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Northern Lights

Aberdeen 1-1 HJK Helsinki (Europa Conference League Group Stages)

The marathon continues as I travel further north in attempt to crack four games in three days as I wake up blurry eyed from the night before and the emotional nuance at St James’ Park with a knock on the door at my bed without breakfast in Gateshead, it’s 9:30am and I need to be out by ten so I get a move on and head to McDonald’s where a strong coffee and sausage and egg mcmuffin will do.

I’m leaving for Aberdeen at 1pm. The Dons of Pittodrie is about as north as it gets when it comes to football in Great Britain. A top tier Scottish club since 1905 they’ve never been relegated and I’ve never been to Aberdeen. My earliest recollection of them in my 1987 panini sticker book but slightly older viewers will remember by that time, they had recently dominated Scottish (and European) football by winning three league titles and the European Cup Winners Cup under rookie Manager Alex Ferguson.

It’s amazing to think no other side bar Rangers or Celtic have won the Scottish League since... The Dons most recent of four top flight titles coming in 1984/85.

Contrast that with HJK who reside even further north in Finland. The dominant club of their nation has 32 championships and is most likely about to win another one this weekend.

Past players include Teemu Tainio, Jari Litmanen and Shefki Kuqi... Aberdeen will raise and see you though with Willie Miller, Alex McLeish and Gordon Strachan, real icons who once played part in that famous European Cup Winners Cup final win over Real Madrid.

I’m on the train at Newcastle Station travelling up through the beautiful towns of Berwick-upon-Tweed and Edinburgh and over the stunning Forth Rail Bridge crossing the Firth of Forth but it’s not until I get to Kirkcaldy when I’m particularly wowed by the site of Raith Rovers home at Starks Park which sits closely besides the rail track.

Another checklist as we pass Dundee is Golf Street Station which sits across from Carnoustie which looks to have a European Tour event going on, there’s more than a few golf courses on the way and one daunting looking links course in particular is Stonehaven which can be seen from my seat which is basically on the edge of a cliff.

Finally, after a good four and a half hours I’ve arrived at Aberdeen Station and it’s a quick scurry over the road to the Station Hotel where I’m staying the night before walking up through the centre which is a good half hours walk to Pittodrie.

The Venue

I’m walking up Guild Street towards Regent Quay where a huge offshore tug ship is docked, taking a shortcut up Shiprow past a lively Irish bar called Malones, it’s a bustling area of cobbled streets packed with restaurants and pubs, I’m impressed for what I presumed was a sleepy northern town, the rain and wind coming in off the north sea, I’ve got my hood up over my hat as locals walk laughing from bar to bar in shirts and short sleeves.

I pass the Mercat Cross and onto King Street which is a good mile long before turning right towards Pittodrie, the stadium floodlights appearing above the grey stoned terrace houses of Merkland Road.

It’s relatively quiet as I approach the ground an hour and half before kick-off but outside the main reception there’s a crowd of people as the Aberdeen players arrive one by one. I’m in the queue for my accreditation as Jamie McGrath, Jack MacKenzie and Ryan Duncan ask to leave tickets on the door for friends and family.

Outside the ground I can’t help noticing people walk by with golf bags, not only does Pittodrie back on to the sea but is also a stones throw from another fine-looking golf course – this really is the hotbed and birthplace of that particular old sport.

I’m told by a steward to head to the South Stand so walk around the back of the huge imposing two-tiered Richard Donald Stand where outside is a bronze bust of Alex Ferguson.

The ground from the outset is a little warn perhaps through the unprotected bashing it gets off the North Sea weather but it’s classically Scottish and is a proper football place.

Reaching the back of the South Stand I’m directed to my seat in the gantry, a temporary build of scaffold for the UEFA analysts of which there are only two of us, perched at the back in front of the concourse looking down onto the green playing surface, to the left a pitched roof end similar to the stand opposite where I’m sat, to my right that huge two-tiered stand which dwarfs everything else, the arena dressed in all red seating as the bright northern lights threaten to break through the cloudy dark blue skies.

The Game

It’s a tight affair where HJK look to be solid and comfortable on the ball without having any real star assets to unlock the Aberdeen door open. The home side are technical but slight in comparison, the Finnish players thick set and blonde whilst Aberdeen relies on a few overseas imports along with their Scottish and Irish contingent.

