It’s come down the last day of the season, but on Sunday we’ll finally discover…
Throughout the hysteria of Steven Gerrard’s arrival, and two managers leaving before the fixtures are even announced, one man in the north-east will have been happy to be under the radar. The man on everyone’s lips in November was Derek McInnes. Set to leave Aberdeen for Rangers before concomitant entered the Scottish football vocabulary.
Towards the end of the season his name was linked to West Brom. Aware of the poor results his team suffered during the Ibrox speculation, he quickly put those rumours to bed and ruled himself out as his side battled for second place.
It was a fight he won. After a season of criticism over their big game record, the Dons went through the top six undefeated, secured second place for the fourth season running, and ended a poor run against the Old Firm – taking four points out of six, including all three at Celtic Park.
You would think McInnes and Aberdeen would be riding into summer on a crest of a wave. However, there’s a reason McInnes will be happy to see others hog the headlines just now. This is a big season coming up for him.
It almost seems unfair. McInnes’ achievements at Aberdeen have already elevated him above the majority of managers in the club’s history. Only Alex Ferguson, Alex Smith and Dave Halliday have brought home more than one piece of silverware to Pittodrie. His restoration of Aberdeen as a team to be taken seriously in Scotland again is on a par with Eddie Turnbull.
Rangers pursuit of him showed how highly he was rated by the Dons’ rivals. On paper, he has not done a lot wrong since then – save for failing to get the better of Graeme Murty and the semi-final loss to Motherwell.
He goes into the 2018/19 campaign with demands still on him. Last season was not disappointing because of where they finished. It was because the standard of football all too often was poor, the approach to big games was too negative, and Aberdeen did not build on the promise shown in the previous season.
It also feels like Celtic dropped their standards considerably from the season before yet still won the treble without any real challenge put to them.
The aims will not change, even if Rangers spend big and Celtic respond. McInnes has twice broken Aberdeen’s points record and it is well within their reach to break it again. Do that and they are in the slipstream to first place.
The Dons boss is like a plate spinner though. Once he gets one how he wants it, he has to go running to the other to keep that upright.
Aberdeen have shown they can be consistent against the other teams in the Premiership. Take away Rangers and Celtic, and Aberdeen picked up more points against the other nine top-flight sides last season than Brendan Rodgers’ side did. Aberdeen won 69 points in those games, while Celtic’s total was 63.
Where McInnes’ side let themselves down was those big clashes. Those four points won after the split were too little, too late. Celtic took 19 from Aberdeen and Rangers. Back in 2015/16, Aberdeen did go toe-to-toe with Celtic in those big games, beating them twice at Pittodrie. But while Celtic would lose only twice more in the league that season, Aberdeen lost 11, more than they did last season.
McInnes will not be judged on whether he can win the league title though. He may even get away with third considering Gerrard has a bigger budget than him at Ibrox, the appeal to entice big names to join him in Glasgow, and access to many of Liverpool’s top youth prospects. The Anfield legend could do worse – and break a few Aberdeen hearts in the process – by bringing ex-Don goalkeeper Danny Ward north.
He has given Aberdeen fans a taste for it. Now he needs to go and break the Celtic stranglehold. No-one expects the league title. They want them to give it a right good go though. Where the expectation comes is in the cups.
Never mind Dominic Ball’s inconceivable decision to stop when he should have been defending, Scott McKenna’s comical attempt at a clearance, or Kari Arnason’s Karius moment. The buck for the semi-final defeat to Motherwell stops with McInnes. As did the League Cup loss to the same side. The Aberdeen fans will not accept similar this season. That may sound disrespectful to the Steelmen, but it’s the expectations now in Aberdeen – the red army always believe it should be them taking on the Old Firm on the big occasion, no-one else.
Taking points off Celtic and Rangers at the end of the season is good. It will be even better if they can do it throughout the season. Another season without beating Rangers is unthinkable.
Europe has become such a minefield now it seems cruel to even set targets. So keep it simple. Go out fighting to a big team like Real Sociedad? That is okay. Knockout a more fancied team like Gronigen or Rijeka? That’s excellent. Lose to Apollon Limassol without barely laying a glove on them in the second leg? That’s not okay.
Other than that, McInnes knows the score. He is into his sixth year as Aberdeen manager now. Last summer his signings let him down, not one emerged with much credit. The biggest disappointments – Gary Mackay-Steven and Stevie May – will likely get another chance next season. However, his signing record overall has been very poor – this summer he has to get it right.
Scott McKenna needs a partner, one that can also help him develop. McInnes needs to clone Graeme Shinnie so that he can field both the midfielder and the left back. He needs a goalscoring midfielder, and a goalscorer up front would be nice too.
If he can mastermind an open top bus parade down Union Street again, then McInnes takes his place alongside Halliday, Smith and Sir Fergie. On the other hand, fail to get to Hampden, finish behind Rangers and suffer an early knockout in Europe – then he starts to become Aberdeen’s Arsene Wenger.