasons. But it also serves to illustrate a point. The League Cup is indeed “the diddy cup” in Scotland. Win a treble and it’s amazing. Win the league and cup double and it’s celebrated and you tend to largely forget about the League Cup. Win the league and League Cup double and people still remember disappointments in the Scottish Cup. It doesn’t work the other way round.
1988/89 saw another quarter final exit at the hands of Dundee United. Who then lost to Aberdeen. Who then lost to Rangers. 1989/90 it was Aberdeen in the semi final. At least this time Aberdeen went on to beat Rangers in the final.
Then there’s 1990/91. As I’ve mentioned previously, this was the time when my football memories seem to kick into life. Well, if you’ve read Paul Larkin’s Poles ‘n’ Goals and Hesselink, then you’ll have read about the goal that Paul Elliott scored in the League Cup final of 1990. It was an audacious duck down to head the ball opener, and one that set him in stone as my first true Celtic hero.
Of course, Celtic went on to lose the final 2-1 in extra time.
Up until this point, only that Partick Thistle defeat in 1970/71 was really an eyebrow raiser. Group stage defeats were disappointing, but they can happen in that kind of setup and you can’t really point to any one game as a shock. There was no real cup shocks when losing to Rangers or Aberdeen or Dundee United or even Hibernian. But the 1990s would soon make sure that they were thrown our way as well.