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Danny Stewart: What’s in a name? The Challenge Cup has had plenty

© SNS GroupDundee boss James McPake.
Dundee boss James McPake.

If absence does, indeed, make the heart grow fonder, Scottish football fans should be feeling all loved-up for the return of the Challenge Cup this week.

Over 500 days have passed since Inverness Caledonian Thistle defeated Rangers Colts to claim their place in the Final of the 2019-20 campaign.

That tie generated a huge hoo-ha at the time, centred around Caley Thistle striker, James Keatings.

The forward was shown the red card in the semi for two bookings, which stood to put him out of the Final.

The Highland club believed the second of the yellows – for simulation – was a blunder by referee Greg Aitken because Keatings had been clearly caught by young Ranger, Ciaran Dickson, and submitted video evidence backing their claim.

However, despite Keatings having the backing of a public campaign – that included footballing luminaries such as Gary Lineker – the SFA initially upheld the decision.

As Caley Thistle voiced their fury, the governing body then performed a sensational U-turn on review, branding their own finding “incompetent” because one of the three members of the panel had not properly watched the footage.

That left Keatings free to play in the Final at the end of last March.

But, like so many things, the Final was cancelled due to the pandemic, and ICT and Raith Rovers, who they would have faced in the Final, were declared joint winners.

Due to pressure on fixture fulfilment, the quirkiest of Scotland’s cup competitions was ditched last season.

Eighteen months on, it’s back – only not as we know it.

For starters, it has been relaunched as the SPFL Trust Trophy.

Carrying the name of sponsors is, of course, nothing new for this competition.

It started life in 1990-91 as the B&Q Centenary Cup, quickly picking up the nickname “The Flat-Pack Trophy” after the company’s self-assembly products.

Initially intended to run for just one season to mark the Scottish League’s centenary, it filled a gap for a cup competition that offered something a little different.

There had been previous innovations that had their supporters.

The early 1970s saw the Texaco Cup spark cross-border rivalry, with Hearts losing to Wolves and Airdrie succumbing against Derby County in the competitions first two Finals.

Around the same time, the Drybrough Cup kicked off the domestic season, with the four highest-scoring teams in the old Divisions One and Two taking part.

Aberdeen and Hibs both won it twice, and the idea of offside only being awarded from 18 years out won favour, but proved a shortlived experiment.

Likewise the Anglo-Scottish Cup revived the chance to put one over on Auld Enemies, with St Mirren winning it during the competition’s six-year existence.

But it’s the Challenge Cup – in its various forms, that has stuck around longest.

A tie up with Irn-Bru emphasised the tartan feel of the tournament, and had the 2019-20 showpiece gone ahead, it would have been the Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Challenge Cup Final, which probably takes the biscuit for the longest title for any cup tournament anywhere.

And Rangers’ 2016 success in the Petrofac Training Cup – two years after losing to Raith Rovers in the Ramsdens Challenge Cup Final – stands a memento of their time rubbing shoulders with clubs outside the top flight.

The tournament has had other variations, and guest teams from England, Wales, and both sides of the Irish border, providing some match ups that would never have taken place in the normal run of things.

Critics pointed out such experimentation suited the agenda of those who advocate a British Cup proper, and evidence for the biggest clubs to run B teams in the lower leagues.

Some went so far as to call it a political competition.

No such debate this season, however, as Covid-19 concerns dictate entry is restricted to Scottish teams only. And with the Premiership clubs again fielding Colts teams, and the Highland and Lowlands Leagues also supplying sides, 50 teams went into the hat.

But politics remain in play, with Peterhead playing Dundee Colts on Wednesday night under protest.

The Blue Toon have three young players – Lyall Cameron, Josh Mulligan and Danny Strachan – on season-long loans from Dens Park.

Yet the rules state their parent club can request them back for the game, and The Dee manager, James McPake, has done exactly that – and could put the trio straight in against their new team-mates.

So it is welcome back to the “Flat-Pack Trophy” with the knowledge that, as with self-assembly homeware, patience could snap before too long.