WHEN two in-form teams meet the expectation is for goals. Aberdeen and Hibernian struggled to break each other down to the extent that something became increasingly obvious.
Scorer: Aberdeen - Flood 87
If the deadlock was going to be broken, then it would either be something special or something very scrappy. Willo Flood’s 87th minute winner fell very definitely in the former category.
Clear-cut opportunities had been at a premium all evening and so Flood had to be inventive when he picked up the ball on the edge of the box in the dying minutes. The televised clash had started entertainingly enough before fading rather in the second half. However, Flood lit up the evening as far as the Aberdeen fans were concerned when he curled a 25-yard effort past Ben Williams to secure victory for the home side and move them to within ten points of leaders Celtic. It provided another talking point in a game that had been hitherto defined by two penalty appeals – one for each side – that were waved away by referee Craig Thomson.
Terry Butcher, the Hibs manager, had not been quick to talk up the fixture on the eve of the game, and the pace at which the match began suggested he had been right to do so. Second versus sixth in the league might not sound like particularly promising ingredients, but Hibernian arrived with the aim of protecting an unbeaten run stretching back to mid-December, and the fact several hundred supporters had followed them to Aberdeen on a Friday night was indicative of their improved fortunes of late.
Aberdeen, meanwhile, are in a similarly upbeat place, although the fact that they were 13 points better off than their opponents before kick-off last night is proof of their consistency over a long period of time. Since August, in fact. And with seven wins from their last eight outings, optimism was in the air at Pittodrie in more clement conditions than might have been expected.
For the home fans, there was the further incentive of seeing new loan signing from Swansea City Alan Tate performing for the first time. He came in to add ballast to the back four following the departure of Michael Hector, another loan player. Although not as cultured as Hector, Tate looked like a worthwhile addition to the Aberdeen ranks at centre-half.
Russell Anderson was named among the substitutes last night, although he did appear late in the second half as the home team clinched victory.
The opening half contained everything except a goal; last-ditch defending, two extremely persuasive penalty shouts (although they were not persuasive enough for Thomson, whose refereeing performance was as eccentric as ever last night). The first penalty claim came as early as the second minute when Aberdeen goalkeeper Jamie Langfield advanced far from his line to try to close down Paul Heffernan, who looked to have been tripped as he tried to round the ’keeper. The very audible intake of breath from the Aberdeen fans sitting in the main stand was a clear indication that they had seen many more frivolous appeals. Heffernan looked up from the turf to see Thomson wave play on, in which case he probably expected to be booked too for simulation. He wasn’t. Hibs continued to pile on the pressure, despite this setback. Heffernan was a gnarly, awkward opponent for Tate to be given on his first experience of Scottish football, and it was an entertaining battle between the pair. James Collins, Heffernan’s strike partner, sought to feed on what he could when he wasn’t working industriously on the fringes of the box.
Indeed, when the ball fell to him in this area – on the edge of the box – he will have been disappointed with his effort to test Langfield, which resulted only in him swiping fresh air.
The balance shifted midway through the half as Aberdeen became more dominant. They, too, could have had a penalty; indeed, probably should have. Only the referee can explain why he ignored the Aberdeen appeals after Peter Pawlett’s strong run down the right. When his cross struck Michael Nelson on the hand, there appeared only one outcome – penalty. Indeed, the sound of leather hitting hand could be heard in the back row of the main stand.
Thomson, however, again waved play on, perhaps having resolved to even things up following the Heffernan claim.
There was one more penalty appeal before the interval but on this occasion Thomson seemed correct in waving play on, although Lewis Stevenson had made a risky move when challenging Joe Shaughnessy in the box having allowed the Aberdeen defender to get on the wrong side of him.
Other than penalty claims, the half was also distinguished for the quality of the defending on show. Ryan McGivern showed good awareness when clearing at the back post as Scott Vernon hoped to pounce on Niall McGinn’s cross from the left. Hanlon was also quick to intercept balls sent into the Hibs box, while, at the other end, Reynolds was also a steadying influence alongside Tate.
Aberdeen looked to build on their strong response to Hibs’ energetic start. McGinn should have done better when Barry Robson found him unmarked with a cross. Hibs were creating little at this point, hence the decision of their management team to send on Sam Stanton for Scott Robertson just after the hour mark. The 19-year-old produced a lively cameo as Hibs succeeded in stemming the flow towards their own goal.
Stanton was joined by two other 19-year-old Hibs substitutes in Jason Cummings and Alex Harris, who made his eagerly awaited return after injuring an ankle in his side’s opening league game against Motherwell.
Hibs now looked more equipped to take the game to Aberdeen; at least, this had been Butcher’s plan. The Aberdeen fans’ frustrations had been evident in the rousing cheer that Derek McInnes was given when the Aberdeen manager finally made his first substation – sending on Calvin Zola for Vernon. Only seven minutes remained.
Just four minutes later, Aberdeen broke the deadlock through Willo Flood’s ability to hit a moving ball with deadly accuracy. After picking up the ball the midfielder advanced towards the edge of the box, and then let fly. The shot looked netbound as soon as it had left his foot.