The road to Hampden has become a familiar one for most Aberdeen players in recent years but it’s been a tortuous path to the national stadium for their current leading goalscorer, Sam Cosgrove.
It’s a sign of the striker’s increasing significance in Derek McInnes’ side that someone given just 11 minutes as a substitute in last season’s 3-0 Scottish Cup semi-final defeat against Motherwell will be one of the first names on today’s teamsheet.
Especially when you consider the 22-year-old had scored only twice the last time he lined up against this afternoon’s opponents at Hampden Park when Celtic won the Betfred Cup final at the start of December.
Now last weekend’s match- winning double at Dundee means Cosgrove has joined Adam Rooney and Niall McGinn as the only Dons players to score 20 in a season for the club in the last two decades.
It’s the sort of transformation someone who failed to make the grade as a youngster at Everton has largely made through self-motivation after enduring dispiriting loan spells in English non-league football before McInnes rescued him from Carlisle United 15 months ago.
Playing for Barrow and North Ferriby United, a club that were actually liquidated just last month, was bad enough but not even making the bench for Chorley FC in the sixth tier of the game down south was a real low point.
The combined capacity of those three clubs’ grounds wouldn’t hold the number of Aberdeen supporters who will watch this afternoon’s games but those experiences only reinforced the belief that Cosgrove was good enough to make the grade at a much higher level.
“Self-confidence isn’t a thing you can produce when you’re struggling to get games down in England in the Conference” he admits. “There’s not a particular match that sticks out but I remember a couple of times near the end of my loan spell at Chorley.
“They brought a new striker in and I was left out of the squad when I was a teenager after travelling goodness knows how many hours to get to the game on the morning of the match. I remember having to sit there and watch the game thinking ‘what’s happening here’ and it does hit hard.
“It’s not nice but I was always under the impression that, if I work hard, then my chance would come and I have to take the opportunity. That was certainly a necessary step towards getting to where I am now so it was character building.
“It’s a cruel industry but there are rewards if you do well. The aspiration is to play at as high a level as possible and there’s not much higher than the English Premier League, so I don’t see why I can’t go on and do that in the future.”
Cosgrove’s strike rate of 18 goals in the last 22 games is all the more remarkable as he only managed two, both scored in one game against St Mirren, in his first 22 matches after moving to Pittodrie in January last year.
Despite a considerable number of doubters, Aberdeen manager McInnes never lost faith in someone he believed could deliver the goals the team desperately needed after the reliable Rooney was sold to Salford City last summer.
However, even the 22-year-old himself has been surprised at how well things are going for him in time for the business end of the season which he hopes will include the decisive strike to get Aberdeen to a fourth final in three years.
“The start of the campaign was a bit slow and I even shocked myself a bit when the goals started to fly in but I took it in my stride and it’s led me on to scoring more,” added Cosgrove. “All my 20 goals have come pretty much in the last couple of months. It’s a good feeling coming into this semi-final with a bit of form.
“It’s the accolade which comes with it as well as I’ve spoken about Adam Rooney and the achievements he had for the last three seasons and the plaudits he got for that.
“It’s a real honour to get there relatively early in the season. It means I’ve got hopefully half a dozen more games to kick on and score even more goals.”
Cosgrove did score a consolation goal against Celtic in the 4-3 defeat at Pittodrie last December but it was the 1-0 win at Parkhead on the final day of last season that is the happier memory.
That, and the omen that the last time Aberdeen defeated Celtic in the Scottish Cup was five years ago when Neil Lennon was manager, means they are confident of finally getting the better of the team they finished runners-up to in five of the seven trophies won under Brendan Rodgers.
Cosgrove added: “They’re a group of winners but so are we and we don’t like being in their shadow, so we want to break out of that.”