ABERDEEN manager Derek McInnes is known to be a superstitious sort. He might, then, be privately thinking it is in the tea-leaves that his team are on course to be drinking out of more than just china cups come mid-March.
The Pittodrie men go into Saturday’s League Cup semi-final against St Johnstone at Tynecastle having kept clean sheets throughout the competition so far. Not since the 1985-86 season have Aberdeen proved impregnable up till the last four stage of the tournament and, back then, it turned out to be the springboard for them to lift the trophy without losing a goal.
The only League Cup triumph of the Alex Ferguson era, the 3-0 final victory over Hibernian in October 1985 is also a stand-out memory for Billy Stark. It was the only time the Scotland under-21 coach, who won the league and Scottish Cup with both Aberdeen and Celtic, claimed that chunk of silverware. And Stark’s contribution to the snaring of his solitary League Cup winners’ medal 28-and-a-half years ago was significant.
“Eric Black scored and I got the second to make for a very enjoyable game,” the 57-year-old said. “We knew that with [Willie] Miller, [Alex] McLeish and [Jim] Leighton in the defence, if we went a couple of goals up, we would be very hard to beat because of our defence.”
In contrast to an infamous television interview given after the 1983 Scottish Cup win over Rangers, Ferguson didn’t berate his own players for their efforts in sweeping aside the opposition in 1985.
“He was always trying to make a point,” Stark said. “That was probably pre-conceived. He looked for opportunities to drive home that even winning cups wasn’t enough. He also wanted a performance.
“I wasn’t there then but I think he apologised to the players later on that night when they got back to the team hotel. When you reflect now on his career, and I was fortunate enough – if fortunate is the right word – to see him at the embryonic stage, when he was St Mirren manager, he had that drive and intensity that made him successful.”
McInnes deliberately cuts a more urbane, controlled figure and, in his own way, exudes an authority and assurance that few in the job have shown since the days of Ferguson. That may ultimately count for nothing but he has made a good early impression on the Pittodrie faithful. Moves such as the one which led to him bringing in former Inverness Caledonian Thistle striker Adam Rooney from Oldham this week speak of a man who knows exactly what is required to construct a squad capable of delivering days in the sun for the club.
The supporters seem convinced that this year’s League Cup can bring a first trophy since that honour was landed 18 years ago.
Stark added: “We’ve seen false dawns with Aberdeen before, but Derek is definitely going in the right direction. He is an impressive individual. You can see the work that’s being done in terms of the balance in the team, and he will give younger ones a shot. But he has experience and the right types in Russell Anderson, Barry Robson and Willo Flood.”
In Ryan Jack, 21 years old and now the most capped-player in Stark’s under-21 squad with 17 appearances at that level, the international coach believes Aberdeen have “an unsung hero”. “We’ve had him through all the age groups at national level. He’s been unfortunate with the national squads because he has broken his foot twice – once at under-17 and once at under-21,” said Stark. “He is an unfussy sort of player. He is not flash. Derek rates him highly, and now has plenty experience with 150 games under his belt. Compare that with some of the ones who have left Aberdeen, such as Jack Grimmer and Fraser Fyvie. Ryan is an assured and confident player. He doesn’t give the ball away. He has a real hunger, gets about the pitch and is not dominated by Robson and Flood, he has personality. Even when the two of them were out he kept the thing going in the middle of the park. I couldn’t speak more highly of Ryan. He is from Torry, so he has a wee bit about him. There’s always that thing about Aberdeen boys being a wee bit soft, but he is certainly not in that category. He could be a Glasgow boy.”
Stark makes Aberdeen slight favourites, for the semi-final and for the trophy itself, while being aware of the threat posed by an “impressive” St Johnstone, particularly in the form of his under-21 charge Stevie May, who has now netted 20 goals for the season. If the Perth club are to overcome opponents they haven’t prevailed against in two attempts this season, May is likely to be the player responsible for Aberdeen’s downfall, says Stark. “St Johnstone have a solid defensive base but Stevie’s goals really pushed them on. I’ve watched Stevie for a number of years, he’s now a big player for the under-21s, and you have to be impressed with a lot of things about him. He was happy to go to Alloa and Hamilton on loan just to play football. If you had told me he would score so many goals in the top flight this season, though, I’d have said it was a big ask. You can bet Aberdeen will be planning to stop Stevie. But he has shown he can overcome that because he scores different types of goals. He scores in the top corner and can also get a poacher’s goal.
“If you take it to ridiculous levels in terms of [Luis] Suarez and [Sergio] Aguero, he is not in that bracket, but he does like to get that wee half yard to get a hit at goal.”
This year’s League Cup surely provides Aberdeen with a real shot at glory. The pull of the past and the potential of a club the size of Aberdeen, whose fans snapped up 13,000 of the 16,000-odd semi-final tickets and, as Stark points out “take more away supporters now than they did when I played”, has the Scotland under-21 coach keen to see the Pittodrie club, currently second in the Premiership, play up to the potential they have shown in the League Cup thus far.
“It’s good to see the club challenging. To win a trophy would be huge. Aberdeen are regarded as a big club but they’ve not won one in a while. It would be great for the fans because they’ve seen Kilmarnock and St Mirren win trophies recently. Even to get to a cup final [for the first time in nearly 14 years] would be great, it can help build momentum.”