Forty years ago, a League Cup won before Christmas with Northern Lights twinkling in the gathering Glasgow gloom sparked Aberdeen’s greatest era and biggest trophy haul, with most of them brandished one-handed by their captain, suggesting there was always room for more.
The trick – the very big trick – would be for the current Dons to repeat this victory, courtesy of a revamp of the competition returning it to the first half of the season, only this time instead of Willie Miller as skipper there was Ryan Jack, and in place of Drew Jarvie, who didn’t have much hair, and Arthur Graham, who had lots of it, there were Jonny Hayes and James Maddison.
Adam Rooney had the difficult job of being Joe Harper, goal hanger supreme, who, in 1976, actually turned goal provider. And instead of Ally MacLeod, who famously skipped across Hampden’s turf in an air force-blue suit to celebrate the win, there was Derek McInnes and his challenge for these players to “build a legacy”.
The manager didn’t want the League Cup lifted three seasons ago to be this side’s only prize. Neutrals didn’t want a repeat of that match, one of the poorest finals of recent times, but would undoubtedly have tholed it if they could beat the country’s dominant team.
The beginning was spectacular. Not Aberdeen’s play but their fans’ flags. Red and silver so, catching the floodlights, they resembled a violently churning sea, one in which they wanted to hurl Celtic’s Treble hopes. Two men from ’76 brought the trophy into the stadium, Harper and Danny McGrain, who was jeered by the Aberdeen lot. You don’t boo Danny, it’s in Scottish football’s constitution, but that was a measure perhaps of the Dons’ determination to win, as had been the players’ decision to line up in the centre circle and face down the Celtic huddle.
Celtic had the best of the incident-free opening exchanges but Jack and Kenny McLean, who’d bristled at the Treble talk, were tackling tigerishly. A foot race between Jonny Hayes and Scott Brown looked promising for Aberdeen but the Celtic skipper came out on top. Surely Hayes is the faster man, but Brown simply wasn’t going to let him through.
These were the kind of moments when Aberdeen were going to have to man up. One theory about them is that, for all their gifts, they miss a tough guy such as Brown. The situation leading up to the opening goal might have illustrated this, with neither McLean nor Andrew Considine blocking Tom Rogic as Brown in their position would surely have done, risking a booking but to hell with that.
Hurt by the goal, the Aberdeen support were then enraged when Brown stopped the next Dons attack with a challenge they felt merited a card but which didn’t come. Considine then went close with a header but Aberdeen needed to get Maddison on the ball. He looked in the mood to hurt Celtic, just like Graham had done in ’76.
Brown further angered the north-east hordes when he clattered into the back of Hayes with still no punishment. Celtic’s second, like the first, came from a certain Dons invisibility in the middle of the park with James Forrest able to run a long way untroubled before unleashing his shot.
Suddenly the Treble talk didn’t seem quite so presumptuous. Suddenly painting “100” on a giant cut-out cup – signifying that this would be a trophy ton for the club – didn’t seem like tempting fate.
The disappointing McLean had a sight of goal right after the break but then the match took on a familiar pattern with Aberdeen, again on the attack, appearing soft in the tackle and Brown flexing his muscles. Play raced to the other end and Moussa Dembele had a header saved.
Then, on 47 minutes, Brown was booked, Maddison his victim. There were ironic cheers from the Dons fans and one was heard to remark with heavy sarcasm: “To be fair, it was his sixth tackle.” But they would have loved one of theirs to bite and snap like this, as was evidenced by the same supporter when Considine crashed into Patrick Roberts: “Mair like it!”
For a few minutes it was. The Reds, as the song goes, were steaming in. But normal service was soon resumed. Brown challenged Anthony O’Connor with the odds heavily stacked in the Aberdeen man’s favour only for the Hoops skipper to come out on top. He seemed to just want the ball more and such was his imperiousness he was soon introducing fancy flicks. O’Connor promptly gave away the penalty for Celtic’s third and to complete a dismal few minutes was substituted.
Then, on the 67th minute, it was the the Celtic fans’ turn to create a fabulous display, flicking the light on their phones to commemorate Lisbon. Aberdeen had hoped to evoke ’76 but their gas was truly at a peep.