When the draw for the Scottish Cup semi-finals was made all the talk was of Rangers and Celtic being kept apart for a potential Old Firm final. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Rangers didn’t even reach the semis in the end, losing to a scruffy but deserved last minute goal in their quarter-final replay at Dundee United; but it’s Celtic’s semi-final humiliation at the hands of Ross County which is the real story.
County have attracted few headlines since their admission to the league in 1994, being often overshadowed by near-neighbours Inverness who were admitted at the same time. But while Inverness have made faster progress – and look well placed for a quick return to the SPL following last season’s relegation – County have risen surely but steadily, with relegation back to the second division in 2007 as only a temporary setback. In November of that year Derek Adams took over as manager. It was a bold and forward-looking decision – Adams was only 32 at the time – but he’s a feisty character a little in the Billy Davies mould, capable of appearing both thoughtful and pugnacious. He immediately set about justifying his appointment, the team going on a run of ten straight wins over the turn year as they coasted to promotion.
The following season saw first division survival only on the final day of the campaign, but this season has seen further rapid progress that I, for one, have to say I hadn’t really seen coming. The battle this year has been in the top half of the table – they’re still not out of the title race – and their cup run included a 9-0 defeat of a far-from-shabby Stirling Albion side en route to a quarter-final tie at Hibs. By every account they were the better side in both games against Hibs, and had to come from behind twice – first at Easter Road to secure a replay, and then at Victoria Park where they followed up a late equaliser with an injury-time winner to send them through to the semi-finals for the first time.
If those performances should have warned Celtic not to take their opponents lightly, then either the warning went unheeded or they were incapable of responding. Anyone who didn’t see the game should be in no doubt that County were the better side and throughly deserved the win. They took the game to their more illustrious opponents right from kick-off, even if they struggled to create chances until, in the 55th minute, Steven Craig burst from midfield and sent a clipped drive past Zaluska for the opening goal. You’re wary, perhaps, about judging the Old Firm by different standards, but Celtic were very very poor. Robbie Keane caused the centre-backs a few problems, and made a couple of first half runs that might have been telling had there been anyone to put the ball in the right place, but they lacked anyone with the vision or composure to do so. Samaras and the much-hyped McGeady were particularly disappointing in that regard, though the two of them did combine to produce Celtic’s only real chance to equalise, when a terrific last ditch tackle from Gary Miller deflected Samaras’s shot onto the post.
And as we waited to see what Celtic could produce with the last throw of the dice, and just a few minutes left to rescue something from their season, it was County who broke instead: in the 88th minute Martin Scott fed Barrowman on the right then raced into the box to turn in the resultant cross and put the tie beyond doubt. It was difficult to judge which set of players looked the more stunned when the final whistle blew, it seemed to take a few moments for the County players to realise they could start celebrating. (I should imagine the local population have more than made up for it in the days since.)
The SFA, at least, will have been mighty relieved by the result of the following day’s game – Dundee United beating Raith Rovers in the second semi-final to avoid their nightmare scenario of an all first division final. (Yes, they’d have talked it up as “the romance of the cup”, but the prospect of a largely empty Hampden for their showpiece, as well as the certainty of a Europa Cup place wasted on a lower league team would have had them sweating.) United won by the same 2-0 scoreline and were that bit too good for Raith on the day. Rovers will look back on their cup run with fond memories, particularly the fifth round win over Aberdeen at Pittodrie, and they started brightly and gave a good account of themselves on the whole, but once David Goodwillie put United ahead after twenty five minutes the result never looked in doubt. It wasn’t a pasting, just United had that extra bit of class and sharpness in the pass and tackle that wore Raith down, and denied them options when they did have possession.
If anything, their ability to show those little things that made the difference between an SPL and a first division side only accentuated the abjectness of Celtic’s performance the previous day. Caretaker Neil Lennon remains favourite for the vacant manager’s seat at Parkhead in spite of it but mostly by default: there are few obvious candidates on the domestic scene, and no budget with which to tempt a more illustrious candidate from abroad. But if Lennon was under any illusions about the scale of the task facing him, Saturday’s game made it plain for all to see.
Tempting as it is to spend more time poring over the problems of an Old Firm side in turmoil, the weekend belonged to Ross County, and the focus is rightly on them. Many sources have made much of Dingwall’s small population (about five thousand), thus doing their best to miss the point of the team’s name, while some are using it to push the case for an expanded SPL. Coming in the same week as several sides – Motherwell, St Mirren and Rangers – have expressed their displeasure at the post-split fixture list caused by the awkward size of a twelve team league, this indication of the strength available in the next league down is nicely timed in that regard. Bust mostly it’s just great to see an unfashionable team having its day. My money will be on Dundee United for the final, but not by all that much.