WHILE liberally sprinkled with mistakes, this end-to-end north-east derby was undeniably absorbing.
Scorers: Aberdeen - Vernon (11), McGinn (53); Dundee Utd - Gunning (20), Langfield (og, 34)
Bookings: Aberdeen - Hayes
Referee: A Muir
Youth was the watchword as both sides relied heavily on their fledgling talents. They mostly prospered, with Ryan Fraser, the 17-year-old winger who could yet exit Aberdeen this month, a contender for man of the match as the home side, who scored first through Scott Vernon, recovered to earn a point through a fine Niall McGinn free kick.
It wasn’t undeserved. Indeed, Aberdeen probably created enough second-half opportunities to claim they should have taken all three points. But it seemed fitting that both teams should earn something of worth from a match they put so much into, and United failed to take advantage of several one-on-one chances of their own.
It is sad to have to report another mistake by Jamie Langfield, the Aberdeen goalkeeper whose recovery from a brain seizure was among the most heart-warming sports stories of last year. He failed to cope with a cross by Johnny Russell that squeezed beneath his body and gave United a half-time lead, after Gavin Gunning had stooped to head home a 20th minute equaliser for the visitors.
Interest was sparked by the appearance of the teamsheets. The first game of a new year prompted both managers to be cavalier. Craig Brown elected to field three teenagers in Aberdeen’s starting XI while Peter Houston, his opposite number, made the bold decision to hand John Souttar his debut at full-back at the age of just 16 years and 100 days. It means he inherits the title of youngest player to start a match for United from Ian Mitchell, who played for the club in the 1960s.
Souttar’s opposite man was Fraser, one of Aberdeen’s trio of teenagers and someone who, even despite his own tender years, promised to give United’s full-back a testing time. So it proved in the opening stages. One wondered whether this had been a sensible place to blood Souttar, who showed admirable courage to recover from an awkward opening spell. It was a tough assignment for a 16-year-old, who was asked to quickly find his feet in a high-octane derby encounter played away from home and on a rutted pitch. He is also more used to playing at centre-half.
The United defence was already under the spotlight, having conceded 11 goals in their last four matches. The manager re-jigged this department further by deploying centre-forward Jon Daly at centre-half, where he replaced the suspended Brian McLean. Sean Dillon, meanwhile, was pushed into midfield to accommodate Souttar.
Things didn’t start well for the visitors. Souttar looked understandably nervy, though he was not at fault for the opening goal, which arrived from the opposite flank after 11 minutes. Fraser was played in behind left-back Barry Douglas by Cammy Smith. The winger took the ball to the bye-line before teeing up a cut-back for Scott Vernon, who drilled a shot into the back of the net from ten yards.
The goal felt like it had been coming and Aberdeen might have stretched their lead shortly afterwards, but Radoslaw Cierzniak did well to tip McGinn’s fierce shot onto the bar, while Fraser headed the rebound past the post. Although United had managed to steady themselves, it was still slightly against the run of play when they equalised after 20 minutes. A Douglas free kick from the left caused panic in the Aberdeen box and though Joe Shaughnessy did well to block Daly’s initial shot on the line, Gunning dived in to head the rebound into the net.
Although United scored again just 15 minutes later, they had already passed up two good opportunities to edge ahead. The impressive Stuart Armstrong skipped past Russell Anderson on the touchline and then played a pass across to Russell, who offered energetic support. However, his effort was poorly struck and Langfield gathered. Willo Flood then robbed a dithering Mark Reynolds before flicking the ball into Russell’s path. On this occasion the striker’s shot was hit too strongly and the ball blazed over.
United’s goal, when it did come, was a personal disaster for Langfield, who fumbled the ball across the line after Russell’s cross. To be fair, Flood could be said to have put the ’keeper off with his run to the near post.
Aberdeen were striving to improve a home record that had seen them win only 16 points from the possible 30 this season at Pittodrie. This was why jeers rang out after the half-time whistle sounded. However, they needed only eight second-half minutes to draw level. McGinn scored his 15th goal of the season with an exquisitely placed free-kick from 20 yards after Daly was harshly penalised for a push.
Nevertheless, it was Souttar who caught the eye. There will be fewer braver displays posted in the SPL this season than his performance yesterdayand he deserved the sporting round of applause received from the denizens of the Pittodrie main stand when he was replaced after 70 minutes by Darren Petrie, a comparative elder statesman at 17 years old.