Unbeaten in their last four games, and unbowed perhaps too, Dundee yesterday accepted what many felt was their inevitable fate since the moment they became such late entrants to the Scottish Premier League last summer.
Scorers: Dundee - McAlister (20); Aberdeen - McGinn (70, pen)
The mind games are now over, Dundee are relegated. And all that is left is to wonder what might have happened had John Brown been given a little longer to whip this clearly far from hopeless side into shape.
In the end, surviving to the third last game must be viewed as success of some sort, although the players might ask themselves why they have suddenly begun to look like Premier League players, having spent the majority of the season imitating First Division ones.
With only one loss in their last nine league outings, the idea that their side have now been demoted was a difficult one to digest for supporters, who had been ready to give up hope as far back as February, when Dundee were 15 points adrift at the bottom. Now the gap is only seven points. However, with two games left to play, it has now, finally, become an irretrievable distance to make up, and all hope has been extinguished.
Former Dundee goalkeeper Jamie Langfield broke the hearts of the fans of his former club with an outstanding performance. Of course, these supporters will acknowledge that the damage was not done here.
If there is frustration for Dundee, it is in the knowledge that they should have taken it to the penultimate weekend of the season at least. Having been buoyed by Jim McAlister’s opening goal, the home side’s hopes were further boosted by a red card shown to Aberdeen striker Rory Fallon after only an hour.
However, ten-man Aberdeen recovered from both setbacks, and equalised through Niall McGinn’s contentious penalty after 68 minutes. As the increasingly desperate hosts poured forward and Aberdeen looked to hit Dundee on the break, anything might have happened, though nothing of note did.
It was, as expected, a particularly cagey, nervy opening. This was Dundee’s cup final, that much was obvious. The first shot on goal of any note came from Gary Harkins, who volleyed wide with an ambitious effort.
The Dundee playmaker then played a significant part in the build-up to the opening goal, which stemmed from a move out of keeping with the ragged play on offer up until then. Dundee kept the ball courtesy of some patient work on the main stand touchline, before Harkins spotted John Baird in space.
The Dundee striker then flicked a pass into the path of McAlister, who, having finally managed to get the bobbling ball under control, aimed a volley at goal from 20 yards. It might well have troubled Langfield even without the deflection off Aberdeen defender Mark Reynolds, but this last touch saw the ball loop out of the goalkeeper’s reach. It was the signal for bedlam in the south enclosure, towards which McAlister darted, pursued by several of his jubilant team-mates.
Things could have been more comfortable still had Langfield not pulled off one of the saves of the season. You felt at the time it might prove significant, and though the goalkeeper excelled on several other occasions, this particular block from Harkins, from an excellent Baird cross, prevented Dundee from taking what would surely have proved a points-sealing 2-0 lead.
Harkins slumped to the turf in disbelief, after Langfield threw himself at the ball, and made a point blank stop with his legs.
Steve Simonsen then performed heroics at the other end to keep his side level. First he flung himself across the turf to keep out a Ryan Jack effort from 20 yards that had taken a bobble off the turf, and then he made a brave block to deny Peter Pawlett from the rebound.
Dundee could not add to their solitary goal, with Baird wasting another opportunity on the stroke of half-time, when rifling the ball wide from a tight position. Such moments grew in significance as the game wore on.
When Fallon collected a straight red card after kicking out at Declan Gallagher on the hour mark, the visitors seemed to be imbued with a renewed purpose, although substitute Nicky Low had already provided some more impetus, having replaced Stephen Hughes at half-time. Fallon compounded his poor performance with this act of foolishness, and his manager Derek McInnes later stressed he had no complaint over the decision to send him off.
Perversely, playing with ten men seemed to suit Aberdeen as they played down the Dens Park slope towards their own supporters. That said, Langfield was forced into making another impressive stop, this time from a Gallagher header. Minutes later Aberdeen were level, and in contentious circumstances.
There remains anger in the Dundee camp at the way Pawlett leaped over a challenge by Lewis Toshney on the far edge of the box, following an Aberdeen attack down the right. The Dundee defender might well reflect that he should have avoided even making any attempt to halt the player. Instead, he simply provided referee Alan Muir with the opportunity to award the penalty. The hosts’ sense of outrage lingered as McGinn collected his 20th league goal with a firm finish into the roof of the net from the spot before indulging in unpleasant and irresponsible celebrations directly in front of the home support.
The memory of those previous missed chances began to niggle with the home supporters, as the minutes kept on ticking down. While all the usual hallmarks of a late siege were present, such as the throwing on of all three substitutes, Dundee failed to create another noteworthy opening.
Dundee: Simonsen, Irvine (Kerr 83), Gallagher, Lockwood (Conroy 75), Toshney,
Easton, Davidson, McBride, McAlister, Harkins, J Baird (Finnigan 75). Subs not used: A Baird, Nish, Thomson, Barrowman.
Aberdeen: Langfield, Osbourne, Shaughnessy, Reynolds, Robertson, Hughes (Low 46), Rae, Jack, Pawlett (Magennis 73), Fallon, McGinn (Smith 89). Subs not used: Twardzik, Milsom, Vernon, Naysmith.