Saturday’s match between Aberdeen and Hearts featured a head-to-head battle of two rival midfielders sharing a common grievance, though there was no doubt by the end of the 90 minutes which one had the bigger right to feel aggrieved.
When last Monday’s Scotland squad was announced, fans of both clubs were shocked and maybe even enraged to find neither Jamie Walker nor Kenny McLean had been included in the 30-man squad. Each have since expressed their own “disappointment” and would have been set on proving national team boss Gordon Strachan wrong by excelling in this typically highly-charged encounter.
In the end, there was only one team who looked like winning and one player who stood out above all others.
McLean, in the words of manager Derek McInnes, did “everything but score” in a performance that indicated he had channelled his disappointment in the correct manner. Involved in most of Aberdeen’s attacks, when he wasn’t setting up team-mates he was peppering Jack Hamilton’s goal with accurate drives from distance. Off the ball, his energy and ruthless pressing of the Hearts midfield did much to disrupt Hearts and stop the Tynecastle side from getting in their flow.
Alexandros Tziolis, who shook off recent criticism to perform in the previous weekend’s win over Hamilton Accies, was back to his ponderous worst in the middle of the park. Credit to McLean, though, who never gave the Greek international a moment’s peace. Ultimately, this tactical mismatch would start the chain of events that saw Aberdeen kill the game off 12 minutes into the second half.
The hosts were leading through Shay Logan’s first-half header when Tziolis took up possession in the centre. He didn’t hear McLean coming until the last second and managed to scramble the ball back to Tasos Avlonitis. The centre-back then turned and played a horribly short back-pass towards Hamilton, which Jonny Hayes took full advantage of by rounding the keeper and putting the game to bed.
Aberdeen could not add to their advantage further and would have to settle for the 2-0 victory, which suffered a late dampener after Jayden Stockley was sent off for a wild swing at Hearts defender Krystian Nowak. It was the Dons’ ninth consecutive victory at home in all competitions and kept them eight points clear of third-placed Rangers.
“We set a tempo that Hearts didn’t enjoy. We know Hearts are a good team, it was us who made them look very average,” said McLean. “There’s no doubt about their ability, but we went about our gameplan: playing in the right areas, getting right in their faces, not letting them settle. That’s what we’ve been doing to teams at Pittodrie and that’s why we’re on the great run that we’re on.
“We’re in a good position. We’ve got some points on Rangers, but it’s not done by any means. If they think they can get second then good luck to them, but we’ll have some things to say about that. We don’t look like stopping any time soon, so if they want to get second they’ll have to work hard for it.”
When asked about his Scotland snub, McLean was both humble and magnanimous, praising the players who did make it into the squad for the upcoming friendly against Canada and World Cup qualifier clash with Slovenia. He also looked on the bright side of things. It shows how good his form has been of late if the media and the Scottish football public are questioning the manager for not picking him.
“It’s good getting the recognition and being talked about in relation to the Scotland squad means I’m doing something right. I’ll keep doing what I’m doing at Aberdeen. I think everyone who’s been there and had a taste wants it. It’s slightly disappointing, but when you look at the squad the quality of it is excellent, so you can’t argue with that. It makes you work harder. For the next time I’ll push myself more, and who knows what will happen. For now I’ll enjoy the wee break I’ve got.”