SUDDENLY, the parameters have shifted.
Ross County ushered in 2013 with the sole intention protecting their top-flight status and Aberdeen with establishing themselves as the best of the rest in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League. Just a couple of months later, the roles are reversed. The Dingwall side's victory at Pittodrie on Tuesday evening has changed the game for both clubs.
A buoyant County, unbeaten in nine matches and having won their last four, shared second place with Inverness Caledonian Thistle ahead of last night's fixtures and will welcome their Highland rivals on Saturday. Suddenly, new horizons have come in to view. Not only is a top-six place within their grasp, but continental competition is also a distinct possibility. "I think now we have to push to be in that top six, we've put ourselves in a very good position," said manager Derek Adams. "That's our next priority and it's credit to the players."
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Victory over Inverness would strengthen those claims. County have yet to triumph over their rivals this term, losing once in the league and once in the William Hill Scottish Cup after initially drawing their third-round tie, but Adams side have improved significantly even since the last meeting in early January. "We've had a lot of good games this season against Inverness and it's at home," Adams said. "We felt a little bit hard done by in the Scottish Cup game, so if we can go and win the match and overtake them, that's what we'd like to do."
How Aberdeen must wish they could look ahead with such belief. Even before County's late winner condemned Craig Brown's side to a record of just four wins in 15 home matches, Pittodrie was shrouded in a funereal atmosphere on Tuesday. A lack of creativity and spark on the pitch, combined with ongoing uncertainty over the future of the management team, has enervated the supporters.
Without a game until Saturday week, they are at least spared any more immediate despair but, with just four games until the split, Aberdeen's chances of hauling themselves in to the upper half are serious doubt. "There's no doubt we let the fans down," said captain Russell Anderson. "Previously, I've asked them to support us and I've always said we appreciate their support but we did let them down. It wasn't an acceptable performance by any manner of means. I don't think you can fail the effort, but the quality just wasn't there. It's going to be more difficult for us to finish in the top six. We keep passing up opportunities."
Speculation will now focus on the immediate future of Brown and Archie Knox, his assistant, though the manager yesterday insisted it would be unfair were his contract not to be renewed. "It takes time and this is a work in progress," he said. "I am very optimistic that we can bring success to Aberdeen. It is not all gloom and doom. A few fans were disgruntled but I hope the fair-minded ones will see what is happening and understand.
"Sir Alex Ferguson took five years to transform Manchester United. I am not asking for that but it is an over-simplification to say change the manager. The fans and directors may feel that, but that's up to them. Changing the manager is not a magic wand."