Celtic and the League Cup – Part 3
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 Three – Celtic’s recent history in the competition.
1991/92 saw Celtic lose on penalties to Airdrieonians in the quarter final. Airdrieonians would then lose to Dunfermline Athletic on penalties in the semi final, who themselves would lose to Hibernian in the final. Airdrie had only come up from the First Division that season, so this was maybe only a small shock for Celtic. By 1992/93 it was back to normal with a semi final defeat to Aberdeen instead. Who then lost the final to Rangers.
1993/94 was more about the off-field events than the on-field events at Celtic. Another season without a trophy was of little consequence when the club came so close to financial catastrophe, but it was still disappointing to lose to Rangers in the semi final of the League Cup. Finishing fourth in the league and going out in the third round of the Scottish Cup meant this was as close as Celtic got to ending the drought that season.
But then came 1994/95. Celtic were now under Fergus McCann, Celtic Park was being rebuilt, Tommy Burns was in charge, the football was better to watch – even if it was being played at Hampden – and we were even starting to compete for silverware again as we dispatched Ayr United, Dundee, Dundee United and even Aberdeen from the League Cup. Better still, it was a First Division side in the final. Surely Raith Rovers wouldn’t pose any threat to Celtic getting Tommy Burns’s tenure off to the perfect start?
With Celtic calling Hampden home for the season, the SFL moved the final to Ibrox to “even things up”. Yeah, great, thanks for that. We should have known this wasn’t going to be our day from that alone. But still, the Celtic support went along in high spirits… only to be knocked down a few pegs when Stevie Crawford gave Raith Rovers the lead in the opening twenty minutes. Still, just after the half hour mark Andy Walker levelled the game and the panic was over.
Then it took forever for Celtic to take the lead. It’s not that Celtic weren’t the better team, they just couldn’t find their way to goal if they were given a map and compass. At least not until Andy Walker hit the post and Charlie Nicholas knocked in the rebound to give us the lead with six minutes remaining! This was it, Celtic were finally going to win a trophy! I watched on at home, eagerly awaiting the final whistle. I couldn’t remember Celtic winning a trophy before – that’s what happened when your last trophy comes in 1989 and your memories start in 1990 – but this was finally going to be it!
Sadly Celtic forgot to bother defending after taking the lead and Gordon Dalziel equalised just two minutes later. I’m never quite sure what was worse, the initial save from Gordon Marshall that pretty much handed it to Dalziel on a plate, or the fact that Dalziel was so free inside Celtic’s penalty area in the first place.
So that took us to extra time, where no one else scored. So, penalties it was then. Gordon Marshall hadn’t exactly had a decent game until this point, while Scott Thomson in the Raith Rovers goal had been something of a hero in the semi final as they’d beaten Airdrieonians on penalties. So it shouldn’t really have been a surprise when he saved Paul McStay’s penalty – Celtic’s sixth – and won the cup for Raith Rovers.
That final took a long time to get over. Well, I say that, I’m not actually sure I’m over it now more than twenty years later. Winning the Scottish Cup a few months later helped – curiously playing that final at Hampden wasn’t a problem this time – but Raith Rovers is one of those names that just sends a shiver down the spine when you hear it because you can’t help but remember that dark day in 1994. At Ibrox too, yuck.
1995/96 was back to normal though as Rangers knocked Celtic out in the quarter final stages with a 1-0 win, while Hearts did likewise the following year – albeit in extra time. But then came 1997/98. I was sixteen years old by this point, and nearing the end of my time at school. Wim Jansen was in charge, and Celtic had thumped Berwick Rangers 7-0 before beaten St Johnstone, Motherwell and Dunfermline Athletic each 1-0 to once more reach the League Cup final.
Unfortunately, Hampden was being renovated again – as seemed to happen a lot through the 1990s – so once more the final had to take place at Ibrox. Oh no, not again. This time though, the opponents would be fellow top tier team Dundee United. There would be no repeat of the shock of three years earlier as goals from Marc Rieper, Henrik Larsson and Craig Burley ensured that I would finally see Celtic lift the League Cup.
