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The Importance of the Scottish Cup

Celtic. Celtic. Celtic. Celtic. Celtic. Celtic. Celtic. Celtic. Rangers. Rangers. Rangers. Celtic. Celtic. Celtic. Rangers. Celtic. Rangers. Celtic. Celtic. Rangers. Rangers. Celtic. Rangers. Rangers. Rangers. Rangers. Rangers. Rangers. Rangers. Rangers. Rangers. Celtic. Rangers. Celtic.

How was that? Boring? Monotonous? That is the list of the winners of the Scottish top-flight over the last three decades. The last time that accolade was won by a non-Old Firm contingent was Aberdeen in 1984-85, managed by a young Alex Ferguson. The more these two Glasgow giants won, the more money they would earn, the more influential they became and the more powerful they stood as a result. 

It was, and still is, tedious. Even after the liquidation and reformation of Rangers, it is becoming evident that the duopoly at the top of the league is back. The other 40 teams making up the top four divisions in Scottish football must be left wondering what the damn point is.

The point is this – the Scottish Cup. The historical trophy that is the saving grace of Scottish football. Celtic and their treble-treble have somewhat spoiled the party over the past three years, but for long enough this remarkable competition has been the ray of light in the murky depths of Scottish football. 

If you are a team on form then the Scottish Cup is a chance to channel that positivity into silverware. If you are a team down on your luck then it is an opportunity to shake off the usual league routine and give your fans a real shot at something special. That was the case for Dundee United and Hibernian a week ago, as they battled it out in a Scottish Cup fourth-round replay. 

United are a team who have been going from strength to strength of late, rejuvenated by their ambitious new American owners and spurred on by Lawrence Shankland, who is taking the league by storm. The catch? That league is the Scottish Championship, the 2nd tier of Scottish football and the turbulent division that The Arabs have found themselves stuck in for several years.

Hibs vs Dundee United in the Scottish Cup, 28 January 2020 [image: Jack Wills]

Their opponents, and the hosts of the game, are Edinburgh-based Hibernian FC. Hibs have enjoyed a few decent years back in the top-flight of Scottish football after spending a couple stuck down in the Championship, however they have found themselves stagnating of late. The appointment of Jack Ross as manager was hoped to have brought about a new leaf for the team in Leith, though it is evident that there is still much work to be done.

Both teams were in need of wins for varying reasons, and with the prospect of playing non-league side BSC Glasgow in the next round, motivation was high. Hibs and United had already played out an entertaining 2-2 draw the week before at Tannadice, Dundee. The stage was set for an exciting replay at Easter Road.

Once upon a time, I was a season ticket holder at Dundee United. I could count on one hand the amount of home ties I missed between July 2006 and May 2016. The highlight of this period came on May 15th, 2010, when I went to Hampden Park, Glasgow, to see my beloved United win the Scottish Cup. 

I went with my dad and brother during this 10-year spell and I absolutely loved it. We watched all the dramatic wins, the painful losses and the turgid 0-0 draws. It wasn’t a hobby; it was a way of life.

I began to see less of the team over the last few years. I still followed them on TV and online and felt like I always had a grip on the team, I just ended up seeing them once or twice a season. Moving out of the area made it tougher to get to games. 

It had been well over a year since I had last watched United when the text came in from my dad… “Any interest in the return at Easter Road?”

The answer from my brother and I was a resounding yes. Fast forward a week or so and there we were, the three of us at a game together for the first time in years. Three family members engulfed in over 2,000 travelling away fans, a tangerine family of sorts.

The United fans were on form. Years of lower league football had seen us play in some rather small grounds, so the draw of playing in the superb Easter Road stadium was a welcome change of pace. The home fans were a bit more subdued than the United faithful, though they still managed to bring over 8,000 supporters of their own. 

While vocally the Hibbies weren’t going to burst any eardrums, they had a drum beating high in the opposite stands, creating an atmosphere of sorts. I was so busy studying the crowd to identify where exactly this drum was that I ended up missing the opening goal from Lawrence Shankland, a goal that, upon watching the highlights, was not something to be missed. The Scotland international chested down a pass before smashing the ball into the net from outside the box.

This goal after 10 minutes was about as good as it got for Dundee United. They held off until the 40-minute mark, conceding a penalty in front of their own fans. Former United youth Scott Allan converted the penalty, equalising and standing tall in an effort to antagonise those who had spent the majority of the game booing his every move.

