Feb 292012
 

Shakhaf Barak wrote to a friend highlighting the history behind the current referendum that is dividing the city. He has kindly allowed Voice to use it, almost verbatim as the deadline approaches for voting.

Dear Friend,
Here in Aberdeen there is a bitter referendum taking place, and it could go either way. Over 70,000 people have voted thus far, in a city of barely 212,000 souls, and both sides have reported each other to the police. Central to this story is a 250-year old city centre park, Union Terrace Gardens, and the billionaire oil tycoon seeking to redevelop it.

Union Terrace Gardens are similar to Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, lying in the natural amphitheatre of the Denburn valley, the Denburn being a stream which flows right through the city, underground where it borders the Gardens. Much of Aberdeen’s best architecture was clearly envisaged to overlook this area.

The Gardens are home to a cluster of 260-year old elms trees that once formed part of the Corbie Haugh, a historic wood which ran through the valley. This is among the largest concentration of healthy mature elm trees in Europe, and they are reputed to have escaped Dutch Elm Disease, not only due to their isolation, but also because the pollution of the city has afforded some sort of protection from it.

Both the park and its beautiful Victorian toilets are Grade A-listed, and all of the trees are under preservation orders. Up until as late as 2003, the Gardens formed the centrepiece of Aberdeen’s Britain In Bloom entry, and they were truly stunning, but since then expenditure has all but ceased, and the toilets have been closed for several years.

In 2008 a local arts organisation, Peacock Visual Arts (PVA) was granted planning permission for an award-winning and sympathetically-designed arts centre to be built into the hillside of the Gardens. This would have meant felling a small number of trees but none of the elms. The design was universally acclaimed and it was hoped that this scheme would help regenerate interest in the Gardens.

Enter Sir Ian Wood, one of Scotland’s richest men, and chief of Wood Group PSN. Sir Ian decided that he’d like to redevelop the Gardens by building a five-storey bunker in their place, whilst covering over the adjoining railway line and urban dual carriageway, with the entire roof of this construction forming a flat civic square at street level. It was not entirely clear what would be installed in the bunker, although speculation was rife to say the least.

He offered the council £50m towards the cost of this project, which was mooted to cost £140m. This was possibly an optimistic figure since Union Square, a similarly sized shopping mall with none of the technical difficulties or prior excavation work, cost £250m to build. The council felt this offer was too good to refuse, but the some members of the public were up in arms.

Sir Ian decided to put the proposal out to public consultation and promised to walk away should the public reject it.

The ‘consultation’ was commissioned by Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future (ACSEF), a publicly-funded unelected QUANGO, and conducted by The BiG Partnership, Scotland’s largest PR company.

It many ways it resembled a marketing exercise. The bulk of participation was via a website, which asked several questions with a somewhat loaded feel to them. For technical reasons, the question on whether or not to proceed with the plan defaulted to a YES vote.

If, during completion of the questionnaire, any previously-given responses were subsequently amended, this again defaulted back to a YES vote. When the results were released, it became apparent from the comments sections that may people who had intended voting NO had instead been recorded as YES voters.

Over 10,000 people participated in the consultation, and In spite of it’s technical oversights, the public voted against the Civic Square proposal by 54%-46%, a healthy and significant majority. However the PR machine kicked in and somehow spun that the 202,000 people who had not participated possibly represented a silent majority in favour of this scheme.

  Critics described it as a cross between Tellytubby Land and a skate park

Sir Ian decided not to walk away, and the project went to a council vote. The council voted in favour of taking the plan forward at the expense of PVA who by that time had 80% of their £20m funding in place. It has subsequently been alleged that some of the PVA funding was diverted into the new project.

The BiG Partnership now re-launched the plans under a new name, The City Garden Project (CGP). It was claimed that the outcome of the public consultation was that the public were broadly in favour of a garden as opposed to a civic square. Any implication that they were actually in favour of preserving the existing gardens was ignored.

The interested parties now felt that the best option was to redevelop the Gardens by building a five-storey bunker in their place whilst covering over the adjoining railway line and urban dual carriageway, with the entire roof of this construction forming a new garden at street level.

The whole thing had an air of déjà vu.

This time it was decided to hold an international design contest, paid for with public money. Six designs were shortlisted from hundreds of entrants. One, The Granite Web, bore a striking resemblance to Civic Square concept, albeit with less concrete and more greenery. Critics described it as a cross between Tellytubby Land and a skate park.

The local press heavily promoted the Granite Web design from the outset of the contest, leading with it on their front page and providing it with more photo coverage than the other designs. It was almost as though it had been ordained.

The public voted, and spoiled ballots aside, all indications were that The Winter Garden design proved the most popular. An independent poll confirmed this and put The Monolith in second place.

Tellingly both of these designs retained much of the topology of the existing Gardens. Word on the street was that The Granite Web was not a popular choice, but we’ll never know for sure, because a decision was taken not to release the results of the so-called public vote to the public.

