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Monday, 22 August 2016

The Scottish Cup: plus ça change

You may have noticed that this season's Scottish Cup has already started. There's something great about the cup, particularly if -like me- you’re not a fan of the Old Firm. In fact, the phrase ‘not a fan’ does not do justice to my Old Firm antipathy. I’m more like the opposite of a fan; an unfan, if you will. For unfans of the Old Firm, the best thing about the Cup is that, unlike the League Championship, in which no club from outside Glasgow has triumphed since 1985, it gives us a decent chance of witnessing some other team lifting the trophy. Once the competition starts, we live in reasonable hope that one of the so-called ‘provincial’ sides will overcome the odds to triumph in the final. In recent years, I’ve attended finals won by Inverness Caledonian Thistle, St.Johnstone and Hearts.  

When the draw for the first round was made a few weeks ago, there were several romantic-sounding names in the hat, like St. Cuthbert Wanderers, Burntisland Shipyards and Bonnyrigg Rose. Perhaps the least romantic name -but the most interesting story- belonged to Edusport Academy. Edusport is the first independent football academy to be allowed to enter the old competition. The company was set up by the former professional footballer Chris Ewing in 2011, with the idea of modelling an academy on the American scholarship system in order to provide young people with a sports-based life experience. Based in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Edusport is a business and therefore designed to make a profit. This, along with the fact that it has recruited most of its students from Europe, appears to have annoyed some conservative elements within the football community.  

In the first preliminary round, they were drawn against Colville Park, who had qualified by winning the Scottish Amateur Cup, which is the Wagner’s Ring Cycle of lower level football, with hundreds of entrants each year and seemingly dozens of rounds. On Saturday, I went along with my youngest son to see the replay, the teams having drawn 2-2 the week before. The venue was New Tinto Park (home of Benburb Juniors), chosen because Colville Park’s ground did not meet SFA requirements. I have no idea what those requirements are, but –given the basic amenities available at New Tinto- I can only imagine what isn’t available at Colville’s home ground. It was a fiver to get in and I estimated the crowd at somewhere between 60 and 70. It was odd to think that a low-key occasion like this would, in nine months or so, lead to a major final played in front of 52,000 fans at the National Stadium, with live coverage on television. If I was writing for the Daily Record, this is where I would use the phrase: “the magic of the Scottish Cup”. 

It felt mildly surreal to watch a team comprised mostly of young French, Swiss and Belgian players playing in a meaty Scottish Cup tie against a group of guys who looked, well … more or less what you’d expect an amateur football team from Lanarkshire to look like. In the early exchanges, it looked like there was going to be a clash of styles. Edusport set out to play in what some pundits insist on calling ‘the right way’ i.e. by passing the ball, a lot, to people wearing the same colour of shirts as them. Colville Park were by no means up-and-at-em-hoof-the-feckin-ball-up-the-park merchants (stop me if this gets too technical); once they got into their stride, they played some decent football, although it would be fair to say that their goalie would not quite satisfy the ‘sweeper-keeper’ requirements of Mr Guardiola at Manchester City. 

Once they took the lead, Colville looked likely to add to their tally. Edusport suffered an injustice when one of their players was sent off for an innocuous bit of shirt-pulling. The referee (‘card happy’, according to one sage behind me) may have been technically correct, but –in the context of the game- his decision looked fussy and pedantic, particularly as the ‘victim’ of the shirt-pulling appeared to be giving as much as he got. In the first half, one or two of the Edusport lads demonstrated a neat line in handsome Southern European indignation whenever a pass didn’t land where they wanted or when they were rudely tackled by opponents, but the half-time team talk brought about a change in attitude. Perhaps it was the sense of grievance at having lost a player, but, with one man down, their performance actually improved. 

The Scottish Cup is said to be the oldest surviving national trophy in world football and here we were witnessing something new, with this team of lads, most of whom were foreign, adapting to the muscular demands of the Scottish game. When I was my son’s age, it would have seemed absurd or outlandish to have had a team of players from France, Belgium and Switzerland playing in the Scottish Cup; stuff like that could only ever happen in comic books. My boy lives in a different Scotland to the one that I grew up in and he is all the richer for it, but –for all this newness, this ability to be comfortable with what would once have seemed exotic- if he wants to watch Scottish football as much as I have done over the years, there are some things he’ll just have to get used to.

Saturday's tie was taking place at the same time as Rangers -barely half a mile up the road- were entertaining Motherwell in a league game. Tinto Park is close enough to Ibrox Stadium to be able to hear the roar of the crowd. Having been informed that Rangers were a goal down at half-time, I surprised my son (I won’t say impressed, because use of that word would imply something altogether less tragic than what occurred) when, hearing a roar from the direction of Ibrox around twenty past four, I turned to him and said: “Equaliser … Harry Forrester”. My boy checked his phone and found that Forrester had indeed got an equalising goal. Around half an hour later, as Edusport pressed in vain for a late equaliser and Colville Park started to dream about further Cup adventures, another huge roar came from the direction of Ibrox. I turned to my son once more and said: “Last-minute winner … Kenny Miller”. 

He checked his phone and, sure enough, old Yoda had once again named the correct scorer.

My boy may have thought otherwise, but guessing who had scored for Rangers wasn’t all that difficult. What I know –and what he will learn- is that decades of observation lead you to understand that certain things (particularly in Scottish football) happen again and again and again. My speculations were merely educated guesses based on observable evidence. 

Colville Park held out for a 1-0 win and, although they'll now face a tricky tie against the mighty Girvan on September 3rd, they will continue to dream about a long run in the Scottish Cup. I’m sure there are going to be some great stories along the way to Hampden, but, having had an unusually glorious run of four provincial winners in five years, we unfans may now have to prepare ourselves for a return to the old order. Hearing that roar from along the road at Ibrox, I wondered if there was anyone at our game who would bet against Celtic and Rangers meeting in the final next May.

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