Had Derek McInnes departed Aberdeen this week, it would have been a desperately sad way…
Derek McInnes is in a peculiar situation. Despite undoubtedly being Aberdeen’s most successful manager of the modern era, the 46-year-old has just passed his five-year anniversary at the club and still some sections of the Pittodrie support hum and haw over his credentials and supposed limitations as a coach.
This is most likely a common theme that has always been a part of football. Dons fans may have already begun looking at the greener grass of a McInnes-less future the same way fans at any club would do. We’re football fans and therefore short-minded, fickle creatures. It may be the beautiful game but we rarely reflect its kinder tones when offered to give a coach or player the benefit of the doubt.
And yet McInnes’ legacy is already clear for all to see when we take a step back and take in the broader context. If the club’s first major trophy in 19 years wasn’t enough, that will almost certainly be accompanied by a new stadium and state-of-the-art training facility.
Sure, McInnes’ success on the pitch isn’t the direct, financial benefactor to such upgrades – it certainly isn’t SPFL prize money that is paying for the new ground – but the manner in which he has turned Aberdeen around from being the sick man of the Scottish Premiership and into an ambitious, hungry club is evident throughout the club’s newly-found demand for success.
This is clear to see whenever Stewart Milne tries to galvanise support for his coach. During the Rangers saga, in which McInnes was very clearly enticed by his former club, the Aberdeen chairman could have quite easily cut his losses and began his search for a new coach. And with such a squad and budget at their disposal, there’s no doubt the likes of Jack Ross, Alan Archibald or even Tommy Wright could have done a good job of matching McInnes’ domestic record to date.
Yet Milne stood by his manager. And despite ever-growing grumbles from an Aberdeen support that have never, truly forgotten McInnes’ Ibrox background the chairman was adamant that the club’s ambition and the continued presence of their manager were one and the same. McInnes doesn’t just embody Aberdeen’s modern resurgence. He is it.
And yet the gilet-sporting coach still feels an obligation to prove himself to a support that’s single demands and expectations are a result of his continued success. Aberdeen have no right to finish second, third or fourth in the Premiership this season but due to the work McInnes has done at Pittodrie it now hangs around his neck like an albatross. Here is a coach that has succumbed to one of sports most potent traps: he has become a victim of his own success.
Yet redemption may be at hand. At least, from the point of view of sober, neutral observers. Despite everything that has happened this season – the highs and the lows – McInnes is still not only on course to make a success of this current campaign but could wrap things up in May with his greatest achievement yet.
At the time of writing Aberdeen currently sit second in the Premiership table. Some fans may begrudge the 10 points between them and first-placed Celtic but the more pertinent point is the gap between the Dons and third-placed Rangers and Hibernian in close pursuit.
With just one game left to go before the split, McInnes’ side have slowly but surely got back on track and have not only narrowed the gap between themselves and Celtic from 30-odd points down to just 10, but also leapfrogged a Rangers side they’ve been battling throughout the season as well as keeping Neil Lennon’s impressive Hibs at bay.
To say this season’s race for second place has been fascinating would be an understatement. Not only have Rangers spent a significant amount of money on recruits to secure second place but they’ve also gone through two managers. All while Lennon’s plucky side of exquisite young players have so far done their best to prove they’re one of the best squads in the country, despite their newly-promoted status.
And yet McInnes’ Aberdeen have so far overcome both tests and remain in second place. As if on purpose – to troll the trolling generation – the Pittodrie side have won just two of their 11 games against Celtic, Rangers, Hibs and Hearts in the league this season yet have relied, as ever, on their consistency to win the games they’ve always won to make up the ground.
If there is a particular style or concept to McInnes’ coaching methods which rejects the importance of high-profile games in favour of winning the vast majority of ones that don’t then it will surely be vindicated as a successful one if Aberdeen do find themselves in second place come May.
That League Cup final in March 2014 may end up forever representing the height of McInnes’ achievements, just as both of last season’s cup finals may ultimately underline his limitations, but finishing second in this most competitive of Premiership seasons may prove to be the task that confirms the credentials of this Aberdeen coach and finally offers him the admiration he deserves.