Aberdeen currently hold that spot after an impressive run of eight successive victories, with as many shutouts to match, and although Celtic have two games in hand on them (which, if both are won, will see the Glasgow side back on top), the fact that the Dons look to be putting up a challenge is encouraging.
When Rangers financially shot themselves in the foot and had to start over in the third tier in 2012, there were those who were screaming in a blind panic that ‘Armageddon’ would befall Scottish football.
Had those naysayers taken the time to inspect the game in this country more closely, they would have noticed our national pastime had been undergoing the slow, long-drawn out death of a thousand cuts.
Indeed, it is one that is resented such is the attention and praise that has been lavished on both Celtic and Rangers that the teams in the capital and the North-East coast are generally dismissed as bit-part players who are only there to make up the numbers.
One or two occasionally put up a challenge but given the huge resources that the Old Firm (at least before Rangers got a bit loose with the bean counter) have traditionally enjoyed, the rest have been unable to last the pace. Hearts had two excellent chances in 1997/98 and 2005/06 only to run out of gas with four games left in the former and having an owner’s self-destructive issues tampering with the latter.
Before that, Aberdeen had a glorious opportunity to have perhaps set Scottish Football on another path back in 1991. But despite needing a point at Ibrox on the final day, the Dons copped a bad case of stage-fright and allowed Rangers to sneak the title. Dons fans of a certain age will no doubt recall this and be wary of proclaiming that this time around they’re “going to win the league”.
However, if the same supporters care to throw their memories back to season 1979-80, they will find a source of inspiration which could instill some optimism that the class of 2015 might just pull this off.
Aberdeen were the last non-Old Firm team to win the title back in 1985. Indeed, they also won it the year before – although both triumphs were effectively season-long coronations, such was the grip that Alex Ferguson’s legendary side of the 1980s had on Scottish football (lest we forget that they were also one of Europe’s top sides as well).
But Ferguson had to make that difficult first breakthrough. Before the 1979-80 campaign got underway, no non-Old Firm team since Kilmarnock in 1965 had won the league. Had you said back then that Aberdeen would be the team to break that cycle you would probably have been indulged your fantasy and then when your back was turned, sneered at.
After all, the season before – Ferguson’s first in charge of the Pittodrie side – did not suggest that the Dons were ‘champions in the making’. The former St Mirren manager spent most of his time establishing both himself and his methods upon his new set of players which resulted in Aberdeen finishing in fourth spot – eight points (in the days when a win was worth two points) behind eventual champions Celtic.
Their campaign got off to a poor start as they looked anything but title challengers in a 1-0 defeat at Partick Thistle. Curiously enough, Ferguson had spotted something that led him to remark: “Don’t laugh, but I’ve got a scent about the way things are going to turn out this season.”
They won their next two matches against Hibs and Dundee United but then slipped up away to Morton. A fine home win against Rangers was cancelled out by a bad-tempered defeat against Celtic at Pittodrie – despite Gordon Strachan giving the Dons an early lead.
Even when Celtic had an off-day, as they would against Morton, the Dons would fail to cash in – while the Bhoys were losing in Greenock, Aberdeen were limping to a draw at home to Partick.
Morton would prove to be a regular thorn in Aberdeen’s side as they would win at Pittodrie and after the defeat they inflicted upon the Dons in January 1980 at Cappielow, Ferguson’s men were lying in sixth place. It proved to be the nadir of that season and no doubt the legendary ‘hairdryer treatment’ that has become synonymous with Ferguson over the years came into play. If Fergie did indeed employ it, the effect was instant as the following week, the Dons won a pulsating thriller at Pittodrie against Rangers with Derek Hamilton’s last-minute winner in a 3-2 win (Steve Archibald and Strachan were also on target) putting them back on course. Save for a blip at Kilmarnock, the Dons proceeded to go on an impressive run to surge up the table.
But was the revival too late in coming? After all, Celtic had managed to put a 10-point cushion between them and Aberdeen and for them to throw away such an advantage was unthinkable. However, that is precisely what started to happen although the Dons knew full well that they would have to take points off the Glasgow men themselves – trouble was, they had to do the hard way and go into the lion’s den that was Celtic’s Parkhead ground and win twice.
Many thought this unlikely as in the two meetings in their own backyard, Aberdeen had only managed a draw and a defeat when Celtic came calling to Pittodrie. But on April 5th, 1980, the tide began to turn. A piece of misfortune hit Celtic when defender Tom McAdam went off with a head injury. This meant that Roy Aitken had to be moved back from midfield to cover for McAdam – an enforced switch that disrupted the team balance. Aberdeen duly cashed in and went ahead when Mark McGhee sprung the home defence to round goalkeeper Peter Latchford and set up Drew Jarvie for an easy tap-in.
John Doyle levelled for Celtic but Aberdeen retook the lead when Ian Scanlon’s shot ricocheted to McGhee who fired home. Then came a moment which saw the title race pendulum swing further in the Dons’ direction when Celtic were awarded a penalty only for Dons keeper Bobby Clark to save Bobby Lennox’s spot-kick – an act which ensured a priceless victory.
As well as a confidence-boosting win for the Dons, it also sewed a seed a doubt in Celtic’s mind which began to take root the following week as they lost 3-0 at Dundee United. When they returned a fortnight later to the City of Discovery, this time to face Dundee, Billy McNeil’s men were on the wrong end of a 5-1 hammering.
Aberdeen had meanwhile kept the points ticking over and were breathing down Celtic’s neck when they again travelled to Parkhead in what proved to be a pivotal encounter.
It was an evening where midfield maestro Strachan came to the fore as the wee ginger-haired terrier put the fear of God into Celtic with a superb display that ran the Parkhead side ragged – even allowing for the fact that he would miss a penalty in this game. That blip proved to be a minor one as Archibald, McGhee and Strachan himself were on target in a 3-1 win that put Aberdeen top of the table for the first time that season.
Ten days later the stage was set for Aberdeen to clinch their first league title since 1955 and they did so in style (thanks also to Celtic being held 0-0 by St Mirren) with a 5-0 thumping of already-relegated Hibs at Easter Road with goals from McGhee, Archibald, Andy Watson and two from Scanlon capping off a momentous season. However, there is a theory that a certain pop-idol of the time had a hand in their success just as captain Willie Miller was leading the team out of the tunnel before kick-off.
Miller heard the tannoy at Easter Road blaring out the song “Dream Machine” and he would say afterwards: ”I remembered that some of the lines went ‘not to lose now but to win, tell me where do I begin, cause I’ve a dream, a silver dream machine’, and I said to myself: ‘This could be our day’.
“Everything worked out perfectly, of course, so you could say David Essex played a part in our triumph.”
The title success itself was the catalyst that sparked off a spectacular era for the club and while the current crop of players at Pittodrie are not of the same quality of the likes of Strachan, Archibald, McGhee and Willie Miller, they certainly have the same team ethic that Fergie’s class had and it can certainly carry them through as it did with the 1980 team. After all, it could be argued that the current Celtic team is also not of the same cloth as their 1980 equivalent.
If today’s Dons can continue hold their nerve and inflict their own dents on Celtic’s title aspirations (eyes are already being cast at the Parkhead meeting at the end of February) then not only will it send the message that Aberdeen are back amongst Scottish football’s elite, it will proclaim loud and clear that the game north of Hadrian’s Wall is very much alive and kicking.