There is a big event in Scottish football on Sunday when Rangers play Celtic at Hampden Park in the Semi Final of the Scottish Cup – only the second derby between the Glasgow rivals since Rangers were liquidated and relegated to the fourth tier of Scottish football in 2012. But I saw something interesting in today’s Daily Record about the other Semi Final between Hibernian and Dundee United that I would like to write about.
Neither Hibs or United are in very good form at the moment. United have been stuck at the bottom of the Premiership for most of the season, have only won two of their last seven games are eight points adrift of safety and to all intents and purposes are doomed to relegation. Hibs at one time were close enough to Rangers to suggest they might deny the Ibrox club the top spot in the Championship and automatic promotion to the Premiership. But they have only won two games out of eight during which time they have lost the League Cup Final to Ross County and seen their automatic promotion hopes go up in smoke.
Gordon Parks is scathing about both teams in today’s Daily Record. Under the headline “Arabs (United’s nickname) and Hibs have winged it to final after absolutely awful form” he starts the article by saying that “Dundee United and Hibs are in danger of bringing the Scottish Cup into disrepute” and adding that the Scottish Cup “is a competition which, clearly, no longer sifts out the best from the rest”.
But what Parks does not realise is that a knock out competition which is unseeded like the Scottish Cup is not designed to be dominated by the best. In fact that is why UK football fans like knockout football which produces both shock results and unlikely success stories. Knockout football does not guarantee the best team wins all the time as Atletico Madrid knocking Barcelona out of the Champions League last night proves. In an unseeded format like the Scottish Cup small clubs can have a long run because big clubs knock each other out. Scottish third tier side Gretna in 2006 are the best example of this. They made the Final without playing a top division club. This was partly because Clyde beat Celtic 2-1 in a sensational giant killing but mainly because in unseeded draws the elite clubs knocked each other out. Eventual winners Hearts beat three fellow top division clubs en route to the Final – Kilmarnock, Aberdeen and Hibs. Aberdeen had earlier put out Dundee United, and Hibs had earlier put out Rangers. So apart from Celtic Scotland’s big clubs had knocked each other out thus letting Gretna into the Final by the back door. Its called the luck of the draw!
Something similar happened in England 40 years ago in1976. Second Division Southampton won the FA Cup shocking hot favourites Manchester United in the Final. But to get to Wembley Southampton had only beaten one top division club and that was in the last 64. In the Quarter Finals they beat Fourth Division Bradford and in the Semi Finals they beat Third Division Crystal Palace. Again although Bradford and Palace beat one top division club each – Norwich and Leeds respectively – the main cause of the minnows success was the draw. As Rothmans Football Yearbook 1976-77 put it in its FA Cup review (page 484) “the giants were killing themselves”. And the reason they were doing that was they were drawn against each other.
Ironically what Parks said about Dundee United and Hibs in the Scottish Cup could also be applied to this season’s FA Cup. Two of the last four – Crystal Palace and Watford – have been in dreadful League form this year. Palace have won one Premier League game in 2016 Watford have won two. They have beaten five Premier League clubs between them en route to the Semi Finals (including Arsenal and Tottenham) two more than they have beaten between them in the League in 2016. (And one of those three wins was Watford beating Palace 2-1 on February 13th). But no one in England has said that Palace and Watford are bringing the FA Cup into disrepute or that they have “winged it to the Final” (Palace and Watford play each other in the Semi Finals so one of them will be in the Final).
In fact it is the unexpected success stories that make knockout football what it is. No one in England would have tipped Palace or Watford to be FA Cup finalists pre season. Nor Dundee United or Hibs in Scotland. But the purpose of cups is not to “sift out the best from the rest” – that is what the League is for. Cups are there to provide excitement and unpredictability. And the fact that Palace, Watford, Hibs and Dundee United despite their poor form can still win their respective Cups proves that the unpredictability of the Cup is still there. And that Gordon Parks is wrong.