After so long without a trophy, no-one in the vast Red Army that converged on Parkhead yesterday was complaining about a perceived lack of glory in winning a final on penalties after 120 minutes of frustratingly mediocre football. Nineteen years of hurt for Aberdeen were swept away when Adam Rooney scored the decisive penalty. Shortly after this pivotal moment, the clouds burst open and the rain fell. It felt as though a great, festering hurt had been lanced.
The loss to injury of someone with Jonny Hayes’ qualities after only five minutes was sorely felt in a match which had its family final credentials reinforced by players who struggled at times to accomplish basic tasks. Free kicks were sent high over the bar, while there was even a fresh-air shot to report. This seemed far from the cutting edge of football. But the savage thrust of the professional game was felt when Inverness finally gave up the fight at the penalty shoot-out stage, after missing their first two efforts. It allowed Aberdeen to seize the initiative and, with history in sight and the Northern Lights beckoning them home to victory, they got there – in the end. However, such an outcome looked far from certain at times.
The sight of Hayes leaving the pitch clutching his shoulder was dispiriting for Aberdeen and their legions of supporters. Nor did those Inverness players who once counted Hayes as a valuable team-mate draw encouragement from his misfortune. But it meant Aberdeen were forced into an alteration in the opening minutes, one that did not help their attempts to settle in what were already hugely pressurised circumstances.
Cammy Smith replaced Hayes, a teenager thrust into the white heat of an occasion that proved arduous for even the experienced members of both teams. The fact Smith was later substituted by Nicky Low – the sub subbed, it pains one to note – was not a reflection of his standard of performance but recognition by manager Derek McInnes that Aberdeen needed a fresh spark. This was a game that struggled to live up to the level of interest in the packed stands. The fare on the park did not warrant such healthy ticket sales.
Few Aberdeen teams have felt such a weight of expectation on their shoulders, and whether or not McInnes’s side would prove capable of bearing such a burden was one of several intriguing discussion points in the lead-up to the game. The notion that Aberdeen’s sheer size of support could in some way act to harm their chances of lifting a first trophy since 1995 was an intriguing one. On that occasion they were helped by a Dundee side whom manager Jim Duffy later admitted had been spooked by the experience of playing in a national final.
Although this was Inverness’s first experience of such an occasion, there was little evidence from the early exchanges to indicate John Hughes’ side were going to be architects of their own downfall. They clearly set out to frustrate Aberdeen and then catch them on the counter-attack. They had no wish to ease Aberdeen’s path to the victory Hughes had impishly suggested everyone else in the country wanted to see, a comment he expanded upon when noting that the officials were practically handing the cup to Aberdeen with their segregation arrangements.
However, when Inverness won the toss and made the obvious choice of taking the penalties at the end of the ground where their fans were grouped, it proved no help. Billy McKay and Greg Tansey missed their team’s first two efforts – McKay saw his shot saved by Jamie Langfield, while Tansey blazed high over the bar. Aberdeen’s own frailties offered their opponents no relief. They scored with each of their attempts, Adam Rooney hitting the decisive penalty past Dean Brill in emphatic fashion.
Just because both teams were playing in front of a crowd many times greater than they would do normally did not guarantee a higher quality show. It was a big step up for everyone. This time last year, both of the managers involved here yesterday were without jobs.
Hughes clearly wished to soak up the experience, shaking the hand of each Aberdeen player as he moved down the presentation line before kick-off. McInnes, by contrast, quickly exited the scene after walking out with his team. Neither Hughes nor McInnes made a huge statement of intent with his team selection, although the Aberdeen manager had to make do without Peter Pawlett, out with injury. Hughes invested great hope in McKay, and why not – after all, he is one of the best strikers in the top tier. Yesterday, however, proved difficult for him in an often too isolated position up front.
The one time in the first half when he did look to have taken up a dangerous position at the back post, Russell Anderson was able to slide in and clear. There were few opportunities between then and half-time, although Richie Foran was called upon to clear an effort by Russell Anderson off the line. The game needed a goal. The Aberdeen fans claimed there had been one in this instance but the referee and his nearside assistant, Andrew McWilliam, ruled that the ball had not crossed the line. It was certainly as near as we got to a goal in the 120 minutes of play.
It was not just the players and managers who were under scrutiny; so, too, was the referee. Sadly, he was left wanting when required to make another major decision during the opening period. Josh Meekings’ challenge on Rooney looked, with the naked eye, to have been a fair one, but television repeats confirmed the Inverness defender had missed the ball and nicked the player instead. It was a let-off for Inverness, who started the second half in sprightly manner. And they had their own complaint to make when Foran looked to have been impeded in the box by Andrew Considine at a corner.
Inverness could not be described as overly ambitious yesterday. However, Aberdeen failed miserably in their attempt to win the final by taking the game to their doughty opponents. When Niall McGinn did have the golden opportunity with two minutes left of normal time, he lifted his head after pressure had been applied through a challenge by Meekings and the ball looped over the bar. Fortunately for them, Aberdeen proved more accurate from the penalty spot.