Okay, so I was watching on television in the house just as I had been as a toddler in 1982, but this was a triumph I could finally remember. I can still see Larsson’s goal take the deflection that looped it over the goalkeeper. That goal had meant everything to me. A single goal lead was good, but I’d seen us bin that quickly against Raith Rovers. To get the second so quickly after the first was a wonderful relief. The fact we actually won the trophy without conceding a goal to any of the teams we met never even crossed my mind until I saw it reported long after the trophy had been handed out.
Sadly, the happiness in the tournament was as short lived as Jansen’s tenure. The following season we went out to Airdrieonians at the first time of asking, who by this time were back to being a lower league team. Oddly I have no recollection of this match, which considering it took place on my birthday is somewhat unusual. Probably because it was an early round tie away from home and would barely have been covered on the radio never mind anywhere else.
1999/2000, as I stated earlier, saw the final move from Autumn to Spring. This meant that the final was played in 2000 rather than 1999, and happily means that Celtic actually became the first Scottish team to win a trophy this millennium as they defeated Aberdeen 2-0 in the final. Sadly, very few people were bothered. This was the year of “The Dream Team” and by the time the trophy was won the name Inverness Caledonian Thistle had been etched into all our minds and Kenny Dalglish had taking temporary charge after the sacking of John Barnes.
From a personal point of view, this final annoyed me for a different reason. I didn’t have a season ticket at this point, but I’d been picking up tickets for the odd game. One of those was the semi final against Kilmarnock which Celtic won 1-0 thanks to Lubo Moravcik’s header in off the bar. The game took place just a week after the Inverness match, and so you could practically have heard a pin drop in the Celtic end such was the support’s enthusiasm for the match. Celtic had an allocation of 40,000 for the match, they sold less than half.
Of course, when Celtic made the final everyone snapped up a ticket. Such was the demand for the final, us poor non-season ticket holders who had actually bothered to turn up for the semi final never even got the chance of a ticket for the final. Am I bitter? Of course I am. This trophy annoys me at the best of times, and on the one chance I might actually get to go and see us win the damn thing it gets snatched away from me. Even when we win, I lose.
2000/01 was much better. The final that year was actually something of a breath of fresh air compared to so many that had gone before it. With Celtic facing Kilmarnock, Henrik Larsson gave us the lead just after half time. Then Chris Sutton was sent off for what was deemed a reckless challenge but was nothing of the sort, only for Larsson to score another two goals – his third being absolutely priceless as he rolled the ball under his foot to completely confuse Gordon Marshall (ha ha, revenge!) – and win the first of a clean sweep. Yes, our third domestic treble!
The semi final had seen us beat Rangers for what seemed like the first time in an absolute age in a cup competition too. I honestly couldn’t remember when we had last beaten Rangers in the League Cup prior to February 2001 at the time, and of course I couldn’t because it was that final in December 1982.
So, with that success finally making us feel better about this tournament again we’re done with the misery, right?
The following season Rangers got revenge by beating Celtic 2-1 after extra time in the semi final. That’s bad enough on it’s own, but when you consider the winner came from Bert Konterman of all people it’s actually quite embarrassing as well. This is a guy who a year and a half previous had admitted his mum had taught him how to play football. Having been nutmegged by Larsson just a few days previous to that admission we all had a good laugh. Well it wasn’t so funny after that winning goal, that’s for sure.
Then came 2002/03. This one probably stings me more than most because it was my first year as a season ticket holder and that meant I actually got to go to the final against Rangers. Not only was I going to the final but this was, in fact, my first Rangers game. I’d say Glasgow derby, but after getting revenge on Inverness in the third round we’d played Partick Thistle in the quarter final. That lead to the most ridiculous penalty shootout I’ve ever seen. Celtic may have won it 5-4, but that wasn’t after ten penalties that was after eighteen! Partick Thistle actually had three separate chances to win the tie and each time failed to do so. Dundee United were then beaten 3-0 in the semi final to setup the big final.
