Aidan Smith: When Hibs won in ’72 they had to play 12 ties and travel to Hampden in a smashed-up bus
And how do you hold it exactly, the Scottish League Cup? It has three handles, which sounds like the first draft of a Two Ronnies gag. The third handle must make it self-conscious, if trophies have feelings, like it’s afflicted by elephantiasis, especially when sat alongside the more storied Scottish Cup, fitted much further back in history with the classic two.
It has long since lost its entitlement to European competition so a League Cup winners’ medal will not speed a footballer through border control. Indeed, in the post-Brexit age, he may be the cause of even longer delays for grumpy holiday-makers as security staff puzzle over the tournament’s relevance.
And look at the League Cup this season - or, quite possibly, don’t. If you’re not going to Hampden today you’ll need Premier Sports, the current sponsors, to watch Celtic vs Hibernian from your sofa. Highlights later on terrestrial? ’Fraid not. At least Sky allow the BBC second dibs on Scotland games. Whatever the size of the deal with Premier, the SPFL should never have agreed to a terrestrial no-show for a national final.
And how have the two finalists achieved the distinction of being the last clubs standing? Presumably they’ve battled long and hard though many rounds. Well, no. Celtic defeated Hearts, Raith Rovers and St Johnstone while Hibs overcame Kilmarnock, Dundee United and Rangers. So did they have to answer some quiz questions, hoping to fare better than the Family Fortunes bozo who, invited to name a bird with a long neck, ventured “Naomi Campbell”? No, three ties each and here they both are. To list these puny efforts on the back of a commemorative T-shirt would be to invite ridicule and, even though in the new gender politics this isn’t supposed to matter anymore, end up making a man feel rather less like one.
But don’t tell a Hibby this competition is diminished and don’t tell me. I can measure out my life in League Cup finals, those won and lost. Right now it’s 5-3 for the defeats so we could do with another victory.
In 1972, seven months before Hibs’ first success, I stood in what’s been the only six-figure crowd of my fandom and blubbed. They’d just been leathered 6-1 by Celtic in the final of the Scottish Cup and this, I decided, summoning all of the melodrama a young teen has at his disposal, was going to be how my dismal life would pan out. My father told me to keep the faith. Eddie Turnbull, the Hibs manager, told his players to keep the faith. And John Blackley’s dad Sam, who watched his son toss his loser’s medal across the Hampden car park in disgust, promptly ran to fetch it, which was the the Grangemouth docker’s way of persuading the great Leith libero in the belief there would be a next time.
The 1991 final was emotional. Hibs the previous year had almost ceased to be. RIP, ex-parrots. Yet there they were, the bampot goalie (John Burridge), the club mascot plucked from the top of the secretary’s Amstrad (actual size Mickey Weir) and the ginger sclaffer who never missed (Keith Wright). And what’s more they were winning, an achievement given the recent near-death experience which secured the “And finally … ” slot on the BBC’s news bulletin, delivered by Michael Buerk (Okay, not quite on the level of his “Biblical famine” report which inspired Live Aid, but still … ).
And 2007 was emotional. I probably shouldn’t even have been at Hampden as my wife was pregnant with our first child, due any day. “Just go, I’ll be fine,” she said, dropping me outside Edinburgh’s Caledonian Hotel for the minibus. Still, I felt like a caveman and phoned often to check if the baby was prepared to wait - and not just during lulls in play either. But as the snow fell and the goals went in - enough for the victory to be safe - I did wonder what it would be like having my name read out before the assembled 50,000: “If there’s an Aidan Smith in the stadium, it’s a boy. Can you pick up a white pudding supper on the way home? … ”
But there’s nothing quite like the first time. First League Cup - first anything - and in ’72 it was a proper competition, Hibs playing 11 games, and losing the first to Aberdeen 4-1, to get to have the chance, once more unto the breach, of a rematch with Jock Stein’s mighty Celtic.
The goal heroes in ’07 were born in Shrewsbury (Steven Fletcher) and Fes, Morocco (Benji). Forty-nine years ago they came from two of the capital’s housing schemes, Clermiston (Jimmy O’Rourke) and Niddrie (Pat Stanton). And on top of the 11 ties what a journey those two and the rest of Turnbull’s Tornadoes had to endure on the morning of the final. “Just as the team bus was turning out of Easter Road, one of the windows got tanned,” Stanton reminded me yesterday. A Jambo, Paddy? “Or maybe a Hibs fan, fed up of us always losing at Hampden. It was a bitterly cold day. A draught blew through the coach the whole way there. But, you know, we arrived nice and awake and ready.”
To become legends. You see, as East Fife, Raith Rovers, Partick Thistle and others will testify, the League Cup has always created them.