Did Aberdeen blow their chance at winning the title?

Friday's loss to St Johnstone all but killed Aberdeen's title hopes. Picture: SNS
Friday's loss to St Johnstone all but killed Aberdeen's title hopes. Picture: SNS
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If you tuned into St Johnstone v Aberdeen on BT Sport expecting to see a competitive, highly charged contest then you would not have been disappointed. The action, though, didn’t come in between the white lines on the field, which played host to a one-sided affair, but rather within the group of four men standing adjacent to it.

The BT Sport panel was made up of Darrell Currie, Michael Stewart, Stephen Craigan and the always confrontational Chris Sutton. By the end of the evening there was some real tension between the foursome, something which simmered right from the off.

The main debate centred around Aberdeen and their achievements this season. Sutton was suggesting that Aberdeen have underachieved, at least in recent weeks, because they’ve been ahead in three away trips - Inverness, Motherwell and Hearts - and lost every game. He began arguing the point after the viewers were treated to a pre-game, pre-recorded interview between Dons boss Derek McInnes and reporter Eilidh Barbour. In the segment, McInnes insisted the Aberdeen players should be delighted with their season, as he fought back against suggestions the team had bottled a legitimate chance at claiming the Ladbrokes Premiership crown, thereby not only becoming the last Aberdeen team to win Scottish football’s greatest prize since 1985, but any team from outside Glasgow. To McInnes, second place and possibly breaking the club’s previous points record was a tremendous achievement in itself.

Sutton was having none of it. While not explicitly saying so, he insinuated there was a connection between McInnes admitting defeat in the title race, which he did even before Friday’s loss, and their recent stumbles. This seed of doubt sprouted in the analyst’s mind as he witnessed Aberdeen’s struggles at McDiarmid Park. To him, it wasn’t a case of the team not being good enough to win the title, it was that they didn’t believe it enough, a failing which filtered from the manager down.

Stewart and Craigan disagreed. McInnes had done as much as he could with a group of players that weren’t as strong as Celtic’s, argued Stewart, while Craigan pointed to the need for reinforcements in the summer. This was just white noise to Sutton who continued to debate in increasingly forceful tones over the top of any counter-argument, much to the frustration of his co-hosts. He was adamant they’d underachieved and the summer was an irrelevance to the debate because there had been a real chance to win the title against a “poor” Celtic side, which was now gone.

First of all, calling it a poor Celtic side requires come context. In some respects it undoubtedly is. They’ve been unconvincing in all but one of their matches since the turn of the year, and aside from Leigh Griffiths and Kieran Tierney they don’t seem to have any players that are capable of thrilling the Parkhead crowd. They also had a manager who, despite being on the cusp of a second consecutive title, everyone wanted out of the job. That’s fairly poor within the wider narrative of recent Celtic history.

However, if we’re talking about Aberdeen overhauling Celtic in the table, you have to look at the points tally Aberdeen needed to reach. Should Celtic continue the season at the current points-per-game average that they currently have, then they shall finish on 86 points. Celtic usually break 90 points so it’s not a great total, though it’s still significantly more than the 2012/13 team led by Neil Lennon - the one that defeated Barcelona - which finished on only 79. Poor to Celtic fans and poor to the rest of us who’ve been used to watching better from those in green and white hooped shirts, but not poor within the context of the Scottish football top flight, and more than enough to win the title in any of the last five seasons.

At present, Celtic’s projected points total still allows for one more loss. Even if Aberdeen break that projection and defeat Celtic in addition to another side doing so, it would still take 83 points (or more likely 84 points due to an inferior goal difference) for them to finish on top of the pile. When’s the last time a non-Old Firm side reached such a total? Well, it’s never happened in the three-points-for-a-win era. The last time a team finished with the kind of winning percentage that would have reached 84 points in a 38-game, three-points-for-a-win season was Aberdeen when they last won the title in 1985. Eight years later the same club, in season 1992-93, put together a wins-and-draws percentage that would have given them 79 points under today’s league structure. Nobody has come close to matching it since.

In the 23 years since Willie Miller’s side finished second to Rangers, the wealth gap in football has increased considerably. Sutton, and others of his ilk, argue that on this occasion the relative budgets between the two sides has little to do with it, seeing as Aberdeen have shown themselves to be just as good as, if not better than, Celtic at points this season. However, such an argument fails to take into account the cost of consistency in football. Getting players who not only have the talent but all the mental tools required to play at their best week in, week out costs money. Jonny Hayes is a tremendous player and terrific to watch, but he disappeared on Friday night and it’s not the first time he’s done so this season. The same goes for Niall McGinn and the rest of the Aberdeen team.

Last season, Aberdeen’s problem was their failure to take any points from their title rivals. Prior to round 35, with only four games remaining, Aberdeen had actually fared better against the other 10 teams in the league. In four games against Celtic, however, they lost every one of them, giving Ronny Deila’s side a massive 12-point boost and potential 24-point swing in the battle for the top. This season’s issue has been the failure to match said consistency against the rest. Does that mean they had a better chance last season? No, four wins against their closest rivals proved Celtic were the better side. The same way results against the rest this term show they’re not on the same level as the champions-elect. The league table doesn’t lie.

Dons fans will look back at dropped points, such as the game against Hearts, where they dominated in the opening 20 minutes and could have been 3-0 up, or the away trip at Motherwell, when Connor Ripley made a fantastic save five minutes before the hosts fired in a quick-fire double, and lament those missed opportunities. But to use these examples as evidence of a team throwing away their chance at glory fails to take into account the nature of football over the course of a season. Every club, other than those 100 per cent satisfied with their league placing at the end of the campaign, will look back with regret over easy points dropped.

So, to use an example Sutton gave, how come Leicester are on the cusp of an English Premier League title despite having a budget dwarfed by that of Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and even Tottenham? It’s a fair point. Leicester’s example should show to every team around the world that money alone does not dictate football; once two teams step out on to the field, anything is possible. However, what this example fails to take into account when used to criticise the likes of Aberdeen is that the reason everyone is talking about Leicester is because of how rare an occurrence it is. It’s a fairytale played out in real life. Everyone expected the Foxes to falter because that’s what every other team, fighting against the odds and giant wads of cash, does.

Aberdeen did falter and subsequently failed to reach those heights, but considering all we know about Scottish football and the state of the Pittodrie first team in the seasons prior to McInnes’ arrival, it’s a terrific achievement to even force the narrative of a title race in a league with Celtic. They should be proud of their efforts even if all they’re left to aim for is setting a new club points record.

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