It was then announced that the winner of the private-public vote would be put forward to the selection panel, along with another design. The self-appointed selection panel consisted of Sir Ian, some other influential people from the oil industry, an architectural consultant on the project payroll, and a councillor who backed the project.

The two designs discussed were the acknowledged public favourite, The Winter Garden, and you’ve guessed it, the joker in the pack, The Granite Web. When the panel announced the result, it should have come as no surprise to anyone that they had chosen The Granite Web, yet there was a shocked silence, and even those had come out in favour of the redevelopment initially appeared bemused if not downright confused.

The original Civic Square was mooted to cost £140m, with £50m coming from Sir Ian, £20m from the private sector, and the rest to be borrowed through a Tax Incremental Funding (TIF) scheme. Any over-run would be covered by the council (read local taxpayer) .

Only £5m of the private sector contribution has materialised thus far, but there has been an announcement that The Granite Web would be significantly less expensive to build than the previously-envisaged, but somewhat less complex, civic square. Sir Ian has offered to personally fund up to £35M of any cost over runs, should they occur.

The TIF proposal cheerfully bends all the guidelines of TIF funding. TIF is intended to be used to redevelop brownfield sites, with the loan being repaid over a 25 year period through increased rates recouped from any businesses setting up in the redeveloped area. The city council had already approved planning permission for two new industrial estates on the outskirts of town, under the business case for the TIF funding, these new estates become part of the TIF zone, so in The Granite Web’s case, sections of the TIF zone are located several miles away from the actual redeveloped area.

The predictions are for 6,500 jobs and £122m annual revenue to the local economy, all based on the new industrial estates, which have no obvious linkage to The Granite Web, operating at full capacity. Even if one were to accept that any new jobs could be somehow attributed to The Granite Web, the figure of 6,500 seems unlikely given that the London Olympics is only projected to create 3,500 jobs.

Either way, the setup feels a bit shaky; the truth is that these jobs and their associated revenue will accrue with or without The Granite Web.

By this time, councillors seemed to be getting edgy and unwilling to green-light the project, so they decided to hold a public referendum. Any group wishing to campaign was required to adhere to an £8,000 spending limit, and for this they were provided with 300 words of text in the voting pack.

The packs went out, but unfortunately some of the Retain lobby’s statements were mangled due to a ‘computer error’. The voting packs were closely followed by a big money public relations mail bombing campaign by The BiG Partnership promoting The Granite Web. Publicity materials went through every letter box, pro Granite Web articles dominated the press, and adverts were played around the clock on the local radio stations.

Apparently this expenditure was permitted by virtue of being funded by an ‘unregistered’, and as yet anonymous, campaign group – whatever that means! I guess it’s a bit like not having to pay tax because your parents never applied for a birth certificate, who knows? By this point, things were becoming surreal to say the least.

The referendum closes on 1 March and it’s a bitter fight that has divided the city. For example, an oil company boss has made a complaint to the police alleging mail hacking and cyber bullying. The police claim they are taking this allegation seriously. There have also been two arrests possibly related to claims of vote-rigging, but ultimately no one was charged.

The town has gone berserk and it’s civil war all over Facebook. It’s as if we’re all experiencing a really, really bad shared dream. I just dread to think what we’ll all be waking up to on Saturday morning.

Nov 282011
 

This match really underlined how the sport of football can toy with the emotions of its followers. At half time Dunfermline would have bitten off hands for a point, but in the end it was Aberdeen who felt relieved to snatch a share – and yet, both teams will feel as if they could or should have won the game. Philip Sim reports.

The Dons undoubtedly controlled more of the match and created a greater quantity and quality of chances, but it was the home side who somehow found themselves 3-1 ahead – and indeed, it could have been 4-1 if not for a terrific save from visiting keeper David Gonzalez.

Ten minutes of madness at the back soured what had been developing into a decent Aberdeen performance.
It’s little consolation that the Dons have now quadrupled their away goals tally for the season, as they remain rooted second-bottom of the SPL.

Aberdeen’s back line will come in for some deserved criticism after an all-too familiar second-half collapse, but special mention once again has to go to Andrew Considine, arguably his team’s most effective performer this season. The centre half has looked solid in defence and has popped up with vital goals several times already this term, and it was hardly a surprise that he broke the deadlock.

The fact a defender can be so lauded in a team which is shipping so many goals speaks to the nature of this match – while undoubtedly an entertaining affair, it was as laden with negatives as positives. While Aberdeen found themselves trailing 3-1 to a team who haven’t won a home match all season, they then showed great character and resolve to come back and tie the match, and came within inches of a winner in the final seconds.

Craig Brown will again point to his side’s statistical superiority, and while it’s true that the Dons largely bossed the first half, made plenty of chances and won endless corners, all too often they showed profligacy in front of goal. Josh Magennis was the main offender, missing four good chances including an open goal before he finally netted the late equaliser.

A cutting edge up front has been Aberdeen’s key failing this season, and a quick glance at the SPL’s top scorers confirms this – Scott Vernon just makes it the top 15, while Inverness, the only team separating the Dons from bottom of the league, have both Andrew Shinnie and Gregory Tade.

