Licking their lips ahead of an initiation at Hampden
New Firm duo insist nerves won’t be an issue in getting to grips with surrounds
AT either end of the experience scale, players are eyeing Hampden debuts tomorrow as the New Firm prepare to kick-off the QTS League Cup semi-final weekend.
For the likes of Dundee United teenager Charlie Telfer, that is understandable. But the fact that after three years at Aberdeen Jonny Hayes is heading to the national stadium for the first time seems somewhat telling.
Admittedly, Hampden’s Commonwealth Games-enforced sabbatical from Scottish football was a factor since both played in – and won – major finals last season that were staged elsewhere; Telfer with Rangers in the Youth Cup final at St Mirren Park, while Hayes’ Dons are the defending League Cup champions, having won the trophy at Celtic Park.
However, these two clubs which were once such Hampden regulars it is extraordinary how rarely they have visited in recent years and that is something they are looking to address.
Having left the most successful club in Scottish football history last summer (tortured arguments about Rangers’ status apart), it might, until recently, have seemed that Telfer was reducing his chances of making repeat appearances on the sport’s big days. But he believes he has now joined a club and a team that is set up for sustained success.
“Before I signed here, you see the young players like Ryan Gauld, Andy Robertson and John Souttar, and you just felt that if you went to United then you would get the chance,” he observed.
He has seized it, not least because of the encouragement that has been offered.
“The manager gives you the confidence to go and express yourself,” said Telfer.
“I thought it would take a while to establish myself and try to get in the team, but it’s going miles better than I ever thought it was going to go.
“It’s just been a case of getting my head down and trying to show why Jackie McNamara brought me here.
“He’s obviously had confidence in me to play me and I just want to try and work hard.
“He’s said before that he’s not going to have a go at you if you make a mistake, so that obviously gives you a bit of confidence to try and do something creative and help the team.”
Consequently, there is a belief that United are capable of going one better than they did in last season’s Scottish Cup.
“Especially because of the style of our play, on our day I think most teams won’t be able to handle us and I feel that it would be well deserved if we got a trophy to show for it,” said Telfer.
Which is not to suggest the slightest lack of respect for opponents who ended an astonishing 19-year run without silverware at Celtic Park last season.
“Aberdeen are doing really well at the moment, although they might not have got the result they wanted at the weekend,” added Telfer. “They’ve been brilliant the last few months, so we know it’s going to be a tough game.
“Hopefully, we’ll be on our game on Saturday and we can beat them.”
As to the debate about which is the bigger game in competitive terms this weekend, he offered a diplomatic response, taking into account where he started his career.
“Obviously it will be the first Old Firm game for a few years but, if both United and Aberdeen play well on Saturday, then it will be a very entertaining game,” he said.
With no such constraints, Hayes has made it clear this week that he believes the all-Premiership match should be seen as the bigger spectacle.
“Dundee United are a very strong side and, to win the cup, we have to beat the best teams. It was the same last year when we won the League Cup and I’m sure it is going to be a cracking game,” he said.
For all that they are defending champions, tomorrow’s venue adds something new to the occasion for the 27-year-old.
“We didn’t get to the latter stages of the cups at Caley Thistle when I played there and last year Hampden wasn’t in use, so I’ve never been anywhere near Hampden,” Hayes added.
However, he also knows that to get involved in the emotion surrounding the venue has the potential to be a distraction and to that end, the experience of last season’s final at Celtic Park will be valuable.
“It wasn’t a big deal last year to the players and the manager made sure of that,” Hayes explained.
“It was a big thing for the club in general as it had been so long since it had been to a final but it didn’t affect the dressing room.”
A LONG WAY FROM IBROX: Telfer left Rangers acrimoniously and has progressed well under the guidance of McNamara