This fixture’s return to the Scottish football calendar was never likely to pass by without a large slice of controversy. When it duly arrived in the 90th minute of an absorbing contest, it was matched by a moment of brilliance by James Maddison which earned Aberdeen the kind of victory their supporters savour above all others.
Referee John Beaton was the villain of the piece as far as Rangers were concerned and they had cause for complaint over his award of the late free-kick converted by Maddison after James Tavernier clearly won the ball in his challenge on Jonny Hayes.
But the harsh reality for Rangers manager Mark Warburton, for whom Andy Halliday’s penalty had cancelled out the opener scored by Hayes just 24 seconds into the second half, is that their failure to translate possession into goals has left them trailing in seventh place in the Premiership table.
The Ibrox men have now dropped 12 points in their first seven games back in the top flight. Aberdeen’s ambition of retaining their status as Celtic’s closest rivals this season was significantly boosted by this result which was a triumph of substance over style for Derek McInnes’s players.
It was an afternoon when the old adage about absence making the heart grow fonder could confidently be expected to be disproved.
After their lengthy enforced separation, there remains no love lost between the two parties involved in what has become one of Scottish football’s most bitterly contested fixtures.
Beaton, who might have been forgiven for an involuntary shudder down his spine when news of this assignment dropped into his inbox, was clearly keen to try to keep a lid on any potential flashpoints.
He could easily have produced his first cards of the afternoon in the 11th minute when Aberdeen defender Anthony O’Connor, having been penalised for a foul on Joe Garner, foolishly lashed out at the Rangers striker as they tussled on the ground.
Garner was hardly the epitome of restraint either but before it got out of hand, Beaton stepped in and contented himself with a stern verbal warning to both players.
But after a scrappy opening spell, in which the sides traded shots deflected just wide by Harry Forrester and Adam Rooney, Beaton had little option but to reach for his pocket and book Aberdeen captain Graeme Shinnie for persistent fouling, the tipping point a cynical trip on Barrie McKay.
Whether or not attributable to the extra two days of recovery they enjoyed after their midweek Betfred Cup quarter-final, Rangers certainly made the brighter start and looked the sharper and more energetic side for long spells.
Garner, whose header was deflected wide when he rose to meet a Tavernier cross, appeared eager to make an impression on his return to the Rangers starting line-up.
His enthusiasm was in danger of getting the better of him, however, and he evened up the yellow card count when he was cautioned for a late and needless foul on Hayes.
The former Preston man made a more positive contribution when he forced Joe Lewis into his first save of the match, albeit with the aid of a wicked deflection off Shay Logan which threatened to divert the ball into the corner of the net. The Dons goalkeeper reacted superbly to get down to his left and turn it behind.
With the home fans growing increasingly impatient with their team’s efforts, Kenny McLean did his best to change the mood with a rasping shot from 25 yards which Wes Foderingham did well to touch over.
But Rangers remained the likelier and more cohesive side in the closing stages of the first half. McKay sent a dipping 20-yard effort narrowly over, then Garner threatened again with a close-range header which was blocked by Mark Reynolds.
The lack of an end product would have been Warburton’s only complaint about his team’s first-half performance, underlined twice by Jason Holt just before the interval when he slashed one shot wastefully wide then tamely sent another straight at Lewis.
It was McInnes who had more to concern himself with during the break and it was no surprise he made a change at the start of the second half, replacing the ineffective Peter Pawlett with Norwich City loanee Maddison.
The Aberdeen boss would have to wait for Maddison’s dramatic and decisive contribution. Before then, having demanded a positive response from his players, McInnes could scarcely have hoped for the rapidity of Hayes’ breakthrough strike almost directly from the restart.
Rangers were caught cold as Lewis’s long clearance was flicked on by Rooney into the path of Hayes who had burst clear on the left of the visitors’ penalty area.
The Irish winger showed admirable composure to drill a low shot under the advancing Foderingham into the far corner of the net.
Warburton’s side remained patient and studied as they tried to respond to that setback and Martyn Waghorn came close to a leveller when he flicked a header narrowly wide from Andy Halliday’s free-kick.
Rangers introduced Niko Kranjcar for Forrester in an effort to find greater incision in the final third but the Croatian playmaker’s chronic lack of match fitness was exposed again as he struggled to make the kind of impact his manager was seeking.
Aberdeen almost doubled their lead on the counter attack when Hayes got in behind the Rangers defence on the left again but this time his shot was well saved by Foderingham.
Just as Rangers looked to be running out of ideas, they finally made their dominance of possession count when they levelled from the spot. Substitute Kenny Miller’s clever pass picked out Lee Wallace’s run into the area where the Rangers captain was tripped by Hayes.
It was an easy decision for the referee and Halliday stepped up to coolly send Lewis the wrong way.
Rangers appeared to have the momentum with them as the match ticked into the closing ten minutes, but Aberdeen had the inspiration in the shape of Maddison. Regardless of the visitors’ justifiable indignation at the award of the free-kick, its execution was worthy of winning any game as Maddison curled his right-foot effort over the defensive wall and in off the despairing Foderingham’s right-hand post.