Cheekily predicting the Aberdeen line-up two days beforehand, Rangers manager Pedro Caixinha might have given the impression that very little about one of Scottish football’s most incendiary fixtures could surprise him. But surely he cannot have foreseen this stunning victory for his team.
By the end the Rangers fans were singing his name and Aberdeen’s bid to equal one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s old records lay in tatters. The Dons had been aiming for 11 home victories in a row, a feat achieved by Fergie’s title-winning side of 1983-84, but were undone by the clinical finishing of Kenny Miller, who was denied a hat-trick by a desperate goal-line clearance. Caixinha had talked beforehand about fervour, passion and, yes, loathing. He had missed those things when coaching in Qatar where he could have remained, earning higher wages and enjoying higher temperatures than those normally found in Scotland in April.
But he longed for the intensity of European football, experienced in Portugal, Romania and Greece, where team buses would sometimes be stoned. Just a few weeks into the job at Rangers, he was pretty sure he’d find much-needed edge at Pittodrie. Indeed, everyone kept telling him this fixture would be like “going to hell”.
The stadium was packed and the crowd clamoured for the first flash-point. It took less than two minutes to arrive. Joe Garner, the type who could start a fight in an empty sheep-shearing shed, bumped chests with Ryan Jack and went down clutching his face. Everyone bar the goalies sprinted to the scene of the handbags. Both players were booked.
Caixinha had walked half the length of the pitch to take his place in the away dugout, hands in pockets, all smiles and gracious nodding for the home support. He’d vowed he won’t be “one of those guys who follows” and will do things his way, which yesterday meant retaining 18-year-olds David Bates and Myles Beerman in defence.
Bates was the first to be tested, Kenny McLean robbing him out left. Down the same flank, moments later, Jonny Hayes was too fast for the gangly, ginger-haired centre-back, as the winger is for many, and Wes Foderingham had to dive low to stop the rasping shot. Bates was having a torrid time and only seven minutes had elapsed.
Aberdeen had been quick to assume control but Rangers were presented with a terrific early opportunity. Slackness allowed Martyn Waghorn a sight of goal but the striker scuffed his shot.
The ball broke to Garner, pictured left, who made an even bigger hash of his effort.
The two players then combined, Garner crossing from the right but Waghorn being unable to keep his shot down. On what was admittedly a bumpy surface, that was to be a feature of the first half.
At left-back, Beerman settled into a good game, dispossessing the marauding Niall McGinn and staying cool to start Rangers attacks. Gradually, there were more and more of them. Garner irked the home crowd with his theatrical tumbles but was a pest to the Dons backline, though, after he caught Joe Lewis with a flying boot, the experienced Miller had to offer a calming word.
Ash Taylor was booked when mis-control required him to lunge and he caught Jason Holt. Aberdeen’s play had become ragged, although Graeme Shinnie must have fancied he was going to score from Hayes’ low cross until McGinn nicked the ball off his toes at the last moment.
Hayes blurred down the right in Aberdeen’s first meaningful attack of the second half and then, when the Rangers defence didn’t clear their lines, McLean saw his shot saved down near a post.
Anthony O’Connor was the unlikely creative source of the next Dons attack, Foderingham again called into action to deny Adam Rooney. Aberdeen were getting closer – and closer still when the same player latched on to a Taylor knockdown, the keeper producing his best stop thus far in an increasingly busy afternoon.
Waghorn was doing good work to help out the hard-pressed Ibrox defence but proper respite – the ball even vaguely drifting over halfway – was almost non-existent. Rangers were giving away a lot of free-kicks but Aberdeen couldn’t capitalise, to the frustration of the home support, who at least got to jeer Garner’s departure when the combative frontman was substituted.
If Waghorn was active all over the park then his efforts were probably topped by those of the ageless Miller who, moments after filling in at right-back, was in the midfield trying to spring Waghorn for a rare break. When the pass went the wrong side of the striker, he beat the turf like a highly excitable teenager.
Then in the 79th minute came a break and the game’s breakthrough. The ball was channelled through the middle of the Dons defence where Waghorn, 12 yards out, had his firm shot stopped by Lewis. The ball bounced out to Miller lurking on the right and the 37-year-old, still with a fair bit to do, thrashed it high into the net.
Two minutes later, the veteran scored again, and again Rangers exploited vulnerability through the middle. Substitute Joe Dodoo slipped the ball to Miller who finished calmly. And Dodoo’s cameo wasn’t over. He picked up the ball on the left and drove into the box before thumping a low shot past Lewis. That sent the Rangers fans into raptures and they were only denied the opportunity to acclaim an outrageous Miller hat-trick when Andy Considine had cleared his follow-up header off the line, Dodoo having crashed another shot off the bar.