Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League - Tuesday 9th November 2010
Pittodrie Stadium, Aberdeen
Prior to Inverness Caley Thistle's visit to Pittodrie, opinion seemed to be divided as to the importance of the result. Speculators couldn't decide whether it was "must win" or "can't win" for McGhee, as the side looked to restore some form of respect following the debacle at Celtic. It had been suggested that anything other than a victory would see him relieved of his job, with plenty of others opining that his tenure should end irregardless of the result.
The opening proceedings had a feel of the last days of empire, with a paltry six thousand fans braving the elements and little atmosphere to speak of. As the great warrior poet Michael Stipe once wrote, "withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy". Whether those that had made the trip to Pittodrie arrived out of curiosity, duty or schadenfreude, there was a distinctly subdued atmosphere to the opening exchanges, representative of the recent setbacks.
Caley had started the brighter, as both Adam Rooney and Ross Tokely looped headers just wide of Langfield's goal. Johnny Hayes running was stretching Clark Robertson - deployed again at left back - while Stuart Duff looked infinitely more composed than the player we saw six months ago. Yoann Folly and Ryan Jack - in for the suspended Paul Hartley - were being forced back to the edge of their own box as Inverness dominated early possession.
Aberdeen started to come back into the game around 20 minutes in, with the impressive Maguire looking particularly dangerous. Aluko also looked more considerably more purposeful than he has in recent weeks. Vernon had a glorious chance to open the scoring, but somehow contrived to miss his header from Maguire's dangerous cross. Zander Diamond was next to trouble the Caley defence as his downward header was brilliantly saved by Esson - the first of several. On a night when a number of factors worked against Aberdeen, it was their former goalkeeper that was the real difference between winning and losing the game.
Just as Aberdeen were starting to look particularly dangerous, they found themselves behind in the most contentious of circumstances. A floated free kick looked to have been dealt with by the Aberdeen defence when referee John McEndrick signaled for a penalty. There was bemusement from every corner of the ground, not least from the Thistle players, with little indication of what phantom infringement McEndrick had seen. Adam Rooney was a little fortunate to see his penalty pass under the body of Jamie Langfield, but against the run of play, Caley were ahead.
Perhaps those that watched the game on television, or have access to highlights, can suggest what it was that McEndrick saw that merited the award. Other reports have suggested it was for a push by Folly, but there was little more contact than you would usually see at corners. If McEndrick was so insistent on following the letter of the law it seems outrageous that he'd not apply the same logic when Zander Diamond was manhandled by Ross Tokely at a second half corner. Mark McGhee will stop short of saying that the refereeing was incompetent, but I will not. Our manager may or may not deserve to lose his job, but it should not be because of a referee that misses clear handling of the ball, strong-arm tactics and a steadfast refusal to book opposition players.
If there were to be any indicators around the unity of the squad this setback would certainly test them, and credit where it is due, Aberdeen came back strongly. The crowd too had started to become more involved, fired by the previous outrage. Maguire was again tormenting the Caley defence, and Mackie was unlucky to see his brave attempt blocked by Esson at the expense of an early exit on a stretcher. Half time frustrations were aimed at the referee rather than the players.
Within minutes of the second half, a newly buoyant Aberdeen were level. Vernon's weighted through ball beat the Inverness offside trap and Velicka - on for the injured Mackie - calmly chipped the ball over the onrushing Esson. Again there were signs of the squad unity that had been questioned, as all ten players took a little longer than usual to congratulate the goalscorer.
Maguire and Vernon were starting to dictate play, with Aluko playing a supporting role. The latter came close to a memorable goal when his roulette spin and shot floated just wide. Caley had less possession, but Rooney was dangerous on the counter whenever they did, and should have given his side the lead on the break.
The majority of Aberdeen's demons this season have come from an inability to defend crosses, and it was to be our undoing once more with ten minutes to go. Grant Munro was allowed time to head a long cross past Jamie Langfield. It is at this point that I would like to suggest that Jerel Ifil never plays for Aberdeen again. Derek Young didn't just outshine him at right back, he looked like Maicon by comparison.
What now? There was a unity and fight about the performance tonight that has been sorely lacking in any recent games, and there were no obvious signs of the kind of dressing room revolt that has been rumoured. Were we to play that same game on a different day then we could have comfortably won it. The fact remains that we lost the "must win" game, have four points from our last ten games, and pressure will increase on McGhee until the board either publicly back the manager or remove him from office. The match typified McGhee's reign; entertaining in patches, defensively frustrating, satisfactory going forward but ultimately disappointing. Can he go on from here?
Aberdeen-Mad contributor Thomas Watt writes from a Dons fan's perspective for STV.com
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