AT A stadium which has witnessed more dismal false dawns than a low-budget Hollywood special effects studio in recent years, the sun was shining brightly when Derek McInnes welcomed The Scotsman to Pittodrie this week.
“It’s always sunny when Derek’s around,” smiles Brenda, the friendly face at reception who has been busier than usual over the past few days.
With the old ground preparing to put up the sold-out signs for a domestic fixture for the first time in six years for today’s lunchtime Scottish Premiership visit of champions Celtic, there is a tangible sense of hope around the city that McInnes is the man who can finally drag Aberdeen out of the shadows where they have been mired in mediocrity for so long. It was shortly after his appointment as Craig Brown’s successor at the end of last season that McInnes was struck by just how far the Dons have drifted from the days when they were consistent performers on centre stage in Scottish football.
“One of my first official engagements in the job was to attend the SPL awards dinner down in Glasgow,” he says. “I sat there and listened to lots of clubs getting positive mentions, rightly so, like Motherwell, Inverness, Ross County and St Mirren. I think the only time Aberdeen’s name came up was a brief nod to Niall McGinn in the round-up of player of the year contenders. It was as if Aberdeen are just an afterthought.
“This club should never be that anonymous. I want people to be talking positively about Aberdeen, for the players to be getting talked about and recognised for what they do.
“We need to try and get people to fall in love with the club again. We need to inspire the city and get them to come and watch us – not just because their dad or their grandpa were Aberdeen fans, although we need that too – but because there is a good team to watch. There is a feelgood factor around the city right now, there is an air of confidence about what we are trying to do after a decent start to the season. But I know that will quickly disappear if we don’t back it up.”
The 13th man to occupy the manager’s chair since Alex Ferguson’s almost unfeasibly successful tenure ended in 1986, McInnes is understandably reluctant to make any bold promises of succeeding where others have failed. But he believes he has already identified the cause of that failure.
Without seeking to cast aspersions on any of his predecessors, McInnes is quick to explain just how dismayed he was by both the operational and strategic deficiencies of the footballing set-up he formally took charge of in April.
“On my first day of work here, I remember driving back from the old Barracks training ground we were using and saying to my assistant Tony Docherty that no-one in the SPL would have trained on a poorer surface that morning,” he says. “I changed that right away. Where we train now (the sports facility at Albyn private school in Milltimber) is much better, but it still falls short of where a club like Aberdeen should be. Training facilities is just one of four or five areas, off the top of my head, where I can tell you I knew other clubs were doing it better than Aberdeen.
“Opposition analysis was one. Player recruitment and identifying who we wanted to bring in was another. Sports science was definitely an area we were not utilising properly.
“That’s not a criticism of previous managers, because every manager is different. Of the last four or five managers here, one would buy into sports science, the next one wouldn’t, the next one would. As a club, a decision has to be made that sports science is something we believe in.
“We had to up our game from Monday to Friday off the park and hopefully that helps when the game comes around on Saturday. I’d love us to get the tag of being the hardest working club in Scotland. There is a lot of class about this club, a lot of people working hard off the pitch. But the most important bit was just falling short.
“I hope it doesn’t come across as criticism of any previous regime, but for me it was something that had to be addressed.
“It’s about implementing something that can sustain us and get us success, whether it’s this year or next year. There are other clubs who have achieved things, reached cup finals and won them, got themselves into Europe. We should be looking with envy at that and saying ‘why shouldn’t that be us?’.
“We are a club which is still respected for its support, stadium and past. I would just love us to get to the stage where we are respected for what we are on the pitch. We need to get the edge back, get that fear of Pittodrie back into other teams and I think we can do that. A lot of good managers and players have passed through this club in recent years without being able to bring it back. There has to be reasons for that. Surely it’s not just been a case of every one of those managers not being able to make it happen like they did elsewhere, or every player failing to live up to their potential?
“There were loads of areas of the football department which were okay but which other clubs were doing better.
“It’s too easy to say the players under-achieved. I’m not having that at all. I hate players having to feel responsible in that way. If they had been given every opportunity through the week to be successful at 3pm on a Saturday, then I could maybe agree with that.”
Having enhanced their working environment, McInnes already seems to have forged a close bond with his players. The initial evidence they are buying into his philosophy has been strong, an opening day home win over Kilmarnock followed up by last Sunday’s eye-catching display and 3-1 success at Motherwell.
“I think it’s important to make your players feel important and try to look after them in any way you can,” he adds. “From my own playing career, it is the managers who invested the most time into me that I look back on with the most fondness. Right from the start at Morton, with Allan McGraw and John McMaster, the amount of time they put into me was fantastic. Allan would sit me down in his office for half an hour or 45 minutes to talk about my game, where he sees improvement. I was 16 or 17, yet here was the manager spending time with me.
