Days of desperation for fallen pretenders

SCOTTISH FOOTBALL: Aberdeen edge nearer safety with New Firm triumph while champions are embarrassed in Old Firm derby
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The Independent Online
So, no tears for the hard men of the Granite City, or at least not yet. Instead it looks as if Jim McLean has finally got something really worth scowling about.

The long-time Dundee United manager, now chairman, left Pittodrie in a foul mood on Saturday, jeered on his way by Aberdeen supporters who are beginning to believe in miracles.

For weeks it has seemed that Aberdeen, three times Scottish champions in the last 16 years, were about to drop out of the senior division for the first time in their 92-year history.

But, having drifted at the bottom end of the Premier Division all season, the Dons dragged themselves above last place on Saturday with a hard-earned but well-deserved 2-1 victory over Dundee United. The losers now dwell in the section's only automatic relegation spot and, with just a week to go, face starting a season in the second grade for the first time since the 1950s.

These are strange and depressing days for Scottish football. The national team, though well placed to reach Euro '96, is at a low ebb with dispirited crowds, reflecting a lack of faith after their failure to reach the World Cup and a lack of interest in its low-key management.

Domestically, Rangers have made the title a sinecure and Brian Laudrup's skills have so exposed the lack of quality in native players the Scottish Football Association has embarked upon a three-year inquiry into the state of the game.

There are stirrings at Celtic, after six trophy-less years of moderate teams and failing administration, but that, in itself, would not be the answer. A strong Celtic might give Rangers a challenge but it would merely restore the stifling Old Firm dominance of yesteryear. The two clubs are comfortably the best supported in the land but they have long held a position similar to that which Manchester United are acquiring south of the border - you either love them, or hate them.

There are unfamiliar faces, such as Falkirk and Raith Rovers, challenging for Europe and winning cups but the two clubs who seemed, a decade ago, to be breaking the Old Firm's grip on the championship are now floundering.

In the early 1980s Aberdeen and Dundee United were the New Firm. After 14 years in which the title had always gone to one of the Glasgow giants they won four of six championships. Aberdeen lifted the European Cup- Winners' Cup with a stirring win over Real Madrid, Dundee United reached the Uefa Cup final and the European Cup semi-finals. Scottish football seemed destined for a new era of competition.

But, for the last 10 seasons, the title has stayed in Glasgow. Aberdeen have been regular bridesmaids, but their relative failure over the last eight years (three cups) has illustrated just how impressive the managerial reign of Alex Ferguson was.

They were still second last season, and second favourites at the beginning of this, but they have spent unwisely on and off the pitch. The vast Beach End stand, whose upper tier seating design means you can barely see one goalmouth, has plunged them into debt. A share issue, viewed suspiciously by supporters, is in the offing.

Willie Miller, a favoured servant of the club, was sacked as manager earlier this season. Fans have accused the team of not trying and suggested the good players are looking for transfers while the poor ones console themselves with contracts which - because relegation has never been countenanced - would still pay a generous win bonus in the First Division.

But since Roy Aitken, with his up-and-at-'em personality, became manager, commitment has not been a problem. It is Dundee United, riven by contract disputes all season, who seem strangers to team spirit despite the return of a former player, Billy Kirkwood, in place of the eccentric Ivan Golac as manager.

Last May the former Southampton defender was celebrating Scottish Cup final success. But that obscured poor league form which continued this year. United's tight fiscal policy has meant that many of their signings have been obscure - and cheap - foreign players who have contributed little.

On Saturday Kirkwood was further hamstrung by suspensions to four key players, and had the former international, Maurice Malpas, playing sweeper in a five-man back-line. It was soon clear he was in for a busy afternoon - from the kick-off he was harrassed by Billy Dodds into kicking the ball into touch.

The atmosphere was fervent, with Pittodrie hosting its first full house of the season. It appears that the prospect of losing Premier Division status has reminded Aberdonians how important it is. In response the players, lifted by last week's win at Hearts, looked like a team challenging for honours, not staving off relegation.

Stephen Wright was a constant threat coming forward from right-back and linking well with Joe Miller on the wing. Eoin Jess, pushing on from midfield, showed signs that his talent had returned and Dodds, heavily criticised but still top scorer, was constantly involved. In the centre of the park, Peter Hetherston, relishing his chance after being ignored by Willie Miller, provided ballast and resolve.

It was too much for United though the first goal, on 37 minutes, came just as they were beginning to assert themselves. A sweeping move, from their own byline, ended with Miller skinning David Craig and crossing for Jess to head powerfully goalward. Kelham O'Hanlon did well to block but Dodds followed up to score.

United reshuffled to no avail in the second half and Aberdeen struck again when a swift counter-attack went from Miller, Hetherston and Dodds to Duncan Shearer, who thumped home from 20 yards. A marvellous goal but not atypical - though there were many mistakes there was also a lot of good football, most of it played on the ground.

Robbie Winters pulled one back for United but they could not force a draw. The best they can now hope for is to make the play-off against the First Division's runners-up - who could be their neighbours, Dundee. But, with Partick Thistle securing their safety, the play-off place is likely to fall to Aberdeen or another of the aristocrats, Hearts.

All three sides know how damaging relegation could be. There is talk of coming straight back but concerned glances, too, at Dundee. Once one of the senior sides, they were relegated in the first season of the Premier Division - 20 years ago - and have been up and down ever since.

Goals: Dodds (37) 1-0; Shearer (67) 2-0; Winter (85) 2-1.

Aberdeen (4-4-2): Snelders; Wright, Irvine, Smith, McKimmie; Miller, Hetherston, Jess (Glass, 76), Grant; Dodds, Shearer. Substitutes not used: Inglis, Watt (gk).

Dundee United (5-3-2): O'Hanlon; Hannah, Perry, Malpas, Dailly, Craig; McInally, Johnson, Crabbe (McLaren, 53); Sergio, Brewster (Winters, 71). Substitute not used: Garden (gk).

Referee: H Williamson (Renfrew).