Cup Glory: What can the English learn from Scotland?

As the football season starts to reach the business end, Lewis Frain ponders if there is anything English teams can learn from Scotland in the way they treat their cup competitions.

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We Scottish football fans are often ridiculed by our English counterparts for the apparent sorry state of our league.  Yes, our football isn’t quite as flash as down south nor is it great having a league won by the same two teams every season since 1985. However, Scottish football has something I believe the English game is beginning to lose: our cup competitions are still vitally important.

This may seem to be a controversial statement; the FA Cup is the oldest tournament in world football after all and has countless iconic moments from brilliant players in great teams.  Who could forget Wimbledon’s “Crazy Gang” defying the odds against Liverpool in 1988, Ryan Giggs’ mazy run against Arsenal in 1999 and not to mention the numerous giant killings that happen year after year.  These are truly great moments, but it seems it is the smaller teams keeping the magic of the FA Cup alive.

Arsenal are a good example. The Gunners have won three of the last four FA Cups but despite this the fans aren’t satisfied and Arsene Wenger cannot avoid speculation over his future. In previous eras, disappointing league campaigns would be quickly forgotten by an FA Cup victory, particularly one that included victories over other top-class teams including the league champions, like Arsenal’s successful campaign last season.  However, the diminished importance of the FA Cup means that it is no longer seen as comparable to a strong league position. The only other team to win the FA cup in the last four years is Manchester United, who after their victory in 2016 sacked their manager Louis Van Gaal. Of course, there are other factors for fan disappointment with the state of Arsenal or United, but it shows how the FA Cup, once perceived as almost equal to the league, nowadays doesn’t come close.  Continually we see managers playing far weaker line ups and often cup success is dismissed if a team has struggled in the league. Arsenal again is the perfect example; it’s a real shame to see.

This contrasts heavily to the situation in Scotland. Both the League Cup and Scottish Cup are taken just as seriously as the league campaign.  Inverness’s Scottish Cup win and Ross County’s League Cup victory in 2015/16 showcased the great progress the Highland teams had made in that period. St Johnstone also backed up their recent strong record in the Premiership with tangible cup success in 2014. Going back further, Kilmarnock’s defeat of Celtic in the League Cup in 2012 is the stand out moment in their recent history.  As is the victory of Fife’s own Raith Rovers, who shocked Celtic on penalties in 1995; an incredible upset. As Scotland’s Premiership winners are often so predictable, the two cups offer the other teams a chance at glory and are vitally important to a club’s season and history.

It isn’t just for the relatively smaller teams though. Aberdeen celebrated their Scottish Cup win in 2013 wildly as they hadn’t tasted cup victory in many years. My team Hearts’ best moments have often come in the cup, with the 1998 victory against Rangers and the 5-1 drubbing of city rivals Hibernian standing out most especially. However, even I must concede that one of the best Scottish Cup stories belongs to Hibs. 114 years of hurt, 10 finals losses, including the humiliation at the hands of their greatest rivals, but all forgotten in 2016 when they finally reached the promised land and won the Scottish Cup in an absolute thriller against Rangers. Hibs’ Championship season had ended in a failure to return to the Premiership that year, but I don’t think they cared one bit.

Even the giants Rangers and Celtic place great importance on the cups.  Given that the league has been dominated by the Old Firm for decades, the cups offer the team losing the league a chance of earning some bragging rights over their Glasgow rivals, particularly if one of the plethora of great cup fixtures between the two teams happened along the way. Given Rangers’ recent history as well, their fans and players would give anything for cup success this season. Even in recent years where league victory has been assured Celtic have considered the cups as crucial to their season.  Alongside their struggles in Europe, Ronny Deila’s failure to repeat Celtic’s league form and dominate in the cups ultimately cost him his job. Cup victories have also been considered extremely important as part of Celtic’s development in the hugely successful reign of Brendan Rodgers.

There seems to be a clear reason why the cups have maintained their importance in Scotland but have diminished somewhat in England.  The importance of money and a fixation with the Champions League.  Qualifying for the Champions League has become the paramount goal of the larger teams. For this reason, both Spurs and Liverpool have been hugely praised for their recent record in the Premier League and for qualifying in the top four, rightly so. However, neither ever truly challenged for the title and haven’t enjoyed a great day at Wembley like Arsenal, United, Man City or Chelsea have recently. Fourth place is great but surely winning a tournament should mean more? The League Cup may not have the same history as the FA Cup but it’s arguably harder to win due to its two-legged semi-finals. Wouldn’t it have been great for Spurs or Liverpool to add to their fine league form with some tangible success? Man City and Chelsea have great records in that tournament and their fans should look back fondly on their Wembley victories alongside their recent league successes rather than for them to be dismissed as minor achievements. City’s win over Arsenal on 25 February clearly meant a lot to the players, Vincent Kompany in particular, so it definitely still holds worth, but it just doesn’t seem like the priority anymore.

Even bottom half Premier League teams sometimes view the cups as a distraction in their battle for survival. Birmingham City won the League Cup in 2011 and Wigan won the FA Cup in 2013 but both were relegated the same season and have continually struggled since. If you ask any of their supporters if they’d trade their day of glory for another few years in the Premier League, not one of them would take it. To these fans winning a cup meant the absolute world. It’s a great shame that some groups of sup porters, large parts of the football media and several managers don’t place the same importance on these cup competitions. I think a large part of it is down to a damaging obsession with the Premier League and Champions League’s financial rewards. Football is about winning trophies.  Nobody remembers the team that came third several seasons running but winning a trophy etches your teams’ name in history. In Scotland the cups still really matter whether you’re trying to dominate like Celtic and Rangers, whether you’re working to find material success like Hearts, Hibs or Aberdeen or if you’re the plucky underdog looking to have your day in the sun like Raith or Ross County.  The English cups certainly still have their moments and it means everything to a Birmingham, Wigan, Wimbledon, Swansea, or Portsmouth fan. I think the fans, managers and owners of other clubs could learn a great deal from these teams as well as from their Scottish counterparts.  All teams should give the cup com petitions the respect they deserve and push to win one at every opportunity.  It’s all worth it to one day be able to call your team the champions, these are the moments we watch football for.

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