Derek McInnes is as divisive now as when he was appointed five years ago.
Back then, he was the ex-Rangers man, who had failed at Bristol City, and been average at best at St Johnstone. But he did have his backers too; those who saw a young coach with fresh ideas in complete contrast to the 72-year-old Craig Brown who he was replacing.
Five years on, and McInnes has proved to be a good appointment. A trophy, best of the rest behind Celtic in three out of four seasons, an enviable consistency in results, regular trips to Hampden, and some fine European away days. But five years on from his appointment, the fans are divided again.
There are those continuously impressed with his ability to bounce back from a poor run of form and see the bond he has with his players and how well he attracts players to the north-east despite the lack of quality training facilities that other clubs boast. There are also others though who feel he has reached a ceiling with Aberdeen, are irked by his tactics and subsequent failures in big games, and believe after fives years it’s time for someone new.
There was a period early in McInnes’ reign, from 25 January 2014 until quarter past two on 13 April, where Aberdeen rode a crest of a wave.
It started with Adam Rooney’s debut away to Motherwell – the Irishman scored the first of what would be many, many goals in a red shirt – with Russell Anderson hammering in a last minute equaliser. A week later they smashed their semi-final hoodoo with a 4-0 win over St Johnstone. Seven days after that they went to Celtic Park and knocked the champions out of the Scottish Cup. In a run of 13 games, the Dons would lose only once – along the way posting another victory over Celtic and lifting their first trophy in almost 19 years. A Stevie May double for St Johnstone at Ibrox ended the party, but the players walked off to a standing ovation. You could not fail to love that team.
Since then McInnes has led the Dons to wins at Hampden and Ibrox, to not one but two seven-goal demolition jobs, to wins on the road in Europe over opposition such as Groningen and Rijeka, broken Aberdeen’s league points record and then surpassed that again the following season.
Glory days may be stretching it, but after two decades of misery, it has been fun supporting Aberdeen over the last five years.
In the past, there have been humiliations for Aberdeen. Fans thought they had hit rock-bottom, only to be shown there was an even deeper depth of despair waiting for them.
Ebbe Skovdahl’s two 7-0 defeats to Celtic, trumped by Mark McGhee’s 9-0 mauling. Roy Aitken’s Scottish Cup defeat to Stenhousemuir, to Skovdahl’s loss to Bohemians, to Calderwood’s knockout to Queen’s Park. Queen of the South, Sigma Olomouc, Skonto Riga, East Fife; The club became a laughing stock, to the point where defeats to lower league opposition were no longer considered shocks.
Under McInnes, he has never let the club slide into such mediocrity, though close shaves against Fola Esch and Alloa almost did – the Dons at least progressing in both ties. But where the standards and stakes have risen, there has been frustrating missed opportunities.
Failure to add to the single League Cup is one, but it is a harsh judgement to make. Semi-finals against St Johnstone and Dundee United were winnable, though on both occasions the Dons perhaps were unlucky. Last season’s League Cup final was a meek surrender, but they showed character to go back in May and push Celtic all the way in the Scottish Cup final.
The Dons have given the cups a good crack. They have fallen only once to non-Premiership opposition, Hibs, and always away from Pittodrie. There is no shame in their efforts, and once more over 12,000 of the Red Army will wake at dawn and make the long trek to Glasgow’s south side for a semi-final next month.
In Europe they should have at least got closer to the coveted Europa League group stage. Losing to Real Sociedad was understandable. Against Kairat Almaty and Maribor, again you could argue luck deserted them. But Apollon Limassol was a poor effort, and perhaps a sign of an overall failure to really progress the club.
While it is often said that Aberdeen do not show up in big games, McInnes has changed Aberdeen’s mentality into one of winners. Under Brown, the Dons were just like their manager. Cuddly, non-offensive, and while capable of being the odd thorn in the side of the big guns they were never going to be perennial winners.
McInnes instilled a belief that Aberdeen needed to act like a big club. It was no use raising their game for the Old Firm or the odd cup tie – they needed to turn up every week. Whether it is Tynecastle, Easter Road or Fir Park – Aberdeen go with the expectation they will claim the three points.
He has utilised the loan market well. Michael Hector, Shay Logan, Danny Ward, Ryan Christie and James Maddison are just some of the names who have made a positive impact. However, maybe it is something he has got too comfortable with.
