Celtic bear the burden of expectation

Phil Shaw looks ahead to today's Scottish Cup final
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The Independent Online
Airdrieonians, cast as makeweights in today's Tennents Scottish Cup final, last took the trophy 71 years ago, whereas Celtic reeled off a record 29th triumph as recently as 1989. Because of the vast disparity in resources, tradition and expectations, it will be as if those figures had been transposed at Hampden Park today.

Tommy Burns, Celtic's fourth manager during their six years without silverware, describes the period as "the monkey on our back". A tenacious and crafty creature it is too, defying expensive attempts to dislodge it while adorning countless domestic prizes with ribbons in Ibrox blue.

Today offers another golden opportunity for Glasgow's green giants to break its grip. Airdrie, after all, are not Rangers; they are not even a Premier Division club. They have no ground and few fans, their squad wash their own kit after training in a public park, and they have a building society manager in defence.

It would seem that Celtic, currently chasing Dimitri Radchenko and Marc Degryse for pounds 3.5m and at last constructing a stadium worthy of their name, can hardly lose. Yet whenever the Parkhead legions find their thoughts straying along those lines, two words are guaranteed to jolt them back to reality: Raith Rovers.

Six months ago to the day, the unfancied Fifers shattered Burns' side by winning the Coca-Cola (League) Cup final on penalties. Airdrie - who routed Raith 4-1 away en route to this final - may prove equally indigestible fodder for the favourites.

As the First Division club's manager, Alex MacDonald, never tires of saying, defeat would merely be a disappointment for Airdrie; for Celtic it would be a disaster. The pressure is all on them. Mind games aside, his band of journeymen professionals are arch exponents of knock-out football.

Despite having to rent Clyde's ground at Cumbernauld after selling up at Broomfield Park, Airdrie not only won the B&Q Cup for lower-division teams but also reached the last four of the Coca-Cola Cup. Incredibly, they have lost just once in 14 cup fixtures.

Marshalled at the back by Jimmy Sandison, they will mark man for man and seek to exploit Alan Lawrence's pace on the break. Steve Cooper, an Englishman whose 11 clubs include such glamour spots as Halifax Town and Newport County, will be lurking to pounce on the kind of mistake that enabled Dundee United's Craig Brewster to shock Rangers in last year's final.

For all that, Celtic ought to prevail provided they are not weighed down by the fear of failure. Forewarned by the Raith experience, Burns has imbued in his team a deep determination to ensure that their return to Celtic Park, after nine months' exile at today's venue, coincides with an updating of the honours list and a place in Europe.

The better the opposition, the more the pedigree of internationals like Paul McStay, Tom Boyd and John Collins has shone through, as evinced by their semi-final demolition of Hibs and a seven-point haul from Rangers.

By running Rangers close in the 1992 final, they showed how far spirit and stamina can take outsiders. Their plan will be to harry McStay and Co relentlessly, pinch a goal and hang on for dear life. Celtic are not prolific scorers and sometimes rely on Collins' set-pieces to bail them out. So the longer Airdrie frustrate them, the more the inner doubts are likely to surface.

Airdrie (probable): Martin; Boyle, Sandison, Hay, Stewart; A Smith, Black, Harvey, Jack; Cooper, Lawrence.

Celtic (probable): Bonner; Vata, Boyd, O'Neil (or McNally), McKinlay; Grant, McStay, Collins, McLaughlin; Van Hooijdonk, Falconer.

Referee: L Mottram (Forth).