All week – indeed all season given that in the 67th minute of an easy grasping of the League Cup in November, the Celtic hordes were lighting up the sky with their phones – there had been no shortage of reminders of the greatest day for a Scottish football club.
Time for the Scottish Cup, the Dons fans might have added. Time for full concentration on the trophy Aberdeen hadn’t lifted for 27 years. Time for a granite-hewn team to dash a treble again.
Instead, display-wise, what we got from them was pretty spectacular: “Stand free” spelled out across their stands, the title of the club anthem on white cards against a red background, with a cluster holding up gold cards in the shape of the cup. The big question: could the team dazzle on the big pitch?
The banner regarding 1967 and all that could have continued “… with the greatest respect”. Celtic in a pre-final message advising there would be no victory parade if the cup was to be theirs offered Aberdeen the greatest respect given that the game had still to be played. The Dons, though, might have wanted to ditch all mention of respect. Their performance back in November over-respected Celtic. It had been a dismal showing.
Six months ago Hampden had simultaneously gasped and shuddered, the latter the reaction from the red-and-white stands, when the notable north-east speedster Jonny Hayes was out-paced by Scott Brown, a player seemingly past it and held together with rusty bolts and Bostik. It was a pivotal moment, as inspirational for one team as it was spirit-sapping for the other.
Yesterday Aberdeen strived for such a moment to be decided in their favour, spreading doubt in their opponents and sparking an electrical surge through their least confident players and most doom-mongering fans.
These supporters probably didn’t expect it to come from Jayden Stockley. The blond beefcake striker’s surprise selection must have seemed to them like more Derek McInnes fussiness. But Stockley won a throw he shouldn’t and a delicious flick from Kenny McLean set up two, maybe three glimpses of goal in a nervy opening for the invincibles from Glasgow’s East End. Minutes later Jonny Hayes was, as the song goes, standing free and from a high, arcing Niall McGinn corner he bulleted his shot home.
Celtic’s equaliser right away – Callum McGregor providing for Stuart Armstrong’s left-foot drive – must have had their fans sitting back and waiting for the procession but the rest of the half didn’t pan out like that. The Dons, with new captain Graeme Shinnie leading by example, bit and snapped in every 50-50 and most of the 70-30s as well.
Aberdeen were only playing Brendan Rodgers’ men. They weren’t up against the Lisbon Lions, the fans who were in Lisbon, the fans who wished they were, those who claimed they were, plus Rod Stewart, Martin Compston, all the other Celtic-favouring luvvies and those military commanders who went their whole careers undefeated, including Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. The Aberdeen fans knew this.
Hayes with his winged boots whooshed past Broony who didn’t like that one bit and when the Celtic captain lost out in the middle to Ryan Jack he looked for someone to hit, Stockley obliging.
Brown had been the dominant figure in November but he wasn’t here, at least not for an hour. Celtic were rattled, and Kieran Tierney’s teeth were rattling when Stockley caught him with a flailing elbow. After lengthy treatment the full-back had to retire. With no punishment for the Aberdeen hulk the Celtic fans were enraged. Then McGinn and McLean fired shots at Craig Gordon, busier than he’d been for ages. Another fiendish McGinn corner produced a chance for big, bad Stockley, Gordon again blocking.
If we don’t win the cup from here, the Dons supporters must have been thinking at the interval, we’ll be replaying key moments with beer mats and drowning our sorrows for years. That impression must have increased tenfold when McLean couldn’t connect with a Hayes cross. The latter then caught Brown with a cruncher, the Hoops skipper a Nemesis no more. But Broony wasn’t finished, nothing like, and he led the charge as Celtic finally got their act together.
Every thundering challenge from him brought a chorus of boos from the red-and-whites. It was a toss-up who was Mount Florida’s most unpopular man, only for Stockley to leave the stage to his rival. There had been predictions of an easy Celtic victory, with plenty of opportunities for one supporter to remark “Did you see that 24-page Lisbon supplement through the week?” and for his pal to answer “Which one?” But they had more pressing concerns, a final to win against fiercely brave but tiring opponents. At last the well-marshalled Patrick Roberts broke free, Joe Lewis turning his drive on to a post.
Then came the 67th minute. A big song from one end, a big amount of jeering from the other – and a big, bar-clearing boomer from Leigh Griffiths.
The green-and-white end offered a blast of “Jimmy Johnstone on the wing”, Dedryck Boyata failing with a header. Although Celtic hadn’t been at their best, with Scott Sinclair’s miss as glaring as the one by McLean, they weren’t going to let go of the treble dream. A second terrific Scottish Cup final in a row was the result.
The Celtic hordes tried to roar their favourites home. Then a dramatic flash of lightning above the stadium signalled the winner and it wasn’t to be a Northern Light. The Aberdeen defence, included the often-criticised Ash Taylor, had been heroic but they couldn’t stop the slaloming Tom Rogic’s brilliant, treble-clincher, although it was rubbing salt in gaping wounds when Brown went to their heartbroken fans and raised an arm in defiance for rather a long time.