Scottish League Cup: What can we learn from group stages in previous seasons?

League Cup

Schools have not long broken up for summer, but the new term for Scotland's footballers has already begun.

Four sides have started their European campaigns and the League Cup begins on Friday when Hearts welcome Dundee United in the fourth iteration of the competition's group stages.

Clubs appear to have bought into its raison d'etre of replacing meaningless friendlies with a competitive way of preparing for the league season but, it would be foolish to read too much into form while squads are still taking shape.

However, at times and maybe only in hindsight, it has proved a useful barometer for what fortunes might unfold in the campaign ahead. BBC Scotland takes a look at some of the lessons we can learn.

Slow start can spell trouble ahead...

Last season, under new manager Alan Stubbs, St Mirren were taken to penalty shoot-outs by Lowland League outfit Spartans and League Two's Queen's Park. The Englishman only survived four games into the league season - amid suggestions of unrest in the dressing room - before being replaced with Oran Kearney.

Fellow Scottish Premiership side Dundee finished behind Dunfermline Athletic in their section and, although they still qualified for the knock-out stage, they suffered a humiliating 3-0 defeat at home to another Championship side, Ayr United. It proved to be a sign of what was to come as both Neil McCann, then replacement Jim McIntyre were sacked and the Dens Park side were relegated.

Dunfermline winning their group ahead of Hearts the previous season had a more immediate impact. Ian Cathro's six-month Tynecastle reign was already in trouble after a poor end to the previous season and, when they finished third in the section, the former Valencia and Newcastle United assistant was relieved of his duties.

Similarly, Lee McCulloch's time in charge of Kilmarnock never fully recovered from losing to local rivals Ayr in that season's televised opening League Cup fixture. The man who had ended the previous season in interim charge was another who was eventually shown the door in October.

Ian Cathro looks disappointed against Dunfermline Athletic
Ian Cathro left Hearts soon after a penalty shoot-out defeat by Dunfermline

But good starts don't always mean good finishes...

Dunfermline, as we have mentioned, topped their group ahead of Premiership sides - Hearts, then Dundee - for two consecutive seasons. But the good times did not last for the Fifers, who went on to finish fourth and seventh in the second tier.

Winning their group ahead of neighbours Dundee - then in the top flight - also proved to be a false dawn for Dundee United two seasons ago as they finished third and missed out on promotion.

It can bode well, too, though...

Hearts and Kilmarnock took group-winning form into their Premiership campaigns last season, with Craig Levein's side topping the table until November and Steve Clarke's team sustaining a longer title challenge until the turn of the year.

Ayr have won their group two years in a row before going on to win the League One title then establish an early lead in the Championship. Meanwhile, Ross County winning their group ahead of Dundee United - who finished fourth - proved to be a good indicator of how the Championship title rivals would finish in the race for promotion.

Arbroath thumped Ross County - freshly relegated from the top flight - 4-1 and, although Dick Campbell's side did not advance as one of the best runners-up, they continued their form to win League One.

Early glut of goals can make seasons...

Graphic

Last season, Lawrence Shankland and Stephen Dobbie both scored seven times in four games, with both taking that rate of scoring into the league campaign.

Shankland ended the campaign with 34 goals for Ayr, to earn the 23-year-old striker interest from far and wide before a move to Dundee United. But he was overshadowed by Dobbie, with the 36-year-old former Swansea City, Crystal Palace and Bolton Wanderers striker finding the net 43 times for Queen of the South, including a hat trick in the play-off final to help them avoid relegation to the third tier.

An early haul does not always lead to a prolific season, mind. Simon Murray's 2017 move from Dundee United to Hibernian got off to a great start with seven goals in the group stages. A goal on his league debut followed, and his total had risen to 14 by the end of November, but he found himself loaned to Dundee for the second half of the season before moving to Bidvest Wits in South Africa.

Cup winners unlikely to come from groups...

So far, no team has progressed from the group stage to win the League Cup since the format was reintroduced, with Celtic lifting the trophy on each occasion. Motherwell came closest, losing in the final two seasons ago, while Morton, Hibs and Hearts have all reached the semis.

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