Ryan Jack returns to action in today’s Betfred Cup semi-final against Morton at a venue where the Aberdeen captain has suffered more pain than the knee surgery that kept him sidelined these past two months.
Hampden Park provided the backdrop for many a success during the Alex Ferguson era at Pittodrie but the Dons have precious few happy memories of trips to the national stadium in the past two decades.
In fact, they have won just once there since goals by Duncan Shearer and Billy Dodds helped them lift the League Cup by defeating a lower league Dundee side managed by Jim Duffy.
That was 21 years ago next month and now another team from a division below also managed by Duffy stands between Aberdeen and the chance to repeat that feat against Rangers or Celtic.
Jack, a lifelong Dons supporter, has suffered through many of the intervening setbacks, including all four visits there as a player, and would love nothing better than to end all talk of Hampden heartache by marking his return to the team with a return trip to the Glasgow ground for next month’s final.
“I’m personally well aware of the poor record at Hampden because I’ve played in a few and not won,” he admits. “I’ve played four games – Dundee United, Hibs and twice against Celtic – and lost them all. I’m hoping to change that on Saturday and put it to bed.
“I was also part of the youth team and we went to the Queen of the South semi-final, which was another bad experience, but I don’t dread going to Hampden or anything like that, I’m buzzing along with the rest of the squad.
“I was at Hampden as a Scotland fan when we beat Holland and as a player it’s something different from the same stadiums in the league.
“It’s been mentioned that Queen of the South was our last game at Hampden [a 4-3 defeat] against lower league opposition but times have changed. It’s different players and coaching staff now. I’ve spoken to the boys this week and nobody is thinking of anything other than a positive result. It’s a big day out for the fans but for us there’s a lot at stake and it’s important we don’t play the occasion.
“I can’t wait for this match and to be involved with the squad again and be back at Hampden – and we can put our poor record to bed.”
Jack may be the club captain but he appreciates Aberdeen’s form during his enforced absence makes it far from certain that he’ll just stroll back into Derek McInnes’s starting line-up.
Celtic were the only team to inflict defeat on the Dons in the eight games the midfielder sat out in a run that includes five straight wins going into today’s lunchtime clash.
They remain just four points behind Celtic in the Premiership table, with Brendan Rogers side due at Pittodrie next Saturday, and look like remaining their closest challengers despite Rangers’ return to the top flight
However, Jack is acutely aware of where Aberdeen’s best chance of domestic honours lie and added: “We recognise that it’s difficult to win the league. That’s not rocket science.
“Celtic are very strong and started the season very well but in the cups we can definitely put up a good fight. Aberdeen always look at the cups and believe we should do well.
“We aren’t hiding from the fact that the fans and the club demand a bit of success. As a squad we recognise the cups are a good chance for us this season.
“As a player you want to be competing in finals and have that 90 minutes to try and lift silverware and celebrate with your fans, family and team-mates who you have worked so hard with.
“That’s why the Scottish Cup semi-final against St Johnstone in the season we won the League Cup was the biggest disappointment. We were 1-0 up and had a few chances but we lost 2-1. We would have played Dundee United in the Scottish Cup final and a great chance to have two cups in the bag and two winners’ medals.
“It’s not easy and you can’t just wake up one day and say ‘we’re going to win a cup’. You have to work hard for it and that’s why it’s so important to do everything professionally. We can’t just turn up and take Morton lightly because they’re from the Championship. It will be a difficult game and we won’t have it all our own way but it’s a chance for us.”
Jack’s return can only improve the odds of that happening and if defender Ash Taylor passes a fitness test then McInnes will have a full squad to pick from today.