Aberdeen's Ryan Jack is picking up the pace of progress
“The Scottish game is quicker. Everything is at 100mph,” he said as he looked back on previous tilts at Europa League qualification and trying to assess the club’s chances of progressing towards the group stages this term.
In front of the media, Jack is quiet and tentative, not one for hogging headlines. But none of that matters to his gaffer, Derek McInnes, who sees him as a winner, which is why he promoted him to the leadership role last term.
Still just 24, he lacks the experience and the gravitas of his predecessor, Russell Anderson, but he has the respect of his peers and his boss.
“He’ll dig people out, he demands standards in training, he doesn’t like losing, which is always a decent trait,” said McInnes, explaining why he has no regrets about placing Jack in that position. “But we’ve got others like that so it doesn’t just fall on him to be the one who’s shouting and bawling. We don’t want bad practice to go without being chastised, we want to make sure we try to make demands of ourselves and he has an important role in that.”
Which is why last season was such a source of frustration. Personally, he was dogged by injuries and failed to consistently reach the standards he had set for himself the year previous, while, as a team, they came up short in Europe, due in part to a lack of self-belief according to the midfielder, and in the Premiership, having passed up too many chances to really turn the screw and deny Celtic the title.
But lessons have been learned and Jack heads into this campaign fit and confident, even if the first match in Europe is bearing down on them fast. On Thursday they kick off the competitive season by welcoming Luxembourg’s Fola Esch to Pittodrie, for the first leg in the first of three qualifiers that will have to be negotiated if they want to make the Europa League group stage.
“It’s obviously a different style compared to the Scottish game,” said Jack. “It’s a bit more technical and there’s maybe a bit more thought involved. It’s one we’ve adapted to very well over the last two seasons. I don’t see why we can’t do well this season as well.”
Last season they got within touching distance of their target but having given opponents Kairat Almaty a head start in both legs, they ultimately lost out 3-2 on aggregate to the Kazakhstan side.
“If we’d played at home first it might have been a totally different tie, if we’d had the chance to see them,” said Jack of the step into unknown territory. “We’d have known we were the better side. The conditions made it tough over there and they came flying out the traps. One of their goals was a screamer, so there wasn’t much we could do about that but we definitely were frustrated. We thought we could’ve got through. It was a lesson learned about believing in ourselves. There was no fear, maybe we just sat back and didn’t show our true selves.
“I think the group stage would be the next step if we really want to show ourselves on the biggest stage. With the players we have and the team spirit, everything’s in place. We can give it a real go this season.”
Although they failed to make the group stage, the matches in Europe did give them a springboard to make a splash when the Premiership got under way, winning their opening eight games to lay down a marker for the rest of the campaign.
“There’s always a buzz to start the league campaign. You always want to do well and hopefully the European games will give us that match sharpness to start well,” said Jack. “We know at the back of our minds that the league is our bread and butter. You could say there are bigger names coming in and that will only help Scottish football, improve our league and the status of Scottish football. The standard is very good and it can only get better.
“Last season was more frustrating for me than any other. I had quite a few injuries so it was very stop-start. We started the season very strongly as a team. We went on the European run and the eight-game unbeaten run in the league. But then to get the injuries was frustrating. I’m hoping I’ll stay injury-free this year and I can give it a real go. Hopefully we can achieve something.”
The season ended with the Pittodrie side 15 points adrift of Celtic but Jack believes that winning margin does not paint a clear picture of how close things were at times and he knows matters could have panned out differently.
“Last season, it definitely wasn’t a fair reflection. We had so many chances to put ourselves top of the league and we never quite got there. Things never quite worked out how we wanted, but that’s football, you just have to bounce back from it.”