THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

The home team have suffered in semis, the visitors lost at the last step in Europe and their title challenge has gone awry. One more disappointment is coming to someone in the SPL's Thursday night climax, in front of Dianne Millen

The romance of the cup. Sometimes a welcome distraction from poor league form, sometimes merely a chance for plucky minnows to be patronised, the source of memories we either can’t stop talking about or can’t bear to repeat. In Scotland, where the league is a binary battle, the cup competitions assume greater importance – and while tonight’s game is the league climax, the cups are what has truly defined the ­season for both teams.

Although a win tonight would secure fourth place, cup capitulation has formed the raw emotional core of Aberdeen’s season. Surrendering 4-1 to Dundee United in a wintry shambles of a CIS Cup semi (not helped by the away support throwing objects at keeper Jamie Langfield, nor striker Lee Miller deciding to get himself out of the rain and into a nice hot bath before full time) was bad enough, but the nadir was losing to First Division Queen of the South at the same stage of the Scottish Cup.

Despite copious pre-match assurances that Queens would be taken seriously, the feisty Aberdeen side that had dispatched Celtic in the previous round inexplicably disintegrated in a ­neutral-pleasing but ­supporter-shredding 4‑3 defensive disaster. Those fans not rendered speechless had plenty to say about manager Jimmy Calderwood, even though he had just agreed a new contract.

With Motherwell secure in third, the Cup was Aberdeen’s only realistic route to Europe, something for which the fans had developed an appetite following this year’s UEFA Cup adventure, which took in a tricky qualifier in Ukraine and a 4‑0 spanking of FC Copenhagen before honourable surrender to Bayern Munich. With more of that on offer, most would have traded a third consecutive top-six league finish for a cup final in less time than it takes to say ­“Calderwood out” – a mood recognised by director of football Willie Miller when he made clear at a recent supporters’ function that a final is next season’s target.

Rangers, meanwhile, had entertained genuine hopes of a quadruple, having won the CIS Insurance Cup and reached the Scottish and UEFA Cup finals. While the resulting logistical problem is a nice one to have, earlier postponements and replays left them struggling for dates in the final weeks. Citing the effect on other clubs, the authorities turned down a request to postpone a league game against Dundee United before the UEFA Cup final, and a proposal to extend the SPL season. But despite being at one stage six points ahead of Celtic with two games in hand, Rangers turn up to ­fulfil their 67th fixture of the season level on points with their rivals and four behind on goal difference, their league bid seemingly blunted by busyness.

Comfort can be drawn, of course, from the fact that fixture number 64 was the UEFA Cup final against Zenit St Petersburg. Although the behaviour of their travelling support received most of the attention, Rangers’ well organised doggedness was no match for a creatively superior performance orchestrated by Russian playmaker Andrei Arshavin, who later described Rangers as the “weakest of all our opponents” although praising their defensive dedication.

Walter Smith refused to blame the fixture situation, but defender Carlos Cuellar was less restrained. “All we needed was the SPL to help us make history by extending the season by one week only,” he ranted. “We had a very good chance to win a European trophy but the SPL did not want to help us.” Perhaps he had driven home past the cheery legend “Welcome Home, Losers” allegedly affixed in green and white paint to a motorway bridge on the outskirts of ­Glasgow the morning after the final.

But Pittodrie is not the place for a Rangers side to try to win a league title – the hosts consider at least one defeat of Rangers a minimum requirement for a successful season and any hint of capitulation will destroy the fragile goodwill Calderwood’s side has begun to claw back from the Queens debacle. Extra needle, as if it is needed, is provided by the exhumation of allegations that Calderwood’s Dunfermline side had “lain down” to Rangers on the last day of the 2002-03 season, when Celtic lost the SPL on goal ­difference. While the permatanned ­Glaswegian is often dubbed a “Rangers man”, both he and captain Scott Severin stoutly have rejected suggestions of a supine Aberdeen. Rangers’ Jean-Claude Darcheville adds a further frisson when he suggests that overturning the goal difference deficit is a possibility. Calderwood’s response, that this would be “extremely surprising”, is probably uttered as he rummages in his desk for pins to stick the article to the ­dressing-room wall and drips polite disdain.

