After 17 attempts Aberdeen are back at Hampden Park to contest a Scottish Cup final after winning through from a thrilling semi-final clash with Championship Hibs.
With seconds remaining there was a collective intake of breath as Hibernian goalkeeper Ofir Marciano sent a header towards the Aberdeen goal and the crowd only exhaled when his opposite number, Joe Lewis, leapt to pluck it from the air.
In that moment, the Pittodrie fans knew they would be returning to Hampden on May 27, for their first Scottish Cup final in 17 years. For the defending champions, it was the instant they knew their dream of replicating last term’s achievement had died.
Derek McInnes’ men started the game brightly and ended it in control and while Hibernian fought to force the match into extra time, they were unable to undo the damage inflicted in the opening minute.
In their last visit to the national stadium, the Leithers had ended the wait of 114 years to get their mitts on the trophy and they did so with a goal in the final seconds of the competition. Yesterday, in the opening seconds, they paved the way for their exit.
Bums weren’t even on seats when the ball hit the back of Marciano’s goal. Robbed of possession from the kick-off, they had won it back through Marvin Bartley. But when the midfielder played the ball back to Darren McGregor, he appeared unprepared and his poorly weighted side pass to fellow centre-back Efe Ambrose was pounced on by Adam Rooney, who nicked in to gain control and slot a shot past the keeper. And only 11 seconds of the game had elapsed.
An awful start for McGregor and for Hibs, it was the perfect scenario for the Premiership side and for the neutrals, as it negated a cagey approach and an open, competitive match ensued. The main challengers to Celtic in recent years, Aberdeen have impressed with their consistency. Over and above their league showings, this was their fifth semi-final in four seasons but they have failed to deliver the amount of silverware their fans would like. They have not progressed to a final in this contest since 2000 and haven’t won it since 1990. It left them weathering the majority of the pressure going into the tussle but with one Rooney strike that eased.
Without the influential Niall McGinn, who could only grab a place on the bench after returning from injury, they still looked extremely comfortable as a clearly rattled Hibs struggled to gain a foothold. That divide became more pronounced in the 24th minute when Ryan Christie, charged with taking a free kick after Fraser Fyvie had felled Kenny McLean, spotted a cheeky opening at the near post and audaciously curled the ball in.
If Aberdeen were quietly and effectively going about their business, Hibs manager Neil Lennon was raging.
The Leith club had battled back from a 3-0 deficit in the 2013 semi-final but they weren’t up against the second best team in the country that day. Drastic times called for drastic measures, though, and Lennon, already wearing the signs of the rant that would come in the aftermath of the match, was ruthless, making a substitution after 34 minutes that provoked anger in sacrificial lamb Fyvie but received almost immediate vindication, when his replacement, Grant Holt, rose above Shay Logan and Ash Taylor at the back post to convert a Martin Boyle cross borne of a penetrating run from the forward.
With just one goal in it, Aberdeen were now the team looking a bit unnerved as their opponents pressed for an equaliser.
They scored it 15 minutes into the second half, through Dylan McGeouch, who surged upfield from his own half, and played a one-two with Holt on the edge of the box before drilling his shot past Lewis.
In the next couple of minutes Hibs could have turned the screw tight but Jason Cummings was foiled by a suspect offside decision while, at the other end, Graeme Shinnie saw David Gray get a boot to his effort and deflect it towards a grateful Marciano. Aberdeen were back on the front foot and McGregor was not so lucky with five minutes to play. With extra time looming, Jonny Hayes unleashed a long range effort which looked destined for the bottom corner but skimmed off the Hibs man’s knee and diverted away from the Israeli keeper and nestled inside the other post instead.
McInnes must have been chuffed that his players had not crumbled despite losing that 2-0 advantage and, having tweaked personnel and the shape of the team as he sought a way to see out the fixture, he will have been relieved to see them not only regain the lead but then successfully see out the final few minutes against a team that threw everything, including a trademark Ambrose long throw, at them.
That throw-in was defended out to John McGinn on edge of the area but when he smacked a shot, it was blocked by the mass of bodies. Minutes later, Boyle and then Cummings tried to latch on to long passes in behind the Dons’ rearguard but Taylor and then Lewis stepped in to clear.
That left just one more opportunity, from Marciano, and then Aberdeen could begin celebrating a second, well-deserved final of the season.