Aberdeen’s most famous manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, said it best when Manchester United defeated Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final: “Football, bloody hell.” It was a sentiment the current occupier of the post at Pittodrie could echo in less auspicious circumstances after watching his side surrender second place in stoppage time yesterday.
Scorer: Motherwell - Reid (90)
Derek McInnes was just seconds away from completing a memorable first season in charge by steering the Dons to runners-up spot for the first time in two decades when Motherwell mugged them right at the death.
Craig Reid, whose only previous goal came in a Challenge Cup tie for Queen of the South, picked the perfect moment to claim his first ever for the Fir Park club and it could hardly have been more controversial.
Aberdeen barely had time to restart the game before the Motherwell players, management and backroom staff were off celebrating a stunning finale to the Premiership season with their large travelling support.
Meanwhile, McInnes and several of his players were heading for referee Steven McLean to find out just what had happened to leave them and their 15,000 plus fans distraught. Their gripes focused on where Keith Lasley took a last-gasp hit-and-hope free kick from inside his own half and that Jamie Langfield had been blocked off by John Sutton going for it.
The ball then ricocheted around Aberdeen’s six-yard box, came off Mark Reynolds’ hand on the line and hit the bar before falling to Reid who forced it in from point-blank range.
It was an astonishing climax to a match the home side dominated in terms of possession, yet they only rarely threatened to score, while the visitors set out to keep the game goalless, so they could mount a late smash-and-grab raid.
That it worked was more down to luck than ingenuity, something Motherwell manager Stuart McCall was more than happy to admit – even if he enjoyed the sense of schadenfreude that went with it.
McCall conceded Aberdeen had justification for their complaints but pointed to a couple of controversial incidents involving the Dons this season, including Russell Anderson’s hand ball equaliser at Fir Park in January, which had not been spotted by the same referee. “I’ve only seen it once and it’s possibly a free kick but whatever we have got today, especially against Aberdeen, we have deserved.” McCall claimed.
“I think back to John Sutton’s goal which was chopped off for offside in the League Cup tie and also Russell Anderson’s forearm smash goal to get a draw at Fir Park earlier in the season, so it’s swings and roundabouts for me.
“In football you are always going to get a chance and whatever we have got today, over the 38 games we have deserved it.”
The result means Motherwell are unbeaten in their last nine visits to Pittodrie but much more importantly it’s the second successive season they have finished runners-up to Celtic.
They have also accumulated a record 70 points, not bad for a team who lost seven key players last summer with few considering any replacements as better than those that left.
This win means an extra two weeks holiday for the Motherwell players as their Europa League qualifying campaign starts in mid-July while Aberdeen’s now begins before the World Cup quarter-finals have been played.
There’s also the significant addition of an extra £250,000 in revenue for claiming second place which can only help McCall strengthen his squad and keep some of the players, like match winner Reid, who are out of contract now. The former Celtic youth team player shackled Peter Pawlett as Motherwell set out to keep the scoreline level until the last 15 minutes, then have a real go to win it.
McInnes was well aware of those plans and moved Jonny Hayes to an attacking left-back role to counter it, which worked to the extent that Aberdeen controlled virtually the entire game until the last 30 seconds of injury time.
Chances were few and far between in a game high in endeavour but low on skill. Even then the normally reliable Niall McGinn should have eased any Aberdeen anxiety with the best chance of the game in the second half.
The Northern Ireland international was clear through on goal but wanted an eternity to steady himself before shooting and Shaun Hutchinson was able to get back to make a wonderful saving tackle.
However, even with the late introduction of James McFadden from the bench it was hard to see how a Motherwell side who didn’t create a single chance in 90 minutes would be able to dethrone a team who had been in second place since early January
McInnes will still be wondering about that now, but the Aberdeen manager made it clear who he holds responsible for spoiling what was shaping to be their best season in 24 years.
The Aberdeen manager went out of his way to congratulate Motherwell for their achievement but blamed referee McLean for the result that dropped them back to third place.
He said: “There were a couple of mistakes by officials which led to Motherwell’s winning goal.
“The mistake hasn’t come from our players, it came from a decision and that makes it harder to take.
“It’s a foul on Jamie Langfield. I’ve seen it several times now and he doesn’t get any connection on the ball.
“He barges into him, takes him out of it and they’ve scored on the back of it.
“Also, it might seem a small thing but it’s big in the context of what happened.
“The free kick was taken a considerable distance away from where it should have been.
“Maybe it wasn’t exciting enough, there was a lot of build-up to it and the game was just playing out.
“Even when Motherwell were chasing it I felt we were comfortable. I didn’t feel we were ever going to lose a goal.
“The players felt like that and so did the fans, but maybe it just wasn’t exciting enough for some.
“But mistakes happen. I was delighted when I saw Steven was refereeing this game, but he’s got this one badly wrong.”