Former Charlton striker Simon Makienok struck his first goals for the club with a sensational hat-trick, on only his second Lilywhites start, to book a fourth-round tie against Newcastle.
It was the perfect reaction to suffering the heaviest defeat of Simon Grayson’s tenure – and worst league loss since 2004 – in last Saturday’s 5-0 drubbing at Brentford.
Danish frontman Makienok will be looking to continue in the same vein as Preston seek their first league win over the Latics since April 2000.
The Lilywhites have found results hard to come by on home soil with just one win in their last 10 league outings, but that victory came in emphatic fashion against Cardiff City in their previous game at Deepdale.
Meanwhile, Wigan ended a wretched run of four straight defeats with a tepid goalless draw against Fulham last weekend at the DW Stadium – keeping only their second clean sheet of the season.
Gary Caldwell’s team, who won the League One title last term, will be desperate to climb out of the bottom three with a positive result before their relegation rivals take to the field on Saturday.
The Latics – a Premier League club as recently as 2013 – could also benefit from having no midweek match, so they should be fresh when they make the short 18-mile trip up the M6 along with 3,000 of their supporters.
But the newly-promoted side have won only once in the Championship this term and have lost all four of their away league games so far.
Northern Irish striker Will Grigg isn’t exactly on fire at the moment, given his side’s predicament, but has had a hand in Wigan’s last four league goals – scoring three of them.
The main focus for both sides will be taking three points and holding the bragging rights in this particular Lancashire rivalry until the sides lock horns again at the DW in February.
Wigan will be without midfielder Alex Gilbey, who will be sidelined for a while after being stretchered off with a knee injury against Fulham.
Deadline day signing Nathan Byrne – who replaced him off the bench last weekend – is likely to take his place.
Nick Powell returned from a groin problem as a substitute against the Cottagers and could be in contention for a start.
But defender Reece Burke had an operation on a hernia this week and will be out for up to a month.
Alex Baptiste, Aiden McGeady, Anders Lindegaard and Paul Gallagher should return to the Preston squad, having been left at home in midweek.
On-loan Everton winger McGeady could be reunited with Wigan boss Caldwell, who he played with for four years at Celtic before they both left Parkhead in 2010.
Former Manchester United defender Marnick Vermijl will again miss out with a hamstring strain suffered at Griffin Park but striker Jermaine Beckford could be involved after four games out with a hamstring injury.
“These local derbies are special games, we had some good games last year with Blackburn, Burnley and Bolton and it will be no different with Wigan.
“They have had some good times being in the Premier League, winning the FA Cup, and they suffered the disappointment of going into League One but now they are back into the Championship and they’re looking to progress and stabilise as a football club.
“We know what to expect, they’ve recruited over the summer and on deadline day and they have got some threats but we will be concentrating on what we need to do to affect the game as well.
“We are at home, we are going to take the game to them and we’ve got to make sure that we play with the same tempo as we did in the Cardiff game and probably for the first 74 minutes that we did against Brentford.”
“You can’t get too emotional; we are obviously up for it because we know the importance of it to the fans because the result and the night is for them to enjoy so we will do everything we can to give them a win and make sure they enjoy their night.
“I don’t know what Preston’s team will be because of their result the other night at Bournemouth in the Cup and the travelling they have had to do, so that will be interesting.
“We know them, though, we know the strengths they will bring and we will be ready.”
Referee: Oliver Langford (West Midlands) Assistant referees: James Wilson (Cheshire) and Christopher Akers (south Yorkshire) Fourth official: Stephen Martin (Staffordshire)
West Midlands whistler Langford, 36, will take charge of his fourth Championship game of the season after being confirmed on the 18-strong list of Select Group 2 referees in the summer.
Despite impressing with his quiet but assured approach, he has often found himself officiating in League One and League Two in previous seasons.
After the excitement of the Old Firm, another of Scottish football’s bitter feuds is back as the two rivals hoping to compete for Celtic’s crown meet at Pittodrie for the first time in five years.
ONE of Scottish football’s most intense feuds resumes this weekend after being put on hold for four years.
Regarded by many as the next best thing to the Old Firm, Aberdeen against Rangers has often been a fiery fixture, which embodied the competitive edge to the former Scottish Premier League era.
With the Dons rediscovering their form in last week’s classy come-from-behind win at Dundee, Derek McInnes’s side will be primed to take on a beleaguered Gers side who have endured a difficult start to their long-awaited Premiership return.
