It’s exactly four years ago tomorrow since Derek McInnes took charge of his first game as Aberdeen manager and there couldn’t be a more appropriate occasion or opposition to show how far the club has come since.
After all, his debut back on 22 April 2013 was against Hibernian at Easter Road in a meaningless post-split match between two teams in the bottom six but in no danger of relegation.
Now they both approach McInnes’ anniversary in far better shape than they did back then, with the Edinburgh club going into the Scottish Cup semi-final as holders having already guaranteed a return to Premiership football next season.
Meanwhile Aberdeen are virtually unrecognisable from the team that ground out a goalless draw back then as they close in on a third successive runners-up spot in the league and target a first success in the Scottish Cup in 27 years.
Of course semi-finals are notoriously tense occasions but McInnes for one is convinced tomorrow’s meeting at Hampden can’t possibly be as bad as his first one in charge.
“That game was a shocker! Back then there was nothing to play for and it was about assessing the players” he recalls. “We had five meaningless games. There was nothing riding on them but professional pride.
“Now here we are, a semi-final to look forward to, Europe secured and fighting for second spot. It’s important for a club like this to have meaningful games at this stage of the season.
“That was something we wanted to address and it’s probably something we have done. We felt there were good players here but we probably needed a few more to raise the standards and help those good players.
“The difference between our best player and poorest player was too big in the squad. It was important to get a more balanced level of performances.
“No disrespect to the squad I inherited. I was probably a bit harsh with a few of them when I first came in and a few harsh decisions were made because we only had a few weeks and knew we needed to bring in a freshness.”
He’s certainly done that as Aberdeen haven’t finished outwith the top three in his four full seasons in charge but McInnes admits his legacy at Pittodrie depends on the number of trophies he brings to the club. The immediate target is to add to the League Cup won on penalties against Inverness Caley Thistle three years ago, which would make him the first Dons manager since Alex Smith 27 years ago to win two.
It pains him they didn’t make a better job of doing that earlier this season as one of the few real disappointments during his time in charge was Aberdeen’s poor performance in last November’s 3-0 defeat by Celtic in the League Cup final.
That’s something he doesn’t expect to be repeated on their first visit back to the national stadium since as McInnes added:“I don’t want any of my players going in with a fear of failure. I want them to focus on Hibs and getting to that final.
“They are motivated enough. Just because they didn’t perform as well as they would have liked [against Celtic] didn’t mean they weren’t motivated. They felt ready and the preparation was good, but they just didn’t perform.
“Our intention that day was to be far better than we were and be more aggressive in our work and far more purposeful but for whatever reason it didn’t transpire. We were beaten on the day but we’re now one step away from getting back to another opportunity to win a final. It’s all part of learning, good experiences and bad experiences, but it is important that we do learn.”
Aberdeen defeated a stubborn Morton side in the League Cup semi-final and expect an even tougher test against the team who clinched the Championship crown last weekend. McInnes also believes Hibs have already shown enough this season to suggest they will be good enough to put any worries about struggling in the Premiership to rest on their return.
“We probably view them like a top six side to be honest,” was his assessment. “Hibs have got the experience of obviously winning the cup last year, the confidence of winning their league and the level of player that they have will prove a difficult game for us.
“As holders as well they’ll be really keen to hold on to that after waiting so long for it. There’s no doubting that we’ve got a tough game but we’re confident in ourselves as well.
“We’re the second best team in the country at the minute, we’re in good form barring six or seven minutes against Rangers here, and there’s been a lot I’ve been really pleased with in the team. We go into this one really looking forward to it.”