A thrilling encounter at Hampden was the latest staging post in the growth of Scottish football. Derek McInnes has another chance to cement his legacy, while Hibs persevered tour ends but progress continues at Easter Road, writes Joel Sked.
On May 27, Aberdeen will return to Hampden for the fourth time this season. Since 1990, when Theo Snelders, Hans Gillhaus and Charlie Nicholas were part of the last Aberdeen side to win the Scottish Cup, the national stadium hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for the Dons.
There was League Cup success in the mid-90s but in the main it has been heartbreak, from disappointment to embarrassment. In Scotland’s premier cup competition the last time they even reached the final was in 2000. That day Jim Leighton left the field injured after three minutes with Robbie Winters taking over between the sticks against a Rangers side which included Stefan Klos, Claudio Reyna, Andrei Kanchelskis, Giovanni van Bronckhorst et al.
After 17 attempts they are finally back. Just.
Following the topsy-turvy five-goal thriller with Hibernian, Derek McInnes was effusive in his praise of his players. Their attitude and honesty as well as other intangibles such as resilience, confidence, calmness and experience.
Now the Dons want to use all that to expunge their last experience of Hampden. Back in November Aberdeen wilted in the face of Celtic as Brendan Rodgers’ side waltzed to Betfed Cup success.
“After the League Cup final we spoke in the dressing room,” McInnes told Sky Sports. “It wasn’t a good place to be, it was really despondent, we hadn’t turned up, we hadn’t laid a glove on them.
“We didn’t play the game the way we set out to do it. And we spoke about the only time it’ll feel better is if we get back here as quickly as possible in the Scottish Cup final.”
He didn’t come out and state it matter of factly, but there is a sense, listening to McInnes, that they want Celtic. They want to pit their wits against the best the Scottish game has to offer. The Dons manager firmly believes he has the individuals as well as the collective to beat what has been a juggernaut heading for an unbeaten domestic season and treble.
There’ll be many among the Aberdeen support who would like the opportunity to take on Rangers in a national cup final, to avenge the recent Pittodrie defeat. Plus, there is more chance of success.
Yet, the main aim has been accomplished. To get there. To be involved in the denouement of the season, in what is usually a sun-drenched Mount Florida.
Half an hour had barely passed and the Dons had one foot in the final, while the other on its way Thirty minutes of game-time later and Aberdeen’s toes had been stubbed as Hibs pushed back.
Despite second-placed league finishes, while heading for a third. And despite League Cup success in 2014, this Aberdeen side have been accused of dropping their bottle when it matters. Something which their opponents know all about. Or should we say knew all about.
In previous semi-finals Aberdeen had lost out to both Dundee United and St Johnstone, the latter in the Scottish Cup the former in the League Cup. Even the Betfred Cup semi-final against Greenock Morton Aberdeen just about got over the line.
McInnes made reference to the St Johnstone and Dundee United matches in his post-match interview. Hinting that in the past Aberdeen would have went the whole haul having been pegged back from leading by two goals and lost the game.
Even if that looked like being the case they found what was needed to win. Grit to stay in the game, keeping Hibs from creating too many opportunities. And that, often illusive, quality: luck.
Early on, it looked like it would simply be a case of Aberdeen having far too much quality for Hibs. They took the initiative early on, pressing Hibs intently, playing positively. They seemed determined to hammer home their status as the country’s second best team. They could have scored a third after Ryan Christie’s free-kick had added to Adam Rooney’s strike in 11 seconds. If they had they would have been heading north with both a dominant performance and emphatic result.
However, the dynamic changed when Grant Holt was introduced and Hibs bypassed the press, going more direct, not allowing Aberdeen to hunt in packs deep in their half.
The Edinburgh side displayed the qualities which have caused so much difficulty for Premiership teams in the last three years. During their Championship sojourn the Hibees have played 14 games against top tier opposition. In 90 minutes they have only lost twice.
They will be competitive next season. Already, they have a team that is widely recognised as top-six. Smart recruitment to add to a steely spine, sprinkled with craft, will see Hibs pushing Rangers and Aberdeen in the upper echelons of the Premiership table. They’ve already got to work doing just that with the addition of Danny Swanson.
While he accused his players of putting in a pathetic performance, Neil Lennon will also be ruing getting his tactics wrong. But he showed his ability to be proactive – far too many managers are reactive – and make a crucial change to swing the game.
Those 90 minutes on Saturday afternoon should excite the neutral Scottish football fan at the prospect of these two teams facing off at least four times next season. As well as the battles with Heart of Midlothian, Rangers, Celtic, St Johnstone and more. There is going to be a lot of excitement, a lot of bloodied noses, a lot of ups and downs. It is going to be fantastic,.
A fantastic Hibs support paid tribute to their heroes for the journey they’ve been on these last few years. Such is the nature of football fans, many would have booed or slouched off to the pub or home. But the 20,000 plus from the capital recognised what their team, their players, had achieved, giving them something to shout about, bringing them closer to their club.
They can now enjoy the remaining weeks as a Championship club, while looking ahead to a brighter future.
But the immediate present is about Aberdeen. The Dons did what they had to do to get back to Hampden and gives more credence to the job carried out by McInnes. Another final and another likely second-place.
He has talked of creating a legacy. If they can overcome either Celtic or Rangers next month that legacy will be set in stone.