The outspoken Englishman’s latest outburst seemed to have proved detrimental to both his career and Rangers’ season, but the experienced midfield man – now the subject of a betting investigation – has vowed to fight back.
The fiasco could not be more welcome or ideal, during a period in which the Gers have only won one of their last four games – and, even more worryingly, look disjointed and defensively frail.
But their regular League Cup keeper Matt Gilks, a former team-mate of Barton’s at Burnley, took to the media to insist it hasn’t unsettled the squad or affected their match preparations.
This was emphasised in a typically bruising encounter in October 2011, the last time the men from Govan made the trip to the north-east, when Kyle Lafferty’s clinical finish and a Nikica Jelavic penalty helped the Gers to a 2-1 victory, putting them in firm control in the title race.
But neither have fully established themselves as pacesetters having opened the campaign in stuttering fashion, punctuated by glimpses of brilliance and moments of madness in equal measure.
Heading into the seventh round of matches, both sides are adjacent in the table with almost identical records – fourth and fifth respectively, with two wins, three draws and a defeat from six league games.
Aberdeen had a more difficult route than Rangers into the League Cup’s last four, as recently as Thursday night, with Adam Rooney’s 90th minute header the difference against a stubborn St Johnstone.
It extended the Dons’ steady but unspectacular opening to the campaign but – like the Gers – their only domestic defeat thus far has come at Celtic Park, with Aberdeen on the end of a similar resounding loss at the end of August.
And both the Dons and the Gers will be desperately hoping for the win which would provide a psychological boost to their faltering bids in challenging champions Celtic.
While, from the neutral point of view, it has all the ingredients of a classic.
Aberdeen skipper Ryan Jack will be sidelined once again as he continues to recuperate from knee surgery.
Winger Jonny Hayes missed Thursday’s League Cup tie against St Johnstone after sustaining a hamstring injury in the warm-up but the Irishman expects to be fit to face the Gers.
Rangers captain Lee Wallace should return at left-back after being rested for Tuesday’s League Cup tie against Queen of the South.
Andy Halliday, who described taking over the armband in midweek as “one of the proudest moments of my career”, is set to continue in midfield with Barton – the man he had a training ground row with last week – suspended by the club for three weeks.
Matt Gilks was in goal against the Doonhamers in midweek but is set to return to the bench, with Wes Foderingham likely to come back in.
Referee: John Beaton Assistants referees: Dougie Potter and Andrew McWilliam Fourth official: Don Robertson
Fifa official Beaton, 34, has already had some eventful games and controversial moments so far this season – giving 11 yellow cards and a penalty for a dive, three penalties in 45 minutes, booking two players for diving in the same game and sending a manager to the stands for sarcastically applauding a decision.
But the Lanarkshire whistler will be hoping for a quieter afternoon in arguably his biggest match of the campaign so far – and his first between Aberdeen and Rangers.
You can read more about Beaton’s appointment here.
It was another early-season showdown at Pittodrie which produced one of the most thrilling games between these bitter rivals in recent times.
Reigning champions Rangers looked on course to suffer their first defeat of the season when Scott Vernon and Chris Maguire fired the Dons into a 2-0 lead inside half-an-hour.
But Kenny Miller, currently in his third spell with the Ibrox club, continued his excellent form at the start of the campaign by first converting a controversially awarded penalty before blasting home his second to level the scores.
Nikica Jelavic notched the winner midway through the second half and Aberdeen’s Maguire saw red late on as the Gers moved above Celtic at the top of the SPL on goal difference, with both sides winning their first six league games.
But the defiant former Brentford boss has shook off the haters and, after a shambolic display against fellow fierce rivals Celtic earlier this month, insists his players are ready for the challenge they face against the Dons.
He said: “They want to play in these type of games. It will be a 20,000 sell-out and an intimidating atmosphere and they will enjoy that. It has been five years since we have been up there. The fans are looking forward to it and so are the players.
“We are looking forward to the trip north. After what happened at Parkhead hard work is the only way of getting better.”
Opposite number Derek McInnes has questioned why his side have been given two days less to prepare for the game but insists the Dons will be at full strength and ready for Rangers.
Speaking after his team booked a League Cup semi spot against Morton, McInnes said: “We need a big effort from everyone for Sunday. It’s ridiculous that Rangers have 48 hours of extra recovery before a league game when there doesn’t need to be.
“Why our game was moved to the Thursday, I don’t get. But it is what it is – and we’ll be ready for them come Sunday.
“It will be a full house here, everyone wants to be involved in it. I think it’s a significant fixture on the calendar, Aberdeen against Rangers.
