Red is one of nature’s most dominant colours. For too long in Scottish football, it has faded into the background. It is finally re-emerging from the north-east corner of the country as Aberdeen’s resurgence gathers serious momentum.
The Pittodrie club travel down the A90 to face Hearts this weekend as the team to beat. Their 100 per cent start to the season continued on Tuesday night with a 1-0 home win over Hamilton, witnessed by the Tynecastle head coach Robbie Neilson. It took them five points clear of Celtic atop the Ladbrokes Premiership and strengthened their title challenge – evoking memories of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1980s team, tight Adidas shorts, moustaches, mullets et al.
Yet, under Derek McInnes, Aberdeen have already outdone Ferguson’s side by winning seven straight matches at the start of a campaign. The threat to Celtic’s dominance looks very real at the moment and follows on from last year’s second-place finish.
Willie Miller, captain of that fabled 1980s team, believes the gap is closing fast. With Hearts third in the table and just a point behind Celtic, he senses an opportunity for a sustained contest involving all three clubs.
“Celtic have been a selling club for a couple of years now,” Miller told the Evening News. “In the past, for example under Martin O’Neill, they wouldn’t be selling their top players. They would be bringing players in and perhaps overspending, although you couldn’t say they were badly managed. Under Martin O’Neill, they were paying phenomenal wages. They’ve now got that wage bill down on the back of thinking they’re unassailable in Scottish football. Now they’ve got a challenge to them, I think they’ll have to review that situation. They’ve lost central defenders and they are definitely vulnerable at the back. Their halo is slipping a little bit, so it’s a great opportunity for Aberdeen and for Hearts as well. It’s really refreshing for Scottish football.”
Sunday’s meeting at Tynecastle has all the ingredients of a powderkeg occasion. Aberdeen beat Celtic with ten men last week and will defend their perfect record rigorously in Edinburgh. If added motivation was needed, their last away win at Hearts was more than five years ago – a 3-0 victory on January 27, 2010. Last time the sides met in Gorgie was on April 2 last year, when a Jamie Hamill penalty earned Hearts a 1-1 draw.
The home side have their own agenda to attend to. Their 100 per cent start ended abruptly and controversially at New Douglas Park three weeks ago, and they have since lost to Inverness as well. They will hope a full stadium can help them recapture winning form. Miller doesn’t expect Aberdeen to be unsettled by the hostile environment.
“They will take it in their stride. They’re a team that doesn’t get over-excited about anything,” he said. “They’ve finished the last two games with ten men [Jonny Hayes was red carded against Celtic and a head knock forced Ash Taylor off near the end on Tuesday] and they’ve coped with it. They seem to be pragmatic and they seem to be in control. They all know Tynecastle will be a difficult trip, the atmosphere will be electric and they’ll need to cope with an enthusiastic Hearts team wanting to get back to winning.
“It’s a big test for them and a big challenge. If you want to put in that challenge to Celtic then these are the games you need to get something from. I think a draw is a good result for Aberdeen and a win would be a fabulous result.
“I think there’s a confidence within the team that is embracing this challenge. Not only were they good enough to beat Celtic at home, but they did it with ten men. That’s quite an incredible result for them after losing four times to Celtic last season. I think Aberdeen are pretty happy to be where they are and I don’t think they feel this is a surprise. The 100 per cent record you have to say is exceptional at the start of any campaign, but they know it’s only the start and there’s a long way to go.
“The difficulty in overcoming Celtic will be matched by an away game at Tynecastle. If Aberdeen come through that with full points, you have to say it’s an outstanding start to any season.”
Much like Neilson, key to McInnes’ success has been recruitment. Adam Rooney was lured north from Oldham and scored 28 times last season. He already has six goals this year and is the man Hearts must stifle on Sunday.
At the opposite end of the field, goalkeeper Danny Ward’s arrival on loan from Liverpool has been every bit as crucial. Aberdeen fans who have spent three decades pining for a team capable of taking on the mantle of Ferguson’s are loving McInnes’ work.
“They’re enjoying it and they have a sense of anticipation. That’s borne out by what they’re seeing on the park and the continual progress at the club under Derek,” said Miller. “He’s done a fantastic job in galvanising everyone at the club. He’s bringing young players through but he’s also signed good players like Adam Rooney. He’s brought players he obviously knew from his time down south at Bristol City, like Ash Taylor and Shay Logan. He’s also used the loan system well and getting Danny Ward from Liverpool has made a huge difference in goal.
“There is anticipation that there is something stirring at Pittodrie. The manager is putting together an exciting and efficient team, so everything is looking pretty rosy.
“Aberdeen have been fortunate that a number of players, and the manager himself, have had their little trip down south and it didn’t work out for them – David Goodwillie, Rooney, Barry Robson, people like that. Derek has taken advantage of players who went down south and are coming back up already knowing the Scottish game.
“When you look around the Scottish Premiership, Hearts are obviously making their own resurgence but, outwith Celtic, Aberdeen is the place to be. It’s not been a hard sell for Derek to bring players to Pittodrie. He’s used the circumstances well and convinced players Aberdeen are the team to be with.
“The start to the season has been exceptional. Tuesday night wasn’t particularly exciting but very effective. The results just keep coming for them just now.”
Something has to give on Sunday. Hearts have a perfect home record, while Aberdeen are perfect all round. It promises to be an enthralling afternoon.