Beyond the striking issues and occasional defensive standstill, the result points out how fragile Aberdeen are, looking distinctly makeshift after losing just a few players to injury. Kari Arnason would be badly missed from any midfield in the country, but really it was Scott Vernon’s absence that hurt the Dons here.

With Rory Fallon withdrawn presumably due to injury after an anonymous first half and Mo Chalali off on international duty – still the only situation where he has actually scored a goal – the absence of Vernon leaves Aberdeen with a front duo of Magennis and Darren Mackie. This is not a pairing which will strike fear into the hearts of many SPL defenders, especially given the scant service they tend to receive – Richard Foster remains the team’s only source of width, given the uninspiring form of eternal substitute Peter Pawlett.

Brown and indeed many of the supporters might be looking forward to the January transfer window and a strengthening of the squad, but there are six more games to be negotiated before then.

Depending on whether your glass is half full or half empty (discounting the rather vocal minority of fans who broke their glass and went home in a huff at 3-1) these six are all winnable games in a league as evenly balanced as the SPL outside of the Old Firm. On the empty-glass relegation-dogfight hand, maybe a point away from home against a fellow struggler is a decent result – but this was the type of game that Aberdeen really need to look to win if they are going to build a move up the table.

Oct 312011
 

Another narrow 2-1 defeat against the Old Firm for Aberdeen in a physical battle of a game which lacked entertaining football but was never short on controversy and incident. The Dons conceded a penalty, had an appeal of their own turned down and had a man dismissed in a tough-tackling match which also saw potentially serious injuries for both teams. Philip Sim reports from Pittodrie.

Injury to striker Scott Vernon prior to the match left Rory Fallon deployed up front alone, Chris Clark taking his place in a five-man midfield. The suspended Ryan Jack was replaced at right-back by Rory McArdle looking suitably out of his depth in an unfamiliar position.

Overloading the midfield meant much of the action took place there, which played into Aberdeen’s hands in the first half – while free-flowing football and chances were at a premium in the opening period, David Gonzalez in the home goal barely touched the ball, while his side carved out several good opportunities.

Clark in particular had his best game since returning to Pittodrie, buzzing about and chasing every ball kicked in the middle of the park. There was some pressure on Clark to step up after Rob Milsom, who had started brightly, had to be withdrawn with a badly gashed ankle courtesy of a horrific tackle by Steven Naismith.

The Scotland striker managed to badly injure himself in the act, but somehow escaped even a yellow card for the worst tackle of a game which was far from pretty at its best.

The second half was a mirror of the first. While the midfield war of attrition raged on as previous, this time it was Rangers who were making opportunities and it was hardly a surprise when they broke the deadlock. After that, Aberdeen always seemed to be swimming upstream, and despite some excellent play from Andy Considine in particular, the game seemed lost.

Blame is going to be difficult to dole out from this defeat, but beyond the odd simple incidence of poor play several arbitrary factors came into play.

Heavy rain through the first half saw many of the players slipping and sliding around on the slick Pittodrie turf, epitomised by Ricky Foster on his backside as Rangers burst through the score the opening goal.

At the other end of the park the sun rather than the rain was the enemy for visiting keeper Allan McGregor, who allowed Ricky Foster’s shot to apparently pass straight through him. The Scotland keeper had the sun in his eyes, but still should have comfortably dealt with Foster’s effort, which while well struck was heading right down his throat.

Another factor neither team could plan for was the referee – although Aberdeen might have had an idea what they were in for the minute Willie Collum’s name was called out over the tannoy.

Collum has always been greeted with derision by the Aberdeen support, often for good reason – and he will have earned no new fans in this match.

His first action was to book Kari Arnason for his very first tackle of the match, effectively putting the shackles on the combative midfielder for the rest of the match. The challenge might have been worthy of a booking, but Collum didn’t seem to maintain this opinion when it came to several identical tackles from visiting players.

Arnason has quickly become a fan’s favourite at Pittodrie with his no-nonsense attitude and occasional thunderbolt from distance – one of which sent McGregor scrambling in the first half – but he was visibly constrained by the early caution, pulling out of challenges he would usually relish.

The Main Stand linesman also had an absolute shocker, but provided one of the comedy highlights of the match – after the hapless official finally awarded a decision in Aberdeen’s favour in the final minutes, the fans behind him celebrated like a goal had been scored.

After two narrow defeats to the Old Firm, Aberdeen can approach their next run of games with some confidence, starting with the visit to managerless St Johnstone next week. One worry will be the loss of several key players – Rob Milsom and Scott Vernon are now questionable through injury, and Rory Fallon will miss two matches after receiving a rather soft red card in the final minutes. This gives Craig Brown something of a selection headache in a key area of the pitch – and one that has been far from the Dons’ strongest this term.

Oct 252011
 

An Aberdeen defeat at Parkhead is hardly unpredictable – it’s seemed like the Dons couldn’t buy a win against Celtic in recent years, not that they’d have to finance to do so – but at least the team are down to battling, one-goal margins now rather than the capitulations of last season. Philip Sim reports.