“It probably gets everyone fired up. They’re a good side, they had an impressive performance the other night.
“Rangers have got too much quality, having invested heavily in a squad that already looked good in the Championship, to consider them anything but a tough nut to crack. But we’re in good form. And tonight’s result helps.
“I don’t know about us being favourites. I can’t go and spend £2 million or £3 million and pay the wages they do. But we always feel we can win, especially at Pittodrie. Sunday is no different.”
Two cup ties in the last two seasons have given a small taste of what to expect but the first league meeting of Celtic and Rangers in four and a half years is sure to provide a more mouth-watering encounter to savour for a Saturday lunchtime.
Although the worldwide audience may be slightly diminished with the Manchester derby scheduled at the same time, the opening Old Firm derby of the campaign is the showdown everyone has been waiting for.
Rangers, back on the top-flight scene after working their way up the ladder in the face of adversity, are still yet to convince they can challenge their rivals from across Glasgow, who will look to maintain their 100 per cent league record ahead of a daunting trip to the Nou Camp to start their Champions League group stage campaign.
You can be forgiven for not knowing what to expect – other than the unexpected – so here are 10 things to keep a close eye on at Celtic Park…
1) Barton and Brown midfield match-up
Ever since the transfer of the summer in Scottish football arose, the mind games and banter has been flying around and the Twitter talk about how the combustible duo would conduct themselves on the same field has barely stopped.
Thankfully, there hasn’t been a long wait to find out – and Barton’s arrival at Ibrox has only added further spice to what was always going to be a titanic tussle.
Barton has played in high-profile battles south of the border but nothing on this scale and, after a slow start to his Rangers career, will be desperate to make a positive impact on the grandest of stages. Something he is more than capable of doing.
With two of the country’s biggest personalities going head to head, there is only room for one ego on the same field and don’t be surprised if one – or indeed both – lose their cool and don’t last the full 90 minutes.
2) Shaky defending from both sides
Despite the teams’ undoubtedly quality which makes them stand out as Scotland’s best, neither are renowned for their defensive stability.
Both have experimented with a back-three and a mixture of youth and experience in recent times but are yet to find the right solution to suit their personnel.
Although Eoghan O’Connell, 21, has shown a high level of maturity in the season’s early weeks, Celtic’s problems stem from constant changes to their centre-back pairing and their ability to make costly individual errors – Efe Ambrose being the prime candidate.
Whereas, Rangers have more experience of Scottish football in their ranks – Danny Wilson and Lee Wallace having played in several Old Firm meetings.
But rustiness is still evident, with Clint Hill admitting he still needs to get up and running and Wallace pulling out of Scotland duty with an injury complaint, while James Tavernier can often be too cavalier going forward, leaving acres of space waiting to be exploited.
With the stakes as high as they can reach and no margin for error, it will be interesting to see how messrs Warburton and Rodgers line up at the back and whether they will risk a more youthful look to the defence.
Neither have kept a clean sheet in the league so far this term and you would have to be extremely brave to bet on that statistic changing in this game of all games.
3) Drama upon drama
It would be no exaggeration to suggest a full-blooded Old Firm – complete with the usual cliffhangers that leave you wanting more – could rival an hour-long episode of Eastenders for explosive drama and unmissable viewing.
With sub-plots happening all over the pitch and every kick of the ball being keenly fought for, you can barely take your eyes off the action, of which there is a whole lot more than your average game.
Even a tepid battle between the sides – and there have been some in the past – contains its fair share of excitement and intensity to maintain your attention but rarely does it disappoint as far as entertainment value is concerned.
Assuming both sides finish in the top six (which is almost guaranteed), there will be four Old Firm encounters in the league this season and, should they all live up to the billing, Scottish football as a whole would be the biggest winners.
4) Passion on the terraces
When the fixtures were released in June, this was the one that everyone with Celtic and Rangers connections across the globe will have looked for before any other.
Ever since, the anticipation has been building – on derby day in Glasgow, emotions extend far deeper than the confines of the pitch.
An Old Firm occasion means so much to so many, regardless of the prize on offer, and the raw passion from a full house of 60,000 fans at Celtic Park will undoubtedly reverberate across the city on Saturday afternoon.
No matter what stage of the game or how well their team is doing, both sets of supporters will act as the proverbial twelfth man and could make the difference to ease the tension on the players and edge their side over the finishing line.
