WHEN you have waited almost 20 years to be reacquainted with the taste of winning silverware, the manner of victory is of secondary importance.
That was certainly the case for Aberdeen at Celtic Park as they emerged both relieved and triumphant from one of the poorest cup finals Scottish football has witnessed. But after 120 long and largely forgettable minutes, nothing could dilute the joy of the Aberdeen players and their 40,000 supporters as the League Cup was claimed courtesy of a penalty shoot-out.
To pile on the agony for Inverness Caledonian Thistle, defeat in their first major final was confirmed by one of their former players, Adam Rooney converting the winning penalty for Derek McInnes’s team. The Aberdeen manager, whose name was belted out lustily by the Red Army during the post-match celebrations, has a tangible reward for the resurgence he has brought to the club.
McInnes suffered a selection setback before kick-off with Peter Pawlett, one of his most creative and influential performers, unable to prove his fitness. It made the loss of Jonny Hayes just five minutes into the final even more of an acute blow, further diminishing the pace and inventiveness of Aberdeen in the attacking third of the pitch.
Hayes had suffered damage to his shoulder when falling awkwardly inside the opening 30 seconds. The Irish winger, who scored twice in his team’s semi-final win over St Johnstone, tried to carry on but was clearly in some distress. He trudged off in understandable despair and was replaced by young Cammy Smith. While there were no real signs of the fear of failure which McInnes was determined to ensure did not inhibit his players, they were unable to impose themselves on Inverness as they would have wished in the opening stages.
It was John Hughes’ men, appearing far more robust and better organised than in some of the heavy defeats they have suffered in recent weeks, who had the first sniff of goal in the ninth minute. Marley Watkins’ cross from the right looked set to fall perfectly for Billy McKay at the far post, but a well-timed intervention by Aberdeen captain Russell Anderson cut out the danger.
As Aberdeen responded, Willo Flood and Ryan Jack combined to send Mark Reynolds scampering down the left. His cross found Smith but the substitute was unable to time his header properly and the ball soared over the crossbar.
Inverness were prepared to be as combative as necessary to prevent Aberdeen building up any rhythm and captain Richie Foran was fortunate to escape a booking in the 23rd minute for a late challenge on Barry Robson. From the resulting free kick, Inverness were even luckier not to fall behind. When they failed to clear the ball properly, it broke to Anderson whose shot beat goalkeeper Dean Brill but rebounded off the inside of his right-hand post. With Aberdeen’s players appealing in vain that the ball had crossed the line, Foran scrambled it away. Rooney then stabbed a shot over from close range as the favourites put together their most sustained burst of pressure so far.
Foran’s collection of the day’s first booking was only delayed a few more minutes, another wild challenge on Robson prompting referee Steven McLean to produce his yellow card.
Aberdeen could not find any sustained momentum against an Inverness side for whom Danny Devine was deputising capably in central defence for the suspended Gary Warren. And there was a crucial intervention by Devine in the 33rd minute when he prevented Rooney from making a clean contact with Robson’s fine cross, allowing Brill to make a comfortable save.
But Inverness rode their luck again two minutes later as Aberdeen should have been awarded a penalty kick. When Dons’ right-back Shaleum Logan played a low cross into the area, Rooney got to it ahead of Josh Meekings and toed the ball beyond the central defender who then floored him with his mistimed challenge. To Rooney’s fury, his loud appeal was waved aside by McLean.
Inverness had only limited impact as an attacking force in the first half, content to focus on subduing Aberdeen at the other end, but they threatened just before the interval when left-back Graeme Shinnie easily beat Logan on a foray upfield and delivered a good cross. McKay laid the ball off to Foran but he was denied a shot at goal by Flood’s superb tackle just inside the penalty area.
There was increased intent from Inverness to try and force themselves into advanced areas in the second half with their players almost visibly growing in confidence. Watkins, however, could have done with a little more conviction when he found himself in a promising shooting position, only to perform a complete miscue which left him lying on the turf and subjected to howls of derision from the Aberdeen fans. But there was more than a hint of anxiety creeping into those Aberdonian voices as their team struggled to make any headway towards Brill’s goal. And there was a moment of real panic for the Pittodrie men when Jamie Langfield spilled a cross under no real pressure - fortunately for the Aberdeen ’keeper, Foran was unable to take advantage and the ball was scrambled clear.
Langfield had to move smartly to his left to save a well struck free kick by Greg Tansey as Inverness recorded their first effort on target of the afternoon in the 62nd minute. Aberdeen reclaimed territorial advantage for a spell, Brill saving long-range efforts from Jack and Robson, but it was Inverness’s turn to feel aggrieved in the 87th minute when Foran appeared to be barged in the back by Andy Considine as he headed a Shinnie corner over from close range. His frantic appeals for a penalty were ignored by the referee.
Niall McGinn, a peripheral figure for much of the action, missed the best chance to win the cup in regulation time a minute later when he shanked a shot off target from 14 yards out, distracted by Meekings’ sliding challenge.
The additional 30 minutes produced little incident of note, Inverness substitute Aaron Doran the only man to post an effort on target when his low shot from 20 yards was well saved by Langfield diving to his left.
Langfield began the shoot-out by diving to his right to save McKay’s opening kick, while Greg Tansey blazed Inverness’s second kick over.
Robson, Nicky Low and Scott Vernon all sent Brill the wrong way to score, while Nicky Ross and Aaron Doran netted for Inverness before Rooney sealed the deal for Aberdeen.
Aberdeen: Langfield, Logan, Anderson, Reynolds, Considine (Vernon 108); Jack, Flood, Robson, Hayes (Smith 5) (Low 69); McGinn, Rooney. Subs not used: Tate, Weaver.
Inverness CT: Brill, Raven, Devine, Meekings, Shinnie; Watkins (Ross 80), Draper, Foran (Christie 100), Tansey, Vincent (Doran 63); McKay. Subs not used: Tremarco, Esson.