Although most Aberdeen fans would agree that the thought of the Premiership trophy being held aloft at Pittodrie this year was far-fetched, I’m sure there will still be some wondering if this year was really their chance to do something a bit special.
Aberdeen have had another fantastic season this year. While last year’s rampant revival under Derek McInnes brought them the League Cup and their highest league finish in seven years, this season the team and the club have gone a step further in taking second spot in the league. They have been consistent and ruthless in dispatching teams in the Premiership, racking up an unbelievable 19 clean sheets so far as well. This is definitely title-winning form but Celtic sit eight points ahead of the Dons with only five games to go. While nothing can be ruled out, it does appear that Aberdeen will need to settle for second place.
Derek McInnes never admitted to the media that he and his team were involved in a title race – and how could he? When his side were playing so well and notching up an incredible run of unbeaten games at the turn of the year it was hardly the time to upset the apple cart by telling them that they would need to push that bit harder so they could win the league.
Pressure like that would have seen them unhinge, in the way that the chasing clubs like Hamilton, Dundee United and Inverness Caley have, and leave their comfortable second place up for challenge. By doing this McInnes made sure his team concentrated on the games as they came and this has worked wonders for them.
But when Aberdeen and Celtic were yo-yoing in the top two places up until the start of March it must have crossed the minds of the players that they could be ones to do it. The likes of Adam Rooney and Niall McGinn have been exceptional this season, putting in the sort of attacking performances that title-winning sides need, and have made Aberdeen a true force in the game again. In the form they were in, and with Celtic still hanging on in Europe and using precious energy there, it seemed as though there was a real title race going.
The problem in Aberdeen’s title challenge is not their current form; it’s that they started the season so slowly.
They went into September sitting 8th in the league and had they started with the same gusto that they’ve had since then, we could be going into the split with Aberdeen a distance ahead of Celtic – which would have been tremendously exciting for both Aberdeen fans and neutrals. It is also true that Celtic’s experience in chasing down titles and their squad’s strength in depth have come into play and seen them pull ahead and would have done more so if there really was a threat to the title.
It’s not that Aberdeen have tapered away in terms of form – the only games they haven’t won since January are draws against Dundee and Partick Thistle and a 4-0 defeat to Celtic at Parkhead – it’s just that Celtic have been able to maintain their own good form despite having a slew of games with their involvement in Europe and the Scottish Cup. With these two factors combined, it’s not a surprise that Aberdeen are adrift at this stage of the competition.
So while they may never have officially considered themselves contenders for the championship, Aberdeen may feel slightly aggrieved that they have played so well but fallen short of the top prize.
This still stands to be the closest finish in the Premiership since Rangers last won the league back in 2011 and the closest a non-Old Firm team has come to winning the league since Aberdeen fell three points short of the Gers in 1994.
With second place wrapped up barring a freak set of results for the Dons and Inverness Caley and a record points tally already achieved – all Aberdeen have left to play for is a little bit of extra prestige when they travel to play New Firm rivals Dundee United and take on Celtic at Pittodrie. Wins in those games will cap off what has been a fantastic year for Aberdeen, even if it feels more like a missed opportunity than a stunning success to some in the stands.
This season may have felt more uneventful for Aberdeen than last, with no cup finals or last-day drama, but the chances are that this relative but successful calm won’t carry through to next season.
The Dons will feel as though they will have a much better shot at reaching the Europa League group stages next year – if they can hold on to their star players and perhaps strengthen in the transfer window – given that they will have one less qualifying tie to play than they did this season.
They will also likely be challenged more thoroughly for their league position next year with the return of Hearts and potentially Hibs or Rangers adding to the likes of Dundee United, St Johnstone and ICT that have been there or thereabouts for years.
However it’s also possible that Aberdeen could manage to consolidate and improve yet again and are prepared to go for the title rather than flirt with it this time.
If McInnes & co. didn’t believe they were in with a shout of clinching the championship this year their final league position and the incredible efforts they have put in this season should show them that given the right moves in the transfer market and clever management decisions through the season they could well do it next campaign.
The title race is over it seems, even if Aberdeen’s players and manager never felt it really existed, but even though that might be cause for disappointment it shouldn’t get in the way of celebrating what is without doubt Aberdeen’s best league season since they last won it.
And who knows, maybe next year could be their year?