5) Touchline antics
Mark Warburton and Brendan Rodgers may have worked together on the coaching staff at Watford nine years ago, however Saturday represents the first time the two talented managers will come up against each other.
The pair – who were huge hits north of the border with Liverpool and Brentford respectively – have never been known for allowing feelings to overflow in the technical area and largely adopt a composed presence when issuing instructions to players.
If the game is played in good spirits, it might prove to be a quiet afternoon for the fourth official.
But, in the highly-charged derby environment when discipline and temperament can often fly out of the window faster than a tackle can fly in, anything goes and if decisions aren’t going their way they will be quick to make their dissatisfaction seen and heard.
Warburton has already sampled the atmosphere that comes with an Old Firm clash, albeit in different surroundings at the national stadium, hiherto it will be unchartered territory for Rodgers, who will know by the end of the afternoon just what all the fuss is about.
6) Attacking firepower coming to the fore
The big games always bring the best out of the big names and there will be plenty on show who will be looking to make an impact in the biggest match in the Scottish Premiership so far this season.
On Celtic’s side, Leigh Griffiths – who sweeped the player of the year awards with 40 goals last season – will be fresh from having the international break off, while James Forrest and Scott Sinclair have the creative potential to be the match-winner.
Regardless of who forms the attacking triumvirate behind Griffiths, it will contain enough quality to cause Rangers all sorts of problems.
One man who will be on a mission to take down the Hoops will be Kenny Miller, who has a habit of popping up with vital contributions as he did on the last derby day and will be full of condence after bagging four against Linfield. With Martyn Waghorn getting back to his best and Barrie McKay in top form, Rangers possess the tools to give Celtic a tough time.
There are options aplenty for both managers to choose from and, in a high-profile game when attack is likely to be the best form of defence, they should opt to overload their offensive choices which will make for a more open and expansive match and play to the strengths of both sides.
7) Officials feeling the pressure
Keeping control of an Old Firm derby can be as difficult a job for match officials as both sets of players care to make it.
Even before a ball is kicked, the referee has already adorned the status of ‘public enemy number one’ and Willie Collum, who has often come under fire for controversial calls, can expect nothing less than a tough afternoon.
He may have two Glasgow derbies under his belt, albeit in 2010 and 2011, but those experiences will count for very little once he sounds the first whistle.
As much as players are under pressure to perform, referees’ careers are also on the line in the biggest of fixtures and there is no margin for error.
Collum has kept a low profile in recent times after a flurry of high-profile errors earlier in the year but is notoriously card-happy, so the approach he adopts on Saturday will be interesting to observe.
As ever, concentration and position will be key – with an added need to stay focused amid a cauldron of noise inside a Parkhead packed with passionate patrons. If he survives the 90 minutes and isn’t being spoken about afterwards, that can be considered an achievement.
8) Revenge on Celtic minds
It may have hammered the final nail in Ronny Deila’s coffin to end his turgid two-year tenure but the Hoops will still be reeling, and hurting, from the Hampden horror of seeing their Glasgow adversaries progress to the Scottish Cup final at their expense in April – even though Hibernian went on to lift the trophy.
In contrast to Rangers’ stuttering form on their top-flight return, Rodgers’ men have made an assured start to their quest for a sixth successive league title and brushed aside their nearest challengers in the last two seasons, Aberdeen, with relative ease before the international break.
But the biggest opportunity to lay down an early-season marker in the title race comes this weekend – and Celtic will be desperate to send Rangers packing with a firm reminder of their status as the country’s force.
Only then could memories of Tom Rogic’s wild spotkick, which sparked even wilder Gers celebrations in front of their eyes at the national stadium, be truly laid to rest.
9) Fast and furious…even before the word ‘go’
The unrelenting tempo and frenetic nature made the Old Firm derbies of old a joy to watch from both a fans and neutral perspective.
Those occasions were simply unmissable and had a tendency to start at 100 miles per hour before speeding up somewhat.
Although the League Cup semi clash of 2015 lacked any real punch, last season’s Scottish Cup thriller delivered the typical blood and thunder encounter which ushered in a new era renewing the oldest of fierce rivalries.
The first league meeting in over four years has been a long time coming and – despite the prize only being three league points at this stage of the season, as opposed to a place in a domestic cup final – the competitive edge will be evident even before the first whistle has been blown.
10) Derby debutants looking to impress
A new league usually brings a raft of new signings and it’s been no different for Rangers, with 12 new faces winging their way through the Ibrox doors this summer.
