This was a massive win for Aberdeen and Scott Vernon did crack a smile, eventually, as he recounted the thrills, spills and high drama of the A96 derby.
Inverness CT 3-4 Aberdeen
Scorers: Inverness CT - Mckay (47, 56), Shinnie (88); Aberdeen - Robson (pen 22, 31), Pawlett (37), McGinn (44)
Referee: S McLean
The striker’s solemn demeanour was in stark contrast to the significance of the result. Before the game, manager Derek McInnes had described Inverness as the “benchmark” for his team in a respectful assessment of the Highlanders’ achievements over the last year and a half. The littler of the two northerly neighbours have, recently, shamed their big city rivals with lofty status in the league table, on a fraction of the budget.
Only 11 months ago, a Dons defeat at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium began a downward spiral from second in the table to the depths of the bottom six.
Saturday’s outcome, then, seemed like a notable sea-change, with the Dons leapfrogging their hosts into third place.
For any neutrals in attendance, it was simply breathtaking stuff as, having recorded eight clean sheets between them in the build-up, the two sides rattled in seven goals in a frantic, feverish 90 minutes. But, as electrifying as the first half had been for Aberdeen as they stormed 4-0 up, the second period revealed old insecurities as Caley Thistle clawed their way back.
For Vernon, it was dispiriting. “The feeling at the end is just relief – it has to be,” the 30-year-old Mancunian admitted. “It was such a good first half from us. Everything was coming off and almost every time we went forward we looked like scoring.
“From the first kick in the second half it changed. Conceding the first goal from kick-off was poor. It set the tone for the second half and we just became edgy. We didn’t control the ball like we had in the first half. To be clinging on like that at the end was disappointing. We took three points yet, in the dressing room, it felt like a defeat.
“It was a sharp reminder to keep on top of things and that we still have plenty to work on.
“We are all trying to build something at Aberdeen – a way of playing that is resolute and determined. Normally, you can’t fault the lads but it was a different story in the second half. I probably sound a bit dour considering we have just won, but that’s just how it feels.”
Vernon’s smile, when it came, was self-deprecating. The former Oldham, Blackpool and Colchester striker is still awaiting the offer of a contract extension at Pittodrie. Festive programme notes had listed the chance to extend his stay in the Granite City as a Christmas wish.
He didn’t score but his industry and presence helped break down Caley Thistle’s defences for the fluent trio of Peter Pawlett, Niall McGinn and Ryan Jack. Vernon said: “It feels good to have a run in the team, but I am not taking it for granted.
“As a striker, at the end of the season I always judge myself on the goals I have scored and goals I have created. I did not score against Inverness but I had a hand in a couple of them and I will take that. There hasn’t been a contract offer made to me. I don’t know if you saw the programme last week, but what I wanted from Santa this Christmas was a new contract. There are still a few days left.”
There was no real hint in early exchanges of what was in store.
Inverness started brightly enough, then conceded a penalty as Josh Meekings’ raised hand halted a Barry Robson ball into the box. Robson, back at the club he left a decade earlier, powered home the spot-kick then thrilled the 1,700 travelling support with a wonderful headed second from Pawlett’s cross.
Vernon’s fine link play set up Pawlett’s well-taken goal, before McGinn hit the fourth with another brilliant finish. Having lost captain Richie Foran to a shoulder injury, Caley Thistle might have crumbled. Instead, they gave new manager John Hughes a taste of their spirit.
Two minutes after the break, Billy McKay poached his 16th of the campaign and then made it 17 as he whirled past Jamie Langfield to score again.
A head clash with David Raven ended Mark Reynolds’ involvement for Aberdeen and the hosts went for the knock-out blow. Graeme Shinnie’s brilliant header brought them within touching distance before the final whistle spared the Dons.