Sadly though, Celtic didn’t turn up. This was the period of the supposed “indian sign” that Alex McLeish had over Martin O’Neill. What he actually did was play 4-3-3 against Celtic’s 3-5-2 and our defence got overwhelmed. Once O’Neill switched to 4-4-2 the “indian sign” mysterious vanished and McLeish’s side lost seven derbies in a row. But that didn’t happen until after this cup final, so instead Celtic found themselves 2-0 down at half time thanks to goals from Claudio Caniggia and Peter Lovenkrands.
Celtic did rally in the game though, and were the better team by the time Henrik Larsson pulled a goal back. But then it all started to go wrong. First a perfectly legitimate John Hartson goal was ruled out for offside, much to the bewilderment of me in the South Stand at Hampden where I had clearly seen he was onside and so had the linesman who was right in front of me. Then Chris Sutton went off with a broken wrist, and Neil Lennon was sent off for a second booking.
But then we got a lifeline. Lorenzo Amoruso pulled down Bobo Balde in the final minutes of the game and Celtic had a penalty. However, we also had no time left on the clock, were a man down on our opponents, and a hugely important Uefa Cup quarter final second leg tie at Anfield against Liverpool coming up just a few days after this final.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know if Hartson thought about all of that but if he did and he missed the penalty on purpose then I’m okay with it. I doubt it, but I like to think he did anyway. There’s no guarantee we’d have won in extra time after all. It’s far more likely we’d have lost with ten men and would have played an extra thirty minutes for nothing. I hate losing to Rangers at any time, especially in finals, but in this cup where I was kind of used to losing anyway?
Look at it this way. Would you trade beating Liverpool – a game in which John Hartson himself scored a cracking goal – at Anfield, and the trip to the Uefa Cup final in Seville that came as a direct consequence of that win, for a Scottish League Cup? I know there’s no guarantee we wouldn’t have gone on to beat Liverpool even if we had played that extra half hour, but this is probably the one League Cup campaign I’m not losing sleep over. I’ll just stick to my belief that had his earlier goal stood correctly and not been wrongly flagged offside then Big Bad John would have stuck away that penalty and we’d have won the League Cup AND went to Seville.
Yes, I’m blaming the official. He was wrong, I could see he was wrong, I had the same view as he did, he has absolutely no excuse for putting that flag up.
2003/04 is another one of those wonderful seasons where the League Cup tries its best to spoil it. We won the league in style, we added the Scottish Cup, we played in the Champions League, we beat Barcelona in the Uefa Cup, we whitewashed Rangers… and we lost to Hibernian in the quarter final of the League Cup.
If you’ve read “From Seville to Sevilla” you know this result annoyed me so much that I soaked a poor guy with a half full cup of Coca Cola as I kicked it in frustration thinking it was empty. If you’re that guy and you didn’t read “From Seville to Sevilla”, again I apologise and I still appreciate that look of “I know how you feel” you gave me instead of giving me the kicking I’d probably have deserved.
2004/05 was another defeat to Rangers, and another game I was at. This one was at Ibrox and that never feels good. It was especially awful as we had been in the lead with six minutes to go before they equalised to go on and win in extra time. Sounds a bit like the 1990/91 final to me, but this time it wasn’t in a bad period for Celtic. Instead, this match was the end of our seven game winning streak against Rangers. It was a fun run of wins while it lasted, I suppose I should have guessed it would end in this tournament.
2005/06 was another tale of success for Celtic in the League Cup. Beating Falkirk and Motherwell on the way to the final was fine, but knocking out Rangers felt good after the result the previous year. Not only that, but at time of writing the March 2006 final is the one and only League Cup final I’ve attended where Celtic have won. Mind you, given the events of the week before it I doubt anyone expected anything else.
With the death of Jimmy Johnstone being announced on the Monday, and his funeral taking place on the Friday, the Sunday final was played in his memory. Poor Dunfermline Athletic never stood a chance. Perhaps fittingly, the opening goal was scored by Celtic’s number 7, the second goal was scored by our wee winger, and the third goal was scored by… Dion Dublin. I’m not sure how the third goal fits in, but it was his first for the club so we’ll give him it.