It’s been a bit quieter on the Celtic front with six players drafted in as Rodgers looked south of the border to integrate fringe players from English clubs whilst opting for quality over quantity.
Of all the recruits from both sides of the divide, none have experienced this unique occasion before, which may count against some of them in the cauldron of Celtic Park.
Many of the summer buys have already had a settling-in period but still have a point to prove – and Saturday lunchtime at Parkhead is no better time to do it. If they can perform to a high level in their Old Firm initiations, it would certainly bode well for the mammoth season ahead.
Ahead of the start of the 2016-17 campaign, here are 20 questions across the three divisions to keep in mind as the games progress.
AS the days count down until the first ball is kicked to launch the most eagerly-awaited Football League season in years, there are a number of things to keep a close eye on.
From managerial arrivals and the battle for promotion to new faces settling in at clubs and who is going to find it tough to survive, there are sub-plots galore across the Championship, League One and League Two in 2016-17.
Here are 20 questions which will hopefully be answered by the time the play-offs come around in May…
1) Will Rafael Benitez guide Newcastle to an immediate top-flight return?
2) How will Burton Albion fare on their Championship debut?
3) Is Chris Wilder the man to take Sheffield United up from League One at long last?
4) Will Championship defences be terrified of Wigan Athletic’s Will Grigg?
5) What does the campaign hold for beleaguered Aston Villa, under new management?
6) Can Rotherham United kick on under Alan Stubbs?
7) Can Brighton and Sheffield Wednesday bounce back after play-off disappointment?
8) How will newly-promoted Grimsby Town adapt to life back in the Football League?
9) Will the league meetings of AFC Wimbledon and MK Dons live up to expectation?
10) Is this the year Leeds United sustain a Championship play-off push?
11) Will Portsmouth finally make the first step on the road to recovery?
12) Was the decision to replace Kenny Jackett with Walter Zenga right for Wolves?
13) How will the fresh faces in Lancashire get on at their respective new clubs?
14) Is the legendary Jaap Stam cut out for being a Championship manager?
15) Do the likes of Ipswich Town, Birmingham and Cardiff City have enough for another top-six finish in the Championship?
16) What does the campaign have in store for Northampton Town under Rob Page in League One?
17) Are Bradford equipped for a Championship challenge on Stuart McCall’s return?
18) Can Darrell Clarke continue the remarkable Bristol Rovers revival?
19) Will Hartlepool United be able to avoid falling down the trapdoor into the National League once again?
20) Can Derby County’s talented crop fulfil their potential under Nigel Pearson?
England can clinch their place at the European Championship finals in France next summer with victory over minnows San Marino in Serravelle on Saturday evening (KO 17:00 BST).
ENGLAND can clinch their place at the European Championship finals in France next summer with victory over minnows San Marino in Serravelle on Saturday evening (KO 17:00 BST).
The Three Lions, already guaranteed a play-off spot in Group E, have a 100% winning record after six qualifiers and can guarantee one of the 32 spots at the tournament even before Tuesday’s clash with Switzerland at Wembley.
Captain Wayne Rooney, who scored the crucial goal in the 3-2 victory over Slovenia in June, can become the nation’s all-time leading scorer by scoring twice to break Sir Bobby Charlton’s record of 49 international goals.
With England already holding a six-point lead over the second-placed Swiss, boss Roy Hodgson has targeted 10 wins out of 10 and his side are expected to maintain their run by sweeping aside the team ranked 192nd in Fifa’s current rankings.
The Three Lions will be hoping for a repeat of their last trip to the Stadio Olimpico di Seravalle in March 2013 which brought an 8-0 triumph – their biggest margin of victory since 1987 – during their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Hodgson’s men also eased to a lacklustre 5-0 home win in the Wembley return and racked up the same scoreline last October in their second Euro 2016 qualifier with the goals again shared out among several players.
Rooney, who has four goals in the three aforementioned meetings, will fancy his chances of making England history when his nation make the 17-hour flight on Friday and hope he can dispel his poor form for Manchester United in the early weeks of the season.
Swansea City midfielder Jonjo Shelvey, whose only senior cap came against San Marino in 2012, will also hope to get some game time after an impressive start to the Premier League campaign for the south Wales club.
Having netted 31 times in all competitions last term for Spurs, Harry Kane is still waiting to open this account this season.
During his barren spell, the PFA Young Player of the Year revealed he has sought advice from Rooney and ex-skipper Alan Shearer.
The 22-year-old striker said: “As a striker obviously I want to be scoring and San Marino is a good chance for us to get the three points most importantly and hopefully some goals as well.”
