Aberdeen took a 3700-strong following into Dundee United's home yesterday and most of their disciples were still there when many of the locals had melted away. Aberdeen began 2014 by giving them a stirring, thrilling win.
When John Souttar put United ahead early in the second half, it had seemed that this tight, sometimes tousy game would run away from Aberdeen. Instead they equalised from a Barry Robson penalty and Peter Pawlett dramatically won it with a close-range header in the 90th minute. The goal was in front of enclosure behind the goal, The Shed, which instantly became a swirling mass of red and white. The colours had been darkened by the relentless rain but none cared. Aberdeen now have six wins in their last seven games and they deserved three points from this New Firm, New Year derby.
If there was not much in the overall flow of the play, the United goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak was worked far more than counterpart Jamie Langfield. Aberdeen were focused and composed, and they kept going at United until the final minute. Their unflagging fitness was one of the key elements of the win.
It was United's third consecutive defeat but their first at Tannadice since September. Their season has hit turbulence, and although manager Jackie McNamara has explained why eight changes were made between the 4-1 defeat by St Mirren and the 3-0 loss against St Johnstone, they have been derailed even though seven of the originals were recalled yesterday. "Dundee United rested a few players against St Johnstone and it was as though they treated this as the big game for them," said Pawlett. "When we saw that we thought they were giving us respect. Maybe they didn't show enough respect to St Johnstone. I think over the 90 minutes we looked the stronger, fitter team so maybe it was a mistake by them."
Stuart Armstrong and Nadir Ciftci had some success but Ryan Gauld and Gary Mackay-Steven were well policed. When United attacked, their final passes let them down, Aberdeen intercepted and a move broke down. When Aberdeen attacked they could not get enough penetration in the box and their crosses were invariably held by Cierzniak. For the first half they looked like two evenly-matched teams cancelling one another out, but Aberdeen kept going at United and began to make better openings. They wore them down.
For 50 minutes it was a disappointment, although the will to win from both teams was obvious. A swerving Andy Robertson shot had Langfield scrambling and conceding a corner. Aberdeen came close when Souttar dawdled and was dispossessed just outside his own area by Pawlett, who lashed a shot at Cierzniak. United's goakeeper had a very fine game. His duel with Pawlett was standing at 4-0 in his favour going into the final minute; he had made a quartet of saves against him. But Pawlett was hungry and elusive, and popped up with the winner after a Barry Robson free-kick was not cleared.
A set piece had put United ahead too. Langfield failed to cope when Mark Wilson's corner flew into the goalmouth and Souttar pounced. The goal rewarded United's start to the second half and their tails were up.
Referee Willie Collum then decided one of their arms was, too. When Robson played a long ball to the edge of the box for substitute Josh Magennis, Robertson got in front of it but used an arm to block the ball. The young left-back protested furiously to Collum that the ball had struck his shoulder, but the pleas were hopeless. "I spoke to Andrew and he thinks the ball hit him on the chest but the referee made the decision quickly," said McNamara. "There wasn't much quality in the game, it was a lot of free-kicks and stop start all the time."
Robson rammed home the penalty against his old team, and Aberdeen always looked more likely to snatch a winner. When Niall McGinn tried to place a shot high into a corner, Cierzniak, brilliantly, leapt to push it away for a corner.
Robson was the Pole's only outfield challenger for man of the match but McInnes was delighted for Pawlett. "I thought it was just Peter scored the winner," he said. "I thought he was outstanding today. He took a lot of treatment, he had a few clatters going in on him. It's just reward he's the one that comes up with the winner. 'I wanted him to be known for being a top player, a player who makes the difference, a player who scores goals and affects games in a positive way.
"We knew this game had been well anticipated and we knew that our supporters would come in big numbers today. In the dressing room before the game you could hear our fans outside. It would be brilliant if we could generate that at Pittodrie, if we could get a section for all these guys who belt out the songs on the road. They are magnificent."