Barry Nicholson joked he’d ‘never’ seen Scott Severin hit a ball like he did to get Aberdeen off the mark against Rangers on the final day in 2007.
The 2-0 Pittodrie victory is one fondly remembered by Dons fans after Jimmy Calderwood’s side beat their Glasgow visitors to make sure they finished third and secured a return to Europe.
Ahead of kick-off on May 5, the Reds knew defeat might have seen Hearts – just one point behind in fourth going into the final day – overtake them. This would have denied the club a highest top-flight finish since 1995/96 and European football for the first time since 2002/03.
However, a near-supersonic 21st-minute Severin volley from 25 yards, which almost took the net off Allan McGregor’s goal, and then a quickfire second from Steve Lovell, saw the Gers beaten and rendered the Jambos’ result at Kilmarnock – a game they lost 1-0 in the end – meaningless.
Aberdeen were third in the SPL, and by a four-point margin, come tea time.
Nicholson said: “I’d never seen Seve hit a ball like that in his life!
“No, it was an unbelievable finish from Seve – and I think he’d actually scored a couple like that in that season. (Against) Hibs, he scored a really good goal from the edge of the box at that same end of Pittodrie.
“When it came out to him on the edge of the box, to hit the ball with that technique was unbelievable, but it’s something he actually attempted quite a lot in training and practised a lot.”
Central midfielder Nicholson played for three seasons under Calderwood at Aberdeen after joining his former Dunfermline Athletic gaffer at Pittodrie, with 2006/07 the middle season of his trio of campaigns.
He thinks the Red Army were a big factor in a series of league wins over Gers side who were playing second fiddle to Celtic domestically.
Nicholson said: “In all my time there at Pittodrie, the big games and the big occasions, the fans turned out in their numbers and generally they got right behind the players.
“There were obviously games across the three-year spell I was up there where we didn’t perform and the fans rightly vented their anger at us a couple of times – especially in cup competitions where we didn’t do so well.
“But, when the big games – Rangers and Celtic – came to Pittodrie, the fans stuck with us.
“I think over my time there we managed to beat Rangers three or four times, so we had a good record against them.
“Obviously that rivalry has always been there and always will be there, so it made it a special occasion.
“I just remember the noise was incredible when Seve scored and I don’t think it was too long before we got the second one through Stevie.”
Lovell had crashed a fantastic spinning volley off the bar before he put Aberdeen two goals to the good with a deft flick beyond McGregor on 32 minutes.
Nicholson thinks Calderwood’s Dons felt “comfortable” from there on.
He added: “At 2-0 it’s always a dodgy scoreline. We had to dig deep second half and with Jimmy the focus was on not conceding, that was the biggest thing for us.
“But, when you go 2-0 up, and with the way we’d been playing throughout the back-end of the season – getting the result at Tynecastle and even the Parkhead game where I was suspended, we only got beat 2-1 with a really good performance – we were quite comfortable and felt we weren’t going to concede, or lose the game certainly.
“I think towards the end Rangers were pushing, but I’m sure, if I remember rightly, we ran out comfortable winners in the end.”
Nicholson still gets ‘stick’ over Tynecastle sending off
Despite a 2-1 loss in their penultimate league fixture at Parkhead which allowed Hearts to cut the gap to a point, Aberdeen ensured they’d still be in control of the third place race on the last day – whatever happened against Celtic – six days earlier, when Nicholson scored in the 90th minute to secure a 1-1 draw at Tynecastle.
The goal was a huge one – had the Dons lost, they would only have had a one-point lead over Hearts, instead of four, with two matches of the campaign left.
Such was Nicholson’s elation at firing a dramatic back-post leveller beyond Craig Gordon, he forgot he’d been booked three minutes earlier, and then took his shirt off in celebration to earn one of the softest red cards in Aberdeen’s 100-year-plus history.
The now-43-year-old Fleetwood Town development coach said: “I totally forgot I was on a yellow when I scored.
“I still get a bit of stick from the Aberdeen lads I speak to if they see me, but it was such a big goal and ended up not being too bad in the end, with us qualifying for Europe.”
Three-cap Scotland international Nicholson thinks it is testament to the quality of the Aberdeen squad under Calderwood – which contained not just Severin and Lovell, but the likes of Lee Miller and Russell Anderson, they managed to claim the final European spot, despite a Hearts-Celtic-Rangers finish to the campaign.
He added: “It was a tough task to get enough points on the board to get a European spot with those three games to finish.
“We felt we had a really good squad – good enough to challenge the Old Firm teams and Hearts, especially if we were right on our game.
“I remember being really focused on the Rangers game and we certainly felt if we started the game properly we’d cause Rangers problems.
“It was one of those games everybody was up for and Jimmy didn’t really need to try to get the lads up for the game at all.”
‘I didn’t get home until Sunday’
Laughing, Nicholson admits securing Europe on the final day meant a night of celebration for the Dons players – and he singled out homegrown hero Darren Mackie as the perhaps unlikely (from the outside looking in) ringleader when it came to adventures into Aberdeen city centre.
Describing the speedy Kemnay-raised forward as a ‘silent assassin’ who was ‘always at the forefront of everything’, Nicholson said: “I didn’t get home until Sunday. I’d met friends up from Glasgow and then a few of the lads were out, so we met them.
“We ended up in Soul Casino and obviously you lose track of time, so it was certainly Sunday morning before I made it home to a pregnant, happy wife.”
European qualification is, in and of itself, an important target for every Aberdeen team.
However, in retrospect, landing it for the 2007/08 season set the scene for one of the most-incredible few months in recent Reds history.
Calderwood’s side would go on to make it to the UEFA Cup group stage via Mackie’s famous header in Dnipro, Ukraine, earning trips to Panathinaikos and Atletico Madrid.
There was a home draw against Lokomotiv Moscow sandwiched in between, before a jaw-dropping 4-0 hammering of Champions League regulars Copenhagen in the Granite City secured a knock-out berth and round-of-32 tie with Bayern Munich.
The 2-2 first leg draw where the Dons led twice is probably Pittodrie’s most talked-about night since Alex Ferguson left the club.
And, although Aberdeen didn’t actually need to beat Rangers on the final day after all, not with Hearts losing at Rugby Park – in fact, they could’ve lost – it’s a far better story if we pretend they did. When it mattered most.
Nicholson said: “When I look back on my time at Aberdeen, I’m still really shocked we didn’t make it to a cup final. We kept getting beat in semi-finals.
“But that was like our cup final that day against Rangers.
“Getting into Europe after that game meant we were able to go to all the places we went to.
“It allowed us to play in the stadiums we did – Atletico (Madrid), Panathinaikos, Bayern (Munich) in the last-32. It was such an important game that allowed us to go on that amazing run the following season.”