The Dons scored their first away goal of the season in this match, another little milestone in the crawl towards progress for Craig Brown’s side, who look to have a bit of confidence and fight about them after back to back home wins against Dunfermline and Dundee United.
Two things always seem certain when the men in red play against the hoops though – one of them will be sent off, usually controversially, and Charlie Mulgrew will score or create a goal to haunt his old club. The former Dons full-back often looks shaky during open play, but his set-pieces and surprising ability in the air have been invaluable to Celtic this term, which is perhaps why he was handed the captain’s armband for this match.

Wonderkid Ryan Jack went from hero to villain for the Dons, scoring an excellent solo goal to level the match before being sent off for a second yellow card.

Jack has really come into his own this season and for the most part his performance at Parkhead reflected this, but his dismissal ended the game as a contest.

Prior to that chances had really been at a premium, with both sides working hard to restrict opportunities for their opponents. Celtic had the lion’s share of the play, but Aberdeen were always in the game, fighting hard for every 50-50 ball and showing total commitment across the defence and midfield.

Jack’s first booking was a farce – a goal celebration of any kind is now apparently a foul, or was it merely for having the temerity to score against Celtic? However, he showed his inexperience when lunging into the tackle which earned him his second. He will now be suspended for the next match, the visit of the other Old Firm cheek, which presents Craig Brown with a defensive dilemma.

One option is to make a straight swap and drop Chris Clark in at full-back. This would be the continuity option and possibly the best one, given how well the rest of the team are playing in their respective positions, but Clark’s form has been very poor since his return to the Dons, especially defensively.

Another straight-swap option would be Rory McArdle, but full-back is far from his preferred position.

Brown has shown an admirable resolve to stick with the starting 11 and formation which has been performing well of late, but he is a tinkerer at heart and he may be tempted to move things around a bit.

Kari Arnason has been deployed at centre-half in several big games this season. Might Brown be tempted to move him into defence, shifting Andy Considine to left-back and Foster to right-back?

Arnason has formed a formidable partnership with Isaac Osbourne in the middle of the park and many Dons fans will be eager to see the havoc they could wreack on a Rangers midfield this weekend. Arnason’s composure and reliability are a bonus wherever he is deployed, but these charactistics work best alongside the wrecking-ball style of Osbourne in the middle of the park. One thing is for sure, and that’s that the Aberdeen board need to find some cash to sign these two up to longer-term deals as soon as possible.

Similar to the midfield duo, the defensive partnership of Considine and Youl Mawene is also probably working too well to be broken up. The experience and toughness of Mawene seems to give Considine real confidence, with the big defender already having his best season in the team, and the two complement each other nicely.

Players like Mawene, Arnason and Osbourne – and indeed Rory Fallon and David Gonzalez – weren’t in the side for any of last season’s humblings against the Old Firm, which can only be a good thing. They approach these games full of confidence rather than trepadition, expecting to win, and with these five really representing the spine of the team this really boosts the morale and belief of their team-mates.

During the latter years of the Jimmy Calderwood era Aberdeeen had an excellent home record against Rangers, winning almost every game, and the way the Dons are playing right now, there’s every chance that can be re-established again this weekend.

Oct 172011
 

Back to back wins, a five-figure home attendance creating a good atmosphere, and a team physically dominating a match to a comfortable victory…surely this can’t be the Aberdeen FC of this season we’re talking about?! Philip Sim reports from Pittodrie.

Last time out against Dunfermline, Aberdeen created innumerable chances and only visiting stopper Paul Gallacher prevented the match ending with a cricket score.

Dundee United were expected to provide a much stiffer challenge than the SPL new boys, but in truth the Dons did not even have to play as well as they did against the Fifers to record a comfortable victory.

Dusan Pernis is normally a solid, reliable goalkeeper, but he made a bad error in United’s last match against Motherwell, and he seems low on confidence.

He did very well to parry Rory Fallon’s header seconds before Kari Arnason stabbed home the opener, but his kicking was all over the place and even Andrew Considine will be wondering how his trundling effort crept in for Aberdeen’s third.

The visitor’s deficiencies didn’t start or end at the back however.

United lost an entire midfield of talented players over the summer, and have tried to replace them with kids and the extremely average John Rankin. By contrast Aberdeen’s summer signings Kari Arnason and Isaac Osbourne had little trouble in taking the game by the scruff of the neck and absolutely controlling proceedings in the middle of the park.

Osbourne in particular didn’t miss a tackle, and his graft and tidy use of the ball left Aberdeen dominating the midfield, despite Fraser Fyvie and Rob Milsom having relatively quiet games.

At the back, the Dons were if anything even more impenetrable. United captain Jon Daly must think of Pittodrie as a fairly happy hunting ground, but he barely got a touch of the ball in this match with Youll Mawene and Andy Considine winning everything in the air and on the deck. Each also popped up with a goal at set pieces – another mark of how the Dons totally won the physical battle against opponents who are no lightweights themselves.

