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29 March 2014

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Scotland

Kilmarnock League Cup Victory Could Prove Turning Point




John Welsh


As the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics. For Scottish football, the past week has been rather eventful and at times an extremely emotional journey, proving the saying should not be confined to the political arena.Beginning with Kilmarnock’s League Cup triumph and ending in Rangers’ success in the Old Firm clash against Celtic, there were a range of issues fermenting both on and off the pitch, which may offer a ray of hope for the national game.

Kilmarnock’s 1-0 victory over Celtic at Hampden Park was overshadowed by the tragic death of Jack Kelly, father of Killie player Liam. While it was the Rugby Park outfit’s first ever triumph in the tournament, their celebrations were understandably muted at a club which, according to manager Kenny Shiels, is family orientated with close bonds with the community.

Shiels had masterminded Killie’s victory over the Hoops with a tactical plan to exploit perceived weaknesses in the Celtic team, and he was boosted by the fact that his team had not conceded a goal in the tournament. By winning the trophy, the Irish-born manager proved that the Glasgow giants can be beaten in major Scottish cup finals and he hopes this will be a catalyst for further success. The players used their 2-0 win over Motherwell as an extension of their celebrations and also as a mark of respect to the Kelly family, with striker Paul Heffernan marking his goals by holding a ‘Kelly 8′ t-shirt in front of the supporters.

Chairman Michael Johnston added his voice to the week’s events by hoping that the fans would now return to Rugby Park rather than boarding one of the many coaches travelling to Parkhead or Ibrox at weekends. Supporters in the East Ayrshire town have been deserting Kilmarnock in their droves in recent years in favour of a trip to watch the Old Firm teams, but after several tough seasons battling against relegation, Johnston senses the tide may now be turning.

In a town badly affected by rising unemployment and recent industry closures, the chairman has worked tirelessly to establish the club as part of the community. Events have not always gone smoothly, and a vote of no confidence issued by the supporters association last summer was evidence that fans were far from convinced by his efforts to improve the team’s prospects. The huge crowds lining the streets to cheer the victorious cup winning team on an open top bus may be first sign that the fans are acknowledging that Kilmarnock are a team worth supporting.

For Celtic, defeat in the League Cup final ended their dream of winning the domestic treble, but they still faced the prospect of securing the Scottish Premier League title at Ibrox on the following weekend. With fans of Rangers still to witness a home win since the humiliation of administration, watching their rivals clinching the trophy on their home turf would have been the ultimate blow.

In a dramatic match, two Celtic players were sent off allowing Rangers to lead 3-0 up to the final few minutes. When the Hoops converted a penalty following a Gers dismissal and then scored a second goal soon afterwards, the Parkhead oufit threatened to stage a very late comeback. Rangers eventually prevailed prompting a response from manager Ally McCoist that the victory was a reward for the strong resilience of the fans over the last few weeks.

A poor run of form since entering administration and continued bad publicity over past financial dealings have left a dark cloud hovering over Ibrox. However, recent days have revealed at least five potential bids for ownership of the club with the threat of liquidation now becoming increasingly unlikely. It may still be early days, but the win over Celtic and more reassuring news about the future of the club may be the first positive steps for Rangers in regaining their football pride. Their next fixture against third-placed Motherwell will be an opportunity to maintain these seeds of progress.

Celtic manager Neil Lennon will want to forget the past week, especially after being sent to the stands during the Old Firm derby. The SPL title may be secured at the home match with St. Johnstone, but two important matches have been lost and he cannot afford a dip in form from his team. There is still the matter of maintaining momentum in the league and the upcoming Scottish Cup semi- finals. This week has proved that success still has to be earned and a 21-point lead in the SPL does not automatically reap further rewards on the pitch.

Perhaps this week has finally shown that there is still life in Scottish football. The recent decline in attendances and television funding has prompted many to question the future direction of the national game. The woes of Rangers have only compounded the issue. Now that the underdogs have won a major cup final, and troubled Gers stubbornly prevented their rivals from claiming the title at their expense, positive football issues are now grabbing the headlines.

With Motherwell firm favourites to secure their first Champions League qualifying berth for next season, there is real hope for a new age of competitiveness in Scottish football, which in turn may attract more widespread interest from prospective investors.



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Published: Thursday, 29th Mar 2012