Celtic and Rangers (Oldco) have actually met in one previous League Cup final in the month of December and that happened in 1982.
The teams went into the game with contrasting fortunes. Celtic were top of the league and were playing a terrific brand of entertaining, attacking football under manager Billy McNeill. On the other hand, John Greig was going through a torrid time and even on the first Saturday in December, everyone knew it was a three horse race for the title between Celtic and the northern usurpers, Aberdeen and Dundee United, with the Gers lagging well behind.
Greig was forced into desperate measures. Just two days before the game he had moved to bring back ex-Ranger, Gordon Smith, on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion. Rangers had taken advantage of a loophole in the rules which enabled teams to bring loan players in, even before a major domestic final. Smith had been a huge success at Ibrox first time around and Greig would have hoped that this would swing the final in Rangers’ favour.
Celtic were a team on top form and the jewel in their crown was their young striker, Charlie Nicholas. That lunchtime, the English based BBC football preview show, Football Focus, had profiled Charlie, filming him around Glasgow, and if I recall correctly, even filming him getting a haircut. Nicholas was hot property on the pitch and had now shown that he was photogenic off the park too. He was in a considerable run of form and had scored 28 goals already, before the New Year.
Hampden was in a state of renovation and the traditional north enclosure was out of bounds as the demolishers were in the process of knocking down the quaint old north stand. This reduced the attendance on the day to 55,000. Unfortunately the weather was absolutely dreadful. Incessant rain fell all day, making conditions slippy on the pitch and absolutely soaking those Celtic fans who were crammed into the traditional uncovered east terracing.
Celtic started the game in fine fashion. Young midfielder, Paul McStay, only recently turned 18 years old, belied his tender years by controlling the midfield. Davie Provan was to have perhaps his best game in a Celtic jersey. Greig had fielded midfield player, Ian Redford, at left back in a bid to contain the Celtic winger but Provan looked able to beat Redford at will. It was no surprise when Celtic took the lead when Provan cut on from the right to tee Nicholas up for a fine low finish. Before half time Celtic doubled their lead when Murdo MacLeod scored with a spectacular high shot from the edge of the area following a Provan corner to send the Celtic fans into raptures. It actually took Rangers 44 minutes just to get their first shot on goal.
Sloppy defending allowed Rangers to pull one back just after half time when Jim Bett beat Pat Bonner with a delicate free kick but still the Celts drove forward. A long ball from Danny McGrain sent Frank McGarvey racing clear to shoot wildly over. Nicholas then proved he was human by missing from six yards, and Dave McKinnon was required to make a spectacular overhead clearance on his own goal line following a scintillating run by Provan who had beaten three defenders. These missed chances were making the supporters nervous and with just seconds remaining it took a fine interception from Roy Aitken to prevent John MacDonald from having a shot at goal from 10 yards out.
Celtic had lost a bit of their rhythm after McStay had gone of injured and there was relief at the final whistle and also a tinge of frustration that the score line should have been more emphatic in Celtic’s favour. Danny McGrain collected the cup and the players paraded the trophy in front of their jubilant and absolutely drenched fans. It’s interesting to note that this was last League Cup final to be played on a Saturday.
Davie Provan was deservedly voted as man of the match and received a holiday in Florida from the match sponsors, Telejector, for his efforts. In later years he was to declare that he was on the plane to the USA in June 1983 to enjoy it when he was devastated by the news that Billy McNeill had resigned as Celtic manager.
For my own part, I recall my father and I getting home, soaked to the skin. No central heating in Govan tenements in those days, so we huddled round the living room fire with towels wrapped around us to dry off, much to the disgust of my old mother. She wasn’t amused when we told her that we hadn’t even noticed it had been raining. Legend also has it that the trophy found it’s way to the old Gorbals later that night as Billy McNeill dropped in on Pat Crerand’s old mother, allowing a good number of local residents a drink out the famous old trophy.