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Red alert before any green light for Brown and Knox

AMID all the talk of ageism and succession planning, the currency of football remains the same as it always has.

Scott Vernon watches Ben Williams save his penalty to compound a miserable day for Aberdeen
Scott Vernon watches Ben Williams save his penalty to compound a miserable day for Aberdeen

Victories, and the rewards that they bring, are what a manager is judged upon and Craig Brown currently cuts an impoverished figure. Sunday's William Hill Scottish Cup defeat by Hibernian at Easter Road means that Aberdeen's interests in the knock-out competitions are over for another season with February barely begun, while their league form is causing increasing concern for those who make the decisions around Pittodrie.

The statistics are growing bleaker, too. This was a seventh defeat in 13 matches for Brown's side, a spell during which they have won just three times and slipped to sixth in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League. Indeed, those searching for further gloom need only cast their eyes further down the table and note that Aberdeen have actually played a game more than all of the sides below them yet sit just four points ahead of an apparently rejuvenated St Mirren in 11th place.

Numbers, of course, can be warped to suit any purpose – and Aberdeen are still just five points off second place – but recent results do offer ammunition to those within the Pittodrie boardroom who are minded not to renew the contracts of Brown and assistant Archie Knox when they expire at the end of the campaign. The understandably testy manager yesterday questioned why he is being singled out, pointing to those managers whose clubs lie lower in the division and to Ally McCoist at Rangers, while last week in these pages he had attempted to diffuse the situation by saying that a Scottish Cup exit would not be a "disaster".

Many of the vocal away contingent wedged into Easter Road, fans who have gone 13 years without seeing their club in a final, might beg to differ. The result might have hardened a few opinions in the boardroom, too. "I would have liked to have had a clearer picture in my mind before a result like Sunday's, but going out of the cup is the ideal opportunity to sit down and discuss it, if they haven't already," said Willie Miller, who left his post as Aberdeen's director of football last June and conducted the quarter-final draw in the aftermath of Sunday's tie. "It's a new board, with a lot of new businessmen on it who perhaps don't have a lot of experience in football, so they've got to be guided by the chairman and focus on where the club is going and where the future of the management team lies. The executive vice-chairman [George Yule] will have his own thoughts on where the club should be going but, in my experience, you have to be wary of the demands that are put on a club like Aberdeen."

Miller is well placed to gauge the feeling towards the management team in both the boardroom and among the supporters, and is sympathetic to the position in which they find themselves. He echoed Brown's ruminations that, but for missed penalties on Sunday and in the league meeting with Hibs last weekend, the club would be in fourth place and needing to win a home reply to set up a Scottish Cup last-eight tie with Kilmarnock. He also spoke about the fine job that the coaches are doing in introducing youngsters into the first XI.

Yet while it is easy to be convinced that a well-appointed squad have simply suffered great misfortunes in recent months – persistent injury problems, penalty saves, dubious decisions – any progress has been underwhelming enough to ensure questions are still being asked. Failing to win any of three semi-finals reached since Brown and Knox took charge in December 2010 has grated with some supporters, while the initial poverty and lack of ambition they displayed on Sunday was at odds with a club who firmly believe they merit a place among Scotland's elite.

The portents were ominous from the start, the manager cluttering his selection with defenders and midfielders. Consequently, Aberdeen were comfortable in possession but found it difficult to create openings for Niall McGinn, their sole forward. Time and again, they would work an angle with a sharp exchange of passes amid the congested midfield but, in an haunting echo of last season, desperately lacked a change of pace or willing outlet for the final pass.

Peter Pawlett's introduction and the belated impact of Jonny Hayes helped add a spark, only for the profligacy of Scott Vernon to prevent Aberdeen capitalising on a rousing finale. That they were finally able to cleave open a redoubtable defence was encouraging, though, as too was the sharpness of McGinn and the composure of callow full-backs Joe Shaughnessy and Clark Robertson. "That was one of the club's targets; to bring through young players," explained Miller. "So, from that point of view, Craig and Archie have done excellently and they've also done a very good job of bringing the club back together.

"If the club want to move on and give the fans and the manager clarity, they should start talking about a new contract. With his deal being up at the end of the season, and nothing having been offered, the rumour mill gets going and that can affect the players. But they have to lift themselves now, focus on the league and trying to get themselves in to a European position."

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