Why Aberdeen may have taken inspiration from Hearts - even though the two situations are wildly different
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Football is like any other team sport. Ideas and avenues which lead to success are copied, imitated and bastardised. We see different formations and playing styles going through cycles of being the most popular around the globe. Certain positions rise above others in terms of either importance or how we expect a player to function within the role. And for managers it’s the same: how they’re expected to set a team out, how they conduct themselves, their role within a club’s structure, and even how long they’re likely to last in the job.
Aberdeen went against the grain on Wednesday evening when they released a statement saying they would be standing by Goodwin despite him appearing to be ‘dead man walking’ after dreadful recent form bled into arguably the single worst result in the club’s history. However, regardless of whether the decision was stubbornness, a desperate attempt by the board to save face or they genuinely believe he’s still the right man for the job, they didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
Hearts have a healthy lead in the third place in the cinch Premiership and, unlike Aberdeen, are in the next round of the Scottish Cup. They’re favoured to earn eight games in Europe for the second season in succession and they’re in such a strong financial position that they’re turning down six-figure transfer offers for a centre-back who didn’t look fit for purpose three months ago while dishing out a five-and-a-half-year contract to another who only joined the club last summer.
Things could scarcely be rosier and yet things may have been very different had the Tynecastle side listened to the court of public opinion in a familiar situation to Aberdeen not even two years ago.
The defeat to Brora Rangers in the 2020/21 Scottish Cup saw Robbie Neilson’s stewardship hanging by a thread. The last strand of cotton got even thinner the following match as Hearts followed up the embarrassment with a home defeat to Queen of the South as supporters defied lockdown laws to protest outside.
We’d seen it so many times before in football. It was the point of no return for the head coach. The club surely had to act.
We all know what happened next. Hearts stuck by the coach, things eventually righted themselves and they’ve gone on to enjoy success which, if it’s sustained for the rest of the campaign, will be unmatched by anything they’ve achieved (in the league, at least) in almost twenty years, arguably longer. So if Hearts can make a success of things by standing by their man, can’t Aberdeen do the same?
Well, it’s undoubtedly possible. But while there are similarities, there are many aspects of two the cases which make them poles apart.
Regardless of what level they’re playing at, Hearts should not be losing to Brora Rangers, but they were a Championship side at the time. The line-up that fateful night is enough to send shivers down the back of any Jambo. There was still some residue from the infection which had spread around Tynecastle in the seasons prior, ultimately leading to their (unfair) relegation. Aberdeen, on the other hand, spent well over seven-figures in the summer on transfer fees alone assembling the team which lost in Ayrshire.
There was also a real contrast in motivation going into each of the cup upsets. Aberdeen have dropped from a four-point lead in third place to being nine points behind in fifth – a staggering reversal in such a short space of time. The players went into Darvel knowing they were fighting for their boss’s job and, by extension, their own security. Even Goodwin admitted beforehand it was a must-win game. Hearts, on the other hand, were clear at the top of the second tier and coasting to a title that looked guaranteed to be theirs from the moment they thrashed Dundee 6-2 on the opening night of the season. Everyone seemed to be on cruise control following the loss in the Scottish Cup final and ultimately the collective fell asleep at the wheel.
Stephen Kingsley was perhaps the best example of this. The defender was lacklustre in the second half of the 2020/21 campaign after the defeat to Celtic, yet became one of the best players at any position in the top flight following their ascension back to the big time last season.
The Hearts board recognised the situation. Even after the follow-up loss to Queens, they knew they were still going to win games consistently at that level, because they were too strong not to. They would get over the line in the title race and that would buy management time to steady the ship. Besides, they knew Neilson had it in him to be successful at Hearts because he’d done it before. Goodwin has no such credit. Furthermore, it was just three months into the Robbie Neilson-Joe Savage working relationship with only one January transfer window in which to shape the squad into their shared vision.
Hibs also find themselves in a similar situation as they get ready to host Aberdeen this weekend. They fall between these two parables in that they’ve got a head coach who has been hamstrung by inheriting a mess amid a questionable culture, but one who has been on a dreadful run and doesn’t have any credit in the bank.
Having been buried in a pit of despair in the not-so-distant past, Hearts fans can be forgiven for putting their feet up, getting out the popcorn, and enjoying whatever Saturday’s match in Leith has to bring.