Up front, Fallon and Scott Vernon are beginning to understand each other better and better as a strike partnership, and the big Kiwi seems to be exactly the foil that Vernon needs to get back to the goalscoring form he showed last season.

Fallon is excellent in the air and at holding the ball up which leaves Vernon free to burst into goalscoring positions. The pair of them pose far more of a threat than the previously tried combinations which used Vernon or Magennis as the target man – as was proved after Fallon’s substitution when the Dons lost much of their bite going forward.

Much like Spain against Scotland in midweek – although admittedly with only an ounce of the panache – Aberdeen bossed their opponents with ease for the first hour, but after going 3 – 0 up were guilty of taking their foot off the gas and allowing the visitors back into the game.

United’s goal was no more than a consolation for the visiting support, but it took some of the gloss off an impressive Aberdeen display.

Brown’s substitutions in particular seemed to take a lot out of the Dons – Chris Clark once again failed to impress, the game seeming to pass him by, and as mentioned earlier the team really seemed to miss the presence of Fallon up front after he was replaced by Magennis.

Willie Collum took charge of the match and did little to endear himself to either set of supporters, strangling any hope of free-flowing football by awarding a succession of needless free-kicks for niggly half-fouls. He turned down a decent penalty claim for both sides in the first half, although his decision to wave away Danny Swanson’s claims were probably quite strongly influenced by his earlier denial of Rob Milsom.

Two wins on the trot is as good a way to bounce back from an embarrassing cup defeat as any, and Craig Brown seems well on the way to having a settled starting eleven.

The next two games are going to be a massive test for his squad’s new-found confidence though, with a trip to Parkhead followed by the visit of Rangers. The Old Firm sides were both held to draws this weekend and Celtic in particular look to be there for the taking – and for the first time this season, Aberdeen look capable of putting a run together.

The feel-good factor is back at Pittodrie.

Oct 012011
 

A Scott Vernon hat-trick sent Aberdeen on the way to doubling their SPL goal tally for the season, and in truth the Dons could and should have scored more as they finally clicked in the final third. Vernon’s main challenger for the man of the match award was Pars goalkeeper Paul Gallacher, who pulled off a string of fantastic saves to keep the score down. In addition to his saves the home side hit the woodwork four times and Rory Fallon missed an open goal. Philip Sim reports from Pittodrie.

At long last, Aberdeen looked hungry for goals and showed a more ruthless up front. Many pundits have claimed Vernon and Rory Fallon are too similar to play together, but they showed in this game that they can operate effectively as a partnership.

Fallon is a traditional target man, winning flicks and holding the ball up, whilst Vernon, freed of this responsiblity, is allowed to play in his preferred role facing the goal.
After his first goal he was also playing with real confidence, and looked a completely different player to the isolated and frustrated Vernon of a few weeks ago.

The whole team seemed buoyed by the goals,  Rob Milsom and Fraser Fyvie in particular each having their best game of the season.

Milsom was everywhere, buzzing about making passes and penetrating runs, and he was denied the goal his performance deserved by another fine Gallacher save.

The foundation for the win was in the midfield – Kari Arnason and Isaac Osbourne ran Dunfermline ragged, winning every ball in the air and on the deck, giving Milsom and Fyvie more freedom to push forward and create. Dunfermline actually started the game with a five-man midfield, but were so beleaguered from the outset that holding midfielder Andy Dowie was substituted in the first half.

On the rare occasion that the ball made it past the midfield, Andy Considine and Youl Mawene dealt with the threat easily. Considine has really come into his own this season, perhaps thanks to having the composed, experienced head of Mawene next to him.

Mawene and Considine for the most part managed the defence on their own, allowing full-backs Ryan Jack and Ricky Foster to go forward almost constantly on the overlap. Their pace and drive added much-needed width to the side, in support of the central midfielders, Milsom and Fyvie, deployed on the wings.

Foster had an excellent game. Hopefully this performance – combined with the defeats against East Fife and Motherwell – will have convinced Craig Brown that he needs to use his captain at the left full-back position rather than further up the field. Foster is so quick he can be an attacking player even while covering the defence at full-back, and he plays by far his best football from there.

In fact, the same could go for the entire line-up. At last, players were deployed roughly in their proper positions, and it showed. The Dons looked far more comfortable than they have in any game this season, and it seems like after weeks of chopping and changing, Brown has found his best eleven.

One swallow does might make a summer, but this could be the turning point Aberdeen’s season has been waiting for. A free-scoring, morale-boosting win – the only downside is that it has come right before an international break, leaving the team with no chance to build momentum.

By contrast, Dunfermline enjoyed a good start to the season, but reality is starting to set in for the Fifers. Jim McIntyre has built a solid team of experienced pros, with very little reliance on youth or unknown quantities, which should be able compete in a fairly even SPL. As it stands, there are only two points between the sides in the bottom six, and only seven between fourth place and last.

As it is Aberdeen sit ninth, but will take a massive confidence boost from this win and are only one win away from the top six. At times this season they haven’t got the results their performances have merited, but against Dunfermline everything finally came together. The Red Army will be wondering if their side can’t play on a Friday night every week.

