No offence to Celtic. Don’t take this personally, Brendan Rodgers, Scott Brown, Stuart Armstrong, Scott Sinclair, Moussa Dembele and Kieran Tierney. But Aberdeen simply have to win the Scottish Cup.
It’s bad for the rest of us to have one club grabbing every prize, going the whole domestic season unbeaten, steam-rollering the opposition and leaving them to argue over the protocol for how long is too long to be left hanging around under the main stand for a post-match glass of Blue Nun and a handful of Twiglets.
I mean, it’s great for Celtic, who can say: “What are we supposed to do? We can only whip the poor suckers who’re put in front of us.” But it’s not much fun for everyone else as our game struggles for credibility and is vulnerable to “investigations” by English-based newspapers which conclude: “Scottish football: it’s not top-hole.”
So Aberdeen have to win but, obviously, only if they deserve to.
Derek McInnes, their manager, has strived to turn the club into the best-of-the-rest during Rangers’ travails and the league tables show he’s done this, even if the points gap between them and Celtic at the summit has invariably been vast. But he’d have hoped for more to show for these efforts than to have scraped the League Cup on penalties. Saturday, though, is their chance.
McInnes talks a good game. All season long he’s championed his players, as every manager should, and now and again it’s been possible to detect irritation in his voice as if he feels they’ve not received deserved credit.
The Great Mark Warburton Project exploded while at Tynecastle The Great Ian Cathro Experiment burbled ineffectively and second place for the Dons once again seemed like a given. Well, they still had to win games, go on runs, produce a body of work. Failure elsewhere may have made these tasks more likely, and while lagging 30 points behind the champions seems like the length of Union Street, McInnes earnestly believes these Dons are a proper, grown-up football team who deserve something more tangible as a reward.
Occasionally he talks a faintly ridiculous game, such as after Aberdeen had lost 3-1 to Celtic in their final Premiership encounter at Pittodrie. “But for that 11 minutes we could have won,” he said. “As bizarre as it sounds … we actually could have.”
Bizarre is the word. These were the first 11 minutes when Aberdeen were chaotic and Celtic banged in three goals but McInnes, below, seemed to be trying to have the match logged in the records as a special, one-off 79-minute fixture where the main feature was how his men had created “chance after chance”.
He appeared to disregard what scoring three in ten did to Celtic’s performance. Three in ten is bound to have a bearing on the next 80 for even the most ruthless and devastating teams and Celtic are not quite that. Consolidation invariably comes into play in such circumstances, maybe coasting and complacency. Yes, Aberdeen improved after the nightmare start; they could hardly get any worse. But perhaps Celtic, their job more or less done, allowed them to look better in the eyes of an exasperated Beach End who must have wondered if it was going to be worth all the bother to scramble for cup final tickets and trek down to Hampden.
If only Celtic hadn’t scored those three goals. Well, if only that wayward Jonny Hayes’ shot in the semi-final hadn’t struck Darren McGregor’s heel, spinning through a wonky arc to squeeze in at the post, then it could have been Hibernian heading for Mount Florida instead.
That was the slice of luck all successful cup endeavours need and while Aberdeen might require another during the course of Saturday, surely few beyond Parkhead would deny them the trophy. They have a vibrant front five who’ve contributed significantly to the story of this season, when Celtic have allowed. Just so long as the team don’t repeat their dismal showing in the League Cup final between the sides and remember to turn up on the day.
It seems all set up for a Celtic procession and a treble but football has a pleasing habit of grabbing an over-plotted last chapter of said story and sticking it in the shredder – yes, even in Scotland. To win the cup against such odds, though, there is a precedent: the Dons’ triumph in 1970.
That year Celtic were also going for the hat-trick of domestic honours. Not just those three but the final was sandwiched between the two legs of the European Cup semi against Leeds United. For this young observer, who only put down his toy tommy gun to watch Scottish football after Lisbon, Celtic never seemed to lose a meaningful game unless it was to Rangers or some crack continentals. Thus Aberdeen’s 3-1 victory was a huge shock.
The game was won with goals from Joe Harper and Derek “Cup-tie” McKay, the latter a fairytale figure apparently born out of the Pittodrie seagull population who transformed back into a bird shortly after, but if you read the testimonies of Harper and manager Eddie Turnbull, the real heroes were in defence.
Martin Buchan we all know about – a class footballer. But Tommy McMillan was unsung, according to Harper, who nicknamed him the Quiet Assassin. McMillan called Henning Boel a “dour big bastard”; the faithful knew him as Aberdeen’s “great Dane”. Turnbull credits Boel with having been a “rock” in the final, causing Celtic’s Jock Stein to change personnel on the left three times, with John Hughes, Jimmy Johnstone and Bertie Auld all failing to get the better of him. Meanwhile the fourth member of the backline was Jim Hermiston who, according to Turnbull, had “the game of his life”.
Something of a joker, Hermiston was tasked with halting Scotland’s pre-eminent midfielder, Bobby Murdoch, but would wind up Turnbull by pretending he didn’t know the player, asking the boss to point him out.
The current Aberdeen rearguard is suspect and will need to produce similarly towering performances on Saturday.