So a virtually full Pittodrie greets the teams on a chilly but clear evening, as the players curve around the centre circle to observe an impeccable minute’s applause for the late Tommy Burns. Then, as soon as Kenny Clark blows his whistle, it is clear that Calderwood’s team will be true to his word, as every ball is chased and no tackle shirked in the customary frantic start. A plethora of corners easily tidied by both keepers demonstrates mutual attacking intent and, despite a general lack of fluency, Aberdeen strike partnership Lee Miller and Darren Mackie do some good work straight from kick-off. While Mackie often fails to read Miller’s deft flick-ons, his persistence irritates Rangers as he harries and niggles at every ball, often catching unwary blue-shirted ditherers in possession.

As the half develops, Rangers find more of the ball and begin probing forward, with good chances for Fulham loanee Steven Davis and Darcheville. Play zips from end to end, every tackle, interception or foul greeted with an intense wave of excited noise surging over the stadium like the gusts of greasy drizzle that have begun to blow, as first Neil Alexander somehow survives a catastrophically short pass to his defender, then a counterattacking Darcheville forces Langfield to save at the other end. As the half closes with an unimpressive Charlie Adam free-kick, there is a satisfied buzz from the home support, content that a real challenge is being mounted.

The half-time news is that Celtic are also still level but, as Rangers fail to capitalise on early second-half pressure, the cracks show when captain Barry Ferguson slams the turf in palpable frustration after a last-ditch Zander Diamond block. The away support slowly quieten as the tension mounts, although they pause in their nail-biting to jeer as Stuart Duff, unmarked seven yards out, spurns the best chance so far and clutches his cropped head in frustration.

After an hour Smith has seen enough of Darcheville’s flaccid combo with Daniel Cousin and swaps them for penalty-area predator Kris Boyd and nippy Nacho Novo. But just a minute later, Aberdeen are ahead as Miller scores a deserved goal, the merest inclination of his neck all that is needed to guide the venomous perfection of Barry Nicholson’s delivery beyond Alexander. The silenced Rangers fans can only watch as the home support celebrate with gleeful abandon. Soon afterwards, red-shirted cheers and a hollow deepening of the blue silence indicate that Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink’s header has all but secured a Celtic title.

Suddenly ruthless, sensing capitulation, Aberdeen apply the coup de grâce as Mackie scampers on to a Miller flick-on, his slithers and tussles in the box giving him the wriggle room to poke it in. Blue-shirted shoulders slump beneath the tumultuous joy showering on to the pitch, with home chants of “we want six” a sarcastic reference to Darcheville’s pre-match speculation. To add to the glee, a frustrated Novo attempts to emasculate Stuart Duff and is ordered off without hesitation by Kenny Clark, sparking the minor mêlée that is a constant of this fixture. Not yet a favourite, the ex-Dundee United man receives more affirmation in two minutes of ­thigh‑studded writhing than he has since arriving in January, as Novo trudges off to contemplate being suspended for a second final of the season.

As the action peters out, a trickle of Rangers fans head for the exits, perhaps prompted by the gentle enquiries from home fans as to why they are still here. But most stolidly remain, voicing a last defiant chorus of “We love you Rangers”, although the exhausted objects of their deathless affection have clearly given up. There is even time for an end-of-season sentimental moment as departing Dons midfielder Nicholson – a “massive loss”, sighs Calderwood later – is substituted to an appreciative ovation.

For Aberdeen, the destination of the title is less important than leapfrogging Hibs and Dundee United to fourth, despite the media’s total focus on the meaning of the victory to Celtic rather than the home side. Calderwood’s sympathies, meanwhile, lie with a visibly wearied Smith as he agrees that the number of games has taken its toll on Rangers’ league campaign.

But this is, above all, a season of cups, and Rangers at least have one more to look forward to, defender Christian Dailly acknowledging: “We don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves – we’ll have to be really focused for Saturday.” And sure enough, less than 48 hours later, Kris Boyd’s winner secures the reasonable consolation of a domestic double. With another summer of “rebuilding” ahead, perhaps Calderwood will be the one sighing over fixture congestion next season. Until then, sending Rangers homeward to think again will have to do.

From WSC 257 July 2008

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