It WAS always tempting to wonder whether the football club bearing the city’s name could lift off in the way Aberdeen has during a second oil boom. The signs were not always promising.
Rather like the grimly unappealing Union Street itself, one feared that Aberdeen FC would prove resistant to this latest upturn. While elsewhere in the Granite City signs of renewal and fresh investment were apparent, Pittodrie threatened to continue to lie like a vast cemetery of hope by the North Sea. It had had its day. There would be no second boom-time for the team that played there to correspond with the latest economic upswing.
Yet this bleak assessment does not seem quite so valid any longer. The arrival of Craig Brown as manager, with the team at risk of relegation, helped steady the ship, this much is now clear. And he can look on and feel vindicated by his decision to step aside last season. He can also take satisfaction from the input he was able to give regarding his successor.
Since Derek McInnes’s arrival, it seems as though many of the draws – and there were many of these in the league last season, 16 in total with McInnes himself contributing three of them after taking over for the last five games – have been turned into wins. As for the cups, a home Scottish Cup quarter-final clash with Dumbarton is not being viewed as a terrifying ordeal; or at least not quite so much as it once would have been.
Since the start of December, Aberdeen have won ten of their 13 matches. The one draw in this run felt like a victory, since it was obtained in the dying seconds when skipper Russell Anderson bundled the ball into the net against Motherwell at Fir Park last month. Two single-goal home defeats in this spell to Motherwell and then Inverness Caledonian Thistle now look like particularly frustrating aberrations, as does another Pittodrie loss at the hands of Hearts in November.
But McInnes will know that not everything in this restoration job he has been tasked with is likely to run smoothly. The early season hiccoughs came at a time when Willo Flood and Barry Robson were either sidelined or else battling their way back after injury. Now restored to full fitness, the pair are forming a remarkably dynamic duo in the middle of the park for Aberdeen, with the latest evidence of their worth coming in Saturday’s 2-1 Scottish Cup win over Celtic in Glasgow.
It felt like a victory of real significance, and not only because it was claimed at the expense of the cup holders and league champions, and a team who had not conceded a domestic goal since November. It also saw Aberdeen live up to the high expectations of their fans, and even those in the media, who also ache to see a team help make things interesting again.
McInnes did not allow the loss of an early goal deflect him from his purpose. For the second time in a week, Aberdeen did not let down their vast number of travelling supporters. As their defender Mark Reynolds suggested after the final whistle on Saturday, this was the strongest evidence yet of “a new Aberdeen”.
It seems scarcely believable that this time last year McInnes was looking for a job. Indeed, it is just short of 12 months ago that I recall him pointing out at a press conference where he was helping promote a future televised match on ESPN that the game is strewn with managers with decent reputations who are struggling to find work after one perceived failure; something he had suffered at Bristol City. It is just a relief to know that someone of obvious promise has not been lost on a scrapheap of other discarded managers, although you sensed, even after his Bristol experience, that McInnes retained enough belief in his own ability to rise again. With reference to David Moyes’s continued struggles at Manchester United, perhaps McInnes’s current progress demonstrates that around 30 years is the safe distance from which to start trying to follow in Sir Alex Ferguson’s footsteps.
What Saturday’s defeat means for Celtic manager Neil Lennon is perhaps harder to assess. Here is a man whose team might yet be christened The Invincibles if they can go all the way unbeaten in the league, something which would be an undeniably remarkable achievement.
Whether or not this is enough for the supporters is debatable, however. Some are already remarking on the five trophies from 13 that Lennon has managed to accrue – or at least will have when another championship is wrapped up – in a spell when Rangers have become so denuded.
It was a trying, sometimes emotional few days in the run-up to Saturday’s cup match. Whether it led to Lennon taking his eye off the ball only he can say. It isn’t every manager who has to take time out of a big game build-up to speak to procurator-fiscal representatives about an incident where he was driven from his seat while trying to watch a football match. But then it wasn’t Lennon who let the fans down the following day on the pitch.
The manager is trying to build ahead of the summer so that Celtic can at least take a running start when it comes to the Champions League qualifiers. By bringing in the likes of Leigh Griffiths and Stefan Johansen, there is time to bed the players in, thus trying to avoid a scenario that so nearly did for them in Kazakhstan, when Lennon had to deploy two debutant centre-halves – playing together for the first time – in a vital Champions League qualifier.
Following Saturday’s reversal against Aberdeen, Lennon might also now think twice about following this formula: big game equals Georgios Samaras. Not that there are any more big games this season. Indeed, there is not one until July, when the Champions League qualifiers begin; by which time Samaras will have surely departed judging by his ineffective performance at the weekend. He might not be the only one mentally switching off. Supporters are in danger of doing this, too, now the prospect of another double has been extinguished.
At present, the only real interest around Parkhead is that being accrued by the impressive sum of money Celtic have stored in the bank.
On the pitch, there is little to inspire the fans. This Sunday’s televised lunchtime kick-off against St Johnstone (Celtic’s fourth home game in a row) is a further test of their loyalty in a season that, despite involvement in a Champions League group that also included AC Milan, Barcelona and Ajax, still manages to feel as though it has lacked something.