For so long, and this pre-dated the current manager’s time, Aberdeen were considered soft touches when playing the Old Firm in Glasgow. But this perceived mental block has been firmly flung aside by a young, vibrant Aberdeen side justifiably able to head to Hampden Park to face Celtic on Sunday with confidence.
Having already beaten Celtic at Celtic Park at the end of last season and drawn with them there a few weeks ago, the supposed lack of mettle is not now the issue it once was. In addition, McInnes’ side have beaten Rangers three times this season in Glasgow – once at Hampden to reach the Betfred Cup final and twice at Ibrox, most recently when booking a place in Sunday’s semi-final.
“I didn’t think [the mental block] was ever there,” said McInnes. “I have said this before about people talking about our big game mentality – we play more big games than most. We win big games and lose big games. It’s just the way it is.
“I was always comfortable going to Glasgow but here’s a thing – the Glasgow question came right at the end of the press conference. It used to be my first question. That says a lot.”
It was a night just days after Aberdeen had lost a fiercely contested Betfred Cup final against Celtic that underlined to the manager how his side had evolved. McInnes might have assembled more talented squads at Pittodrie, but there’s not been a group of players who deserve to have such faith in their abilities.
Aberdeen are benefiting from the influx of those unburdened by the memory of serial failures on big occasions.
McInnes recalled being made aware of evidence of this new mental fortitude during his ten-man side’s victory over Rangers in early December after Sam Cosgrove’s early red card [Alfredo Morelos was also later sent off for the hosts].
This wasn’t a revelation in relation to comparative veterans in Andrew Considine and Graeme Shinnie, who is suspended from Sunday’s clash. But McInnes claims the confidence surging through teenagers like Lewis Ferguson and, in particular, Connor McLennan was almost visible that night.
“I saw Ferguson and McLennan actually grow in that game – when we needed more they gave it,” he said. “Sometimes when more is needed that’s when you find out a lot about your players.
“Ferguson had let me know before that night, and we knew about [Scott] McKenna. But certainly McLennan, [left]. He was the one who carried the fight and kept the ball for us that night and showed resilience – there was no flakiness, no anxiety. That’s what I feel about this team, this squad. They just deal with the game.
“We have missed [Gary] Mackay-Steven, Ryan Christie from last season and Kenny McLean – guys who can make a difference. I certainly think we have gained in other areas. That’s come to the fore this season in some of the bigger games.”
McLennan built on that performance to star for Aberdeen in the more recent 2-0 Scottish Cup replay win at Ibrox. Ferguson, meanwhile, had already scored the winner over Rangers at Hampden in the League Cup semi-final.
Conscious of the need to let McLennan know he always has something else to prove, McInnes stressed he still expects more from the 19-year-old, who set up his side’s second goal in his side’s 2-0 win over Dundee on Saturday.
“He has been good – very good – but I know he is better than what other people are seeing,” said McInnes. “I am looking for those big performances from him on the ball. There’s demands on our wider and more creative players to do their bit for the team and he shown that side, that trustworthiness. That pleases me no end.”
McInnes will need his young players to step up again this weekend due to Shinnie’s absence. McKenna, 22, will deputise as captain while 18-year-old Dean Campbell is among the manager’s options to replace Shinnie in midfield. McInnes is unsure to what extent the loss of such as a leader will have on the team.
“I can only really answer that on Sunday night after the game – how much of an influence he may have been,” he said. “My players will be reading this. I can’t sit and dwell on it.
“Of course I would love Shinnie to be there but he isn’t – we’ve known that for a while. Do I think it is harsh? Two bookings in five cup games? Yes, I do think it is harsh.
“You want your best players playing and he is obviously a key player, but I have known for a while he is not available. There is not any merit in me talking about it too much.
“We have been without key players already this season,” he said. “It is probably the season we have suffered most from injuries and in turn you find out more about others. We will find out a lot about my team on Sunday.”