After a season packed with drama and excitement, there’s still one trophy left to play for as Celtic and Inverness meet in the Scottish Cup final on Saturday.
After months of knock-out competition, 126 teams have been whittled down to two finalists and both teams have their eyes on a triumphant end to the season.
For Celtic, lifting the famous trophy for the 41st time would be motivation enough but after Ange Postecoglou’s side clinched the League Cup and cruised to Premiership triumph, a win would seal a record eighth domestic treble.
Inverness’ league season ended in disappointment as they failed to reach the promotion play-offs but victory at Hampden would be a momentous achievement and put the club’s name on the cup for only the second time.
There’s all to play for as the season approaches a thrilling finale at the national stadium.
How the teams got to Hampden
For Billy Dodds’ Inverness side, the road to the final is a story in itself.
The third round draw brought a test against a Stirling Albion side who would go on to win League Two. Dale Carrick put the Binos ahead in the tie but Wallace Duffy, MAx Ram and Aaron Doran all found the net in a 3-2 victory.
That win set up an all-Championship fourth round tie against ambitious Queen’s Park. After snow caused the game to be postponed on its scheduled date, Inverness welcomed their visitors for an evening game in late January and had a miserable evening, conceding two late goals to have their cup hopes ended before they had even really begun.
However, it transpired that Queen’s Park’s January signing Euan Henderson wouldn’t have been eligible on the original date and shouldn’t have played. A disciplinary hearing voided the result and handed Inverness a 3-0 win.
The reprieve brought a new challenge as the Jags headed to in-form Livingston in the fifth round and they sprang a real surprise, winning 3-0 with Billy McKay netting a double and Sean Welsh also on the scoresheet.
Inverness faced Premiership opposition again in the quarter-finals as Kilmarnock travelled north with ambitions to continue a cup run that could lift spirits as they battled in the league. Kyle Vassell opened the scoring for the visitors but McKay and Welsh struck again to secure a 2-1 win.
After two rounds against top flight opposition, Inverness were suddenly the favourites when they headed to Hampden for a semi-final against Falkirk. The Championship side didn’t buckle under pressure, scoring three times before half-time to settle the contest. McKay continued his goalscoring run with a double, with on-loan Hibs winger Daniel MacKay was also on the scoresheet.
Celtic’s route to Hampden began with a fourth round tie at home to Morton. Ange Postecoglou’s side blew away their Championship opposition with a strong first half performance that saw Kyogo Furuhashi and Aaron Mooy each score twice. David Turnbull netted after the break to round off a 5-0 win.
Progress set up another home game, this time against St Mirren. Daizen Maeda put the hosts ahead with a goal in the 16th minute but the match remained tight until the 76th minute when Richard Taylor was sent off for handball and Reo Hatate scored a penalty. Hatate scored a second, Hyeongyu Oh and Matt O’Riley found the net while Mark O’Hara scored a consolation as Celtic won 5-1.
Hearts were the quarter-final opposition and Celtic travelled to Tynecastle with a place at Hampden at stake. Mooy put the team ahead after two minutes before Kyogo and Cameron Carter-Vickers made things comfortable for the visitors.
The semi-final draw pitted Celtic against rivals Rangers. A 13-point gap at the top of the Premiership table underline how Celtic had enjoyed the upper hand over the course of the season but it was a tight affair at the national stadium.
Rangers had their chances but Celtic showed their clinical side when Daizen Maeda pounced on a defensive error and crossed for Jota to head in the only goal of the game. Celtic were through to the final and on course for a domestic treble.
‘This competition’s all about miracles’
Inverness manager Billy Dodds is under no illusions about the size of the task facing his team but has pointed to history as proof that the underdog can step up on the big occasion.
The club’s history is marked by high profile cup wins against Saturday’s opposition but former Rangers striker Dodds also looked at a game against his former side for some inspiration.
“We’re going to need a bit of luck, top-notch performances from my players, my goalkeeper to have a good day,” he said. “But when I was at Queen of the South (as a coach) and we played Rangers in the (2008) Scottish Cup final we were 2-0 down at half-time (before coming back to 2-2 and then losing 3-2).
“This competition’s all about miracles and they do happen. We’re going there with the mindset we can win the game.”
Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou has seen the build-up to the game dominated by talk that Tottenham Hotspur are making moves to appoint him as their new manager. With a treble on the line, he batted away any talk about his own future and said the focus had to be completely on the task at hand.
“Obviously it was the one trophy that escaped us last year and just the whole day, the occasion, it’s the last game on the calendar and just to be part of it was the first thing we were excited about,” the Australian said.
“Back home the English FA Cup final followed by the Scottish FA Cup was kind of tradition – that was our Saturday night in May. We would religiously watch that, it was a bit of an event for us to sit around and watch those two games.
“It’s not just that it’s a cup final, it’s the occasion, the last game, there is always more about it, just the ceremony of the day. You would love to be a part of it.
“I didn’t watch it last year, so that goes to show that we were still hurting from the fact we weren’t there.
“Now we are there and that’s why we want to make the most of it.”
Treble dream for Johnston
Celtic defender Alistair Johnston only joined the club in January but he already holds two winners medals after the club won the League Cup and the Premiership. He’s now eyeing a third success and a special afternoon at Hampden.
“I am just really excited to be in a position where I could potentially be walking out of here after six months with a treble,” he said. “That is everything and more I could have asked for, but when I came in those were the expectations, that was what was put on me, it’s trophies or nothing.
“I am just really happy we are delivering for our fans so far but it will be a big match this weekend, it won’t be easy.”
For Inverness, the chance is there to lift the trophy for the second time, with the 2015 cup-winning team already revered. Only Danny Devine and Aaron Doran remain in the squad from that momentous day and Devine told PA that he had dreamed of becoming a two-time winner.
“You always try and visualise what it would be like if we could go there and pull off a huge upset, then you quickly bring yourself back down to earth by recognising the actual size of the task at hand,” he said.
“But of course I’ve thought about it. When the game time comes that will be completely out of my head and I’ll just be focused on the game itself and doing my job.”
Devine was injured when Inverness defeated Celtic on the way to the trophy in 2015 but says it shows the unlikely result is achievable if his team stick together.
“I know this Celtic team is firing on all cylinders but they had some pretty good players back then as well,” he added. “Virgil Van Dijk scored a free-kick that day and they were an extremely good side.
“They were no mugs back then so that definitely gives us confidence. I know it’s a bit different this time because we’re in the division below but the belief is there within this squad, we’re a tight-knit group and we’ll be giving it our best shot.
“We’ve played about eight semi-finals and finals in our short history and this is our second Scottish Cup final in eight years, which is absolutely huge for a club of this size, and I think that comes from that underdog spirit and everybody being together up here in the Highlands.”