It was always earmarked as a potentially momentous meeting, and so it may well prove. Just not in the way many people had imagined.
The first clash of the season between Aberdeen and Celtic, the country’s top two sides, had been eagerly awaited. Its sold out status, despite live television coverage, underlined what everyone knew it meant – or thought they knew it meant.
Wednesday’s fixture was supposed to be the ultimate testing ground for Celtic as they sought to protect their unbeaten domestic record under manager Brendan Rodgers. Instead it was one-sided contest that left opposite number Derek McInnes staring at a gloomy reality at Aberdeen, where new stadium plans, together with improved training facilities, remain a long way from being realised.
One of his better players, meanwhile, has already informed him he won’t be signing a new contract. No wonder McInnes conceded the 3-0 defeat would have to result in a period of “soul searching”.
As far as Pittodrie fans are concerned, it was the worst possible time for McInnes to be reminded of the limitations imposed on an Aberdeen manager. Alternatively, it could prove the best possible time if you happen to be a member of the board at Rangers.
A collision of factors means it isn’t hard to see why McInnes is favourite with many betting companies to succeed the sacked Pedro Caixinha at Ibrox. It also isn’t difficult to see why the 46-year-old might be attracted by such a move, provided his former club can somehow raise the funds required to pay Aberdeen an adequate compensation fee.
With Caixinha a dead man walking, McInnes had despaired over a seventh consecutive defeat against Rodgers’ Celtic side. The most recent of these meetings had appeared to provide Aberdeen with their best chance to start to reverse the trend.
Level pegging at the top together, if Aberdeen really did have designs on challenging Celtic over the course of the season then it was incumbent on them to take full advantage of this opportunity at home. This was something they were unable to do last season, when they lost both games at Pittodrie.
Aberdeen had reason to believe it might be different on Wednesday. With seven wins in their opening nine league matches, they appeared to have added some steel to their undoubted style. But it wasn’t to be. In fact, it was worse. The hosts were never in the game after the opening ten minutes.
The first meeting between the teams last season, at around the same time of year, resulted in a narrow 1-0 loss for Aberdeen. The second Pittodrie clash, following the split, was a crazier 3-1 defeat, with all the goals coming in the first dozen minutes.
A statement was delivered on Wednesday. Sadly for Aberdeen, it wasn’t the one their fans had willed. Whatever Aberdeen do, however much the club backs McInnes with funds, it won’t be enough to draw nearer Celtic.
Worryingly for Aberdeen fans, McInnes was described as especially despondent afterwards. He told how his best player from last season, Jonny Hayes, had been bought by Celtic and yet had to be content with a late cameo from the bench in what was arguably the biggest league game of the season.
McInnes also noted that the on-loan Ryan Christie, “my best player arguably”, was Celtic’s property, meaning he can’t even field him on those occasions when Aberdeen are met with their fiercest test.
It’s against this background that, on the very same night, something else happened to shake Scottish football’s firmament. About 150 miles to the south west of Aberdeen, on a cold night in Govan, referee Alan Muir pointed to the spot after Kirk Broadfoot’s barge on Eduardo Herrera following goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald’s short bye-kick.
This signalled the start of a quite ridiculous two minutes of football wherein Rangers had a player sent off, missed a penalty and then conceded a late, tenure-ending equaliser by Chris Burke – a former Ibrox starlet.
Careers turn on a simple twist of fate in the knee-jerk world of football – what if Daniel Candeias’ penalty had been converted, to seal a fairly straightforward 2-0 victory? But it wasn’t and Caixinha’s reign was now deemed untenable.
Which brings us back to McInnes. Despite words to the contrary in the summer, following his about-turn after appearing on the brink of joining Sunderland, McInnes may well now feel he’s taken Aberdeen as far as he can. Succeeding in kick-starting Rangers, meanwhile, remains a beguiling proposition for an ambitious manager, particularly one with links to the club.
“We don’t want to lose the manager, no,” said Aberdeen goalkeeper Joe Lewis yesterday.
Even before confirmation Caixinha had left Ibrox the question of McInnes’ future had shot to the top of the news agenda. Rodgers has already proposed the Aberdeen manager as the No 1 candidate for the vacant Scotland post.
But Lewis feels his manager has already broadcast where he wants to be after signing a contract extension at Pittodrie until 2020.
“He’s a great manager,” added Lewis. “He has done an amazing job here. And you can see he is committed to the cause after the advances from clubs in the summer.
“He is obviously committed here, the players are committed and we need to make sure we show that with our performances.”
McInnes is scheduled to speak at a pre-match press conference at 1pm today, prior to tomorrow’s home clash with Ross County. The manager will be asked to respond to the news from Ibrox yesterday while also being probed further about the extent of Aberdeen’s ambitions in the face of Celtic’s relentless excellence.
He has enough experience of handling such potentially uncomfortable tasks to be unfazed by the prospect. You can already smell the linseed oil as McInnes coats his straight bat in preparation. But he knows the questions as well as the speculation will not go away anytime soon.