One player in particular, Luis Lopes is seemingly a crowd favourite, everytime he gets the ball a cry of Looooou goes up from the Merkland Stand Ultras who are packed into the central reservations behind the goal on my left.

Flags waving they sing all match and create a cracking atmosphere but chances are few and far between, Jesse Ost is called into action just once from a header by Miovski, Lopes is getting the beating of his man as he leaves Soiri a clear set of heels but he then injures himself tackling the said player who in return elbows him in the face before clashing heads with his own man Richard Jensen which see’s the Dons centre back sent back to the changing room to receive attention as the first half continues with ten added long minutes.

The Score

From a pretty dull first half of Aberdeen being the aggressors without really penetrating the opposition defence, HJK make two changes and it’s they who dominate the early stages of the second 45 as frustration grows in the home end as Barry Robson’s side struggle to keep hold of the ball.

To add to that frustration, it’s the away side who take the lead as Soiri does well down the right to pull back to Radulovic who makes no mistake, the few away fans that have travelled go wild to my bottom right hand corner in the South Stand as their team celebrate at opposite ends.

That calls Robson into making a couple of changes himself and with the introduction of Johnny Hayes and Connor Barron the home side wrestle back authority and begin to attack with intent. They eventually get reward when a ball chipped into the box by Jensen is headed up into the air by a HJK defender and onto the noggin of Miovski who levels things up.

Late on it’s the home side who press for that winner but despite some lengthy pressure the lack of quality in front of goal tells, HJK will be happier with the point whilst Aberdeen are disappointed, both sides will probably miss out on qualification to the next stage with PAOK and Eintracht Frankfurt in the driving seat, both sets of teams having technical differences but both very similar in levels of average quality.

The Stars

Jamie McGrath in Aberdeen’s midfield is a player who has elegant touches and enough technique to tell he’s a level above most on show. He plays well alongside the experienced Graeme Shinnie in the centre of the park whilst wide man Luis Lopes started well but faded after a couple of ugly clashes. He should have scored in the second half but blazed over when the goal was gaping.

Defensively, I’m impressed with Stefan Gartenmann who is comfortable on the ball and has a huge throw in whilst Connor Barron off the bench made a lot more happen than young Leighton Clarkson did in the ‘playmaker’ role before him.

For HJK I was most impressed with number ten Lucas Lingman who floated around the midfield inventively whilst Filip Rogic and Georgios Kanellopoulos did the doggy work. They two played better post substitutions and one of those players, right back Tuomas Ollila did well when he came on during the second forty-five.

Both strikers seemed like lonely and isolated targets for much of the night but both shown their class with well taken goals. You could probably fit a Rizla paper between the two teams on show, both well drilled but very ordinary in what they had to offer in an attacking sense.

The Verdict

A draw does neither side any favours with chance of progression whilst one of the analysts I was sat with stated “I think we’ve seen the bottom two sides of the group tonight”.

For HJK and Aberdeen just to be competing in major European group stage football is a positive result in itself. Although they’ll both be happy to be part of continental competition, concentration now firmly cemented on league action this weekend, a point for the title is Helsinki’s destination whilst Aberdeen will next face St Johnstone as they look to climb up the Scottish Premier League table after what has been an average start.

It’ll take you best part of a day to get here… But ‘come to Aberdeen’ I tell you… A great football ground to visit and a great town too. I’ve not written off returning soon, if anything to try some of the bars I didn’t get time to frequent this time around.

The Teams

Aberdeen: Kelle Roos, Nicky Devlin (Ester Sokler 87), Jack MacKenzie (Johnny Hayes 64), Graeme Shinnie, Richard Jensen, Stefan Gartenmann, Jamie McGrath, Bojan Miovski, Leighton Clarkson (Connor Barron 59), Luis Lopes, Slobodan Rubezic.

HJK Helsinki: Jesse Oost, Joona Toivio (Kristopher Da Gracia 46), Filip Rogic (Perparim Hetemaj 73), Bojan Radulovic, Lucas Lingman, Matti Peltola (Tuomas Ollila 45), Miro Tenho (Nicholas Hamalainen 87), Topi Keskinen (Hassane Bande 74), Jukka Raitala, Pyry Soiri, Georgios Kanellopoulos.

8:00pm Kick Off. Thursday 5th October 2023, Pittodrie, Aberdeen (att 16,316).

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