In a season in which Celtic’s “Invincibles” have swept all before them, many feared that Saturday’s Scottish Cup would only serve to highlight an unflatteringly massive gap between Scotland’s first and second best teams.
As it turned out, Aberdeen made a mockery of that view, going toe to toe with Brendan Rodgers’ men with a thrilling performance that very nearly delivered the unthinkable. Eventual defeat, courtesy of Tom Rogic’s late goal, was cruel beyond belief for the Red Army, but they could be proud of a team that has given them plenty of happy days throughout Derek McInnes’ 5 year reign.
Sadly, talk after the final centred on the break up of that very same team. With Jack, McGinn, Taylor and Pawlett already confirmed departees, and other key players being linked with moves away, it looks like being a transitional summer at Pittodrie. The question for Derek McInnes, then, is whether to stick around to oversee the change, or join the exodus.
McInnes has received a lot of plaudits for his work at Pittodrie, and rightly so. His team has finished 3rd, 2nd, 2nd and 2nd in his four full seasons at the helm. They’ve won the League Cup, appeared in 2 further major cup finals, and even restored some sort of credibility on the European stage with some notable qualifying results.
Just as importantly, Aberdeen feels like a big club again. After years of disappointment and a paucity of talent at Pittodrie, after the embarrassments of the Skovdahl and McGhee eras, they once again feel like one of Scotland’s heavyweights. Finishing above Rangers, appearing in cup finals, forking out (admittedly modest) transfer fees on players from rival clubs: these are the marks of a serious football team. McInnes has gathered some proper heroes, men whose names deserve to adorn replica kits across the North East.
That this has all been achieved with a wage budget of around £42,000 per week (a pittance compared to Celtic and Rangers, and possibly lower than a few other large Scottish teams) is testament to McInnes’ resourcefulness. The kind of resourcefulness that has suitors in the financially more attractive English leagues taking note, Sunderland amongst them.
But is it the right time to go? McInnes has said many times how much he loves his job, and the sense is that it’d take something very appealing to tempt him south. After a chastening experience at Bristol City, he knows more than most how unpleasant a Championship dogfight can be with a poor squad. Sunderland, though, with their Premier League parachute payments and wealthy owner, would surely offer him a chance to compete for promotion back to that most rarified of environs. There are players at the Wearside club whose salaries will comfortably match that entire Aberdeen wage budget, and a move to the Stadium of Light would make McInnes a wealthy man.
The other factor he will be weighing up is just how much further he can take Aberdeen. Scottish football has a glass ceiling at the moment, and Aberdeen have been banging their heads against it for a few years. With Rangers’ shambolic approach to running a club bound to end eventually, Aberdeen arguably only have one direction of travel.
There are still new horizons to be chased, though, and McInnes knows it. Whilst the league title looks beyond anyone not wearing green and white hoops for the foreseeable future, the Red Army’s trip to Hampden will have left a craving to go that extra step. For all McInnes’ undoubted achievements, he will surely look back with disappointment at his failure to add to the solitary League Cup victory in 2014, with the likes of Ross County, Hibs and Inverness having picked up silverware in the meantime.
Another arena where there has been promise, but not much tangible progress, has been Europe. Thrilling wins against Groningen and Rijeka have shown Aberdeen to be capable of slaying clubs with bigger budgets, but the Europa League group stage has eluded them. How McInnes would love to give the Pittodrie faithful the kind of memories that Jimmy Calderwood did: home results against FC Copenhagen, Lokomotiv Moscow and, most famously, Bayern Munich.
Whilst the departures have made headlines, the playing situation is not, perhaps, as grim as it seems. Ryan Jack is a talented young player, but his poor luck with injuries has shown that Aberdeen can cope without him. Many Aberdeen fans will consider Ash Taylor to have been a successful signing, but his propensity for high profile clangers has cost Aberdeen in the sort of big games they need to start winning more of if they’re to push on to the next level. Pawlett has long been a fringe player, biding his time as Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn ran amok.
McGinn will be a huge loss, admittedly, a key player who has consistently delivered for Aberdeen, even in the pre-McInnes era. The Irishman’s big game performances, for club and country, will not be easily replaced.
In the other direction, McInnes has already secured the signature of long term target Greg Tansey from Inverness. His signing record suggests this will not be the only prudent signing of the summer, and the Dons have been linked with such talents as Aberdonian Shaun Maloney, human highlight reel Gary Mackay-Steven and current loanee Ryan Christie. There are potential defensive reinforcements at smaller and poorer clubs, with Partick Thistle’s Liam Lindsay and Hamilton’s Michael Devlin both conceivably within Aberdeen’s budget. Play this summer well, and McInnes could yet end up with his strongest ever Dons team.
Finally, and inevitably when talking about the Dons, there’s the Fergie factor. In the time since Pittodrie’s greatest ever manager took his leave of the Scottish stage, there have been plenty of promising eras at Pittodrie, but all have failed to truly build a legacy. The last manager to come close to McInnes’ achievements was Jimmy Calderwood, whose strong league record, imaginative signings and thrilling European run let Scottish football think Aberdeen might be back.
McInnes may be fighting with his hands tied behind his back, but Aberdeen are in as strong a position as any non-Glaswegian club has been for a long time, and he’ll surely be loathe to abandon the project at this stage. Crowds are up, there’s a new stadium on the way and several key players are tied to long term contracts. If McInnes backs himself, if he trusts his judgement, who’s to say he can’t deliver the kind of incremental improvement that could one day see the Dons challenge for the title?
One thing is for sure; if McInnes does decide he’s done all he can, he’ll walk away with a strong claim to the title of Aberdeen’s finest manager since Fergie.