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Brian Irvine reflects on Aberdeen’s close escape against potential Europa League play-off opponents Zalgiris Vilnius in 1996

Aberdeen comfortably won the first leg 4-1 in Lithuania, but threatened to undo all their good work until Irvine netted a crucial late goal at Pittodrie in the return fixture.

Brian Irvine in action against Zalgiris Vilnius in 1996.
Brian Irvine in action against Zalgiris Vilnius in 1996.

Brian Irvine says Aberdeen dug deep to prevent what he would have considered the worst result in the club’s history when they last faced Zalgiris Vilnius 27 years ago.

The Dons have been drawn to face either Lithuanian outfit Zalgiris or Swedish side BK Hacken in the Europa League play-off round.

Aberdeen will be away from home in the first leg on Thursday, August 24 – with the return fixture at Pittodrie seven days later.

The prospect of facing Zalgiris will spark memories of a close shave which nearly ended in humiliation for Roy Aitken’s Reds in the 1996 UEFA Cup.

Roy Aitken. Image: SNS

After recording a convincing 4-1 triumph in the first leg in Vilnius, the Dons were in firm command of the tie.

Billy Dodds netted a double, along with strikes from Stephen Glass and Duncan Shearer, with Tomas Razanauskas replying for Zalgiris.

The Lithuanians did not go down without a fight however, with goals from Grazvydas Mikulenas and Arunas Pukelevicius giving them a 2-0 lead at Pittodrie to cut the deficit to one goal.

Defender Irvine netted to restore a two-goal cushion with five minutes to play, however Mikulenas’ second goal for the visitors moments later made it a nervy finish.

Aberdeen ultimately held on to set up a tie with Welsh outfit Barry Town in the following round.

Complacency threatened to be Dons’ undoing

Irvine says the Dons nearly paid the price for approaching the second leg in complacent fashion.

He said: “We got a great result over there, where it had a pre-season feel to it, and we were happy with that.

Zalgiris Vilnius netted three times at Pittodrie in 1996.

“We came back and there probably was a wee bit of complacency on our part.

“We had heard they had trouble travelling to Scotland. There were reports they were coming over on a bus and a ferry from Lithuania.

“Between the result being 4-1 in the first leg over there, and hearing that type of news, we kind of got that feeling that this was just a turn up job.

“We got a shock to go two goals down, but thankfully I got the goal which gave us a bit of breathing space.

“You’ve got to be careful with complacency in football. That was the major problem that day.”

Zalgiris dominant in Lithuanian league in recent years

Zalgiris won their third successive Lithuanian title last season, and are currently second in the A Lyga.

They beat Struga of North Macedonia 2-1 on aggregate in the first round of the Champions League, before losing 3-2 on aggregate by Galatasaray in the second qualifying round.

Irvine insists they should not be underestimated should the Reds face them again.

He added: “We got the fright from them, and we thought ‘what is happening here?’

Duncan Shearer in action against Zalgiris Vilnius in 1996.

“When you are building up to a game you are focused and determined, and nothing else is going to get in the way of the job.

“If there’s a wee bit of edge off your game, as there definitely was in my case, and I can’t speak for all the guys but I think we were all thinking it was just about completing the job.

“The hard bit was actually getting the change during the game, because you can’t just flick a switch and start playing as if it matters when you are maybe going into the game with that edge off your game.

“We had to try and do something – as that would probably have been the worst ever score in the history of the club if we never got the goal back.”

Hacken also familiar faces to Aberdeen

The Dons also have history with their other prospective opponents BK Hacken, who they faced in a Conference League third qualifying round clash in July 2021.

It was the first time a meaningful crowd had watched on at Pittodrie since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020.

Then manager Stephen Glass’ side were 2-0 up at half-time thanks to an Andy Considine header and a Lewis Ferguson penalty.

Aberdeen defender, Andy Considine celebrates scoring the opener against BK Hacken.

Ferguson, who now plies his trade with Serie A side Bologna, was on target again after the interval, before Alexander Jeremejeff pulled one back for the Swedes.

Two now former Dons were amongst the goals as Christian Ramirez netted on his Aberdeen debut, while Connor McLennan rounded off the scoring to secure a 5-1 win.

The Dons, however, were not so prolific in front of goal in the reverse fixture in Gothenburg.

BK Hacken won 2-0 on the night with goals from Martin Olsson and Leo Bengtsson, but Glass’ side still prevailed with a 5-3 win on aggregate.

The Swedish outfit, who are the reigning Allsvenskan champions and currently sit second in the league after 18 games, have already played Champions League qualifying football this season before dropping into the Europa League qualifying rounds.

Aberdeen manager Stephen Glass at full-time after the first leg win over BK Hacken.

Per-Mathias Høgmo’s men beat Welsh side The New Saints 5-1 on aggregate in the first qualifying round, before losing 4-3 on penalties to KÍ of the Faroe Islands, after the two-legged second round tie finished 3-3 on aggregate.

Stakes are high for Robson’s side

Irvine feels the draw is favourable for Barry Robson’s men but he says the Dons must do a professional job regardless of who they face.

The 58-year-old said: “They are teams that realistically Aberdeen should be beating, but equally you have to give respect to the opponents.

“What happened all those years ago will be irrelevant now because the teams will have changed so much.

“But the same principle stands – you can’t take anything for granted. They have to go about things the right way. Whether it’s Lithuania or Sweden, a professional job has to be done.

“The prize is really high, to get into the group stage.”