Aberdeen pass test of nerve to end 17-year wait for final
After a third semi-final victory in their last five appearances at this stage, Aberdeen are getting back into the habit of reaching finals.
But this, to secure their first Scottish Cup final since 2000, felt extra special. As well as scratching a 17-year itch, it became an ultimate test of bottle, nerve, call it what you will.
It might have been a lot less comfortable than the Aberdeen fans had bargained for after 25 minutes, but what remains true is that the Pittodrie side are clearly still the best equipped to rob Celtic of their treble dream at Hampden Park next month.
Derek McInnes later remarked that Saturday’s tie, which threatened to escape Aberdeen’s clutches following a dream start, was the kind of game his side might have lost as recently as two years ago. Indeed, it seemed at one point that they were trying their best to do just that.
Few Aberdeen fans would have felt confident about their side prevailing after watching them throw away a two-goal lead. “It was credit to the boys for digging in,” said Graeme Shinnie, who was named man of the match.
McInnes accepted that, although they have reached two League Cup finals in recent times, winning once, a Scottish Cup final appearance is long overdue for Aberdeen.
“It doesn’t sit well with anybody,” he said. “For a club like Aberdeen it is far too long.
“We can only deal with our time here. That’s now five semi-finals in four years and we have won three of them. That, for me, is a decent return.
“That period is what we concentrate on. We have won one [final] and lost one and it is a total contrast of emotions. Hopefully, the experiences we have gained over the past wee while will help us going into the final.”
As Saturday’s riveting game neared its conclusion, Hibernian seemed the more likely side to emerge victors and write another incredible chapter to their Scottish Cup story. Indeed, even at 3-2 down and with the seconds ticking down they came close to etching another rich detail – Hibs’ last effort on goal came from goalkeeper Ofir Marciano, pictured, whose header brought out a good save from Joe Lewis.
It was the signal for a wave of appreciative applause to break out in the Hibs section, a response that meant Neil Lennon’s later criticism jarred with the tone of the day from an Easter Road perspective. There’s disappointment, sure. But what a story, what an adventure.
Their early sloppiness on Saturday might have accounted for Lennon’s rage but it was still a mighty effort from Hibs to get back on level terms after losing a goal straight from kick-off and then another on the 25-minute mark.
Had Marciano’s header gone in, at the same end as David Gray’s Scottish Cup winner 11 months earlier, the goal would only have secured extra-time. But few would have bet against Hibs finishing off an Aberdeen team so deflated at having been pegged back again.
But we didn’t have the opportunity to judge whether Aberdeen’s new found resilience would have extended to overcoming such a repeat setback.
Jonny Hayes’ heavily deflected winner was the decisive moment, ricocheting off Darren McGregor’s knee and into the net. Marciano, although engaged in more orthodox goalkeeping activity, could only watch helplessly as the ball spun into the net.
Lennon had made some comments to indicate that, while he sympathised with such an early kick-off given Aberdeen fans’ travel requirements in comparison to those of Hibs, he welcomed any advantage it might hand his players.
In the event, it was Aberdeen who started like a train. Hibs, meanwhile, seemed disorganised and unfocused. John McGinn took Lennon’s instructions to get at Aberdeen from the start to heart, barrelling into a cul de sac in the opening seconds and losing possession.
Even then, Hibs had every chance to deal with the situation. But McGregor’s pass to Efe Ambrose was intercepted by Adam Rooney and he promptly drilled home the game’s opening goal after 12 seconds.
It got worse before it got better for Hibs, who contrived to lose another goal after Marciano strayed too far from his near post at a free-kick, allowing Ryan Christie the chance to squeeze in his whipped-in effort.
But while he might have looked like he was losing his head on the touchline, Lennon deserves credit for having the presence of mind to take almost immediate action.
Off came an aghast and clearly furious Fraser Fyvie, replaced by Grant Holt. As Lennon later noted with incredulity, it took a 36-year-old to get Hibs playing the way the manager wanted. Holt scored a header to drag Hibs back into the game then set up Dylan McGeouch’s equaliser. He was allowed to impose his personality on the game and, while McInnes’ decision to swap Christie with Anthony O’Connor after just 59 minutes was in part to help deal with Holt’s threat, it seemed almost an admission, with more than 30 minutes still left to play, that Aberdeen were content to hold on to what they had.
It took just a minute for this meagre ambition to crumble as McGeouch tucked the ball under Lewis. The tie had to be won all over again. Aberdeen succeeded in doing this, which was their principal objective. But they will know they will need to improve markedly in such areas as game management to de-rail Celtic.