A LITTLE over five years ago, Kevin Kyle scored the only goal of the game as Hearts notched yet another victory at Pittodrie, their happiest hunting ground of this century.
Since the turn of the Millennium, the Tynecastle side have visited Aberdeen, traditionally one of Scottish football’s most formidable destinations, 28 times in all competitions. They have racked up 11 victories and lost just seven, while also managing 11 clean sheets.
Even at their lowest ebb, in their administration/relegation season two years ago, Gary Locke’s Hearts still found a way to go north and win 3-1 against a Dons side who had won seven of their previous nine games and would go on to finish third in the top flight.
Although Aberdeen have enjoyed undisputed improvement under Derek McInnes in recent years, Pittodrie will hold no fears for third-place Hearts as they return to the Granite City for this Saturday’s eagerly-awaited Premiership showdown with the second-place Dons.
“The two teams are on the same level for me,” Kyle said. “It’s definitely going to be between those two to see who will finish second. If Aberdeen finish second, it’s probably where they would expect to be, but if Hearts were to finish second, it would be a huge achievement considering they’ve just been promoted.
“Aberdeen have got more experienced players, and Hearts seem to have more of a mixture of youth and experience.
“Hearts will be going up to Pittodrie on Saturday looking to win and I think it’s a game they can win. Aberdeen have just come out of a dodgy run, so there are clearly flaws in their side that Hearts will look to capitalise on.
“Other teams have been up there and won in the last few months, but I think the way the league is, it would send out a big message if Hearts were to take three points.”
Kyle knows Pittodrie is no longer as accommodating for visiting teams as it was when he was operating in the top flight for Kilmarnock and Hearts. Prior to McInnes’ arrival, Aberdeen had spent several years in the doldrums of the bottom six and represented relatively easy prey for opponents.
Scoring winning goals at Pittodrie became an enjoyable pastime of Kyle’s as he bagged the winner for Kilmarnock in May 2010 before repeating the feat with Hearts just five months later. He particularly relished his duels with Zander Diamond, the former Dons centre-half.
“I had good times playing against Aberdeen up there,” he said. “I scored the winner for Kilmarnock at the end of one season and then scored the winner for Hearts quite early on in the following season for Hearts. They were very similar goals, both headers. I remember them well.
“When I played against Aberdeen for Hearts, the results always went our way. I enjoyed going to Pittodrie because it’s one of the biggest stadiums in Scottish football with a hostile crowd, and that helps get you going. Our players used to get it tight up there, me especially, so it makes you more determined. I really enjoyed going there.
“They had a defence back then that I really enjoyed playing against. Zander Diamond was part of that back four and he was one player that I used to think ‘I’ll have an easy day today against big Zander’.
“You get certain teams and players that you like playing against and others that you don’t like coming up against. But he was one I liked playing against. He was a big guy that bounced about the park like a big fairy. Any time you touched him he was down moaning and groaning and screaming at the referee.
“I used to give him a wee dig in the ribs or stand on his toes and get him all wound up because eventually he would disappear and not come anywhere near you.
“I think Aberdeen were seen as a bit of soft touch back then but they are a different proposition now to what they were a few years ago. Derek McInnes has done an unbelievable job to turn them round. They’ve been a sleeping giant of Scottish football for a long time, so they will want to stay as close to Celtic as they can, as will Hearts. Aberdeen v Hearts is as big a game as you’ll get in the Premiership now.”
Kyle’s Pittodrie winner for Hearts acted as the catalyst for a mid-season run in which they won 12 out of 14 league games and briefly threatened to challenge the Old Firm for the title before ultimately settling for a third-place finish. That remains the last campaign in which Hearts finished in Scotland’s top three, although Kyle, now retired, is convinced they will be back there come May.
“After we won at Aberdeen we went on a great run and were sitting only a couple of points behind Celtic and Rangers well into the new year,” recalls the former striker. “For some reason we faded away and weren’t able to sustain the pressure we had put on earlier in the season, a bit like Aberdeen last season. That’s the difference between Celtic and the rest, though – they seem to churn out the results week in, week out. The main reason for that is probably the budget Celtic have to pay for squad players in comparison to the rest.
“That was a good time for us when we tried to challenge for the title. It gave the fans a bit of optimism – and that’s what’s happening again just now, the optimism is back.
“For Hearts to come up from the Championship and find themselves sitting just behind Aberdeen in second place in the Premiership at this stage is a great achievement in itself. Things look a hell of a lot brighter on and off the park for them, and it’s great to see. It looks like they’re pushing to bring back the glory days.”
HEARTS’ RECORD AT PITTODRIE SINCE 2000
Played 28, Won 11, Drawn 10, Lost 7, For 26, Against 23