The only uncapped player in the 22-man pool is Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton while Tottenham midfielder Ryan Mason had to withdraw from the previous squad in the summer because of injury.
While Arsenal midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, 22, is back in the fold after shining in the early weeks of the Gunners’ indifferent campaign.
San Marino – the oldest independent country in Europe, situated on the Italian Peninsula – sit bottom of Group E and are still yet to score with 19 goals conceded but picked up their only point in a goalless draw at home to Estonia.
The only official victory of their 25-year existence came in April 2004 when their leading scorer and captain Andy Selva struck against Liechtenstein in a friendly.
But one of their 20 goals famously came after just eight seconds in a 7-1 defeat by England in a 1994 World Cup qualifier.
The South European part-timers are largely made up of teachers, painters and decorators and construction workers while goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini, an accountant by day, will have his work cut out in keeping England at bay.
Pierangelo Manzaroli’s team, who have competed in qualifying for every major tournament since 1990, are widely renowned as world football’s whipping boys and provided a tame punchbag for Germany, who inflicted their record 13-0 loss in a Euro 2008 qualifier.
England – currently 10th in Fifa’s rankings, below Wales for the first time – will be desperate for a successful international break which would constitute wrapping up their Euro 2016 place sooner rather than later.
And the Three Lions will know they will only be judged on how they can express their vast superiority and gulf in class over the lowly minnows on the scoresheet.
Meanwhile, San Marino, a tiny republic with a mere 30,000 population, face another exercise of damage limitation in which even winning a corner kick could be considered a small bonus as they go in search of their first competitive goal since 2008.
Roy Hodgson confirmed on Friday that Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy, Everton defender John Stones and Swansea midfielder Jonjo Shelvey will all start against San Marino.
“All three players have started the season very well. If they weren’t going to get a start in a game where we are expected to win, then I don’t know when the next opportunity would have come around,” the England boss told his press conference.
Hodgson has no injury concerns with all 22 members of his squad available for selection.
Referee: Leontios Trattou (Cyprus) Assistant referees: Michael Soteriou and Athinodoros Ioannou (Cyprus) Fourth official: Charalambos Charalambous (Cyprus) Additional assistant referees: Christos Nicolaides and Vasilis Dimitriou (Cyprus)
Inverness Caledonian Thistle are hoping to claim the first major silverware of their 21-year history at Falkirk’s expense in the 2015 Scottish Cup Final on Saturday (KO 3pm).
INVERNESS Caledonian Thistle are hoping to claim the first major silverware of their 21-year history at Falkirk’s expense in the 2015 Scottish Cup Final on Saturday (KO 3pm).
The Highlanders will be the favourites to clinch the trophy at Hampden Park after ending Celtic’s treble hopes with a thrilling extra-time win in last month’s semi-final.
John Hughes’s team have enjoyed a hugely successful campaign in which they secured their highest-ever league position and European football for the first time having finished third in the Premiership – 10 points behind second-placed Aberdeen.
Hughes has worked miracles since arriving at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium 18 months ago and was deservedly acknowledged for his efforts this year by winning the PFA Scotland and Scottish Football Writers’ Manager of the Year awards.
Meanwhile, midfielder Ryan Christie scooped the Young Player of the Year prizes after an impressive debut campaign for the 20-year-old who was attracted widespread interest including Premier League teams in England.
Now in their first-ever Scottish Cup Final appearance, they will be desperate to overcome their Championship opponents to make this special season even more memorable.
They finished fifth in the second-tier – seven points adrift of the play-offs – and have not played since the regular season ended on May 2.
Since then, Houston has used the time to study the strengths and weaknesses of Caley Thistle but is not worried about a lack of match sharpness the squad may have from not playing competitively for four weeks.
It will be an occasion that will be particularly special for local boy Nick Ross, who was born in Inverness and has played for his hometown club for his entire career thus far.
“I’ve dreamt of this all my life, but you can’t let it get in your head,” said the 23-year-old midfielder. “I think everyone in primary school is dreaming of this when they are playing in the playground – to be playing in the Cup final, to score and to lift the trophy.”
“We know it’s not going to be easy and will be a tough test. But, after the semi-final, we got a lot of confidence and we are confident we can do it.”
Caley Thistle were backed by around 15,000 supporters from the Highlands last month as they came from behind to stun Ronny Deila’s Celtic, who have won the two other major domestic honours available in the Premiership title and League Cup.
