Taking over as Aberdeen manager Jimmy Calderwood was quickly apprised of what was important. The fans desired silverware again, they would like to get back into European competition and, more regularly and to some even more importantly, they wanted to be getting the better of Rangers.
It was a watered down version of the life they enjoyed while Fergie had been at the helm. One that took into consideration the way football and finances had changed but still accepted the very real rivalry that had been fostered by his famous predecessor and his well-documented penchant for a siege mentality and a the desire to shift the balance of power from Glasgow to the north-east. In the intervening period that rivalry had grown into antipathy, the clash between Neil Simpson and Ian Durrant a major catalyst.
“Oh aye, those games were massive,” says Calderwood. “From the minute the game finished the week before, everyone’s thoughts turned to that match. I mean everyone, because, win, lose or draw the game before even on the way back up the road on the bus that’s what the talk would be and it that was all anyone would talk about in the city for the rest of the week. Everyone wanted to win them, especially at Pittodrie. No-one wanted them leaving there with smiles on their faces.”
Tapping into that, Calderwood, who was always seen as a “Rangers man” and he knows that some fans never warmed to him because of that, although he still believes that was more of a minority than is widely assumed, found a way to oblige.
After a first season where the Govan lads traipsed out of Aberdeen with three wins from four games, including a League Cup victory, he lost only once to that side of the Old Firm on home turf, with four wins and three draws in his remaining four years in charge.
“They were special days. Everyone knew that me, Jimmy [Nicholl] and Sandy [Clark], were Rangers fans but that doesn’t come into in on match days. You want to win every game of football. It doesn’t matter who you are playing or what’s at stake, football people know that. They know that football managers and football players just want to win.”
That point was rammed home emphatically on 22 May, 2008. That night there was a league title on the line. Three games earlier Rangers had lost to Zenit St Petersburg in the UEFA Cup final, destroying their hopes of winning four trophies in a single season but, with the League Cup already in the bag and a Scottish Cup final against Queen of the South to come two days later, Walter Smith’s men were still seeking the treble. A Lee Miller header in the 63rd minute broke the deadlock and a second goal, from Darren Mackie, 13 minutes later, cemented Aberdeen’s victory and handed the SPL title to Celtic.
“The Aberdeen fans loved that one. They loved that we had stopped Rangers winning the league. You felt for Rangers but you have to go out to win every game. I remember Walter being a gentleman afterwards, because that’s the way he is, but you saw how much it hurt them, especially Ian Durrant, who was one of the coaches. He could hardly even speak. To lose the league like that, at Pittodrie, especially for him, after everything that has happened, that was a sore one. He popped into the office but said he hoped we understood but he couldn’t come in [for the traditional post-match management drinks], he just went straight out on to the bus. Walter and Coisty came in but you could tell it was difficult.”
But the vitriol and the nastiness that has dogged the fixture intermittently was not as evident during the Calderwood reign. “Those were the games you didn’t need to motivate the players, in fact we needed to try to keep them more relaxed and remind them not to get too carried away with it. I think it worked quite well if you look at our record. We had a fantastic group; there were guys like Stevie Crawford from Fife and big Craig Brewster from Dundee, they were big characters and could handle the pressure and we had Russell [Anderson] who was a fantastic captain and leader of men. He wanted to win those games as much as anyone but he saw it has his job to get the balance right between being right up for it and keeping a calm head.”
Ignoring the frenzied buzz that built up to a noisy and hostile fervour on those matchdays wasn’t easy though, according to Calderwood, as players and staff arrived at the ground to be greeted by fans demanding their all.
“Even if you hadn’t got the message by the day of the game, you knew it was something special when you drove up to the ground. When you were playing Rangers you knew there was something different. The crowds would get there earlier and as you drove up you could sense that it was a massive game. Even when you were inside you knew when the Rangers bus had arrived because you could hear the boos and hear the stick the players were getting as they came off the bus.
“You would go into it hoping that everything passed off peacefully. It will be the same on Sunday. The fans have waited a long time for this game and everyone will be up for it.”
Aberdeen are also in the unusual position of being favourites. “Although I’m sure Derek [McInnes, the current Aberdeen boss] will be trying to play that down,” chuckles Calderwood. “But that will add something extra to the game. I think real football people have missed this fixture. It was always one of the first ones we looked for and I’m sure it was one of the first ones Aberdeen and Rangers players and fans looked for at the start of this season.”