THE sound of around 12,000 Aberdonian voices lustily singing his name with more than 20 minutes left of the League Cup semi-final on Saturday was the most powerful endorsement yet of Derek McInnes’s burgeoning work at the Pittodrie club.
Aberdeen 4-0 St Johnstone
Scorers: Aberdeen - Hayes (3, 79), Pawlett (31), Rooney (62)
Approval ratings for managers are subject to wild fluctuations, of course, but there is little doubt McInnes has now earned the trust and respect of an Aberdeen support whose craving for silverware has been painfully unfulfilled for almost 20 years.
In leading the Dons to their first major final in 14 years, ending a wretched run of defeats in each of their previous five semi-finals, McInnes has imbued an almost tangible sense of belief, among both his players and those who are willing them on from the stands, that this will be the season when they at last lift a major domestic trophy for the first time since their League Cup triumph of 1995-96.
Just as they were on Saturday, Aberdeen will be firm favourites to win in the final on 16 March. McInnes will hope his team can again be as unburdened by that status as they have been by the baggage of past failures. Asked if they had broken through a psychological barrier with their ultimately emphatic win over St Johnstone, McInnes said: “Probably only until the final comes around. The same question mark will be hanging over us again then.
“I get that, I understand it, but we are focused and happy that we can achieve what we want to achieve this season. What’s happened in the past is not on the shoulders of these players and I keep reiterating that to them.
“When I became the manager here, I did so in the belief that I could be successful. That’s what you are in this game for. There has to be that same thought process when a player joins Aberdeen, whether it’s from another club or through the youth system. When they sign, there is a responsibility to be successful. They have to think they are here to win a trophy and hopefully that’s the case for all of them.”
The semi-final victory was not quite as straightforward as the scoreline suggests. After making a dynamic start and taking a third-minute lead through Jonny Hayes, Aberdeen were second- best in terms of possession and fluency for much of the first half.
But in the most crucial aspects of the game, both defensively and in maximising the opportunities which came their way, McInnes’s men were significantly superior to a St Johnstone side whose contributions to their own downfall would have been the biggest source of frustration for manager Tommy Wright.
Aberdeen’s first three goals could all be traced to Saints conceding possession cheaply and needlessly. The opener came from a miscued goal kick by veteran stand-in goalkeeper Steve Banks, the 41-year-old admittedly not helped by a sudden movement of the ball just before he kicked it, reminiscent of Gary McAllister’s ill-fated penalty at Wembley in Euro 96.
It went directly to Adam Rooney who crossed from the right, the St Johnstone defence failing to cut it out and allowing Hayes a fairly simple tap-in from six yards.
The Perth side responded well to that setback, forcing themselves on to the front foot for a sustained spell. But they found clear-cut chances difficult to come by throughout the match, an Aberdeen defence superbly marshalled by captain Russell Anderson completely subduing danger man Stevie May.
Perhaps the turning point of the tie came midway through the first half when Lee Croft burst clear into the Aberdeen penalty area and saw his netbound shot brilliantly touched onto a post by Jamie Langfield.
Croft’s misery was compounded in the 32nd minute when he gave the ball away to Hayes inside the Aberdeen half. The Irish wide man sprinted forward and when his cross was not properly cleared by David Wotherspoon, Peter Pawlett seized on the chance to surge into the box and guide a low shot under the advancing Banks.
“Goals change games and that was probably where we lost the game,” reflected Croft. “I thought I’d done everything right with my shot, but he got his fingertips to it. I’m gutted by that. It felt as if we were on top for a lot of the first half and if we’d got that equaliser, it might have been different.”
Even at 2-0 down, St Johnstone retained a degree of hope they could find a way back into the tie and they came close again when Frazer Wright headed a Croft corner against the bar early in the second half.
But Aberdeen were in no mood to relinquish their control of proceedings and they eliminated any lingering doubt when they made it 3-0 in the 63rd minute. Yet again, Saints made an unforced error when Dave Mackay lost possession to Pawlett. He set Adam Rooney racing clear through the middle and the recent signing made it two goals in as many appearances for the Dons with a fine driven shot beyond Banks.
St Johnstone’s misery was completed with 11 minutes remaining when Aberdeen added real gloss to the scoreline. Hayes, a thorn in the side of Wright’s men throughout, cut in from the left and smashed a left-foot shot across Banks into the corner of the net.
“I felt 4-0 was harsh on us,” said Wright, “because I felt we were in total control of large parts of the game. But we made mistakes at crucial stages and it cost us. Fair play to Aberdeen, they were clinical and that was the difference.”