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Freedom at last after nearly two decades of torture

THE great train robber Ronnie Biggs served eight years.

Aberdeen, a club renowned for losing their nerve, for choking and collapsing, win their first trophy for 19 years in the ultimate test of bottle: the penalty shoot-out
Aberdeen, a club renowned for losing their nerve, for choking and collapsing, win their first trophy for 19 years in the ultimate test of bottle: the penalty shoot-out

Jimmy Boyle wrote A Sense of Freedom after doing 15. The longest anyone did for the Brinks-MAT robbery was 16. Aberdeen, this proud, beleaguered, bruised football club had to do nearly 19 years of hard time to get to this taking off point at Celtic Park. Eventually, after an ugly and unbearably tense match, the strain and stress was gloriously flushed away. They have a trophy for the first time since 1995. They are released and liberated.

A club which has been synonymous with losing its nerve, folding and collapsing, delivered a cup by prevailing in the greatest test of bottle of them all, a penalty shoot-out. Here was exactly the sort of test in which Aberdeen had become specialists in failure. This Aberdeen under a compelling young manager, Derek McInnes, have more about them than any predecessors for the past two decades.

Parkhead was three-quarters red yet the penalties were taken at the Inverness end. It did not matter. Barry Robson, Nicky Low, Scott Vernon and, decisively, Adam Rooney rammed their kicks past Dean Brill and Aberdeen had the League Cup on penalties. It was as if a release valve was turned.

For the first time in over two hours the Aberdeen support - a vast panorama of red, more than 40,000 of them in a 51,000 crowd - was able to do something they had suspended since kick-off: breathe.

The sense of fear, the dread of losing, had been palpable from this vast ocean of fans who had been let down so many times before and were acutely aware of the likelihood of it happening again.

Their nerves transmitted to their team, and the longer it stayed goalless, the deeper they gnawed their fingernails and looked to the heavens. Only when Rooney scored was the promise realised and the hurdle cleared.

They will never forget a final that many others will. Aberdeen never flowed, Inverness never flowed, and the final never flowed. It was scrappy, with no rhythm, and possession was endlessly exchanged without either side establishing authority or showing composure. Aberdeen were well short of their best, badly missing two of their season's key men.

Peter Pawlett was not fit and spent the day in his suit. Jonny Hayes was injured before the game was a minute old, falling horribly on his shoulder and suffering an injury he succumbed to after five minutes of gamely playing on. Their loss was deeply felt. Aberdeen's threat comes from pace and menace on the counter attack and they had neither.

When they broke up Inverness moves and looked to break there was no-one making the quick runs that Pawlett and Hayes can. Robson and Niall McGinn never imposed themselves on the game as they both can and Rooney was too isolated. Ryan Jack and substitute Cammy Smith did not look comfortable in the middle and Robson was too often out wide.

Their defenders were excellent. Russell Anderson, the talisman, did not lose a challenge all day. Goalkeeper Jamie Langfield became "Clangers" for a moment, causing 40,000 chests to tighten when he flapped at a cross, but he set the tone for the penalty shoot-out by saving the first from Billy McKay. When Greg Tansey blasted Inverness' second over the bar, there was no way back.

McKay was too quiet for his side to threaten. Their defenders were as impressive as those of McInnes, handling the occasion brilliantly, but they lacked the quality to capitalise on Aberdeen's jitters. Foran, Ross Draper and Josh Meekings were big performers for them and Danny Devine, a deputy for the suspended Gary Warren at centre-half, was also solid.

John Hughes is questioned by many when it comes to the extent of his managerial ability but his side looked organised and well-coached.

What they did not look was ambitious. They should have had a penalty when Andrew Considine held Foran in the penalty area in the 87th minute. It was a demanding game for referee Steven MacLean and but that was a huge moment and he called it wrong. Otherwise Inverness had passages of play when they were solid at the back and had the better of the midfield, without that translating into anything to hurt Langfield.

Aberdeen had claimed an Anderson volley was over the line after hitting the post - it was not - and Foran hacked clear. They claimed a penalty for a Meekings tackle on Rooney. In the closing minutes of normal time, when the phrase "unbearable tension" was being redefined, McGinn created an opening for himself but spooned his finish wide. Andrew Considine had a chance but could not put that away either.

They both got free kicks in good areas and their attempts were awful. These were infrequent moments in a messy, exasperating game.

When Aberdeen lost the toss after normal time, which meant the penalty shoot-out would be held in front of the Inverness supporters, it felt like the closing act would deliver further torture for supporters already at their wits' end. Instead they delivered the catharsis of victory.

It has been only 14 months since McInnes was sacked by Bristol City and he was entitled to worry about his name and his reputation. His transformation of Aberdeen has been remarkable in its speed and its thoroughness. He is a young figure, just 42, in charge of a vibrant group of players capable of winning a cup final even without playing well.

There are Aberdeen supporters old enough to smoke, to drive, to vote and to marry who had never seen their team win anything.

They have shown this club a lot of love for 19 years and had next to nothing to show for it. Yesterday, fate kissed them back.

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