What happens when you break the rules? You get punished, right? In most sports, a punishment will be a ban or a fine or something along those lines.
But in most sports there will also be a correction of the result. Doped up athletes will be banned and any race they won will be wiped from the record with those they beat being rewarded with the win out of which they were cheated.
Most sports. Not Scottish football though.
Well… that’s not strictly true. If you’re wee enough, this will happen anyway. Team who field ineligible players are not only fined for doing so but they are thrown out of cup competitions or they are docked the three points they may have won and a 3-0 victory is awarded to the other team.
Actually, sometimes in Scotland it goes further than that. In the Highland League this season, Fort William fielded an ineligible player in three separate games. As a result, they were docked nine points.
Which seems harsh since they still lost all three of those games! At one point this season, Fort William had -9 points in the league!
What does this have to do with today’s League Cup semi final against Hearts at Murrayfield? Well, take your pick.
This is our first visit to Murrayfield in four years. According to the record books, our last visit there was actually a “home” European game that Celtic won 3-0. As it was the second leg and Celtic had lost the first one 4-1, Celtic progressed thanks to Callum McGregor’s away goal.
I was there that day, as were many others. Weleft the ground to a 2-0 defeat to Legia Warsaw. But as Legia brought on Bartosz Bereszynski in the final few minutes, a man UEFA considered to be suspended for the game, they forfeited that result.
UEFA don’t mess around. You cheated, whether it was an administrative error or not, and you correctly faced the consequences of that.
However, bizarrely that isn’t the only instance of an ineligible player relating to today’s match. You see, Hearts shouldn’t even be here today.
Hearts have reached this semi final by virtue of the fact that they beat Motherwell 4-2 in the quarter final. Before that, they beat Dunfermline Athletic 1-0 in the second round. They were unseeded in the draw for that because they only picked up nine points in the group stage, and actually only topped the group on goal difference ahead of Inverness who weren’t one of the four best runners up.
Hearts nine points came from a 2-1 win away to Cove Rangers, a 4-2 win on penalties after a 1-1 draw at Raith Rovers, a 5-0 win at home to Cowdenbeath, and a 5-0 win at home to Inverness. Three wins, one draw, and a bonus point for winning the penalty shootout.
That’s 11 points. Why did they have only 9?
In the game against Cove Rangers, Hearts brought on Andrew Irving midway through the second half. Unfortunately for Hearts, Irving’s contract was not properly registered with the SFA and he was therefore ineligible to play.
However, in the SPFL hearing that followed, Hearts were deducted just two points for doing so, not all three that they had illegally gained. Cove Rangers weren’t even awarded the customary 3-0 win, it was purely a two point punishment for Hearts with a fine to go with it. No correction was made to the group.
And clearly, as Hearts topped the group on goal difference only, that single point made all the difference. Inverness should have been guaranteed a place in the second round prior to their 5-0 loss to Hearts. Instead, Inverness were knocked out completely and Hearts have continued to the point where we face them today.
So here we are. Playing at a ground we shouldn’t be playing in, against a team that shouldn’t even be there, all of which boils down to the simple fact that the SPFL are an absolute joke organisation.
But anyway, it is what it is. We have to beat Hearts today to keep hold of the League Cup that we’ve won in the last two seasons. Beat them, and we’re one game away from retaining it for a third time, something that hadn’t been done since Rangers in the early 1990s, and something Celtic haven’t done since the five in a row won under Jock Stein in the 1960s.
Oh, and I still want us to win a seventh consecutive trophy to match the record set by that same Rangers team in the 1990s.
We also owe Hearts a beating. Earlier this season we lost 1-0 at Tynecastle, something which has spurred Hearts on and they currently sit six points clear of us at the top of the league, five clear of Kilmarnock, albeit both of those having played a game more than us now.
The goal came from Kyle Lafferty, who has since moved across the country but won’t be playing in the other semi final taking place after ours at Hampden due to being cup tied.
Hearts have also lost a few key players to injury since we played them. Christophe Berra went off injured while playing against us in that game at Tynecastle, while John Souttar who took his arm and has since joined him on the long term injury list. Striker Uche Ikpeazu is another long term layoff, so they are missing key men up front and at the back.
Yet they are still a serious threat as they seem to have decent strength in depth. Arnaud Djoum has recently returned to fitness, while Peter Haring may well be fit to face us too.
And of course we have our own concerns. With Dedryck Boyata suspended after his sending off for telling the referee what he thought of him ignoring blatant fouls, we had hoped to see Jozo Simunovic partnering Filip Benkovic today. But with Benkovic already missing on Thursday night, things got worse as Simunovic went off injured. It’s pretty certain then that Jack Hendry will be the man to come in and play along side a hopefully now fit Benkovic.
Others who missed out on Thursday like Scott Brown, Leigh Griffiths, Kristoffer Ajer and Youssouf Mulumbu also look set to miss out, though thankfully Tom Rogic apparently has a good chance of returning, as does James Forrest who was only suspended for Thursday’s game.
We haven’t fared well in Edinburgh lately. The last two games there were defeats, and if you consider the Legia game as well then we’ve lost on each of our last visits to the three big stadiums in the capital. We’ve lost go Hearts twice in the last three occasions we’ve played them through there, although the other game is still the only time Hearts have lost at Tynecastle since returning there from Murrayfield last season.
Yes, they’re going back to the stadium they called home just last season. It sounds ridiculous, but I don’t really have a problem with that because a good few of our squad now were there for Legia, not to mention that time we played a whole season at Hampden and ended that season by winning the Scottish Cup at the neutral venue of… yep, Hampden.
For me, there are far bigger questions to be asked about this tie today, like why did they make such a mess of organising it, and most crucially…
Why only two points and not three?
Well if the SPFL won’t hand out justice, then perhaps we should just do it ourselves. Let’s get these cheats pumped!
Krys (Twitter @krys1888)