Sep 262011
 

Aberdeen are yet to win a game or even score a goal away from home in all competitions this season, and visiting third placed Motherwell was unlikely to yield any joy on this front regardless of the Dons midweek woes. Philip Sim reports.

The game itself came close to rivalling Aberdeen’s last away trip at Easter Road for sheer lack of entertainment. In truth both teams were fairly insipid in a game which was always looked like it would be decided by an individual error,  and over the last few years those have been the Dons’ speciality.

Craig Brown named what might be his strongest starting eleven, the poor form of many of those players notwithstanding. Despite picking the right players – with the possible exception of perennially overlooked impact sub Peter PawlettBrown again insisted on deploying them in almost arbitrary positions.

Kari Arnason, the best midfielder at the club, started at centre half. Chris Clark and Richard Foster, the only full-backs in the team, featured in midfield. Although midfielder Ryan Jack filled in at admirably at right-back, it further emphasised the makeshift nature of the team.

Moving Foster into midfield again resulted in centre-half Andrew Considine playing left-back – a particularly odd decision given the fearsome pace of Motherwell’s Chris Humphrey. This was underlined when the speedy winger – albeit probably fouling Considine in the process – sped away to round David Gonzalez and somehow send his shot up and away off the crossbar. That said, Banchory-born defender  Considine – one of Aberdeen’s better performers this term –  seemed to have the beating of his man thereafter

It is difficult of course to argue whether playing Foster at the back would have been effective, as it was his blunder while filling in at left-back allowing Bob McHugh in for the only goal of the game. The Steelmen scored their goal pretty much straight from an Aberdeen corner kick – underlining the visitors propensity for getting into a promising position before finding a bizarre way to mess it up.

The Dons’ attack appeared as toothless as ever, despite trying out yet another front pairing in Scott Vernon and Rory Fallon. The theory behind this partnership is sound – Fallon can operate as a target man allowing Vernon to play his preferred role of penalty box striker, playing facing the goal. Whilst the two combined reasonably well on occasion there was precious little creativity in getting the ball up to the strikers, with the Dons often just looking for the agricultural long ball towards Fallon.

The failure of Vernon and Fallon to click is a microcosm of almost everything about the Dons this season. It deceives to look good on paper, and in many ways it should work, but it doesn’t.

Motherwell have not been on a good run of form of late – they were beaten 3-0 at home by St Johnstone and knocked out of the cup by Hibs last week – but for one reason or another Aberdeen cant buy a win right now.

The Dons’ next two matches, home ties against Dunfermline and Dundee United, will complete the first set of fixtures against all of the other SPL sides. So far, Aberdeen have scored against two, and beaten only one. If Craig Brown can not improve this run of form, his side are going to look increasingly like relegation candidates, albeit in a crowded field of struggling sides.

Brown insists that luck has been against his side so far, and he had better hope it turns before long or he may find his coat on a shoogly peg. His players often appear to be just on the cusp of getting it together, so it might not be time to start questioning the manager’s position just yet . That time nonetheless creeps closer with every poor result.

Sep 202011
 
Aberdeen 3 – East Fife 3 – East Fife win 4-3 on penalties –  20/9/11

This latest embarrassment will not be altogether unfamiliar to those who sat through similar capitulations against Queen of the South, Queens Park, Dunfermline and Raith Rovers, or even the European humblings against Bohemians and Sigma Olomouc.  Philip Sim reports.

It’s got to the point where it’s not even surprising any more. On each occasion Aberdeen appear poised to take a step forward, they take two backward.

No matter how many times it happens, it still hurts. So what went wrong?  There was a lot more to this result than East Fife’s goalkeeper saving more penalties than Gonzalez for Aberdeen.

One attempt at an excuse is that it was a weakened Aberdeen team. Craig Brown has apologised for making wholesale changes to a side that played relatively well at the weekend – but many of them actually made sense.

David Gonzalez returned to the side after missing the weekend encounter with Kilmarnock due to his wife going into labour, and the return of the first-choice goalkeeper can hardly be said to have weakened the team.

That said, he looked distinctly flat footed at East Fife’s second goal although some would argue that Jason Brown would not have been tall enough to reach Matthew Park’s lob in any case.

Scott Vernon and Darren Mackie were partnered in attack – Brown’s tried and tested front duo – and while it’s debatable whether they have passed that test at least both of them have scored this season. By contrast, Mohamed Chalali has not scored at club level.

Indeed, after Vernon and Mackie were withdrawn for Chalali and Rory Fallon, the Dons seemed to struggle even more to find the way to goal. Only Josh Magennis looked lively – if not particularly dangerous. He found shooting space quite often but invariably shot straight at Mark Ridgers in the visitors goal.

Of the other changes, only Youl Mawene and Isaac Osbourne were missed as Rob Milsom’s recent form, Saturday’s game against Kilmarnock in particular, scarcely merited him a place in the side.

