The stage is set for the final chapter of Aberdeen’s duel with Hibernian on Wednesday and the first three parts of this story encapsulate the mood within the Dons’ camp perfectly in what has become a season of significant change at Pittodrie.
With three matches played, the Dons lead the head-to-head score 2-1 having emerged victorious from the first two fixtures before Hibs hit back in the last meeting of the sides in February.
That slender advantage has effectively kept Aberdeen in the hunt for a third-place finish and, if the Dons do go on to pip Hibs to third spot this week, then both clubs will reflect on their games against each other knowing how pivotal they were.
It is clear the common theme in these matches so far is that the team which scores first wins and one interesting quirk in the three games so far can be shown in the action areas from Opta below.
Hibernian shaded possession in the first meeting at Easter Road on August 30, but it counted for nothing thanks to Lewis Ferguson’s penalty.
The win made it four wins on the bounce for the Reds and reflected the growing confidence within the camp following their return from an enforced two-week break after the now-infamous visit to a city bar by eight players led to three matches being postponed.
Former Dons boss Derek McInnes said: “When you come to Easter Road, to be as comfortable as we were on the back of a tough period and players running on empty, I have to be happy.
“We’ve acknowledged the punishment, but there has also been a strong sense of let’s get back to talking about football and what really matters.
“I’ve got a brilliant bunch of players and the best way to stop being asked about it is to talk about performances.”
If Aberdeen’s confidence was growing at the end of August, it was in full bloom by November 6 when the two sides met again.
Hibernian had even more possession in the second meeting at Pittodrie. The only problem was they were 2-0 down early thanks to goals from Scott Wright and Sam Cosgrove with Ferguson setting up both.
For Cosgrove, his goal was his first of the campaign after missing the start to the season due to an injury suffered in pre-season.
McInnes had plenty of reasons to celebrate the victory and the return of last season’s leading goalscorer was only one of them, with the win taking the Dons on to 26 points from their opening 12 matches of the season, their second-best start to a campaign in 20 years.
McInnes said: “Cosgrove’s finish was top class. His game is still getting up to speed as you can see and he is still untidy at times.
“That is understandable with him having been out for so long, but to get Sam back up and running and back scoring was a good night’s work.
“I am pleased with the start we have made and the point tally we have had up to now, but it’s just a start and I have to stress that. But I feel there is more in us. It was a very good team performance.”
A crisis of confidence
McInnes’ prediction proved hollow as a loss of form and crisis of confidence hit the team hard.
A 4-0 defeat Rangers followed the win at Pittodrie, with Aberdeen robbed of key players due to under-21 players having to isolate after returning from international duty with Scotland.
It got worse, much worse with Aberdeen picking up just four wins from their 15 matches in the period in between Hibernian fixtures and, by the time the Dons returned to Easter Road for the second time this season on February 6, the contrast could not have been starker.
McInnes had gone from being as relaxed as you can imagine to a man under pressure and scrutiny following reports moves were afoot to relieve him of his duties should Aberdeen fall to another defeat in the capital.
He went into the game without the services of Cosgrove, Wright and Curtis Main, who had departed the club, and Marley Watkins, who had returned to Bristol City after his loan had ended.
The loss of Ryan Hedges, the main creative outlet in their absence, just days earlier did little to help the cause.
His players responded by dominating possession at Hibs, but they did little with it.
This time the roles of the previous games had been reversed with Aberdeen being swept aside after going a goal behind, with Martin Boyle netting both goals for Ross’ men in a comfortable win. Had it not been for the efforts of captain Joe Lewis in goal, the margin of defeat would be have been greater.
To rub salt in the wounds, the game also ended Greg Leigh’s season due to a hamstring tear.
It fell to Jonny Hayes to defend his manager, insisting the players had to shoulder the blame for the club’s loss of form.
He said: “The manager is always going to be the one forced into carrying the faults for his players. We know as a group – and we’ve had talks about it – that we’ve not been good enough. Simple as.
“Players have to bear the responsibility. So does everybody. You can’t just say ‘it’s the manager.’
“I’ve been in the game long enough to know that as a team we are not performing well enough. That’s the be-all and end-all for me. We’re not playing well enough as a team and we need to rectify that fast.”
Much has changed since that game.
Victory took Hibs five points clear of the Dons in the race for third and a month later McInnes would take charge for the final time in a goalless draw against Hamilton on March 6.
Now it is Stephen Glass who faces the task of trying to close a gap which has only reduced by two points in the nine matches which have followed.
With both teams facing Old Firm opposition on Saturday, it is clear Aberdeen, barring an incredible collapse from Hibs against Celtic at the weekend, coupled with a win for the Dons at Ibrox, must win on Wednesday.
Both clubs are in Europe regardless of the result, but with £250,000 more prize money on offer to the team which finishes third, there is plenty riding on the outcome for the respective accountants at the two clubs.
But with Hibs having the Scottish Cup final to look forward to next weekend, it will be interesting to see where their priorities lie. Third place or a cup win which claims a place in the Europa League play-offs?
The answer seems obvious. But for the Dons, who have finished fourth in the last two seasons, you can be sure they are laser focused for their final home game of the campaign.