The early rounds of the League Cup are littered with banana skins, with the bigger clubs slipping up left, right and centre.
However, for any top-flight team which can survive the pitfalls of the hazardous August and September period of the competition, the opportunity opens up for players and managers to write themselves into folklore and for fans to enjoy a day out that will be among their best.
The League Cup is not everyone’s cup of tea. In the early stages it holds allure only for those lower-league clubs who get the chance to turn over an off-the-pace bigger opponent. For top-flight clubs, the object of the game is merely to scramble through by hook or by crook – as Aberdeen did in the last round – and ensure you’re not suddenly thrust into the throes of crisis, as St Mirren, Kilmarnock and Ross County were, to varying degrees, when they crashed out last month. Attendances this week will show that the majority of fans don’t care much, at this stage anyway, for a needlessly-elongated competition which won’t be decided until March and carries none of the kudos of the Scottish Cup.
But try telling any supporter or player who has been involved in a League Cup final that it doesn’t matter. Four non-Old Firm clubs have won it in the last decade – Livingston, Hibs, Kilmarnock and St Mirren. Remarkably, none has managed to really build on those famous Hampden triumphs, with three of the managers – Davie Hay, John Collins and Kenny Shiels – relieved of their duties within 14 months of their success, and the fourth – Danny Lennon – hanging by a thread just six months after delivering the pot back to Paisley.
Nevertheless, don’t let it be said that those victories didn’t mean much. The walls inside Almondvale are still plastered with pictures of that momentous day Livingston slayed Hibs in the 2004 final, while no-one present will forget the sight of Collins in tears as a rousing rendition of Sunshine on Leith echoed around the national stadium following Hibs’ 5-1 success over Kilmarnock three years later.
Likewise, at Killie and St Mirren, their successes of 2012 and 2013 respectively remain among the most notable – and most celebrated – in their history. Whatever happens to Lennon in the coming days and weeks, he will always have St Patrick’s Day of this year to cherish.
Even so, there is often a feeling that some clubs could do without the distraction of a pesky League Cup run. If the priority is scrapping for survival in the league with a squad which is already stretched to the limit, then League Cup elimination can be viewed as a blessing in disguise. Hearts arguably fall into that category. The administration-hit Tynecastle club could do with the short-term financial boost a cup run may generate and professional pride will ensure that they are determined to reach the final for the second year running. However, given that Gary Locke’s side, in their current guise, would appear to have little chance of winning the competition, there will be few supporters viewing it as the end of the world if their team is unable to get past notorious cup giant slayers, Queen of the South, tomorrow.
By contrast, this season’s League Cup looks absolutely tailor-made for Hibs to mount a challenge. In recent seasons, their chief objective has been pulling away from the bottom of the league table with a pretty mediocre squad. Now, Hibs are in a far better place. They are unlikely to be found in the lower echelons of the league and they have arguably the strongest squad in the country outwith Celtic, with good back-up for pretty much every position. If manager Pat Fenlon were to indulge in rotation for the cup, he wouldn’t necessarily be weakening his team all that much, unlike many of his Premiership rivals who are operating with slimmer squads.
Hibs’ first tie this season – no disrespect to Stranraer – couldn’t be more favourable if they had hand-picked it themselves. They could instead have been heading to a hazardous venue like Palmerston, New Douglas Park or Cappielow, so Fenlon and his players will be given short shrift if they botch this big chance at home to a League One side.
If tonight is negotiated safely, they also have the knowledge that Rangers, a recent formidable barrier to non-Old Firm clubs winning cups, are a shadow of their former self and already eliminated in any case.
Likewise, the weakening of Hearts adds slightly to Hibs’ prospects. If they are fortunate enough to avoid Celtic, there is no reason why Hibs shouldn’t be looking seriously at getting to the final and winning the trophy for a second time in seven years.
Four measly games, starting with Stranraer at home. It can’t be that hard, can it?