The fierce desire to reach the Europa League group stage has been evident within Derek McInnes since early in his Aberdeen managerial career. After all, he is of the opinion that such an achievement would be the equivalent of winning a domestic trophy.
This year is no different. However, he contends guaranteeing European football until at least December would matter even more in this season of all seasons and following the club’s Covid-19 related challenges of late.
Aberdeen chairman Dave Cormack has been very open about the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic on the Pittodrie club.
He has estimated it will cost Aberdeen as much as £10 million in income. Progress in the Europa League is a way of continuing to claw back some of this money.
“We have a rough idea of what it would be worth,” McInnes said. “We don’t know if the figures will be the same because of the lack of spectators but certainly there are significant incentives and rewards for us to get to the group stage.”
The temporary format of one-off fixtures before the play-off round means Aberdeen are just five games from a group stage they have experienced only once before, during Jimmy Calderwood’s time as manager. McInnes’ side host NSI Runavik this Thursday night at Pittodrie. The team from the Faroe Isles made everyone at Aberdeen sit up and take notice with a 5-1 victory over Barry Town last week. But it’s surely not beyond Aberdeen to expect to feature in the second round of Europa League qualifying, after which there would be one more knockout clash before a two-legged play-off round.
“We feel that group stage is something that is important to the club,” said McInnes. “Financially it’s a game-changer and professionally it’s something I really want to get involved in because we would come up against a level of opponent that would excite and challenge us. That would be the reward for the players of getting to the group stages.
“Hopefully we can do it. You need to have the size of squad to deal with it but that’s something you worry about once you get through.”
Along with a Scottish Cup triumph, reaching the group stage is the itch McInnes most wants to scratch after seven years at the club. He claims it would be the same as winning a domestic trophy, which he experienced when his Aberdeen side defeated Inverness Caledonian Thistle on penalties in the 2014 League Cup final. However, the promised land of the group stage has continued to prove elusive in five attempts.
There have been dignified exits as well as slightly less dignified ones. Real Sociedad ended their hopes in 2014-15 after Aberdeen suffered narrow defeats in both legs. A 2-0 defeat against Cypriot club Apollon Limassol three years ago will not count among their greatest European nights after a 1-0 win at Pittodrie. Premier League side Burnley did for Aberdeen’s hopes two years ago in extra-time while Rijeka, who they had beaten in 2015, were comfortable victors last season.
“Every team that has put us out has been the seeded team,” McInnes pointed out. “Maybe they have more resources for it but to progress in any cup competition you have to land a few blows on teams that are favourites.
“Getting to the group stages would feel like a cup success domestically. We have fallen short at every turn after getting through two and three rounds. I think the squad we are putting together gives me confidence that we can do it.”
The squad was augmented yesterday with the signing of striker Marley Watkins on loan from Bristol City.
It was an area of the team which needed strengthening in the absence of injured centre-forwards Sam Cosgrove and Curtis Main. On-loan striker Ryan Edmondson has also returned to Leeds United after picking up a serious ankle injury.
Aberdeen host Livingston this afternoon following Thursday’s 1-0 win at St Johnstone, when Ryan Hedges scored Aberdeen’s first goal of a disrupted season. They then face the European test on Thursday when Niall McGinn will re-engage with a Faroese challenge. The winger has played against the Faroe Isles on four occasions with Northern Ireland, most recently in a 3-1 in Torshavn in 2015. There was, though, a 1-1 draw back in 2010 in Toftir under Nigel Worthington. Aberdeen’s pursuit of such a striker goes on.
“Football has changed over the years,” said McGinn. “All these games are difficult. The smaller European nations will get behind the ball, give 100 per cent and try and get you on the counter attack. It’s down to us to create opportunities.”
He is wise to this because it is something Northern Ireland did to such good effect during the Michael O’Neill era.
“I’m old enough and wise enough,” said McGinn. “I’ve been on the international stage and we’ve had difficult games against the likes of the Faroe Islands and San Marino.
“We’ve had it at Aberdeen over the years, including against [Luxembourg’s] Fola Esch when it took us until about an hour to score the first goal.
“They’ll always work hard behind the ball so it’s about wearing them down and keeping them moving,” added McGinn. “We know if we turn up and play well then we’ll create chances and hopefully score a few.”
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