And Hughes is hoping another mass turnout at Hampden could help boost attendances for regular league games, which have averaged at 3,700 this season.
“The only way to play your part is to do what we’re doing and get into Europe and cup finals,” he told BBC Scotland.
“I’m quite sure we’ll take 15,000-20,000 down to the cup final and hopefully we’ll give them a good day.
“This year, getting for the first time in the club’s history that Europa League spot through the league placing. That’s your bread and butter. That tells you how good a team you are throughout the season.
“Then the Scottish Cup final. If we can go and win it, it would be remarkable.”
Like Falkirk, Hughes has had to work under a shoestring budget at Caley Thistle, who have been in the Premiership for six seasons, but he has stamped his authority by imposing an attractive blueprint on a settled team of talented individuals.
Despite their defensive solidity, the main concern has been goals with their top scorer this season – Irish striker Billy McKay with 10 league strikes – having left in January to join Wigan.
They are hoping to emulate the feat of St Johnstone, who also claimed the first silverware in their 130-year existence in last season’s Scottish Cup Final with their 2-0 victory over Tayside rivals Dundee United at Celtic Park.
But Falkirk have a habit of performing on the big stage which belies the status of a second-tier club they have held since their relegation from the SPL in 2010.
The Bairns have won four of the last five meetings with Inverness but the two sides have not crossed paths since a top-flight encounter in May 2009 when Falkirk won in the Highlands to secure their survival and simultaneously relegate Caley Thistle.
St Johnstone are particularly interested spectators of the final at Hampden. A win for Inverness would see the Perth side, who finished fourth in the Premiership, earn a place in the Europa League qualifiers next season while Falkirk will take that spot should they lift the silverware.
ROUTE TO THE FINAL:
Round Four 1-0 win v Cowdenbeath (H) Fifth Round 2-1 win v Brechin City (H) Quarter-Final 1-0 win v Queen of the South (A) Semi-Final 1-0 win v Hibernian (N)
Round Four 1-1 draw v St Mirren (A)
Round Four Replay 4-0 win v St Mirren (H)
Round Five 2-1 win v Partick Thistle (A)
Quarter-Final 1-0 win v Raith Rovers (H)
Semi-Final 3-2 win v Celtic (N) * After Extra Time
LAST 10 SCOTTISH CUP FINALS:
2014 St Johnstone 2-0 Dundee United 2013 Celtic 3-0 Hibernian 2012Hearts 5-1 Hibernian 2011 Celtic 3-0 Motherwell 2010 Dundee United 3-0 Ross County 2009 Rangers 1-0 Falkirk 2008 Queen of the South 2-3 Rangers 2007 Celtic 1-0 Dunfermline 2006 Hearts 1-1 Gretna AET (Hearts won 4-2 on penalties) 2005 Celtic 1-0 Dundee United
Inverness boss Hughes made six changes to the starting line-up that ended their league campaign with a 5-0 hammering at champions Celtic last Sunday – which halted their three-game winning run – to rest several key first-team players at home.
Lewis Horner and Tarmo Kink were given their first starts while Liam Polworth, Danny Devine, Nick Ross and Carl Tremarco also received rare outings.
Centre-back Gary Warren is banned after receiving his second booking in the Scottish Cup this season in the semi-final win over Celtic.
However, fellow defender Josh Meekings was cleared to play after the ramifications of the incident against the Hoops which should have seen him sent off for deliberate handball.
Midfielder Nick Ross will be desperate to be in the starting line-up for his hometown club and could make his final outing with his contract due to expire after this game.
Falkirk welcome back top scorer Rory Loy – who has not featured since March 6 because of an ankle injury – but the 27-year-old could have to be content with a place on the bench.
Fellow striker John Baird – who has scored seven goals since joining in February following his release by Queen of the South – and midfielder Mark Kerr are both cup-tied.
Houston, though, could name a similar side to the one which beat Hibernian in the semi-finals with defender Will Vaulks again occupying a defensive midfield position.
Referee: Willie Collum Assistant Referees: Douglas Ross and Alastair Mather Fourth Official: Crawford Allan Additional Assistant Referees: Andrew Dallas and Don Robertson
It will be a second Scottish Cup Final in the middle for Religious Education teacher Collum after handling the 2013 showpiece between Hibernian and Celtic.
The 36-year-old Fifa whistler – who was appointed to a Champions League quarter-final in April – will be at the helm for his 48th match of the season in all competitions.
The Glasgow-born referee has been a Category One official since 2006 and also took charge of the 2012 Scottish League Cup Final when Celtic lost 1-0 to Kilmarnock.