It was back to depression the following season though, as a home defeat on penalties to Falkirk was on the cards. What made this all the more surprising was the fact they had been hammered 8-1 just twelve months previous in the same tournament. But then that 8-1 win had come against First Division Falkirk, not the SPL Falkirk that were now dumping us out on penalties. 2007/08 also saw us bow out at home before Christmas, this time to Hearts who won 2-0.
The 2008/09 season was another frustrating one for me rather than Celtic. I’d seen us beat Livingston and Kilmarnock on the way to the semi final, and I was even there to witness a drab 120 minutes of football against Dundee United before the longest penalty shootout I’ve ever seen. If the Partick Thistle one was a farce of eighteen penalties with half of them missed, then this twenty four penalty shootout was more a thing of legend. It more than made up for the preceding 120 minutes.
Yes, twenty four. That’s two more than there were players on the park. Scott McDonald scored twice in the shootout for Celtic. Unfortunately for Dundee United, Willo Flood did not and we advanced to the final. There had been an earlier chance to advance when Lee Wilkie missed his penalty and Glenn Loovens stepped up, only to be told to wait an extraordinary amount of time. Little did we in the stadium at the time know that the hold up wasn’t referee Calum Murray being a dick but was in fact BBC switching channels for the news!
It only annoyed us more when Glenn then missed and we had to keep going. Still, had he not done so then we would have been denied the sight of the two goalkeepers going up against each other as the eleventh penalty taker in each side. Given that Artur Boruc’s penalty was probably the best of the night, I’m not sure why he didn’t take more!
Rangers were the opponents in the final once again. For twenty years, they had won every final against Celtic. So it figures that on the day Celtic finally ended that hoodoo, in what was probably another poor match eventually won in extra time through goals from Darren O’Dea and Aiden McGeady – I was standing in a pub in New York having gone over for the St Patrick’s Day parade.
Since they got my tickets, my sister and her fiancé have been to more cup final wins over Rangers than I have. And just as many League Cup wins come to think of it. But then again, I have a picture of me smiling at the top of the Empire State Building proudly wearing the hoops, so I’m still claiming I’m winning.
2009/10 saw another home defeat in the quarter final to Hearts before 2010/11 gave me what I thought might be the chance to redeem the Rangers cup final thing. We’d hammered Inverness 6-0 and then been 3-0 up against St Johnstone at half time before narrowly squeaking through 3-2, then 4-0 up against Aberdeen at half time before not so narrowly winning 4-1 to reach the final again.
Things were going well under Neil Lennon too. After a shaky start, we’d won the New Year game against Rangers and come back from 2-1 and a man down to draw 2-2 at Ibrox in the Scottish Cup before winning the replay 1-0. In a season we were going to play Rangers no fewer than seven times we were now on top and in form. Surely we’d win the first trophy of the season?
No, it’s the League Cup, of course it didn’t go to plan.
In a game where Celtic just looked out of sorts all day we conceded a poor first goal to Steven Davis before somehow levelling through Joe Ledley a few minutes later. We never really looked right but even so we took Rangers to extra time before conceding a goal to Nikica Jelavic that came from a free kick where to this day I still don’t know why it was given. Rangers took it quickly, caught Celtic off guard, scored the winner and I was once again watching Rangers lift the three handled trophy.
On that note, no one seems to know precisely why the trophy has three handles when most footballers only have two hands. Certainly the English League Cup also has three handles, and some claim it’s to make it look unique – although I’m not sure how it’s unique if two of them have that design – while others suggest it’s one for the presenter of the trophy and two for the winning captain to lift it aloft. Whatever the reason, it does make them look distinctly different from the Scottish Cup and English FA Cup.
2011/12 saw Celtic get back to the final once more, and this time there was no Rangers there waiting. The holders had been knocked out by lower league Falkirk at the first time of asking, which feels good to say about someone other than Celtic for a change. Celtic had gone to Ross County and won, avenging the Scottish Cup semi final defeat that was still fresh in the memory from 2010 and almost cost Neil Lennon is dream job, before beating Hibernian 4-1 in the quarter final and even Falkirk 3-1 in the semi final.