In any case, shouldn’t any eleven players on the first team books at Pittodrie be able to dispatch a side bottom of the second division?

Does this mean that Aberdeen’s second string players are not even second division standard?

To be fair, the Dons did fairly batter the Fifers’ goal. The home side recorded 25 shots on goal. However, too many were driven straight into Ridgers’ arms or sent tamely wide or over the bar. The Dons showed a complete inability to break their opponents down, often shooting from outside the box or even further afield.

Fair play to East Fife. They capitalised on the only three chances they had in the match. That Aberdeen scored the same number of goals from more than eight times the chances is testament to how poor the Dons’ finishing is at the moment.

Almost as much of a worry is the defence, a supposedly SPL standard defence which shipped three goals to a second division side. Oddly enough, Andrew Considine actually had a pretty good game at centre half, and while Rory McArdle didn’t look quite as composed, especially with the ball at his feet, he at least popped up with a goal. Aberdeen’s problems were at full-back.

Strangely this was the first game of the season that Aberdeen have started with two recognised full-backs in that position, rather than having midfielders or centre-backs fill in at one or both. Chris Clark played the majority of his games at Plymouth as a right-back, while left back is Ricky Foster’s strongest position – although Foster himself might argue otherwise. Despite this, the two looked completely and utterly clueless in defence.

Perhaps they were too focussed on going forward – both spent much of the game in the opposition half, swinging in crosses which never quite reached anyone. Whatever the reason, they provided absolutely no defensive cover. Foster usually bails out the centre-backs with his pace – against East Fife, Considine actually had to come to his captain’s rescue on several occasions. Clark  looked weak. He dithered pathetically while the Fifers scored their third, and while he thumped into one or two tackles impressively he wimped out of far more.

After a similarly hopeless displays against Hibs and Kilmarnock, the Red Army will be beginning to wonder what happened to Clark while he was in England – and precisely why he’s been signed to a three year contract. It was no surprise to anyone in the stadium when it was he who missed the final fatal penalty.

The biggest failure was one of belief. As the second half wore on it became increasingly clear that the heads had gone down, and that the Aberdeen players simply did not believe they could win the game back. They were out fought and out thought by a team which lost 6-0 at home to Dumbarton a few weeks previously.

Maybe sometimes there has to be a shock result – a giant-killing – as these things simply happen in football. But why do they always seem to happen to Aberdeen?
Another year, another humiliation, and once again the Red Army are left with more questions than answers about just where their club is headed.

Sep 182011
 

Last week’s debacle at Easter Road raised the question of whether Aberdeen and Hibs were bottom of the league because they were playing badly, or if they were playing badly because they were bottom of the league. The question might be answered in that this weekend, against teams in the top six, both sides played out highly entertaining 2-2 draws. Philip Sim reports from Pittodrie.

The Dons might justifiably feel they should have won their match with Kilmarnock, but the fact they trailed 2-0 after half an hour will leave the Red Army more positive about the result.

Aberdeen dictated much of the proceedings, winning a string of corners and creating chances early on, but despite the home side’s dominance it was the visitors who took an advantage into the interval by scoring with their only two attempts of the half.
The Dons showed resilience to come back from two goals down, and pressed hard to find a winner in the closing stages.

At the outset, many of last week’s questionable tactics remained in place - Kari Arnason, the most composed player in Aberdeen’s overstaffed central midfield, was again deployed needlessly at centre back, pushing Andrew Considine out to left back. Another midfielder, Ryan Jack, featured at right-back, while full-back Ricky Foster was played on the left wing. The other wide position was filled by central midfielder Fraser Fyvie.

Jack and Arnason are convincing near enough wherever they play, but Fyvie is not a winger, nor is Considine a full-back. And what is there to gain by pushing Foster forward into midfield? He looks fine bombing forward to the byline to get a cross in, but when he cuts inside he looks rather lost and confused. All of the good things he does from left midfield he was doing anyway from left-back, as well as using his pace to cover the defence. Moving him into midfield only serves to shuffle other players around to compensate.

Despite being played out of position, big Andrew Considine played out of his skin. While he still displays all the characteristics of a centre half – strong physically on or off the ball, good in the air – he also showed great attacking intent, thundering forward at every opportunity and whipping in some excellent crosses.

His goal was brilliantly taken, especially given it was with his weaker right foot, a finish that few of the Dons front line could have conjured in the current drought.

That said, the Dons featured an all-new strike pairing against Killie, with Rory Fallon and Mohamed Chalali both handed their first start in a red shirt.

Chalali showed good intent with some direct running at the visitor’s defence, and while Fallon won everything in the air the pair didn’t quite click as a partnership. Too often the Algerian directed his runs the wrong way to meet the Kiwi’s flicks, and after being moved out to the wing it was little surprise when Chalali was hooked at half time for the ultimately equally ineffective Peter Pawlett.

Fallon looked the part as a traditional target man, something the Dons have lacked this season, and almost gave his side the lead with a second-half header which rebounded back off the crossbar. This came after he was ludicrously booked in the first half by referee Iain Brines, supposedly for simulation – while the challenge in question may not have merited a penalty award, it certainly wasn’t a dive.

