Aberdeen’s poised performance in victory against Kilmarnock provided a persuasive argument that this time they can live up to pre-season expectations, but we should have more conclusive evidence one way or another as soon as the middle of this month.
The level of anticipation accompanying the Pittodrie club’s revival under new manager Derek McInnes is such that even Neil Lennon predicted they could challenge Celtic for the title. It’s a theory that will immediately be put to the test as Aberdeen travel to Motherwell on Sunday while Celtic take a break from league business to play a lucrative match against Liverpool in Dublin.
Victory at Fir Park would then give McInnes’s side the chance to move six points clear of Celtic when they meet at Pittodrie on Saturday week.
The top tier of the Richard Donald Stand will be reopened for that but the decision to close it for most matches did help create a more intimate atmosphere with 13,149 crammed into the remaining space.
Most left with plenty of reasons to return as the perpetual motion of Willo Flood, Barry Robson’s touch, control and dead ball accuracy, along with Calvin Zola’s nuisance value showed the shrewdness of the Aberdeen manager’s key summer signings.
Flood was particularly impressive, whether breaking up rare Kilmarnock attacks or gliding into dangerous areas at the other end of the park, best illustrated with the decisive goal.
Assistant manager Tony Docherty’s nagging complaints at the interval about the midfielder’s lack of penetrating runs were answered in 52 minutes when Flood completed the perfect debut with his first headed goal since the age of 12. Actually the average age of Kilmarnock’s midfield quartet was only eight years older than that, and it showed as they were overwhelmed by the potent combination of Flood, Robson and the equally excellent Ryan Jack.
Such was Aberdeen’s overall dominance, the visitors couldn’t have complained if they had turned around four or five goals behind instead of just the one. That was claimed by Johnny Hayes in 21 minutes after Zola’s shot was parried by Craig Samson and the former Caley Thistle winger turned it in at the back post with the aid of James Fowler.
Hayes admits to having had a disappointing first season at Pittodrie and was determined to claim it, especially with the likes of Peter Pawlett and Gregg Wylde waiting on the bench to exploit any poor performances. The Irishman could be forgiven the odd flash of déjà vu, though, when Aberdeen continually squandered opportunities to put the result beyond doubt, then nearly paid the price after the introduction of Kris Boyd. That was a regular feature under Craig Brown last season when they won just six out of 21 home matches and finished in the bottom six despite losing just one of their first eleven league games.
Of course, that one setback was against Celtic which is why Hayes was straight-batting suggestions of what they can achieve this time with the sort of resilience the Australian cricketers must wish they could have applied in the first two Ashes tests.
Forget the proverbial pinch of salt, Hayes reckons Lennon’s comments about Aberdeen would use up the whole cellar and said: “He could just be looking to take a bit of pressure off himself, if I am being honest. They say the bookies never get it wrong and I saw a thing in the paper saying Celtic were 50 to 1 on for the title. That says it all! They have a far bigger budget and squad and experienced players and I don’t think anybody will come close to troubling Celtic if I am honest.
“That is the gulf in Scottish football and we will try to bridge it as much as we can but I don’t think anybody in this league has a right to say we are going to challenge Celtic because every team is miles away, in terms of budget and players. In a one-off game anybody can beat anybody though and we won’t be going in with the mindset that we can’t win when we play them up here.”
Kilmarnock were certainly miles away from Aberdeen in terms of players as Allan Johnston’s late arrival as replacement for Kenny Shiels has left the new manager with a lot of work to do. Someone who lost just five competitive matches in charge of Queen of the South knows he needs several experienced additions to the squad to stand a chance of winning that many in the near future. Johnston said: “Aberdeen deserved to win and we were just too open at times for my liking but we know that we need to bring in a few players to add some depth to the squad and I was encouraged by the fight we showed in the second half.”
So were Kilmarnock’s travelling support, who got behind the team when not calling for unpopular chairman Michael Johnston to quit, especially after Boyd came off the bench to provide some sort of focal point. The former Rangers player scored with a sublime strike in 64 minutes and very nearly fashioned an improbable equaliser as well as showing a flash of humour that neither the Aberdeen fans nor referee Crawford Allan found funny. Subjected to taunts of “sumo”, Boyd struck the pose of such a wrestler after scoring, only to receive a yellow card for his trouble.