There can be few more chilling nights in the season for SPL managers than those when they are asked to send out a team tasked with beating lower-league opposition in the early rounds of the League Cup.
This evening, half-a-dozen top-flight bosses will reluctantly put their necks on the line in matches where they have little to gain and plenty to lose. While most managers would never admit it publicly, it’s hard to escape the notion that this stage of Scottish football’s least prestigious major tournament is viewed more as a minefield than an opportunity. They will all want to progress and ultimately get a day out at Hampden, but because of the elongated nature of the tournament (it starts in August for most SPL clubs and concludes in March), a trip to the national stadium still seems some way off.
Right now, understandably, the view of most managers will be that it’s all about the league. Bearing in mind the threadbare nature of most SPL squads, managers can’t afford to lose key men to injury in a tournament which carries no reward of European football, so there is a fair chance that most SPL sides will be tweaked for tonight’s hazardous assignments.
Managers will still trust those they select to do the business, but they will also be wary of the fact that this tournament – more than most – has become synonymous with “giant-killing”. That said, “giant-killing” suggests some sort of David-Goliath encounter, which would be entirely misleading. Most SPL clubs have been diminished so much in recent years that there is no longer a big gulf between the top flight and the three SFL divisions. Even Third Division teams are now more capable of holding their own against top-flight clubs, as evidenced by Queen’s Park’s victory over Dundee in the last round, while Second Division victories over top-flight teams – such as Queen of the South and Stenhousemuir’s wins over Hibs and Kilmarnock in the last round – are now ten-a-penny.
The SPL clubs – and especially the managers – always come in for serious flak in the aftermath of any such defeat, but League Cup exits to lower-league opposition are now so commonplace for most clubs outwith the Old Firm – the Glasgow teams have dominated the tournament over the last decade or so – that they should merely be viewed in the same light as any average league defeat.
Players will get lambasted for not being “up for it” if they lose to a fired-up lower-league team, but – like it or not – those of SPL standard are incapable of approaching every single game as if it is a World Cup final. All the more so in a midweek League Cup game when they are invariably playing in front of a paltry crowd and there isn’t the same sense of occasion that accompanies a raucous Scottish Cup tie at 3pm on a Saturday.
By contrast, most of the SFL clubs view it as their big opportunity in the limelight. If an SFL club raises their game and the SPL side is not quite at the races, there is always the chance of an upset. When this happens, the manager is vilified and unfair pressure is heaped upon him. For someone like Peter Houston, pictured, whose Dundee United team are in a rut, a trip to Queen of the South, the form team in Scotland, represents a hiding to nothing. Win and he will get little praise; lose and his job will probably be on the line. The fact that pretty much every club has a catalogue of League Cup exits to lower-league opposition will count for little in the eyes of the baying mob.
Then you have someone like John McGlynn, who has finally managed to foster some kind of feelgood factor at Hearts in light of Saturday’s resounding win at Tannadice. The last thing he needs is a low-key game at home to a Livingston side which includes a host of players with designs on playing at a higher level. Tonight at Tynecastle is their platform to shine and if they can fashion a victory, suddenly all positivity from Hearts’ weekend exploits will vanish.
The last round of the competition saw four SPL clubs bite the dust against SFL rivals. It won’t wash with fans of any top-flight teams which are vanquished tonight, but all four of those eliminated a few weeks ago went on to post decent results in their next league game.
Despite the inevitable outbreak of teeth-gnashing and feather-spitting which usually greets a League Cup upset, they rarely mark the end of the world and – certainly in Scotland – shouldn’t be considered grounds for severe manager-bashing.