Next weekend a resurgent Aberdeen face Celtic in a game that could have repurcussions for the destination of the SPL title.
There are two stars on the Aberdeen crest, signifying the two European trophies they won in 1983. Yet it is the absence of European football this season that could be the most crucial factor in their bid to return to the summit of Scottish football.
For almost three decades, every Aberdeen manager has been weighed down by the past and the legacy left by Alex Ferguson. But not Derek McInnes. His side now have the north-east coastal city dreaming of a first league title in 30 years.
Ferguson won three league titles (1980, 1984 and 1985) for the Dons, as well as a European Cup-winners Cup triumph over Real Madrid and the European Super Cup win against Hamburg in 1983, plus four Scottish Cups, before Manchester United lured him away in 1986.
McInnes, though, conjured up the best start in the club’s 112-year history by winning all eight opening Scottish Premiership games, eclipsing Ferguson’s five in 1984-85. Aberdeen’s 10 men hit back to beat Celtic 2-1 in front of a sell-out Pittodrie Stadium in September, and even though their perfect record fell in a 2-1 defeat at Inverness Caledonian Thistle, they went into October four points clear of the defending champions.
The fact that Celtic also slipped up with a draw at home to Hearts on the same day fed Aberdeen’s belief that they can actually win the title. McInnes will certainly be helped in that task with Celtic’s Europa League commitments, as difficult games against Ajax, Fenerbahce and Molde will drain Ronny Deila’s squad.
McInnes hoped to be on the same stage, but his side lost 3-2 to big-spending Kairat Almaty in the third qualifying round, a year after Real Sociedad had ruined similar hopes of progress.
However, his side will profit from being able to rest while Celtic face the perennial continent-wide problem of balancing European and domestic schedules.
Like Ferguson, McInnes is a former Rangers player who has won over a local public which has a deep antipathy for that particular Glasgow club. The 44-year-old’s shrewd recruitment policy since taking charge in 2013 has not only made the best use of a modest budget, but echoes the Ferguson epoch.
The similarity with “Fergie” is obvious to the players from those glory days. Neale Cooper was part of the side which beat Real Madrid and saw McInnes use the same methods in the wake of that defeat at Inverness.
“Derek didn’t hold back but it doesn’t do any harm to give your players a bit of a kick
up the backside sometimes,” says Cooper. “They have been highly praised in the press and by the manager – rightly so.
“Derek had a pop in public but it was something Sir Alex used to good effect at Pittodrie. Fergie would even have a go after we had won games. He famously slaughtered us after winning the Scottish Cup, four days after beating Real, but it definitely kept us on our toes.
“You’d read the stuff in the paper and think, ‘that’s harsh’, but you’d be out to make amends. Derek has a bit of that in him, there are shades of Fergie. Like him, Derek sets high standards and won’t let anyone drop below them.”
Aberdeen’s ascent is not luck. McInnes won the Scottish League Cup in his first season and beat Celtic twice. Last season, Aberdeen matched Celtic in all results against the other sides but crucially lost all four matches to the Glasgow club.
McInnes’ good organisation has made Aberdeen hard to beat, but he also has a good eye for talent. Northern Ireland winger Niall McGinn has shone at Pittodrie in a way he didn’t at Celtic and he has formed a superb partnership with Adam Rooney who netted 28 goals last season. The signing of free agent left-back Graeme Shinnie from Inverness last summer was the best bit of business in Scottish football.
Those initial eight wins prompted Deila to say he did not care because over the course of the season Celtic would come out on top and win a fifth successive title. McInnes’ response was simple. “Any manager in our league would be confident of winning five in a row given the level of finances Celtic have,” he said. “The rest of us are working on budgets of between £1-£2million and they’re working with around £20m. I’ve no problems with that. Every manager has to concentrate on their own team and we’re no different.”
Perhaps the best-placed person to weigh up the duel between Aberdeen and Celtic is the only man to win league titles with both. Billy Stark was part of the last Aberdeen side to win in 1984-85, and also won with Celtic in 1987-88.
“It’s still early, but Aberdeen have proved they’re serious contenders,” says Stark. “You need to remember that when Graeme Souness took over Rangers in 1986, it was the catalyst for spending money when it came to Scottish football.
“Rangers spent fortunes then Celtic eventually started spending, too. A few months after Souness arrived, Fergie left Aberdeen for Manchester United.
“Aberdeen couldn’t match the investment of the Glasgow clubs and still can’t. So, given that gap in resources, if Derek can guide Aberdeen to the title it will be a phenomenal achievement – equal to anything Fergie did.”
By Phil Gordan