The second half saw United let in three sloppy goals, two coming from corners. Though the visitors did equalise soon after Hibs took the lead, their inability to defend set pieces cost them dearly. 

The thing that is easy to forget when you stop attending live games regularly is the explosion of noise that erupts when a goal goes in. The Hibs home support, whilst plentiful in numbers, was not far off silent for the bulk of the match. 

Hibs vs Dundee United in the Scottish Cup, 28 January 2020. The home fans struggled to make themselves heard against the raucous backdrop of United’s fans. [image: Jack Wills]

Four goals broke this library atmosphere however, each goal resulting in the sort of atmosphere that is joyous to be a part of and crushing to hear from the opposition. The full-time whistle brought some mixed emotions. It is never nice to lose, particularly when you know the next game is an ‘easy’ tie against non-league opposition. 

As big a history as Dundee United have, and with as large a gap as they lead their league by, they are a lower league team now. They are also one which took an established Premier League side to a replay, and never looked out of place once. Yes, United conceded four very sloppy goals, but watch highlights from the top-flight; the quality in the Premiership is not much better. 

For someone who hadn’t been to see his team play in a couple of years, I couldn’t have asked for much more – aside from maybe a bit more set piece training. It was an end-to-end cup game. Some moments of quality, some moments of madness and goals aplenty in one of the better grounds in Scottish football.

After the game was over I started to think back to that day in May 2010, when United won the Scottish Cup. It was incredible to experience as a fan, but what about as a player? As a fan you have your whole life to see your team win the cup – Hibs went over 100 years without winning the Scottish Cup – but for players, the chance is so short. 

In Scotland, because of the Old Firm dominance, you really only have two shots a season to win a major trophy, the League Cup and the Scottish Cup, and that is often reliant on catching the Old Firm teams on a bad day. I spoke to Scottish Cup-winning centre-back Garry Kenneth on his thoughts on breaking the duopoly in Scottish Football. 

“Outside the league, cups are the only real chance [of silverware] as other smaller clubs can’t keep up the consistency for most of the season like the Old Firm manage to do,” he told Heart of Football. We discussed the fact that over the last two decades there have been very strong Dundee United, Aberdeen, Hibs, Hearts and Motherwell teams that all performed well but struggled to really put up a title fight. 

“It is very tough to split them, never mind finish top,” he replied. Essentially, this tier of clubs are usually capable of beating each other, therefore will lose countless points a season against one another, detracting from their title hopes.

Former Gretna, Dundee United, Hearts and Carlisle left back Danny Grainger was also asked on his views on the subject. “Any cup competition is a genuine chance to win silverware and any club targets them,” he explained. “Beating the Old Firm to the title is a huge ask and hence why no team has done it lately.” 

While it may be unfeasible in the league, the prospect of getting that coveted cup win makes it all worthwhile. Grainger was asked how much it meant for him to win the Scottish Cup (with Hearts in 2012), to which he simply stated, “One of the best feelings I have ever experienced throughout my career!”

Danny Swanson perhaps gives the biggest insight to this divide. The other clubs in Scotland simply cannot afford the luxuries that the Glasgow giants have, and therefore only have the short-term knockout nature of the cups to help them. “The way I looked at it while I was at United is the cups are the only realistic chance we had of winning a trophy.”

“The difference being obviously the Old Firm are miles ahead in terms of finances and if they got a few injuries they were still bringing in international players. I feel we weren’t too far behind them in 2010 but I feel the gap between the Old Firm and the rest is bigger than it’s ever been since I can remember.” 

I was curious to know what meant more to players in Scotland; winning a cup, or qualifying for, and playing in, European competition. When asked this, Swanson’s answer was resounding: “Winning the cup is the best thing I’ve done in my career!”

For Dundee United, the opportunity to win the Scottish Cup, 10 years after they last did, has vanished. Hibs may not have been scintillating, but I wish them well in the cup. I also wish their city rivals, Hearts, luck. And Inverness. St Mirren too, and Motherwell. Quite frankly, if Dundee United cannot win the cup then I don’t care. 

All I hope for is that if it isn’t my team lifting that historic trophy in May then it is lifted by anyone outwith the Old Firm. The league is for Rangers and Celtic; it has been for three decades, and it will be for the foreseeable future. 

The Scottish Cup is for the players who may only get one or two real shots at success. It is for the fans who suffer through the seasons of mediocrity, paying top dollar for very little reward. The Scottish Cup is for the rest of us. It is a hope and a dream. If not this year, then maybe next…

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