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Thankfully, the central belt has loosened its grip on knock-out trophies . . .

If the last few years have proved anything in Scottish football, it is surely that one club's misery is another's opportunity.

Aberdeen's League Cup success is symbolic of a shift away from the big two cities. Picture: SNS
Aberdeen's League Cup success is symbolic of a shift away from the big two cities. Picture: SNS

While Rangers continue with their long-running drama series "Family at War" and Celtic waltz away with the top-flight title season after season, there has been a marked downturn in the fortunes of the Old Firm while on the cup trail.

To which, many of us can only respond: "Thank heavens for small mercies."

This weekend's semi-finals of the William Hill Scottish Cup were both exciting and instructive affairs. In the absence of Celtic, previously eliminated by Aberdeen, there were riches at stake for those who could combine the right ingredients when the action commenced.

In the end, Dundee United could afford to be far from their best and still defeat Rangers comfortably, while St Johnstone found a hero in Stevie May to upset Aberdeen.

A decade ago, Old Firm aficionados would have scoffed at the suggestion they might become relative also-rans in the hunt for silverware, but it may be happening. In nine domestic finals since 2009/10, they have only won four out of nine trophies - and only once since 2011 - and that figure will inevitably increase this season.

Better still, for those who have grown weary with saturated coverage of Glasgow football - especially when so much of it concerns a Tarantino-style list of characters (Mr Green, Mr Whyte, Mr King, et al) who have dragged Rangers to the edge of oblivion - the torch has been picked up by sides elsewhere with a mounting belief in their ability to challenge the status quo.

Just reflect on the fact that by the time either Dundee United or St Johnstone contest the Scottish Cup final, they will be following in the footsteps of Aberdeen and Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who fought it out for the League Cup in March. Four different teams from outside the central belt and three from the north on the big stage: what odds would you have been offered on that potential scenario at the start of the campaign?

Critics might respond that these sides have been helped by a variety of factors. But you can only make the most of the circumstances in which you find yourself. Yes, Rangers have not so much flirted with mediocrity and extinction as invited them upstairs for an orgy and yes, Hearts have been radically affected by the idiocies of the Romanov dynasty.

Yet, there is ample evidence that Scottish football is not in such a poor shape as the nay-sayers might proclaim. Aberdeen and Dundee United, for instance, have been galvanised by the robust resilience with which Derek McInnes and Jackie McNamara have gone about their respective jobs.

As somebody who interviewed the likes of Denis Law and Stephen Glass prior to the Pittodrie team's first cup triumph in nearly 20 years, it was instructive to hear them assert that Aberdeen should be capable of avoiding such lengthy fallow periods in the future.

Nobody is getting dewy-eyed by the notion that they might return to the halcyon days of the 1980s under Sir Alex Ferguson, but the vast crowd - estimated by police at 60,000 people - who gathered on the city's Union Street to acclaim McInnes' personnel last month was a reminder of how much the sport means to so many in the granite bastion of the north-east.

"The Sheep are on Fire" was a terrific slogan, and although the blaze was temporarily extinguished yesterday by St Johnstone's own brand of May-hem, McInnes has made some astute signings, handled himself with aplomb, and been refreshingly honest in his assessment of where his charges stand in the firmament.

He accepts they are not going to be vying with Celtic over a protracted championship joust - and the latter can argue they have bigger fish to fry in the Champions League - but there is no reason why they cannot go toe-to-toe with them in the knock-out tournaments. As, indeed, we have witnessed.

McNamara, for his part, is part-intense, part-incendiary and wholly intelligent in his stewardship of the Tannadice side. He has some of the bellicose passion of another JM who achieved greatness at United and although the former appreciates his side are unlikely to be emulating Jim McLean's players by beating Barcelona in Europe, there is a sense of renewal and rebirth at these proud institutions.

In some respects, they have benefited from the interminable power struggles at Ibrox and the current weakness of both Hearts and Hibernian. But, ultimately, it is not their fault that their rivals have behaved irresponsibly or are cursed by inertia. Quite the opposite when one considers the careful stewardship of Stewart Milne and Stephen Thompson.

So let's raise a toast to those who are surviving and thriving outwith the M8 corridor. It is certainly a lot more competitive now that one or two clubs don't simply poach everybody else's best talent.

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