IT MAY only have been the equivalent of the first major hurdle in a gruelling steeplechase which still has a long distance to run, but there is little doubt Aberdeen cleared a significant psychological barrier on Saturday.
Derek McInnes and his players will continue to shy away from publicly declaring themselves as title contenders but, on a pulsating afternoon at Pittodrie, they produced a performance and result which spoke for itself.
This is an Aberdeen side which clearly believes they are capable of placing Celtic’s recent hegemony of Scottish football under serious threat.
If McInnes’ men can match the consistency they showed against the rest of the top-flight clubs last season in tandem with improving their head-to-head record with the champions, then a first Scottish title win since 1985 could perhaps be more than just a flight of fancy.
Having lost all four games against Ronny Deila’s men in the previous campaign, there was an unavoidable sense of “now or never” about Saturday’s assignment for Aberdeen.
They rose to the challenge with an impressive combination of physical strength and mental resilience. If responding positively to setbacks is the mark of potential champions, then McInnes could only be thrilled by the manner in which his team recovered from both the loss of the first goal in the match and then being reduced to ten men when Jonny Hayes was sent off with the score at 1-1.
The outcome of a tumultuous 90 minutes was influenced by a number of contentious incidents and refereeing decisions but Aberdeen did more than enough to deserve all three points.
It also secured a place in the history books. For the first time in their 112-year existence, they have started a league campaign with six consecutive victories, eclipsing the previous best of five by Sir Alex Ferguson’s title-winning team of 1985. If they can make it seven when they play Hamilton Accies at Pittodrie in their rescheduled fixture tomorrow night, they will move five points clear of Celtic at the top of the Premiership.
“There is no point in beating Celtic and then slipping up against Hamilton,” observed Aberdeen striker Adam Rooney. “We have to make sure we are focused on that now. We can take confidence from beating Celtic but we know there is a long way to go and we just want to build on this.
“The matches that let us down last season were against Celtic, so we wanted to set down a bit of a marker and start well against them this time. Thankfully we have done that. We know our squad are capable of beating anyone but we now need to show consistency over the course of the season.
“I wasn’t aware until the manager told us after the game that we had set a new record for the club with the six straight wins. It is a nice achievement but the aim is to extend it now and keep it going as long as we can.
“You see the photographs around Pittodrie of the team from the 1980s which held the record. They are legends around the club and even when we won the League Cup in 2014, people were still talking about the Eighties team.
“We are made aware of it by the fans and they just want the best for their club. It does inspire you and you want to get your name and face up on the photographs around the stadium.”
The prospect of Aberdeen improving their dismal recent record against Celtic – with just one victory in the previous 22 league meetings before Saturday – looked unlikely when Ronny Deila’s side took a 34th-minute lead from the penalty spot. Aberdeen defender Andrew Considine was fortunate only to be booked for his foul on Leigh Griffiths, who took the kick himself and drilled his ninth goal of the season beyond goalkeeper Danny Ward.
McInnes instructed his players during the interval that the match reports were already being compiled in the press box labelling them as the ‘same old Aberdeen’. He urged them to tear up the script this time and they obliged with a vibrant second-half display.
Referee Craig Thomson managed to upset both sets of supporters, first when taking no action against Aberdeen midfielder Kenny McLean for a kick at the head of grounded Celtic defender Mikael Lustig and then for refusing an Aberdeen penalty appeal for handball against Charlie Mulgrew.
He did award Aberdeen a spot-kick in the 56th minute. It was of the soft variety, although the erratic Dedryck Boyata’s challenge on Graeme Shinnie was both clumsy and needless. Rooney stepped forward to send Craig Gordon the wrong way and claim his fifth goal of the season.
When Hayes was dismissed for a lunging challenge on Lustig in the 72nd minute – a decision the club confirmed they will appeal, thus making Hayes available for the Hamilton match – Aberdeen could have been excused for simply trying to dig in and settle for a point.
But the ten men had other ideas and plundered all three points with an 86th-minute winner. Celtic’s defensive frailty at set pieces this season was exposed yet again when Niall McGinn’s free-kick picked out the unmarked Paul Quinn who stabbed a close-range shot beyond the static Gordon.
A goal-line clearance from Considine prevented Griffiths from salvaging a point for Celtic in stoppage time.
“Even when Celtic scored first, I felt we were on top in the game,” reflected Rooney. “We were disappointed to go in at half-time 1-0 down when we had created several good chances ourselves.
“We knew if we could restart the match with a bit more fire then we could swing it back in our favour. After equalising, the sending-off killed our momentum but we dug in and managed to get the winner.
“We have strengthened this season and we have more confidence in our own group of players. We know Celtic are good but we have players who can hurt anyone. The mentality is getting stronger with the calibre of player coming in. We are confident we can keep going now.”