New hope for New Firm with youth at the forefront

Joe Shaughnessy is looking forward to locking horns with Dundee United's youngsters. Picture: Michal Wachucik
Joe Shaughnessy is looking forward to locking horns with Dundee United's youngsters. Picture: Michal Wachucik
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Aberdeen and Dundee United are on the rise – largely thanks to youth, writes Scott Davie

Aberdeen’s Ne’erday trip to Tannadice is, arguably, the most eagerly anticipated fixture of the entire festive period but Joe Shaughnessy knows it’s the more prosaic encounters, such as today’s visit from Ross County, that will decide the real strength of the New Firm revival.

You only have to go back to Boxing Day for evidence of that, with Dundee United’s drubbing at Paisley the major surprise on a day the Dons also lost at home to a Motherwell side who have moved, almost unnoticed, back into second place.

It’s the form of Jackie McNamara’s talented, youth-inspired squad that has really gripped the imagination, while Derek McInnes has constructed a side well on the way towards restoring some pride at Pittodrie after years of underachievement. That’s reflected in a surge at the turnstiles as Aberdeen’s average attendance is over 3,000 more than last season and their ticket allocation for the first game of the New Year was sold out weeks ago.

Hardly surprising as the Dons won the previous meeting and, until midweek, had also emerged victorious from every other meeting with their various rivals for the runners-up spot in the league this season. Strange then that they have struggled to be quite as impressive against the teams currently filling the bottom two places in the division, accounting for two of Hearts’ three SPFL wins and one of Ross County’s.

The Staggies have picked up just one point since that victory in early October and haven’t won away from home in the league since their last trip to Pittodrie in February.

Little wonder, then, that Shaughnessy is determined to put all thoughts of Dundee United to one side and focus on making amends for a result and performance that even manager McInnes admits “still grates” nearly three months on.

The Republic of Ireland under-21 international has recovered from a head wound sustained in the 1-0 defeat against Motherwell and will start a fixture he insists no Aberdeen player needs any extra motivation for.

“I think everyone will know that we owe them one after that result.” he said. “It is disappointing to lose any game and, while we went up there to win, we didn’t perform very well. It’s strange to have lost against them and twice to Hearts and I don’t know how to explain that. We weren’t over confident playing Ross County, it’s just that sometimes these things happen.

“We have been doing well in general this season but those have been the results that have disappointed. You just have to look at the way we can play when everyone is on form to see the potential for a successful season. We have a strong squad but we know how much hard work we’ve put in to get to where we are now. We also know it will take as much, if not more, effort to keep things on track right to the end of the season.”

Shaughnessy’s impact at Aberdeen hasn’t been as spectacular as some of his Dundee United counterparts but is further evidence that both clubs are benefiting from their youth policies. It’s not exactly been plain sailing for the Irishman, though, as he had to work hard to get back in to the Aberdeen starting line-up after picking up a reckless red card in their League Cup win at Motherwell.

The Dons made it through to February’s semi-final against St Johnstone at Tynecastle despite playing for 80 minutes with just ten men, much to the right back’s relief, and that of supporters who will fill three-quarters of the Gorgie Road ground as their side strive to end a 19-year wait for silverware.

Shaughnessy admits his subsquent exile from the starting line-up was justified, and a bit of a wake-up call. “The team was playing well when I was out and I knew I’d just have to train hard and hope to get my chance in their starting line-up again,” he said.

“You just need to keep up your level of performance but getting sent off at Motherwell was never going to help my case. There is depth and quality in the squad this season, more so than there has been recently.

“You can tell that when, even when we’ve had players out through injury, the team usually still gets good results.”

The exception to that came in midweek when the absence of three defenders saw Jonny Hayes employed at left back for the first time, although he was hardly to blame for the loss of Lionel Ainsworth’s solitary goal.

That was down to a lack of covering pace in the absence of central defender Mark Reynolds, who returns today after recovering from a facial injury sustained at Inverness.

Andrew Considine is out for a few weeks though, after tearing a calf muscle in training and, with Michael Hector due back at Reading in early January, McInnes will attempt to add a defender in January.