A COUSIN of mine will be one of the 40,000 Aberdeen supporters descending on Celtic Park for the League Cup final.

He has not been to that ground "since they've done it up", which I took to mean the massive construction project which transformed Celtic's stadium 20 years ago. He does not do away games but has been a season-ticket holder at Pittodrie for donkeys' years. There will be plenty of excited young innocents in this vast Aberdeen support and they will be sitting near guys like him, who feel like they might be near the end of an interminable prison sentence.

No club has provoked more soul-searching and hand-wringing over the past two decades than Aberdeen. This club has suffered an epic, biblical fall as the team of the '80s became the joke of the '90s and 2000s.

All the pride and glory when they ruled the roost? By god, they've paid a price for it. Embarrassment upon embarrassment, pain upon pain. In 2001 Livingston won a League Cup tie 6-1 at Pittodrie. Few people remember that. It bubbles under the top 10 of their lamentable episodes.

Stenhousemuir, Queen's Park, Queen of the South, Bohemians, Sigma Olomouc, 9-0 at Celtic Park: those are the more recognisable tombstones. Actually Aberdeen's decline was more accurately captured by the grim flatlining of their league finishes. A play-off was needed to avoid relegation in 1995 and they finished bottom of the league in 2000 (goals conceded in 36 league games: 83).

Time and time again they limped home in the bottom half of the table. Celtic and Rangers spent years using them for shooting practice. On the opening day of one season Celtic won 5-0 at Pittodrie.

With only a brief respite, under Jimmy Calderwood, it has gone on like this for years. The hardcore support was kicked in the unmentionables so often that the sense of shock began to go. They became fatalistic, even accepting. At the 2000 Scottish Cup final some formed conga lines in the Hampden aisles while Rangers won 4-0.

1995 was significant for Aberdeen not only because it was the last time they won a cup but because of what had happened a few months earlier when they required that play-off to survive in the SPL. That fright changed the mindset around the club. Until then each campaign began with thoughts of challenging Rangers (then in their nine-in-a-row years); after it, the priority was securing enough points for survival. That was the year they lost whatever grip was left on the Old Firm.

Aberdeen have no right to win anything. Others will scoff at their "suffering". It is even longer since Motherwell won a cup. St Johnstone and Inverness are among those who have never won one at all. Others have suffered relegation, administration or liquidation.

A huge chunk of the older Aberdeen supporters have had highs that those who follow Hearts, Hibs, Dundee United et al will never know. But the younger ones? Anyone under about 35? They have trooped around the country as one of Scotland's biggest travelling supports and had next-to-nothing to show for it.

A few weeks ago a post on the most popular Aberdeen messageboard captured this perfectly. A supporter around his mid-40s, blessed to have been a regular through the Fergie years, wrote warmly to all the younger fans who had stuck with the team through the nuclear winter of the 1990s and 2000s. "I've been and done and seen the lot," he said. "I was there through it all. Now, that's nae me boasting, that's me telling you all how much I respect you.

"As I lived the Alex Miller, Ebbe Skovdahl, Steve Paterson, Mark McGhee years [together with the Jimmy Calderwood cup nonsense] I stuck with it. When folk asked why I bothered I said, well, this is my team, but I've seen things in the past. Right up to now, I'd say if this club was a bank I'd still be millions overdrawn. But to the lads born a generation after me: respect.

"You've been through the bad without ever having known the really good. Would I have stuck with it the same? I'd like to think so, but because my good times were already in the bank I canna guarantee that. But guess what? This is your time. To all you under-40s . . . enjoy. By ****, you've earned it."

What does the breathtaking level of ticket sales for Sunday tell us about Aberdeen? It shows how many people have been hurting through all these years of rubbish and ridicule, that is for sure. How let down they've been. It has been a reminder of the club's size.

Even those who know the place inside out had no idea they could sell out 40,000 tickets and still need more. Cup final supports are unique - asking "where are they all every week" shows an ignorance of the various levels of interest people have - but this is a marketing godsend.

If Aberdeen don't win one or even both cups this season the sense of missed opportunity will be unbearable. But it will still have been a reawakening. For years a club with the resources and fanbase to be in the league top four and in and around cup finals has been nowhere near them. At last it feels like they are almost there. On Sunday they will turn Parkhead red, longing for Aberdeen to apply the full stop to a long, long horror story.