One of his strengths is also one of his weaknesses. If a manager should depart after five years in charge, he should leave behind some sort of legacy to pass on to the new man.
However, if McInnes was to make way in summer, what would his successor be met with? Nine current first-team players are either on loan or out of contract in the summer. A massive rebuilding job awaits. Scott McKenna apart, no youngster has established themselves as a regular in the side.
As well as Aberdeen have done from loans, at times it has come at the expense of blooding some younger players. Danny Rogers, Frank Ross and Scott Wright are three of Aberdeen’s big hopes but have seen less game time than Freddie Woodman, Dominic Ball and Chidi Nwakali.
Had McInnes managed to find a left-sided centre-half in summer, even just another squad filler on loan, then McKenna may well have joined that list.
Outsiders may look at the results and wonder why there is any angst towards McInnes. It is not so much the results. More the style they have gone about this season.
Previously Aberdeen had pace in the team and a strong backbone. Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn were major players. They created openings for Rooney who always scored and Graeme Shinnie and Ryan Jack had a good partnership in midfield.
Pittodrie became a fortress. McInnes has enjoyed three home wins over Celtic, in each one Aberdeen taking the game to their rivals to the joy of the red army. His impact is mirrored by Steve Clarke now at Kilmarnock.
This season the approach has been different. McInnes has tried to change Aberdeen’s style, especially when playing the Old Firm. Now they look to sit off, try and be physical, kill the game and threaten from set-pieces.
Despite the criticism McInnes received in the recent 2-0 defeat to Celtic, the strategy nearly paid off. Aberdeen threatened more than enough to break the deadlock long before falling behind, so there is some method to the madness.
It is not something that sits well with fans though. They see Rangers and Hibs having a go, even Motherwell and Kilmarnock, and they see Aberdeen batten down the hatches and show too much respect. And it is not just reserved for games against Celtic – against Rangers and recently Hibs the Dons have looked to contain rather than exploit weak defences.
He does not have the players for a different way. Sam Cosgrove is a carbon copy of Jayden Stockley, who was brought in to replicate Simon Church. Tall strikers who play with their back to goal, win headers and offer a threat at free-kicks and corners. But they don’t provide goals, neither does Nicky Maynard.
And because that is the squad that McInnes has put together, Aberdeen now find themselves playing the same way against others in the league. Mackay-Steven and McGinn often play as wing backs, Christie is asked to be a winger and too often May and Rooney are starved of decent service. They have become easy to defend against when previously Hayes and McGinn would terrorise defences.
Another five years?
Don’t put your money on it. If McInnes is still Aberdeen manager in five months, it will be a surprise. He turned down Sunderland and Rangers, but it showed that he does have one eye on the next job. He sees his long-term future in a different dugout.
The Rangers saga in December hurt his standing with the support even if he did eventually say no. The short-term hero worship soon evaporated as Rangers got stronger and Aberdeen’s form faltered alarmingly. There are sections of the support who feel his failure to close the door on the approach sooner than he did led to the two poor performances against their biggest rivals, at a time when Aberdeen could have raced away in second and put serious pressure on Celtic. The feeling is Rangers have been allowed to brush past Aberdeen into second without any resistance.
Once you lose the fans support, it is very, very difficult to win it back. To do it, McInnes needs a seismic end to the season, then perhaps an even more impressive summer.
He needs to chase down Rangers. He needs to claim an Old Firm scalp when it matters. He needs to be leading the Dons out in the Scottish Cup final, and then he needs a performance on a par with last season’s effort or to leave with the trophy itself. As unfair as it sounds, fans will not accept a defeat in the semi-final to Motherwell – that would be seen as a third winnable semi-final passed up.
Even if he does lift the Scottish Cup, he has a summer rebuild ahead. Does he ask for more money from the board and gain a reputation as a chequebook manager? His attempts at finding cheap talent from the English lower leagues has been mixed. Maybe now is the time to turn to an under 20s team who are not short of talent even without McKenna and Ross – they are currently eyeing up a league and cup double.
Or, maybe summer is when he exits. Leave now before his standing is damaged by a poor season. Let the summer recruitment be someone else’s problem – he’s done enough to be remembered as a success story at Pittodrie. Few would begrudge him his move to a bigger club as long as it’s nowhere near Govan.
Would it be the best for Aberdeen to have a new man in charge? Well, the support is split on that one.