“This is where we belong.” That was the overriding, unifying message from the victorious Aberdeen dressing room after the club made its way back to the League Cup final for the second time in four seasons, simultaneously casting 16 years of Hampden heartache into the past.
Manager Derek McInnes insisted on it. So did his players. Aberdeen FC are an institution that should always be at the top end of the Ladbrokes Premiership and routinely competing in major finals. That they’ve struggled to do so for so long has been a constant source of frustration to the club’s support.
Going into this encounter, Aberdeen had not won at the national stadium since the year 2000 – their 2014 League Cup triumph coming at Celtic Park. It’s an unwanted streak that was finally put to bed in this tight contest, thanks to second half goals by Adam Rooney and Kenny McLean.
However, if they are to show that they truly belong alongside champions Celtic at next month’s Betfred Cup final, they will need to play much better than their collective performance against a plucky Morton side. The second-tier outfit can count themselves unfortunate not to have upset the odds and broken their own Hampden curse, having gone since 1963 without reaching a final.
Aberdeen centre-back Anthony O’Connor would later comment that his side “dominated the game from start to finish”, a curious comment for two reasons. One, it failed to take into account the context of playing lower league opponents. And two, it wasn’t even true.
There was a period midway through the second half when it seemed like Morton were just as likely, if not more so, to grab a winner. Rooney’s opening goal, which looked to have been offside, came at a time when the underdogs were in the ascendancy.
However, you can only beat who is in front of you, and defeating an opponent set up to defend and make things difficult at every turn is always easier said than done.
“Morton were great. We expected that. I don’t think a lot of people outside our group did,” said man of the match Kenny McLean. “It’s all about getting to the final. We knew we had to battle and we did. In the end, we’re coming back to Hampden. That’s the main thing.
“The way we’ve been playing recently, we brought that into the game and started brilliantly. It was frustrating at times, when the goal wasn’t coming. Once the goal came, I thought we controlled the rest of the game well.”
Having joined the club two days after Aberdeen lost the 2014-15 League Cup semi-final to Dundee United, this was the first time McLean appeared in a Hampden cup clash. Despite this, he already has a League Cup winners medal from his time with St Mirren, where he sat on the bench during the club’s 2013 final win over Hearts.
While his parents proudly show off the reward, for McLean it has always been a source of resentment, having failed to force his way into the side for St Mirren’s famous day.
“It was difficult at that time with St Mirren,” he said. “I was in and out of the side through injury. This time I’ve played in the lead-up to the final and, all going well, I’ll be out there.
“That’s why I came here, because of the ambition of the club and manager. This is where we belong. We should be getting into finals.
“The [St Mirren] medal is at my mum and dad’s house. They’ve got it framed. But there’s no doubt if we win this I’ll be keeping the medal.”
Standing in the way are Celtic. The league leaders are unbeaten in domestic competition and have already defeated McInnes’s side 4-1, Aberdeen’s only defeat this season. However, as Morton showed with their spirited display, it would be foolish to write off the underdogs’ chances when the two sides battle it out next month.
“It’ll be different next time. It’ll be a packed house. Our aim is to win. We’re not going to just be happy to have made it to a final. We’re going to try and win the cup,” insisted O’Connor. “We’ve showed we’re no pushovers in recent weeks. We beat Rangers and lost to Celtic, but that score actually didn’t reflect the performance. We’ll be going in with a lot of confidence.”