HE MIGHT not be as eye-catching as Stevie May, he might not even have had a hand in either of his side’s second-half goals. However, substitute Ryan Dow was the game-changer this time as Aberdeen let another semi-final slip, almost literally, through their hands.
Just like on the last occasion Aberdeen, backed by an impressive multitude, came to Glasgow to contest a semi-final, things were seemingly set fair for them. As against St Johnstone in April, Aberdeen scored first, with the appropriately-named debutant Donervorn Daniels heading home shortly after the interval.
As against the Perth team, Aberdeen had enjoyed the better of the first half without being completely dominant but were unable to translate this possession into goals. This failing returned to haunt them once more.
On bounded Dow, a Dundonian with a grievance after being dropped from the team that beat Motherwell 3-1 seven days earlier. The game suddenly lurched in United’s favour, the way it did when May decided to have his say nine months ago at Ibrox by scoring two opportunistic goals. Here once more Aberdeen proved powerless to prevent an about-turn although they were poorly served by a baffling decision from referee Steven McLean to chop off Adam Rooney’s 63rd-minute header. While United hit the bar in the first half through a looping, deflected shot from Stuart Armstrong, their opponents seemed to be knocking more urgently on the door. By the end of 90 minutes, however, Derek McInnes’ side were once again left to think only of what could have been.
The manager himself later drew a comparison between last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final and Saturday’s game; Aberdeen, he said, were guilty of failing to take their chances, as at Ibrox nine months ago. Again Hampden proved a place of ruined hopes for Aberdeen fans. They haven’t won at the stadium since a Scottish Cup semi in 2000.
This was the year when striker Robbie Winters memorably replaced the injured Jim Leighton in goal in the final against Rangers, with predictable results. Once again the goalkeeper position was an issue for the Pittodrie side on Saturday.
Scott Brown has been a steady operator in goal in recent weeks and months but was badly at fault for the United winner when he allowed Nadir Ciftci’s glancing header to somehow evade his grasp. The goal-scorer’s joy was short-lived, however, when he learned afterwards that his booking was his second of the competition and that he will miss the final.
Aberdeen’s ’keeper also looked at fault when being crowded out in the melee following a corner, with Callum Morris able to score with a crashing header on the hour mark. Dow had arrived on to the pitch roughly 60 seconds earlier.
Jackie McNamara, the United manager, had taken what many viewed as a gamble by playing not only new signing Ryan McGowan but also Charlie Telfer from the start. It meant John Rankin was named on the bench, where he remained. When McNamara decided to replace Telfer, who’d been busy without being particularly productive, it was to Dow he turned.
Almost immediately the tempo of the game shifted in United’s favour. No-one is saying Dow could claim to be the inspiration for this equaliser but he was certainly instrumental in United being able to go on and earn victory. The midfielder/striker’s energy was boundless. His game is reminiscent of Steven Naismith’s; playing in the hole behind the strikers, he was a constant irritation for the Aberdeen defence with his clever running on and off the ball.
It was an impressively proactive change from McNamara at what proved to be the right time. Any longer, and Aberdeen might have been able to maintain the foothold in the game given to them by a back header from Daniels, although United goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak complained, with some justification, that he was being impeded by David Goodwillie.
Dow did not allow Aberdeen any peace. He harried and chased lost causes and got United moving as a team again. He helped ensure they played higher up the pitch. He might even have scored when chasing down Mark Reynolds and so very nearly capitalising on his short header back towards Brown; Dow poked the ball past the ’keeper, but Reynolds did well to retrieve the situation on the goal-line. United reacted to Dow’s promptings; Stuart Armstrong got back into the game after showing flashes of his invention in the first-half. Ciftci began to roam dangerously once more and Gary Mackay-Steven, too, re-asserted himself upon the proceedings. His corner led to United’s equaliser.
Still, Aberdeen had their chances, as McInnes rued later. Ryan Jack should have scored after McGinn’s pull-back and Goodwillie saw a header flicked off the line by Jaroslaw Fojut. On top of all this, Aberdeen had another ‘goal’, one ruled out by the referee for a perceived push by Rooney. In fairness, he had already blown the whistle by the time the ball hit the net. The decision was a surprise, though, particularly since it looked as though he was unmarked at the time; Calum Butcher, the nearest player, barely put in a challenge.
It was only natural, then, that some Aberdeen players felt hard done by at the end. “I thought we were the better team on the day,” lamented defender Andrew Considine. “We kept their flair players at bay, I felt. It’s just a sore one to take.” There is, of course, plenty more on offer for Aberdeen this season; they re-engage with their title bid this weekend against Ross County.
With Celtic occupied by Scottish Cup business at Dundee, the Pittodrie side can return to the top of the table providing they are able to secure a result. “We’ll come back in for training first thing Monday morning and try and brush this aside and try and crack on in the league,” promised Considine.
Defeat does, though, represent a particular wrench given that Aberdeen are the cup holders, and with the scenes on Union Street nearly a year ago, when the team paraded the trophy to around 100,000 people, still recent enough to be vividly recalled. There is, perhaps, some consolation in that no-one, they say, remembers losing semi-finalists.