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Bland fare, but still utterly memorable

IT was 1613.

Showpiece was a demonstration of mass underachievement, but it was also a landmark occasion which Aberdeen supporters will never forget
Showpiece was a demonstration of mass underachievement, but it was also a landmark occasion which Aberdeen supporters will never forget

No, not the last time Aberdeen won a cup but 13 minutes after four o'clock at an overcast Celtic Park. Something has happened on the field, it is not much, certainly not memorable.

But suddenly a roar emanates from the very belly of the red beast that is the Aberdeen support. It is answered, nay augmented by a massed shout from the Inverness Caledonian Thistle fans. More than 51,000 people inside Parkhead are loudly testifying to the truth that there are two ways to watch a final.

The first is as a committed fan where loyalty can blind oneself to precisely what is happening on the pitch, where tension invades the brain and robs it of critical faculties. The second is as a neutral observer where one peered at the Scottish League Cup final and struggled to discern what was happening on the park beyond a demonstration of mass underachievement.

Personal highlights included Marley Watkins kicking fresh air after dribbling into the centre of the pitch, Ryan Jack passing the ball out for a shy, a Barry Robson free kick that threatened the safety of residents in Dalmarnock, a Niall McGinn sclaff when through on goal, a James Vincent dummy when the ball came across his six-yard box and Willo Flood falling over as if shot by a sniper in the stand. Prime suspects for crime would have been exclusively football lovers.

All right, all right. This is unfair for at least two reasons. First, Flood was far from the most feckless performer and, second, some criticisms must be suspended or softened in considering a cup final.

The truth, though, is that this was a final that was stymied by design, by accident and by nerves.

The first factor was supplied by the immediate realisation that Inverness came to contain, to frustrate and to deny Aberdeen. They succeeded by deploying five men in midfield and leaving Billy McKay so isolated one wondered if he had a deeply contagious disease that necessitated a bell round his neck.

Two hours of effort from the Highlanders were marked by the nomination of Ross Draper, dogged and industrious, as man of the match. Such a lofty profile for the former Hednesford Town legend says everything about his side's restrained approach to creativity.

Indeed their most technical, subtle players came off the bench in the shape of Aaron Doran and Ryan Christie. They could only bring a semblance of order to their team's attacking play.

This, then was Aberdeen's cup to win. So how did the favourites almost stumble at the last and take two desperate hours to lift the trophy? The absence of Peter Pawlett should not be dismissed as a reason. He brings speed and a purposeful pass and complements Adam Rooney. Jonny Hayes, too, lasted all of 12 seconds before going off injured.

Aberdeen were not just stripped of Pawlett and Hayes but of poise and of pace. The match cried out for some composure but the size of the occasion dwarfed any attempts to impose order on the mayhem.

Robson, for example, is a man who has won domestic titles on the Parkhead pitch, who has scored against Barcelona. Yesterday he scuttled about to little impact with his crosses swirling out beyond the back post, his chips into the area proving unappetising.

Aberdeen, too, were granted few opportunities to surprise Inverness on the break, given that the Highlanders were sitting deep and in numbers.

The crowd roared on, nevertheless. It was as if they had been invited to a party and were determined to enjoy it even though someone had stolen the carry-out and the snacks had more than a whiff of an expired sell-by date.

This atmosphere was heightened by the balloons that bounced and swayed across the park in the Parkhead wind. It was so like a child's birthday party that one supposes the half-time fare was a happy meal.

The neutral, however, gulped at the quality of the game but could not fail to be impressed by the support. Aberdeen's hordes made a tremendous din and the Inverness fans were faithful and raucous.

They jointly roared in expectation rather than in any acknowledgment of what precisely was occurring in front of them. The advent of extra-time and of penalties seemed a cruel reward for those strained souls who cried out in forlorn hope whenever a move entered the final third.

Penalties were inevitable. It was then that composure finally showed its hand, finally called Inverness' bluff. McKay, who could be forgiven for being shocked at being able to shoot from within the area after two hours of thankless toil, saw his penalty saved. Greg Tansey walloped his over.

Aberdeen, in contrast, saved the style and technique for those last, draining strikes of the ball. Robson drilled in and Nicky Low, Scott Vernon and then Rooney followed his example.

The ground shook as Rooney ran towards the support. A final that was scarred by stress rather than marked by brilliance had been won.

In truth, many finals suffer the same fate. It may briefly disconcert the neutral but it does not bother the committed. Aberdeen supporters will long remember this day. It was 1709. Just approaching ten past five, Aberdeen ended 19 years of hurt.

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