Strength of squad and form of Goodwillie is cause for optimism, writes Scott Davie
Derek McInnes and his players were understandably overwhelmed by disappointment and regret at their failure to get beyond the third round of Europa League qualifying but there were enough positives to take from the overall experience to suggest they can find adequate consolation on the domestic front again this season.
The Aberdeen manager is determined to continue the impressive progress made since replacing Craig Brown in the position and is acutely aware the Dons squandered the perfect opportunity to do that in a painful aggregate defeat by FC Kairat Almaty.
In fact the experience was so raw that someone normally so meticulously uncontroversial mused in the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s second leg that he had always been confident Aberdeen were better than their Kazakh opponents.
Now, instead of preparing for a glamorous play-off tie against Bordeaux with possible progression to the group stages, it’s more mundane fixtures against the likes of Kilmarnock today that will occupy Aberdeen.
The task is far from straightforward though, as the Dons need to improve on last season’s achievement of a record points tally by a non-Old Firm side if they hope to realistically challenge for a first league title in 31 years.
What the European campaign proved is McInnes has assembled a squad surely capable of at least narrowing the 17-point advantage Celtic had over them by the end of the previous campaign.
Liverpool’s on-loan goalkeeper Danny Ward was outstanding, Paul Quinn proved a more than able deputy for the injured Mark Reynolds, Graeme Shinnie’s performances in defence and midfield only increased Aberdeen’s gratitude that they didn’t face stiffer competition for the player’s signature while Kenny McLean proved the £300,000 paid to St Mirren in January was money well spent.
You can also factor in the renaissance of David Goodwillie along with those recent additions, with his former Tannadice team-mate McInnes positively purring that the striker is a better player now than the one Blackburn Rovers paid Dundee United £2 million for four years ago.
The pair were together when a 16-year-old Goodwillie made his top team debut at Ibrox but now the man who is his influential manager has seen potential mature into more rounded professionalism.
The move to the English Premiership turned sour on and off the park for the former Scotland internationalist and late last season it looked like being a similar story at Pittodrie.
However, Goodwillie has returned better than ever, so much so that he started ahead of the country’s top scorer from last season, Adam Rooney, in Aberdeen’s last four Europa League ties.
“He’s a better player now than the one that went down south,” insists an impressed and relieved McInnes. “He went there on goals and potential and I think he’s been a bit damaged by the experience.
“He’s had to pick up the pieces, but his general game, his touch, his link-up play, his intelligence, his thought for others, is all much better than it ever has been.
“At the end of last season we said to David he needed to come back like a new signing. We had the top scorer in the Premiership with Adam, who was scoring goals every week, and it was getting more difficult for David to play a bigger part.
“He has come back really fit and strong and he’s itching to play his part. He has certainly contributed in the European run and hopefully he can keep that going.”
The depth of squad is reflected by the fact that the likes of Rooney, Quinn, Willo Flood and Barry Robson started on the bench in midweek so McInnes has plenty of scope to freshen up the side for today’s visit from Gary Locke’s Kilmarnock.
Ominously for the struggling Ayrshire side McInnes is convinced his players are desperate for a chance to take out their frustrations from Thursday and recent history shows that’s just what they’ll manage to do.
He added: “We’ve always responded to disappointments, whether it’s a disappointing performance – and there haven’t been too many of those – or a disappointing result.
“We’ve had a few kicks in the teeth over the last few years, but history will show we normally win the next game.
“Nobody’s going to give us it, we’re going to have to work hard to earn it. But I think the players see the importance of refocusing on domestic matters and, maybe, it might not be a bad thing in the long term.”