IT’S the Aberdeen media day and Derek McInnes is in the midst of his umpteenth interview, looking ahead to the League Cup final.
He has talked about what it would mean to deliver the club’s first trophy in almost two decades, about his own managerial career, the impact made by individual players and the task he has had to turn things around in less than a year. But now there is a slightly new line of questioning and he sits forward, eager to respond.
“I’m glad you asked that,” says the Aberdeen manager. He’s just been asked how many cup finals he played in. “I should have started two at Rangers [but missed the 1996 League Cup final against Hearts]. I played every round and I was involved in every league game that season. The League Cup used to be around November and I had played in every round and I scored in the quarter-final and I scored in the semi-final so I didn’t see it coming that I wouldn’t be involved in the final.”
But his manager, Walter Smith, delivered a body blow when he announced that not only had he missed out on a starting place, he wasn’t going to be stripped at all. With only three subs permitted in those days and concerns about the fitness of first-choice goalkeeper Andy Goram, Theo Snelders took one place on the bench, striker Peter van Vossen got another and, says McInnes, “David Robertson came from nowhere to get a medal and the win bonus”.
That sense of disappointment is still fresh and it helped influence the way he handled his players this weekend. As a manager himself, he now understands it was impossible for Smith to please everyone that day and knows that letting players down is part and parcel of picking a cup final team but, like in most things, McInnes has firm beliefs on how it should be done.
“I will tell every player individually because I wasn’t happy with the way that was done. I think I deserved an explanation at the time.”
He got it two days later, when he went knocking on the manager’s door. He also got a medal and the win bonus. “It still wasn’t right how he did it. He 100 per cent should have told me before.”
Like this afternoon’s match against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, that cup final was played at Celtic Park, but every Aberdeen player will know their fate long before the team bus pulls up at the stadium this afternoon. In 1996, Smith named his squad in the dressing room about an hour and a half before kick-off and the rest of the day went by in a blur for McInnes.
“I played in every round apart from the final and I scored a couple of goals and that didn’t come around very often for me but the cup final is not a day to remember for me. In light of that, I will speak to every player who is not stripped. It is difficult when you are picking any team and there are always boys left out but more so in a cup final because every one of them is so desperate to play their part and it might not come round again. The team will be named the day before, we always do that, and the subs get named on the morning of the game. There are five subs but there are tough decisions to make.”
Still a relatively young manager, he has channelled life’s lessons, both good and bad, using them as an education and an inspiration. It is an approach that has, on the whole, delivered more highs than lows. His period in charge of St Johnstone was viewed as positive as he steered them back into the top flight and earned him suitors in Scotland as well as down south. He gave into Bristol City’s advances and for a year everything was grand. But it quickly unravelled and he was sacked. He says if he knew then what he knows now, he would never have taken the job and he absolves himself of much of the blame.
“We kept them up from an impossible situation but it shows what can happen. I think the club had flirted with relegation for a few seasons and I know the belief from some people there was that they probably had to go down. It was a really mismanaged club. There were four different managers’ signings in the one dressing room and it needed to sort itself out and maybe they will, in time.”
Despite the problems, there are some who doubted his credentials after that job crumbled, some who wondered if the achievements at St Johnstone were nothing more than beginner’s luck. He arrived at Aberdeen last April, charged with the task of rousing one of Scotland’s slumbering giants. Less than 12 months later, with the club sitting second in the Premiership and a cup double a real possibility, he has proved his worth.
“I think there’s an element of you that questions why you want to be successful. Why do you want to win trophies? There’s always got to be some sort of motivation and I do think, not just in relation to this, but I do think you are always trying to prove people wrong rather than trying to prove other people right. The people who love you, they are there for you anyway whether you win games or lose games, but I think it’s always nice to prove people wrong and I do think it’s important that you never really lose that.”
At Aberdeen, he has overhauled things behind the scenes and having insisted on coming in for the final few games of last season, he quickly sussed which players he wanted and which ones needed to be replaced. This season he has a balanced squad with strength in depth, comprised of youth and experience, guys with decent vision, pace and commitment. He has goalscorers and a solid enough defence. Most of all, he has guys who believe in themselves and those around them.
“The whole football department needed sorting out, to be honest,” says McInnes. “I felt we had to get back to really understanding why we weren’t in the fight. That’s not a criticism of previous regimes. But what was clear was that we weren’t giving the players every chance to be successful on a Saturday. We aren’t wholly any better than other teams in the league if we aren’t preparing right. I felt there were loads of aspects of the football department that weren’t working hard enough or working properly.
“What we tried to do was address that and give the players a chance to be successful. It’s easy just to blame the players. It’s too simple. Players don’t just under-achieve.”
But for years the club has. In a football-minded city, the fans have been starved of success. The last cup final appearance was in 2000, the last cup final victory was in 1995. From the outside looking in, the reasons were not always obvious but once he was in the door, McInnes quickly pinpointed the problems. The overhaul was always, in his mind, going to reap rewards. It was simply a matter of when, not if.
“We hoped to gel quickly and I did feel optimistic during pre-season. I had enough conversations with the boys on an individual basis to know there was hunger there and the proper application. We just needed to bring consistency. The most pleasing thing for me has been the consistency in the league because that was one thing that clearly hadn’t been good enough for our club for the past wee while.”
It is the lack of cup glory that has dogged them, though. While some of McInnes’s predecessors finished high enough to deliver European football, silverware eluded them and with every embarrassment at the hands of lesser lights the players and the club attracted more and more ridicule, while the fans lost more and more hope.
“There’s a few players here who have had tough experiences and have had to take that burden on, but they can also be part of the solution for us and I think they have shown that. Some have had kind of damaging experiences but that’s in the past. Every player, young and old, whether they have been here for a while or come through the club, has an opportunity to get better, I still think we can be better, I don’t think we are there yet. We need to keep working but I think the players have shown a good resolve and attitude to improving. They have got a lift from the players we have brought in and the players who have come in have been pleased with the level of player we have at the club.”
As a manager, McInnes oozes positivity, always looking for small ways to bolster his players’ self-esteem. Initially that confidence in his side may have been slightly manufactured but they have justified it since. Inverness believe they can upset the odds today but very few at Aberdeen do and that shows just how big an impact McInnes and his recruits have had.