So, plucky lower league teams beaten, a nice victory against one of the bigger names, and a team in the final that had never won the trophy before…
Yeah, you guessed it. Partick Thistle had never won the cup before 1971. Hibernian had never won the cup before 1972. Raith Rovers had never won the cup before 1994. Kilmarnock had never won the cup before 2012. One more drab performance from Celtic later and Kilmarnock were parading the trophy around.
Or at least they should have been, but Liam Kelly’s father had a heart attack and was being given treatment as the trophy was presented. Sadly he passed away that day, although I like to think that if you have to go then being filled with pride over your son’s achievements is as good a way as any.
2012/13 saw different pressures on Celtic. With Rangers suffering liquidation there was new expectation on Celtic to go out and win everything. Who would stop them? Well, history would suggest someone in the League Cup probably. Indeed, this season bears a striking resemblance to the 2003/04 season. Celtic win the league, Celtic win the Scottish Cup, Celtic play in the Champions League and beat Barcelona, Celtic beat Rangers every time they played them… okay, maybe not everything. But once more it was the League Cup that would frustrate as despite hammering Raith Rovers 4-1 and St Johnstone 5-0, Celtic would lose the semi final 3-2 to St Mirren.
And, of course, they’d go on to win the trophy for the first time. They really should have beat us in the final to do that. That’s probably just history keeping us on our toes.
The most recent defeat in the League Cup, at time of writing, may have trumped everything that went before. Losing to Partick Thistle? Bad, but they weren’t that bad a team and were at least in the same division as us. Losing to Raith Rovers? Dire, but at least they added the First Division title to it that same season. Losing on penalties to Falkirk after hammering them 8-1 the previous season? Awful, but again Falkirk were in the same division as us by that time.
No, 2013/14 saw Celtic dumped out of the cup in arguably even more embarrassing circumstances.
Celtic had navigated three qualifying rounds of the Champions League for the first time to return to the group stages where they had more possession than AC Milan in the San Siro before being unlucky to lose the match, and were unbeaten in the opening six games of the league season. Good start to the season, right?
Well, it was entry and exit at the third round stage of the League Cup as we lost to lower league strugglers at home.
Greenock Morton, second bottom of the Championship (the new name for Scotland’s second tier) at the time won 1-0 after extra time. Celtic had 27 corners and practically every single one of them was cleared by a Morton head. The game was played on a Tuesday, if Celtic had played until Thursday they probably wouldn’t have scored. It was that kind of a game.
As for Morton? Well they would go on to get dumped out by St Johnstone in the very next round, and then actually get relegated from the Championship after finishing bottom. So the entire second tier was better than Morton, but Celtic couldn’t beat them at home in the League Cup.
Just when you think this trophy can’t throw up anything else, BANG, kicked in the nuts again.
At time of writing, I’m actually dreading what’s to come in this tournament. Like previous seasons, we’ve reached the semi final with ease. Second tier run-away leaders Hearts were dispatched at home 3-0, while Partick Thistle were hammered by double that scoreline in the following round. So, back to Hampden for a semi-final to face…
New team. Same triumphant, unashamed, unapologetic, angry as sin and blaming everyone except themselves for their recent woes, hate Celtic and everything we stand for fans.
If Celtic win, it’s expected. If Celtic lose, it’s a disaster. After all, this is the team top of the Premiership playing the team who are a distant second in the Championship behind the Hearts team we’ve already beaten in both cups. A financial basket case of a club with a caretaker manager who’s resigned himself and is working his notice. A team who even the bookies have listed as 8/1 against to win.
All things being equal, I’d expect Celtic to win this game comfortably. But things are never equal when it comes to playing clubs from Ibrox. Throw in everything that I’ve said here about this competition and it’s just asking for trouble.
I’d love to think that at some point Celtic’s fortunes in the League Cup will change. But in my lifetime Celtic have won the trophy on just six occasions. I was too young to remember the first, and I’ve only been at one of the other five. They’ve lost the final on seven other occasions in that same period and I’ve been at three of those seven. Before my time we went through a spell of fourteen consecutive finals, and won just six of them. It took us ten years to get our hands on the trophy to start with.
For a trophy that counts so low on our list of priorities, it doesn’t half get on your nerves.