ABERDEEN manager Derek McInnes is confident the mental strength that his players have developed this season will allow them to cope with the pressure of being favourites to lift the Scottish League Cup.
The Pittodrie club, without a major trophy since they last won the League Cup 17 seasons ago, head the odds at as low a price as 5-4 with bookmakers following yesterday’s semi-final draw, which paired them with St Johnstone. Hearts will face Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the other last-four tie, the games scheduled for the weekend of 1 and 2 February.
Belief among supporters that McInnes is the man who can finally end Aberdeen’s wilderness years is steadily increasing this season, which currently sees his team sitting second in the Scottish Premiership.
The former St Johnstone and Bristol City manager remains determined to keep a lid on expectations but, at the same time, is quietly optimistic his team can meet them after witnessing the manner in which they defeated Motherwell 2-0 at Fir Park on Wednesday night, despite having just ten men for 77 minutes.
“We can’t stop what other people say about us, whether it’s in a positive or a negative way,” said McInnes. “We went a couple of games recently without winning and I felt the criticism was a bit harsh on some of the players. I thought that, even when we won a few games back-to-back, the praise is maybe over-the-top as well. We’ve just got to try as professionals to keep working game to game.
“I can understand possibly why we’re favourites but you’ve got Inverness who had a great season last year, St Johnstone who got into Europe, and Hearts who dug out a result the other night when everybody had written them off. Any game is going to be a challenge. Someone has to be the favourites so if people are saying that it’s us, then we just need to deal with that.
“I’ve not been in the job that long and you’re always learning about your players. It’s probably too early to say we’re there yet. There are a lot of challenges ahead. But the character, mental strength and toughness needed to grind out results was there the other night.
“I’ve seen that a few times this season. We’ve won a few games late on. You could say that’s down to fitness but I’d like to think that’s more down to mentality to go and get results. We won late at Hibs on Saturday, did the same at Inverness, scored in the second half against Dundee United to win – there is a feeling that they won’t accept anything apart from winning games and that’s pleasing.
“The semi-finals are still three months away but hopefully we’ll be ready when it comes around and still in a good frame of mind. We’d have grabbed that at the start of the season, being 90 minutes away from our first final for a while. We’d have taken that all day long and now we have that opportunity.
“It’s something for the whole club to look forward to. The support has been brilliant for us but the other night they excelled themselves.
“There’s a good bond between the support and the players at the minute. The players are representing the club well and the supporters are representing us well. We just need to keep that going.”
Aberdeen will face opponents equally determined to seize a rare opportunity to win major silverware, something St Johnstone have still to achieve in their 129-year history. Manager Tommy Wright only took charge in the summer but he is fully aware of what it would mean to the Perth club.
“I want to get the monkey of not having won a League Cup or Scottish Cup off our backs,” said Wright. “This is a totally new group of players and I don’t think many of them have experienced a semi-final before.
“What’s happened in the past we can’t do anything about it, we can only deal with what we can affect. I do know we’ve got players in our squad who can win games, we’ve got match-winners and that’s an important ingredient when you’re dealing with one-off games.
“You come into any job and you want to be successful. How do you measure success at St Johnstone? Finishing in the top six is one way, another is to win a trophy. When I sat down with the chairman, the first thing he said was: ‘I want you to win me a cup’. No pressure, the club is almost 130 years old and never won one but I’m the one to do it. If you did do it, then that would feel special and you’d take a lot of satisfaction but there’s a long way to go, it’s a really tough tie in the semi-final.
“Aberdeen will be biggish favourites and are a good side. But we are pleased with how things are going this season and fancy our chances against anyone.”