IT is so long since Aberdeen took in the view from the very top of Scottish football that they may need breathing equipment to make that final step to the summit.
After years of struggling to climb beyond the foothills – they have finished ninth in the past three seasons – Craig Brown's side are finally producing results to match their sizeable wage budget.
Should they defeat Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Pittodrie this evening, it will mark the first time an Aberdeen side has sat atop the Premier League this late in a season since 1993/94. There may be a collective outbreak of acrophobia should they do it.
Rangers' absence from the top flight has created an unexpected opportunity for the rest to try to challenge Celtic's supremacy and Aberdeen, given Hearts' financial difficulties, seem best placed to do so. Brown has put together a well-rounded squad of youth and experience, turned Niall McGinn into a potent striker now threatening to score in every game, and given young players such as Ryan Fraser and Cammy Smith a platform from which to demonstrate their undoubted talents. The end result is a side which has lost just three times in their opening 15 league matches to nestle in just behind Celtic and in front of Hibernian in the league table.
This could have been the easiest title defence in Celtic's history but their inconsistency has given hope to others. It must be a source of frustration to Aberdeen, therefore, that two of their three defeats have come at the hands of the Parkhead side at a time when they appear vulnerable.
If the opening-day loss at Celtic Park, courtesy of a late goalkeeping error, was unfortunate, then the recent defeat at Pittodrie was harder to take. That was supposed to be Aberdeen's moment to show they had the tools to mount a genuine challenge for the championship in front of a full house but they could not seize the moment.
Still, this evening's match against Inverness, conquerors of Celtic at the weekend, at least presents an opportunity for Brown and his players to put that disappointment behind them. Their stay at the top of the table may turn out to be a brief one – Neil Lennon's side would move back above them with a win at Tynecastle tomorrow night – but victory would still offer hope to their long-suffering support that the team is at least on the right track.
"In the summer, when most clubs were cutting back, Aberdeen were in a position to strengthen their squad and bring in a couple of players, including Niall McGinn who has been a revelation in front of goal," Willie Miller, the legendary former Aberdeen captain and manager, told Herald Sport.
"So I felt at that time that this, potentially, could be a good season for the club. Obviously, Rangers not being in the league has given everyone an opportunity to gain more points, while Celtic's domestic form has been patchy and clubs have taken advantage of that. Aberdeen now find themselves in a position where they can go top if they beat Inverness and that should serve as a great incentive for all involved."
Only six points separate the top eight clubs in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League. Whether it stays as tight beyond Christmas will depend on whether there is a marked improvement in Celtic's domestic form, and whether the rest of the chasing pack, including Aberdeen, can demonstrate the consistency needed to stay with them.
"My opinion at the start of the season was that Celtic would romp it," admitted Miller. "But certainly so far they haven't looked like runaway champions and other clubs have been quick to take advantage. It's made for an exciting and competitive league. Celtic will have Europe to contend with again in the new year and so it will be interesting to see how that impacts on things. But if their lack of form is sustained beyond Christmas then it will be open for other clubs to put pressure on them. To do that they need to keep their own good form going."
Miller was the manager when Aberdeen last peered down on the rest of Scottish football from the top of the pile this far into a season. His talented side – Eoin Jess, Scott Booth, Duncan Shearer, Mixu Paatelainen, Alex McLeish et al – had lost only twice by the end of November, to Hibernian and Partick Thistle, and had beaten both Rangers and Celtic. They would eventually finish second behind a Rangers side who notched up the sixth consecutive championship of their eventual nine with three points to spare. Rangers' greater consistency in the new year turned out to be the difference between the sides but it is a period that Miller still recalls with fondness.
"It's always nice to remember the good times when I was a manager as it tends to pale into insigificance whenever people look back at it," he added. "Finishing second with Rangers and Celtic in the league was a reasonable achievement back then. It was a good side that I had and we even topped the league for a while that season, before Rangers went on to win it.
"It's been a long time since an Aberdeen team was in first place in the league, so it would be nice to see them back up there again."