As a player Derek McInnes faced Celtic a couple of times in a cup final and he has experienced both triumph and defeat. He says he could almost have predicted both by the mood in each dressing room.
Victory with Rangers, in 1999, was anticipated because the belief was so strong. But, six years later, his Dundee United colleagues failed to muster enough trust in themselves and the guys they were lining up alongside, so coming off second best was hardly surprising.
“If I think back to that game [we won] and the different finals I played in then there was just an overwhelming confidence going into that one that we were winning. We felt we were good enough to do that but I remember going to Hampden when I was with Dundee United to play Martin O’Neill’s Celtic team and we lost 1-0. I never ever felt there was that same confidence in that dressing room.”
In his mind, those memories validate his belief that bravery on the ball can aid a bid for silverware. It’s a mantra the Aberdeen boss wants his squad to heed as they head out at Hampden today.
“So, for me it is all about really backing yourself in the game and if there is any opportunity to be positive, whether it’s a pass or a positive bit of play in the final third, I would encourage every one of them to take that option. Don’t be restricted or quiet or hampered. Be what you are, play the way you train and be as confident as you can be.”
The soundings from his players suggest the message is getting through. While they accept they are underdogs in the minds of others as they take on Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic, in their own heads they have the beating of the league champions. Buoyed by a double triumph last season, they also know that when the chips were down in their last cup final, against Inverness, in 2014, they found a way to grind it out. It went to penalties that day and, while McInnes would prefer to have the win wrapped up in 90 minutes this afternoon, he says his men are ready to go the distance and will be well drilled if spot kicks are required again.
Speaking earlier this week, he outlined the fact that nothing will be left to chance. “We’ll practise three times. You’re talking about players who probably haven’t taken penalties in their career – and they might have to.
“You always hear the losing manager say shootouts are a lottery but I don’t think they are. There’s a technique and a confidence needed to deal with the situation, so you practise because you want your players to be as confident as they can be standing over the ball. In 2014 we’d waited 19 years, extra-time, and, as the chairman said, then penalties, but I believe the way the players dealt with the kicks – scoring every one – told its own story.”
By contrast, he knows the fact Celtic lost last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final to Rangers in a Hampden shootout means that some doubts might creep into their mind. “I do think if you have had a bad experience of penalty shootouts then it can get in your head but for us we will practise them the three days before the game. We will do it in a way that we try and recreate that walk up as well. We will do it properly. But I don’t have doubts that my players will deal with this game. I want them to show what they are all about.”