As rallying calls go, “let’s try to get more points than last season and see where that leaves us” wasn’t one the gathered reporters hoped to hear on the eve of the biggest game to date of the Scottish league season.
But Derek McInnes is nothing if not canny. In any case, it was possible to detect glimpses to suggest the Aberdeen manager is not completely averse to the sort of mind games made famous by one of his Pittodrie predecessors.
Firstly, he provided the news that star man Jonny Hayes had received a nasty flesh wound after being bitten by a dog.
While this doesn’t rule the player out of tonight’s top-of-the-league clash with Celtic, the out-of-the-ordinary back story – the winger was set upon by another walker’s dog while with his own two Labradors – helped take the focus away from the game, as did the collapse of midfielder Greg Tansey’s transfer from Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
McInnes also let slip, probably by design, that he feels Celtic are more vulnerable than last season. Indeed, it is more than simply a suspicion. The Aberdeen manager had facts to back this up.
Celtic have already conceded two more goals (19) than was the case in the entirety of their last league campaign, something he attributes to the loss of the central defensive partnership of Virgil van Dijk and Jason Denayer.
“While they have found scoring goals to be fine this season, as they normally do, they have conceded far more than in previous seasons,” McInnes pointed out. “I think they have already conceded two more in the league than they did in the whole campaign last year. They have let in 40 goals in all competitions, so that would suggest there is an area there that they haven’t been as tight in.
“Denayer and Van Dijk was as strong a centre-half pairing as the SPL has seen for many years. The fact they have conceded more goals than they normally do may be a reason why they may seem a bit more vulnerable.
“Their results have been good of late, up to the [League Cup] semi-final, and they have scored plenty of goals. They are on a good run themselves and are a good side. But we are confident we can create problems for Celtic with our attacking play.”
This was as strident as McInnes became in a 20-minute long briefing. He is too wise to offer up headlines, too careful to provide the opposition with extra motivation. It is clear that what he says in press conferences isn’t what he says to players, otherwise they would not already have been sufficiently stirred to beat Celtic in the league, as happened at Pittodrie in September.
Neither would they now be within six points of the Premiership leaders after putting together another unbeaten league run, this time stretching to ten games.
But if it extends to 11 by dint of a draw there won’t be too many home supporters in the mood for celebration. Many believe only a win will be of use if Aberdeen are to overhaul Celtic. Aberdeen are presented with the chance to cut the deficit to three points. Of course, the worst-case scenario would see it expand to nine, an unrecoverable gap in most people’s eyes.
“We have 15 games to go and we just want to win as many of those as we possibly can,” said McInnes.
“The next one just happens to be Celtic and we have got to make sure we bring the performance that can help us win the game.
“It is the same three points, but when you play teams round about you, it is sometimes a wee bit more than that,” he accepted.
“We are just trying to better what we achieved last season and we are a point ahead of where we were back then. We had that record points tally and that showed you the efforts of the players and how hard they worked. For us to be ahead of that gives us something to work towards.”
McInnes was left frustrated by the failure to bring in a replacement for the injured pair Willo Flood and Ryan Jack. Despite Aberdeen’s understanding they had triggered a release clause by offering £200,000, Inverness blocked Tansey’s move for reasons the manager had yet to ascertain, despite contact with opposite number John Hughes yesterday morning.
“We’ve acted properly, professionally and with integrity throughout all of this,” said McInnes. “I spoke to John Hughes this morning and he agreed with all of that. They have got no problem with Aberdeen. You would need to ask Inverness why he is not here, to be honest. We felt we did everything within our power to bring the player in.”
But perhaps the real story is how hard McInnes stressed he had to work simply to find what Aberdeen thought was the required £200,000. While Celtic are continually adding to their squad, McInnes spent most of the window calculating how to free up wages in order to supplement his own group of players ahead of the title run-in. He can only look on with envy as Ronny Deila spent £1.5 million on Danish defender Erik Sviatchenko and then added strikers Colin Kazim-Richards and £12m-rated Manchester City loanee Patrick Roberts on deadline day. McInnes, by contrast, was able to recruit only Simon Church on loan from MK Dons as a replacement for David Goodwillie, who left for Ross County on loan.
“It’s not easy for this club to pay a fee of £200,000,” said McInnes. “I’ve had to work hard to try and generate that in some ways, freeing up wages and putting some players out on loan.”
It sums up the financial gulf between the clubs competing for the title. No-one should blame McInnes for attempts to nudge people towards making such an observation. But the manager also knows home fans will still expect Aberdeen to have the competitive edge in front of a full house tonight.