“When you sit down with most 16 or 17-year-old players now, they are looking at the door, waiting to get out, almost as soon as they’ve sat down. I never felt like that. Allan saw something in me. Even when I was having poor games, he would keep playing me every week.
“Gary Megson at West Bromwich Albion was the other manager who had the biggest impact on me. I’d done my coaching badges before I went to West Brom, but he was the one who made me want to be a manager rather than just a coach.
“I always felt he focused on what I could do, rather than what I couldn’t do. It was very simple, but brilliant. He got us promoted to the Premier League in 2002 with a team which should never have been anywhere near it. He made me see what could be done with a team which was fit – and we were ridiculously fit under Gary – organised and tactically aware. Every time I went onto the pitch under Gary, nothing the opposition did came as a surprise.
“I was at a ten-year anniversary dinner for that team which won promotion and all the boys said the same thing, that even if he walked into a room now and told you to do something, you would do it. We had that level of respect for him, it wasn’t far away from fear.
“He would never have sat you down for a cup of tea like Allan McGraw. But all I needed from him was a ‘well done’ at the end of a game. That did me for the rest of the week. So there are different styles of doing it.”
The 42-year-old’s confidence in his own managerial style, first showcased when he led St Johnstone to promotion in 2009, has not been dented by his experience at Bristol City where, after a laudable start to his tenure, he was sacked in January this year.
“I feel I have unfinished business down south,” he says. “I trust how I work and I know I could do a good job down there. Without going into it in detail, there are loads of reasons why it ended the way it did at Bristol City.
“Other than the last six weeks or so, it was absolutely fine. The two challenges put to me were to keep the club up from a hopeless situation in the first season, which we did by ten points, then it was to halve the wage bill and still keep them in the Championship.
“We were well on the way to meeting the financial challenge, although we were in a difficult situation on the pitch. I just felt we needed to get to January and get a couple of players in.
“I do feel a bit let down by the whole thing. But there are other managers who have been on the wrong end of things and feel they have been harshly treated. I quickly put it behind me and used the two months I was out just to prepare for my next job.
“This was the only job I applied for and it was one which really whetted the appetite. I back myself and the way I work with Tony. I do believe we will get this right. While I say I’d like to have another crack at it in England one day, I’d like to be at Aberdeen for a good period of time and hopefully a successful one.”
In overhauling his first-team squad this summer, McInnes was pleasantly surprised at how little persuasion was required to get new signings such as Calvin Zola, Barry Robson, Willo Flood and Gregg Wylde to move north.
“Every time we met a player, I felt there was a real willingness to come here,” he says. “I think this club still has an appeal, even though these boys are not always aware of its history.
“I had to cut the wage bill during the summer, I accepted that. We let a lot of players go which helped create space. I needed impact in terms of changing it, freshening it up. If everyone’s fit, we definitely have a very capable squad. I feel I’ve got players in there who can play at a higher level, but hopefully I can have a bit of control over that and they only move on after being part of something successful here.
“Everyone of the players in that dressing room is my player now, regardless of who signed them, because I had a decision to make on all of them during the summer. I feel as if we have a tight dressing room and are ready to take on the season.
“Coming in just before the end of last season, having a chance to observe things before I really got started, was definitely a big help. Our pre-season, when I took them down to Warwick University, was also crucial from my point of view. Because although I knew all of the players from the outside, if you like, I didn’t really know their characters.
“It wasn’t exactly a boot camp down there, but they were training three times a day. Sometimes it was a bit harsh, getting them up at 6.30am for a spin class at 7am. You are looking for the ones who just get up and get on with it and for the ones who maybe have a mump and moan about it.
“You are testing their character all the time. What we got was all of the boys throwing themselves into their work, they looked as though they would do anything we asked of them. No-one caused us any concern. So I feel we have come a long way in a short space of time, but it’s only the start.
“People always relate the present Aberdeen to Fergie’s team, but I would look at somewhere in between. Look at Alex Smith’s team in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which won trophies and which I played against. They had properly good players. It was a team with an edge which could out-fight you as well as outplay you. If we can get somewhere near that for starters, I’d be more than happy.”
After 18 years without a trophy success and 13 years without even an appearance in a major cup final, so too would the Aberdeen fans. Try as he might to play down the significance of today’s fixture at Pittodrie, McInnes may struggle to keep a lid on the hype should his team collect all three points against Celtic.
“I’m pleased for everyone at the club, in that we’ve probably reached the stage of getting this feelgood factor and selling out a home game quicker than anyone thought,” he adds. “But I’m not looking forward to it any more than any other game. Honestly, I’m not trying to be smart, I mean that.
“If we win, lose or draw against Celtic, it’s not going to change how we prepare for next week or how the rest of our season goes. Saturday will be tough, but I hope it is tough for Celtic as well”.
If it is, then perhaps we will be spared a fresh round of those ‘False Dons’ headlines for a while yet.