THE Betfred Cup Semi Final draw threw together two mouthwatering ties between four of Scotland’s biggest clubs. A rejuvenated Hearts were paired with Brendan Rodgers all conquering Celtic side whilst Aberdeen were drawn to face Rangers.
The prospect of two of the biggest rivalries outside of the Old Firm and Edinburgh Derbies in the last four of the League Cup should be box office material for our game. However, this is Scottish Football and there’s always a high chance that our governing bodies to make a mess of things somewhere along the line, especially in the unprecedented scenario of two of our sides in Europa League action on the Thursday before Semi Final weekend.
On this occasion, it was the SPFL who made the ludicrous call to host both matches at the same venue on the same day. Aberdeen v Rangers at 12:00 and Hearts v Celtic at 7:45pm, with the League citing a long standing contract with Hampden Park as their reasoning behind this decision.
Immediately, Chief Executive Neil Doncaster said that they made an arrangement that “suited everyone” after talks with Police Scotland and the clubs. Within hours, his lies began to unravel with Aberdeen lashing out in a statement highlighting the fact the first train from the Granite City not getting into Glasgow until 14 minutes after kick off, and that’s before factoring in the walk to Central Station to get trains to Mount Florida and walking to the National Stadium! This was a matter that Scotrail said on Twitter they raised to the SPFL prior to the draw being made, and that the League never consulted them when they announced the lunchtime kickoff time for the Dons.
Hearts were next with Craig Levein’s pre match press conference against St Johnstone turning into a tirade against the Leagues decision, calling it “embarrassing beyond belief”. The SPFL responded in typically cowardly fashion, by releasing a botched up Question and Answer statement as to why the two games had to go ahead on the same day at the same venue to suit their contractual obligations with Hampden and not take into account the possibility of trouble amongst the four sets of supporters with volatile relationships in the area.
Meanwhile, whilst the Dons and Jambos were, justifiably, raising their concerns, the Old Firm clubs stayed quiet. What must be pointed out is that it’s right that neither Semi Final should be played on the Saturday given both clubs Europa League involvement. They should not be punished for poor SPFL scheduling, who should’ve put the Semi Finals on the weekend in between the two Europa League dates (weekend of 3rd and 4th of November) to take into account possible European involvement of our clubs. Yes, it can be argued that Celtic dropping from the Champions League into the Europa League hasn’t helped but there was still the possibility that Rangers could’ve been joined by Aberdeen and Hibs in both Europe and Betfred Cup, which would’ve meant that this scenario could’ve materialised even if Celtic made it to the Champions League Group stages.
That said, there was little or no sympathy from either Brendan Rodgers or Steven Gerrard in their press conferences after the scandalous decision. Gerrard bodyswerved the debate completely whilst Rodgers hinted that the decision was the only one that could be made. All that followed were derogatory anti-Aberdeen comments from Kris Boyd in the Scottish Sun and a “get over it and move on” column from Chris Sutton, very surprising from a man who has a reputation of defending Scottish Football when those from his homeland knock it.
Another Doncaster and co myth was dispelled earlier in the week when Police Chiefs from both Police Scotland and the Police Federation urged the board to reconsider their scheduling, highlighting officers concerns about public safety and transport issues. Only then did the SPFL sit down to discuss where and when the Semi Finals would be played and then announced that the Hearts v Celtic match would be moved to Murrayfield, with kick off at 1:30pm, with the Aberdeen v Rangers tie remaining at Hampden, though with a later kick off time of 4:30pm.
Had this been the agreement a week ago, there would’ve been very few complaints from any of the four parties and we could all look forward to the two matches without much controversy.
Instead, a total farce has been created by the SPFL and now Celtic have joined in with their voices of discontent as their request for a draw on where the matches were being played had fallen on deaf ears. To a degree, they have a point in that they have been messed around somewhat having been told they’d play at Hampden and now been asked to go to Murrayfield.
However, Rodgers comments about the decision giving Hearts an advantage having played three matches at the home of Scottish Rugby suggests there’s more to it and that they feel inconvenienced at being asked to play on neutral territory outside of Glasgow. The “home advantage” argument can be dispelled by the fact that Hearts played that least of those three games, due to renovation work at Tynecastle, back in November last year, and lost two of those three winless matches where the squad is much changed from then.
Regarding the decision to have the Hearts v Celtic match at Murrayfield and not relocate Aberdeen v Rangers to Edinburgh, the correct call has been made. It could be argued that Dons and Gers fans might welcome a freshness of location, especially given the criticism of Hampden and it’s lack of atmosphere and outdated facilities (South Stand aside). Personally, I’d have welcomed a rare trip to the Capital and take in a match at Murrayfield ahead of Hampden, even if the National Stadium is closer to my home. However, to have three sets of fans travelling up and down the country would’ve been tough going, therefore having just Aberdeen and Celtic supporters making the journey to our countries biggest cities isn’t so bad in comparison.
Cynical fans will note that Rangers have been quiet over the matter and that the decision is designed to suit them. However, given the logistics mentioned before, it’d be hardpushed to find an argument to find that the decision to move Celtic and not them is a corrupt one. Had Rangers been drawn to face Hearts and Celtic were paired with Aberdeen, it’s a certainty that Gerrard’s men would’ve made the 40 mile journey east in that scenario – after the initial decision to play both ties at Hampden on the same day was overturned of course.
There will be fresh calls for Neil Doncaster to walk in the aftermath of the farce created and subsequent lies he told saying the initial decision was agreed with all parties. It is the latest of many issues under his tenure to evidence the fact his position is untenable, with the fact he’s been downtalking our game being the biggest problem as to why he should leave his position. However, he shouldn’t be the only head to roll and the whole SPFL board, along with their neighbours at the SFA, needs to be reviewed. There is too much self interest that is holding back our game and there are too many people holding a position of power despite many instances of incompetence.
It is a shame that once again, a story that should be used to promote all that is positive within our game, with two mouthwatering and potentially cracking Semi Finals involving four of our biggest clubs, is being overshadowed by the incompetence, inconsideration and lies of the Governing Bodies that run our game. There is a lot of good things happening in Scottish Football these days, unfortunately it’s being undermined by the SPFL and SFA.