A look ahead to this weekend’s Scottish Cup semi-finals at Hampden Park as Championship rivals Hibernian and Falkirk lock horns on Saturday while Celtic face fellow Premiership side Inverness on Sunday
HIBERNIAN are seeking to book a place in the Scottish Cup Final for the third time in four years when facing Championship rivals Falkirk in the first of the semi-finals on Saturday.
Two-time winners Hibs – who were runners-up in both 2012 and 2013 following heavy defeats to Hearts and Celtic – are still looking to win the competition for the first time since 1902.
Falkirk have also lifted the trophy twice – the last being back in 1957 – although they lost 1-0 to Rangers in the 2009 Final.
Houston’s preparation has been meticulous – naming his team on Thursday and booking the same hotel that Dundee United stayed in before their 3-0 win over Ross County in the Scottish Cup Final five years ago.
Following the collapse two years ago, Falkirk – who also reached the 2012 League Cup semi-finals – will be desperate for revenge against a Hibs side who have a 113-year itch to scratch as far as this competition is concerned.
Hibernian are unlikely to make wholesale changes from last weekend’s 2-0 win over Hearts.
Falkirk are set to be without 12-goal top scorer Rory Loy who has not played in eight games since bruising a bone in the quarter-final win over Queen of the South.
REFEREE: John Beaton ASSISTANT REFEREES: Stuart Stevenson and Alasdair Ross FOURTH OFFICIAL: Crawford Allan
INVERNESS CALEY THISTLE v CELTIC
CELTIC will be looking to reach their second cup final of the season when up against fellow Scottish Premiership side Inverness Caley Thistle.
Ronny Deila’s Hoops – who are chasing a first domestic treble since 2001 – lifted the League Cup last month after beating 10-man Dundee United 2-0 in the final.
The Highlanders, meanwhile, are seeking to book the first Scottish Cup Final appearance of their 21-year history a year after their first ever major final in the League Cup which ended in a penalty shoot-out loss to Aberdeen at Celtic Park.
The sides met as recently as last weekend in a 1-1 draw in the Highlands which saw two goals in the first four minutes with Leigh Griffiths’ opener for the visitors immediately cancelled out by Caley Thistle striker Edward Ofore.
The Bhoys – who are eight points clear at the top-flight summit with five games left – are 21 points and two places above Inverness in the table.
But after last Saturday’s result, Caley Thistle have taken four points from a possible nine in the league against Celtic following a 1-0 home win back in August despite their 1-0 reverse at Parkhead in November.
The two teams will also lock horns again a week before the Scottish Cup Final on the last day of the Premiership campaign in Glasgow when Celtic – on the verge of being crowned champions for the fourth successive season – are widely expected to receive the trophy.
The Hoops have won all but two of their 19 league and cup games in the calendar year – including four of their last five Premiership matches – although they have conceded in each of the last two having kept five clean sheets in a row before that.
Celtic needed a replay to reach the semi-final stage for the fifth time in the last six seasons – thumping nine-man Dundee United 4-0 after a controversial quarter-final tie at Tannadice which brought three red cards and two penalties.
The 36-time Scottish Cup winners have only secured the trophy twice in the past seven seasons with the last coming under Neil Lennon in 2012-13 following a 3-0 success over Hibernian at Hampden.
Inverness, however, have not visited the national stadium since the 2003 Scottish Cup semis when they lost out to Dundee.
Since edging past Raith Rovers in the quarter-finals, Hughes’s side have won just one of their four league encounters and recorded just one victory in the last eight in all competitions.
But with the guarantee of facing Championship opposition in the May 30 final, there is a huge incentive for both sides with Inverness looking for a maiden honour and Celtic on track for a clean sweep.
Celtic boss Ronny Deila is likely to revert back to the team which drew with Inverness last Sunday after making changes for the 4-1 win over Killie in midweek.
In-form Leigh Griffiths – who has five goals in his last six games and nine in total this season – is expected to lead the line with Stefan Johansen in the attacking number 10 role.
Deila has a tough choice to make at right-back with either Efe Ambrose or Adam Matthews set to get the nod.
Inverness could name the same team which faced Celtic last Saturday which would mean on-loan Middlesbrough forward Tarmo Kink and midfielder Aaron Doran remain on the bench.
REFEREE: Steven McLean ASSISTANT REFEREES: Alan Mulvanny and Frank Connor FOURTH OFFICIAL: Calum Murray