THE naysayers who claim it is circumstance just as much as Aberdeen’s own efforts that have propelled the Pittodrie club to the pinnacle of the table in a five-month-old top-flight season really ought to chew on a few statistical morsels before chewing the cud.
Should Derek McInnes’ side record an eighth consecutive league win when entertained by St Mirren on Saturday, it will be the first time the club has achieved such a tally since 1988-89.
It just so happens that the longest sequence of league victories Aberdeen strung together in the glory years under Alex Ferguson in the 1980s is also eight. Moreover, should McInnes’ men rack up an eighth straight league clean sheet this weekend, it will be the longest such run in any campaign since 1973-74.
Aberdeen, then, have become a credible challenger – and nothing more at this stage – to Celtic because they have become far more formidable performers than at any stage in two decades. It is not about them profiting from any new-found fragility exhibited by the Scottish champions through them being under the stewardship of Ronny Deila.
If Aberdeen had also harvested 43 points after 20 games in 2011-12, they would, as they do now, have led the Glasgow club at this stage two years ago.
In the 29 years since the title last left Glasgow – then to reside with Ferguson’s Aberdeen, of course – only Alex Smith has made it feel as if the residence need not be permanent.
It was in his first season managing the Pittodrie club that they last won eight league games on the spin – doing so in the early months of 1989 to claw their way to a respectable second behind Graeme Souness’ monied Rangers team. However, what he wants to see replicated this season are some of the elements that surrounded the third straight runners-up berth to which he guided the club two years later.
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Smith gets a little wounded at the collective memory of the conclusion to the 1990-91 championship being Aberdeen blowing the chance to “bring back the Fergie days” by surrendering the title on the final afternoon through losing at Ibrox when they only had to draw to prevent Rangers making in three-in-a-row.
“What we did that season was be incredibly successful through pushing Rangers all the way when no-one gave us a chance of doing so,” said Smith yesterday, the septuagenarian not only chairman of the Scottish League Managers Association but one of the true sages of our game.
“We made that season true football combat, with Rangers knowing they were in a fight, and us never giving up that fight. That is what Aberdeen can do this season, and what has been missing since Rangers went out of the league.
“And, just as much as football watchers and media folk, even Celtic supporters would welcome that challenge, that pressure of knowing there is an edge to games you play and the interest invested in another game being played at the same time. We have missed all that.”
Smith laid the groundwork for a successful spell at Pittodrie that was missing only a championship by signing Theo Snelders and creating the platform for the scoring talents of Charlie Nicholas – signed the previous year – to be revitalised. Snelders earned the PFA player of the year award, while, with 16 goals, Nicholas shared the accolade of top scorer in that season’s Premier Division with Mark McGhee.
Some of the elements Smith honed as he focused on re-establishing Aberdeen among the “top two or three”, as they hadn’t been since the 1985 title win in Ferguson’s penultimate season, he sees in the McInnes mix at Pittodrie presently.
“They don’t lose a lot of goals, and we didn’t either,” Smith told The Scotsman. “In the 1988-89 season, we conceded fewer than anyone else, but that wasn’t so surprising when you remember we had a back five of Snelders, Stewart McKimmie, Big Alex [McLeish], Willie [Miller] and David Robertson. If you don’t lose goals, you will give yourself the chance to win the vast majority of your games.
“That is really true for Aberdeen now because they have five different goal sources, with their strikers Adam Rooney and David Goodwillie, and then Niall McGinn, Peter Pawlett and Johnny Hayes all capable of chipping in.”
One school of thought as to what might undo Aberdeen’s attempts to push Celtic for the coming months, and not just weeks, is that the dynamic has altered now that McInnes’ men find themselves in front at a relatively advanced stage of the season. The pleasure of playing in a winning team could give way to pressure springing from expectations for it to stay that way. Smith believes that summation is to entirely misread the current situation.
“This is all new and fresh to the Aberdeen players. There is nothing onerous about where they find themselves,” he said. “They have slowly built themselves up and they will be absolutely relishing the fact they have reached a level where they can go out and win games without constantly fearing that a defeat is round the corner.
“You have no idea how players can grow when they develop that belief and confidence.
“To become part of a team capable of winning most weeks doesn’t create a pressurised scenario and, in the case of Aberdeen especially, it actually removes you from a dreaded one. There are players in that dressing room who will remember when the genuine worry they had all too many times was about being embarrassed by losing to a much smaller team. Whatever happens in the rest of the season, they have moved on from those days.”
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