Aberdeen’s Europa League adventure will begin next Thursday at the scene of one of Barry Robson’s most gruelling and uncomfortable outings as a footballer.
It was confirmed earlier this week that the first leg of the Dons’ first qualifying round against the Macedonian side, Shkendija, has been moved from their hosts’ crime-ridden home town of Tetovo to the more salubrious Philip II Arena in the capital city of Skopje.
That is, of course, the Macedonian national stadium which Scotland have visited twice in the past seven years. Robson was in the team for the first of those matches, a harrowing encounter in September 2008, when George Burley’s competitive reign as manager got off to a dismal start as the Scots wilted in the sweltering eastern European heat and lost 1-0 in their first qualifier for the 2010 World Cup.
As Gordon Strachan’s Scotland team found when they won 2-1 there in another World Cup qualifier almost two years ago, the national stadium has since undergone a much-needed makeover and now bears little resemblance to the ramshackle ground where Robson and his colleagues succumbed seven years ago.
The most reassuring factor for the veteran midfielder, however, is that Aberdeen’s match against Shkendija will kick off at 9.05pm local time. When he played there with Scotland, it was a 4pm kick-off, meaning temperatures were at their peak and hugely discomfiting for Burley’s team.
“I remember that game in Skopje well because it was probably the hottest I have played in,” said Robson. “It was in the middle of the afternoon for television and I remember big Steven Pressley [then a Scotland coach] took the warm-up in the shade. It was George Burley’s first competitive game and it was a disappointing game for us.
“The heat won’t be anywhere near as bad next week because the game is going to kick off later at night, so there are no excuses for us there. We’re a fit, young team and most of the boys know what they are doing at European level after the experience we had last season. I just want to get out there and get on with it – the heat won’t even be in my mind.”
As well as playing in major qualifiers for his country, Robson, 36, has played in Champions League matches with Celtic. However, he is as enthused as ever about Aberdeen’s latest European campaign, even though it has meant he and his colleagues were afforded less than four weeks of a summer break. “I am 36, going on 37, but I am still hungry to play in Europe,” he said. “This is another European adventure and it is where Aberdeen want to be.
“We’ve only had three and a bit weeks off, but I want to play in the Europa League because it is an unbelievable competition. I’ve been kicking my heels, desperate to get back into it. It is enjoyable and when you get older and it is taken away from you, it is something you will miss.”
Despite returning for pre-season only eight days ago, Robson insists his side – who crushed Brechin 8-2 in a friendly on Wednesday – will be fully up to speed ready for their Macedonian jaunt.
“We have done a lot of work in the last week,” he said. “We all look after ourselves and you can see that. The manager always tries to make us the fittest team in the league.
“I think he has got the balance right. We were at St Andrews for three days and we had the Brechin game and then we got a day off to recover. We have a game on Sunday [against St Johnstone] and then we are into the European game. We are all looking forward to it and we will be ready for it.”
Manager Derek McInnes has been working meticulously to make sure he has as much detail as possible on Shkendija, who finished third in the Macedonian league last season.
“There was one day he was in video analysis all day,” Robson said. “He will have seen every single thing he needs to see about the Macedonian team. As soon as the draw came out the manager was straight on it. He would have been checking everything, probably up to the hotels because he is very thorough.
“The manager will have every angle covered. The goalkeepers will get DVDs and some players will get taken in and we will get a wide variety of things. We will see quite a lot of them over the next week or so, the manager will make sure of that.
“We will know everything we need to know. They will be technically good and it won’t be easy but it is a game we should take a bit of confidence going into.”