IT WAS 120 years to the day since the Dons were born in a merger of three Granite City clubs, carving a new identity that would eventually take them to European Cup Winners’ Cup glory in Gothenburg 80 years later.

The race simply to qualify for Europe was foremost in the minds of the visiting party last night and the birthday present at stake was a valuable three points and five-point advantage on fourth top Hearts.

The candles were lit by the mercurial Duk who continued his streak of match-winning form.

The transformation evident under Barry Robson’s interim charge, with seven wins from nine, was there for all to see, as much in the level of work rate and endeavour as in craft and guile against the second-bottom Premiership side.

The only tarnish on the evening was a late VAR-confirmed red card for serious foul play for Graeme Shinnie, who lunged into Jack Baldwin, to mar his 200th appearance. Shinnie, just back from a ban, could now miss the Rangers clash, pending any appeal.

County continue to sit perilously close to the foot of the table, two points above Dundee United who play their game in hand away to Motherwell today.

Outside of a 4-0 battering by Celtic, Aberdeen have only conceded twice in Robson’s time in charge.

Against County, though, they were without a win in five attempts since Malky Mackay took the Dingwall reins in summer 2021. The Staggies replaced injured Eamonn Brophy with Simon Murray for only his second start since arriving in January, while Alex Iacovitti was an unexpected absentee, replaced by Keith Watson.

In a frantic start, the ball fizzed at high speed – and County created a fair bit of panic in the visiting defence.

What shone for the Dons, though, was an air of assurance absent latterly under Jim Goodwin.

There was a VAR check after only six minutes after two handball appeals in quick succession as attempts from the hosts were charged down.

As the combative County came at Aberdeen, all the hosts needed was a little more composure. On one occasion, the path to goal opened up before left wing back George Harmon, but he hurried his shot and hit it straight at an opponent.

Moments later, the Dons were in front.

A wonderful, long defence-splitting pass from Leighton Clark released Duk on the right side of the box.

There wasn’t much pace on the shot as he cut the ball low towards the corner of the net, but it spun beyond the reach of flailing home keeper Ross Laidlaw.

It was the Cape Verde international’s 18th goal of the season - and sixth in five games - and ominous for County, who hadn’t won in the league all season after conceding first.

County kept at it and there was some desperate defending from Aberdeen, with a willingness to put limbs and heads in where it hurt.

Disaster almost struck the Staggies when Jack Baldwin hit a back-pass hard off team-mate Connor Randall.

Duk darted through like lightning behind the defence, but Josh Sim showed incredible pace to make a saving tackle.

Murray for the hosts also drew a strong save down low from Kelle Roos with an angled drive from the right edge of the penalty area after 35 minutes.

Ross McCrorie went close at the other end, stabbing his attempt just wide.

Fit-again Yan Dhanda replaced Hibs loanee Nohan Kenneh at the break, as Malky Mackay sacrificed the security of his defensive midfielder for a player who had been picking open defences before injury in early March.

It looked to have backfired as Duk twisted and turned his way through the County defence and set up Bojan Miovski for a slammed finish, but a VAR check ruled it offside.

The reprieve lifted the home side for a spell and dulled the Dons’ exuberance, but it took a brilliant blocking challenge from 16 year old defender Dylan Smith on the hour to stop Ross McCrorie’s fierce attempt from the right of the box.

Ryan Duncan’s shot also rattled the underside of the home bar as the Dons scented victory.

On and on County fought, with the tireless Murray turning and flashing a strike just wide from the edge of the area.

The slender margin made it nervy to the close, especially after Shinnie’s red, but the Dons took the spoils.