After a troubled start, Aberdeen deserve their Sporting chance

Aberdeen's season has been rocked by injury and scandal but the team have turned it around on the pitch.

After a troubled start, Aberdeen deserve their Sporting chance SNS

Victory on foreign soil is far from a regular occurrence for Scottish football teams, so after Viking had been put to the sword, Derek the Red might have taken a moment to appreciate the journey and the spoils.

The 2-0 scoreline meant that Derek McInnes’ side had now racked up six consecutive wins, gone four games without conceding a goal and marched on to the third round of Europa League qualifying.

The win in Norway set up the biggest European match for the Dons since they faced Bayern Munich 12 years ago – McInnes and his players travel to face Portuguese giants Sporting in Lisbon on Thursday.

Though a more than formidable challenge, the tie seems like a reward: a classic European game against a high-profile, household name opponent. Aberdeen will be underdogs but head to Portugal with no weight of expectation and everything to gain.

The sunny outlook around Pittodrie seems almost jarring after the story of the season so far for the club, where even by mid-September it feels like all involved have been on a journey.

When the pandemic hit hard and changed everything, Aberdeen were in fourth place in the Premiership and on course for another season of being better than most but struggling to earn rave reviews. There was some discontent among fans about style of play and an acute awareness that it was getting on for a long time since McInnes had delivered silverware.

The return of football after a long lockdown brought something close to a fresh slate and the optimism that every new season delivers, though that was short lived as problem after problem beset the Dons.

In the days before kick-off, striker Sam Cosgrove, scorer of 28 league goals in two seasons, suffered a knee injury that would sideline him for months. Almost immediately after that blow, Cosgrove’s understudy Curtis Main was ruled out of the season opener.

Leeds United forward Ryan Edmondson was quickly drafted in and played in the first game of the season but soon afterwards sustained an ankle injury that would see him told he wouldn’t play for four months.

A nightmare scenario but one that would pale into insignificance alongside other problems.

The season opener, at home against rivals Rangers, presented an opportunity to lay down a marker for the months ahead. Rangers won 1-0 and Dons defender Andy Considine was red carded.

A nightmare scenario but one that would pale into insignificance alongside other problems.

Post-match, eight of the squad ventured into the city-centre together for dinner and drinks. Ill-advised after defeat to Rangers in any case, but breaking strict rules put in place to allow football to return in the time of coronavirus made it a national scandal.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made her anger known, players had to isolate, the club had to apologise and ‘the Aberdeen Eight’ took criticism from all sides.

As a result, three games were postponed, leaving a hole in the calendar after just one league match. The squad had nothing to fill it with but listening to the widespread condemnation of players’ behaviour. The season had stopped just after it had started but from a low, the only way was up.

The first game back brought a win – a late Ryan Hedges goal sinking St Johnstone– and a promise from McInnes: “We will get better”.

Since then it’s been win after win. Livingston were accounted for in a 2-1 victory. A 6-0 drubbing of Faroese side NSi was a comfortable return to European competition and a 1-0 win away to Hibs was hard earned against one of the Premiership’s form sides.

A win over Kilmarnock set everything up nicely for the trip to Norway where Ross McCrorie and Ryan  Hedges struck to secure the trip to Lisbon.

It’s possible that the trials of the opening weeks had masked a quiet transformation by McInnes, where summer signings have blended with settled players to make for a more cohesive, and adventurous, team.

McInnes had identified where he needed new faces and had backing from his board, with the benefits there for all to see.

Chairman Dave Cormack was one of the loudest voices expressing the gravest concerns during lockdown, making it clear how much damage the pandemic would do to the finances of Scottish football. Few would have been surprised if he had cut the budget and halted recruitment to see the club through testing times.

Instead he’s delivered the deals that McInnes wanted done, bringing in Tommie Hoban and Johnny Hayes, Edmondson and his replacement Marley Watkins, as well as snatching McCrorie from under the noses of Hibernian when they thought they would be signing him from Rangers.

Hoban is proving to be a major player in the back three that has only conceded twice this season. Hayes’ defensive qualities and attacking threat on the left flank are perhaps causing some Celtic supporters to question why he was allowed to depart Parkhead instead of doing a similar job in the defending champions’ system.

McCrorie is already looking like one of the signings of the season. Not so long ago Steven Gerrard was talking of him as a future Rangers captain. Now Aberdeen are the beneficiaries of his workrate and ability, as well as his comfort in taking on any number or roles.

New signings settled in and delivering, the team go into Sunday’s game against Motherwell as favourites, their own possible travel-weariness perhaps offset by the fact that their opponents were taken to extra time and penalties by Coleraine on Thursday.

After that it’s on to Lisbon and the excitement of a test against top continental side. In any other year fans would be flooding to Portugal to see the game with a sense of optimism, believing the run of form might continue at Estádio José Alvalade.

This time they’ll be watching from home but the high hopes might remain. The Dons will be underdogs but, after a start to the season that’s been unlike any other, they may feel that they are due a stroke of fortune to go with their recent resurgence.