Twelve months ago, Connor McLennan and Dean Campbell were preparing for a Scottish Youth Cup semi-final against Kilmarnock.
With broader shoulders and calmness beyond their teenage years, the local boys come good were integral to Aberdeen seeing off Rangers 2-0 and making their third consecutive Scottish Cup semi-final.
McLennan’s goal on the hour-mark, dispatched with no shortage of precision, gave Aberdeen and Derek McInnes a cushion they would not relinquish, following Niall McGinn’s opener inside three minutes.
That 19-year-old McLennan’s inclusion was no surprise is testament to his own rapid ascendancy to first-team regular, while Campbell – impressive in a second-half cameo against Celtic – was the curveball who hit the occasion out of the park. Renditions of ‘one Dean Campbell’ from the away section would have been music to his Dons-daft ears.
The only sour note for the Dons on a memorable night was a booking for Graeme Shinnie, who took the proverbial one-for-the-team booking to prevent Ryan Kent from getting close to the box but will sit out the semi-finals for the second year in a row.
McGinn, who was named in the Northern Ireland squad earlier in the day, made the kind of impact McInnes would have been hoping for. Only Glen Kamara will know why he decided to play a square ball with McGinn lurking near James Tavernier, with it falling perfectly for the Dons winger to advance on Allan McGregor and slide underneath him.
Aberdeen set their stall out early; an aggressive, high-energy gameplan in the final third ensured the Rangers defence were afforded little time to settle. In some respects it was the perfect game to deploy May, the ‘dirtiest’ of Aberdeen’s forwards who makes being a nuisance into an art form.
He was effectively doing a man-marking job on Joe Worrall, taking advantage of the centre-back’s trepidation in possession and forcing him into erratic decisions when he had limited time to make them. But following the goal, he spent much of his time watching Aberdeen retreating further back towards their own goal, content to weather a blue wave of pressure.
Campbell’s role was one of shadowy diligence, tasked with following Scott Arfield like a discreet bloodhound and pouncing whenever the ball got within a five-yard radius of the former Burnley and Falkirk midfielder. His influence was negated but Tavernier and Daniel Candeias, working in tandem down the Rangers right, were their most fruitful outlets, with the hosts struggling to get Alfredo Morelos into the game. Getting booked for diving just after the half-hour mark was his most meaningful contribution.
Ryan Jack, ever a popular figure with the travelling support, smacked the post in a warning shot to the Dons and their ever-deeper defensive line would have worried McInnes. Getting through to the interval unscathed appeared their raison d’etre.
An ill-tempered first half predictably sputtered to a close with a flurry of hefty challenges, with Candeias and Ryan Kent rendered shrapnel by a couple of Dominic Ball challenges that had the defender dodging yellows with almost comical innocence. May, McKenna, McGinn and Lewis Ferguson had already been booked, while Shinnie, McLennan and Max Lowe were an indiscretion away from missing a potential semi-final.
One of those, McLennan, who has impressed many with his nervelessness on the big stages, delivered further evidence of his credentials. Set free by May, McLennan took the ball in stride and faced up with McGregor, he slotted across goal in the left corner. He was not about to get stage fright now.
What they had they could now hold, which allowed McKenna to rise to prominence as Aberdeen’s goal-defender-in-chief. It was a flawless night for the Scotland international, who blocked, charged and headed anything that remotely threatened his goal.
The sight of Ibrox emptying well before the final whistle was physical indication of a job well done by McInnes and the Dons, who now must switch their attentions to plotting the downfall of Rangers’ Old Firm rivals Celtic next month if that elusive Scottish Cup trophy is to come back to Pittodrie.