Kevin McNaughton knows a thing or two about being underdogs in a cup final.
Twice during his time at Cardiff City did the former Dons defender head in to a showpiece game with little expected of them, other than to be a footnote in history.
The first occasion, McNaughton admits, the Bluebirds ran out of steam. A struggle for league form showed in their defeat to Portsmouth in the 2008 FA Cup final, as Nwankwo Kanu bagged the only goal for Pompey.
However, when even less was expected of them four years later in the League Cup final – they faced Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool – Cardiff very nearly caused one of the big upsets in English domestic football.
McNaughton said: “It was quite a relaxed atmosphere in the build-up and we knew we had to defend well. We were a threat at set-pieces all year; we had two big centre-halves, Ben Turner and Mark Hudson, and young Rudy Gestede, who had an unbelievable spring on him. We knew we could give ourselves a chance and trouble them. But if Liverpool played their best football, then they would probably win.
“Glen Johnson hit the bar after five minutes from 20 yards. If that goes in, it’s a different game. We got the goal through Joe Mason and dug in. We conceded late on and were unlucky to lose on penalties. As the game went on, even into extra-time, I felt we could nick it.
“The Liverpool one hurt more as we felt there was nothing more we could give. The FA Cup run we had, we were on the crest of a wave. We’d been struggling in the league that season but had a decent cup run, playing mainly Championship teams. We had Middlesbrough in the quarter-finals then Barnsley in the semis. We avoided the big teams and no-one expected us to win it. There’s no pressure on you – you try to enjoy the day and nick a result.”
McNaughton, now a youth team coach at Dundee, did not get to sample a cup final during his six seasons in the Dons first-team, making his debut five months after the Scottish Cup final defeat to Rangers in 2000. The odds are against Aberdeen toppling Celtic on Sunday but there are lessons they can learn from Cardiff’s cup exploits.
McNaughton added: “Defensively I don’t think Celtic are as good as they have been in recent years. They’re strong attacking-wise and Aberdeen will have to nullify that as best they can. That would give them the confidence that they can go on and shut Celtic out.
“Celtic are experienced at winning cups and it will be tough. We had nothing to lose and that’s a similar sort of attitude Aberdeen should take into the game. This could be a catalyst to kick-start their season; it’s a one-off game and I know what it’s like to come close with the odds against you.”