The pain of a semi-final exit, with the cup in sight, was enough to tell Barry Nicholson it was time to move on.
Aberdeen had conquered Celtic, Darren Mackie’s goal at Parkhead earning the Dons a famous scalp and putting them just 90 minutes away from a domestic cup final.
That Saturday at Hampden Park was memorable – but for all the wrong reasons. Unfancied Queen of the South turned the tables on Aberdeen, coming out on top in a 4-3 classic and going on to face Rangers in the 2008 final.
For Nicholson, who was already considering leaving Pittodrie, it was the nudge he needed to make the jump. The European run the Dons had been on earlier in the season had left a lasting impression on Nicholson, who would loved another foray into the Uefa Cup, having faced Lokomotiv Moscow, Atletico Madrid, FC Copenhagen and Bayern Munich. That is still the last time the Dons made it beyond Christmas in European competition.
“After the semi-final, there wasn’t long to go in the season,” said Nicholson, who scored Aberdeen’s second against Queens that day. “But I knew I needed a new challenge. If we had won the game and got to the final then the decision would have been much harder. The European run was so good I probably would have wanted another shot.
“Even if we had lost (the final) we would have been in the final, then my decision would have been bigger.
“The European place is still up for grabs and that’s a big thing. If Aberdeen get to the final and get into Europe again, it might make one or two – who are thinking of leaving – think again.
“They’ve done really well under Derek McInnes and it’s where they want to be. If Aberdeen finish third for the next few seasons and get to the final of the Scottish Cup, their fans would be delighted with that. That would be success.”
He departed Aberdeen for Preston North End and then Fleetwood Town, where he is currently development manager under Joey Barton.
But the manner of the exit to Queens, in which Andy Considine scored twice for the Dons but two ex-reds, Steve Tosh and John Stewart, found the net for the Doonhamers to dump out Jimmy Calderwood’s side.
“Everyone felt we would get through and play Rangers. We all felt confident of winning; even when we went a goal down and got it back to 3-3, you think ‘surely we’ll go on to win it now’. But we lost four bad goals on the day.”
Nicholson had already experienced heartbreak in the competition. He was captain of the Dunfermline side that lost the 2004 final against Celtic, having led 1-0 at half-time. They also had ex-Dons Darren and Derek Young in the team but the storyline of the final was written by Henrik Larsson, who scored twice in the second half as Celtic won 3-1, in his last game before departing for Barcelona.
“It seemed written for him to score the last goal and win the cup. We’d got a goal and were hoping we could cling on, as we’d beaten them in the league a couple of weeks before.
“It was a hard one to take, as you feel as though you have one hand on the trophy.”
Aberdeen have already upset some pontificators this season, who had predicted an Old Firm semi-final when the draw was made. They saw off Rangers in a replay to book their date with Celtic, who beat them in the final of this competition in 2017 and the League Cup final earlier this season.
“I don’t think many expected them to get past Rangers,” added Nicholson. “Aberdeen will fancy their chances in a one-off game against Celtic. They’re used to getting to semi-finals and if they get past them, who knows. They could get their hands on the trophy.”