As Graeme Shinnie soaks up the sunshine and enjoys a richly-merited family holiday this week, the Aberdeen captain will reflect on the most gruelling year of his career. However, he is adamant it has also been the most rewarding.
The 27-year-old midfielder was barely afforded a summer breather as he featured in Scotland’s close-season friendlies against Peru and Mexico, impressing sufficiently to earn a place in Alex McLeish’s subsequent squads.
Shinnie was then back in competitive action for his club in July due to their early entry into the Europa League, crossing swords with Burnley. There was also the joyous, if not entirely stress-free, matter of a wedding to squeeze in as he tied the knot with partner Jodie.
The Pittodrie skipper has been a mainstay for the Dons this term, helping them go all the way to the Betfred Cup final, sparking a run of nine games in 27 days during a draining December to bring the curtain down on a hectic 2018.
Despite losing that Hampden showdown, the Dons secured six wins in the next eight Premiership fixtures and now sit just three points off the summit. Not bad for a club that started the month in seventh spot.
“I’m knackered, I’ve got my walking stick with me!” Shinnie joked. “I’m going away on holiday with my family now and my phone will be getting switched off.
“It’s definitely been the most gruelling spell of my career, but it’s been one of the most rewarding. I’ve managed to get my first cap for Scotland, got married then it was straight back to football.
“Ordinarily, you get a rest during the international breaks but, with being involved with Scotland, I haven’t had that but I’ve loved being part of the international set-up and an important part of the Aberdeen team.
“We all knew that coming into December, with the sheer amount of games and having so many at home, that it would be important to win as many as we could.
“It’s been tough and demanding, as you can see from the injuries we have had, but it is this run that has given us the platform to climb back up the league and get back to where we want to be.” While not as eye-catching as their 1-0 triumph at Ibrox or their 5-1 disassembling of Dundee, Saturday’s 2-1 victory against Livingston is comparable with anything else the Dons have achieved in the past month.
Celtic, Rangers, Hibernian and Hearts have all failed to win there this season and Aberdeen were forced to fight tooth and nail to see off Gary Holt’s men, belying any mental and physical scars from the 4-3 Boxing Day defeat against Celtic just three days earlier.
And, while every man in a red shirt provided perspiration, it was James Wilson that provided the inspiration.
After a host of missed chances – most notably from Stevie May, whose link-up play was marvellous despite leaving his shooting boots at home – the 23-year-old climbed from the bench to make the difference.
The on-loan Manchester United attacker showed wonderful instincts and reflexes to turn a wayward Stephen Gleeson shot into the net from close-range, before his 60-yard solo run and delivery forced Steve Lawson to turn into his own net amid a back-post scramble.
For the first time since April, Livingston had conceded two goals at home.
“That impact is a testament to James,” added Shinnie. “There are plenty of boys that have found it hard to get in the team but when they have been called upon they have rewarded the gaffer. Willo did that on Saturday.
“We know what talent he has got. It’s just about him going out there and showing it. I’m sure he will be delighted to end 2018 with that and will look to come back after the break firing on all cylinders.”
Never ones to go down without a fight, Livingston halved the arrears in the dying embers of the game when Scott Pittman bundled the ball over the line from close range after Andy Considine had initially blocked a goal-bound Lawson effort.
“We are disappointed with the result but it’s only our second home defeat all season so we’ll just take it on the chin, go for the winter break, and try to come back and pick up that form again,” said Livingston skipper Craig Halkett. “We have exceeded expectations massively.”