Brines gave Fallon absolutely nothing all afternoon, leading some to speculate that the whistler’s wife may have run off with a Kiwi.

In a way Craig Brown should thank Brines for his blunder, as that was the turning point in the match – after the second Killie goal, the heads had gone down, and it was only after the penalty controversy that the Dons looked fired up and hungry for vengeance.

Aside from the defensive lapses for the goals – one a missed header by Youl Mawene, who made amends by heading the equaliser, the other an instance of the entire midfield going to sleep at once – the main disappointment for Aberdeen was the attendance, a paltry seven and a half thousand. Although perhaps thanks to the quality of the match and the questionable officiating, the crowd produced one of the best atmospheres Pittodrie has seen this season.

The dwindling gates might have more to do with the accumulated horrors of the last couple of seasons than Aberdeen’s performances this term, but Brown‘s side could get the numbers heading in the right direction with a couple of wins.

Hopefully a good performance against lowly East Fife in the cup next week will generate some interest in the next home match, an experimental Friday night encounter with Dunfermline, and get the faithful flocking back to Pittodrie.

Sep 122011
 

Sometimes nil-nil can be a deceptive scoreline, masking an exciting encounter between two evenly-matched sides. Sometimes, though, there are simply no goals because neither team is good enough to score any. This was a match almost completely devoid of incident, a scrappy bottom of the table snooze-fest from which neither team even deserved a point. Philip Sim reports from Easter Road.

The grim performance on the pitch induced a funereal atmosphere in the stands, as it slowly dawned on supporters of both sides that they’d just paid in excess of twenty pounds to be bored and depressed.

You could be forgiven for initially assuming that at this stage of the season, Aberdeen and Hibs are in false positions at the bottom of the SPL.

However on Sunday’s evidence the position is more than deserved – few teams in the league could conspire to serve up such dire, uninspiring fare.

At times the game was a comedy of errors – an Aberdeen player would walk the ball straight out of play, only for his Hibernian counterpart to send the throw-in straight back to a red shirt, inevitably ending in another aimless long-ball to no-one in particular. An actual football team could have run riot against either side.

The Dons lined up in a less than ambitious 4-5-1 formation. Really, such a formation should see a team dominate the midfield, but Aberdeen rarely managed to string three passes together in the middle of the park, let alone control it. Isaac Osbourne was effective as usual in spoiling opposition play, but Fraser Fyvie and Rob Milsom appeared completely incapable of retaining possession. Ricky Foster’s pace and drive down the left provided a few meagre highlights, but on the other flank Chris Clark put in an absolutely dreadful performance, with the Dons looking characteristically short on width or creativity.

The failings of the five were compounded by those of the one, with lone striker Scott Vernon looking increasingly isolated and starved of  service. In a functional 4-5-1 the midfield is supposed to push forward to support the striker, maybe turn into a 4-3-3 when attacking, but the Dons showed little offensive invention or ambition save the occasional foray forward from Fyvie.

Vernon is a penalty-box striker, not a target man. He is not the man to win flick-ons or hold the ball up for his team-mates – he’s a finisher, not a creator.

He prefers to play facing the goal, rather than with his back to it, so in short he could not be less suited to the lone striker role. This does not however explain why he spent two thirds of the game at Easter Road offside.

At the other end of the park, Hibs had more of the ball but offered few real threats, mostly being restricted to long-range efforts. Garry O’Connor conspired to make Youll Mawene look quick, and what the Hibs front line conjured up was easily dealt with by David Gonzalez.

The home side’s toothless attack is one of the reasons they’re bottom of the league, so really there was no need to move Kari Arnason back into defence. He strolled through the game as usual, and his composure and presence could have made a huge difference to the Dons midfield, which was relatively transparent throughout. Moving the Icelander to centre back meant shuffling Considine out to left-back, and with Rory McArdle in the other full-back position there was never a hope of any attacking ambition from the full-back position.

By contrast when Hibs came forward down the flanks they often outnumbered the visitors’ defence, because their full-backs were willing to overlap and leave their own half.

To be fair to Considine and McArdle, neither of them are full-backs, and neither can be blamed for their manager’s decision to play them there. Meanwhile, the players in the Aberdeen squad who have looked reasonably exciting in recent weeks - Josh Magennis and Peter Pawlett – were left on the bench, and only introduced after the game had settled into a coma.

Seven games of the season gone, then, and Aberdeen have still only scored in one of them. The complaints remain the same, of width, creativity and attacking ambition, while the excuses grow thinner by the game – the return to the bench of Yoann Folly heralds the last of the team’s injury worries, and the squad has had ample time to gel.

Other teams who have undergone similarly large rebuilding jobs over the summer have settled much more quickly – fourth placed Kilmarnock and SPL new boys Dunfermline for example. With former Plymouth striker Rory Fallon reportedly offered a contract, Brown obviously recognises the shortcomings of his side, but patience in the stands is beginning to run thin – the Dons need to start producing results soon.