Derek McInnes: "I don't want to be in the Championship anymore than Kilmarnock want to be..."
It’s only 50 miles from Aberdeen to Arbroath but it had taken Derek McInnes nine months – his longest spell out of football since joining Morton as an apprentice – to get there.
The former Pittodrie manager was wrapped up against the elements at Gayfield on Sunday as he watched the hosts battle out a 0-0 draw with Inverness.
There were few there who associated his presence with the vacant Kilmarnock managerial post. But a quick glance at the fixture list would have confirmed that both teams playing that afternoon were due to meet the Ayrshire side in the coming weeks.
McInnes’ decision to attend was explained on Monday after reports emerged linking him to the Rugby Park job. There was considerable surprise. This wasn’t the route many had predicted. The second tier in England had seemed likely, Hibs or Hearts perhaps. But not the second tier in Scotland.
As the view from the main stand at Arbroath confirmed, the landscape is very different now. McInnes makes his bow as Kilmarnock manager at Queen of the South’s Palmerston Park tomorrow. It’s another charming if inhospitable venue.
“I don’t want to be in the Championship any more than Kilmarnock want to be in the Championship,” he said. “We’re here and we need to deal with that.”
A year ago this weekend he was in the dugout as Aberdeen sought to overcome an early red card for Ryan Hedges against Rangers, eventually succumbing 2-1. The hosts were third in the Premiership at the time. Now he has signed on for duty at Kilmarnock, who lie fourth in the Championship.
He will be back at Arbroath before long – his new team are due there at the start of next month. Dick Campbell’s side are one of the challenges he has in mind when talking of needing to deal with the here and now. The part-timers are currently the team to beat.
McInnes is back where his managerial career started, in the Championship – or First Division as it was known then, when he took the reins of St Johnstone, initially as player-manager.
He knows how it looks. He knows what people are saying about him having taken a backwards step. Managers don’t want to go full circle. They want to keep on climbing the ladder.
McInnes concedes that the decision to agree to an 18-month contract was influenced to some extent by convenience – Rugby Park is a relatively short drive from his home in Renfrewshire.
It’s not so convenient for Tony Docherty, his Broughty Ferry-based long-time assistant. Docherty will join him at Kilmarnock, as will former Aberdeen first-team coach Paul Sheerin, who was recently sacked as manager at Falkirk.
The more he talked, the more the marriage between McInnes and Kilmarnock made sense. He likes the idea that he can “make progress immediately”. There’s even the chance to inflict a cup shock, something that didn’t often come his way at Aberdeen unless they were paired with Rangers or Celtic. Kilmarnock host Dundee United in the Scottish Cup a fortnight tomorrow.
“I think any decision you make in your career, whether it’s in football or outside it, you have to weigh everything up,” he explained at his first press conference yesterday.
“I think once I met the board the decision to come came more readily and felt easier. I knew the potential of the club. I only live half an hour away as well which is an added advantage. I’ve been away from my family for ten years, eight years at Aberdeen and almost two years at Bristol.
“There are a lot of boxes ticked here. I have enjoyed being around my family and having the time to spend with them and I feel better than ever as a consequence of that.”
McInnes revealed he was offered “a few things in England and one abroad” but nothing truly appealed. He was overlooked for a couple of opportunities south of the Border.
“There were one or two in England I had applied for and was hopeful of getting but fell a wee bit short,” he explained. “There were also a lot that came up for that I didn’t apply for and didn’t quite see as the right opportunity. Sometimes you don’t know until you know.”
Kilmarnock contacted him, he wasn’t looking for them. McInnes liked what he heard from chairman Billy Bowie. He was also conscious of the danger of staying out of the game too long. There are those such as Billy Davies who have drifted into obscurity after a period where they were linked with nearly every job going.
McInnes’ reputation was enhanced at Aberdeen. He might never escape the shadow of what he achieved at Pittodrie. He won a trophy and secured European football in every one of the full seasons he spent there. He admits “staleness” crept in.
“Very rarely does a manager hang around a club for eight years now,” he reflected. “I recognise that I needed a change and I recognise that Aberdeen need a change, there are no issues with that.
“Of course, we would have liked things to have finished better. But I think this time last year we were sitting in third spot and on 38 points. We were going along fine, we just needed to finish the season stronger. Unfortunately, with losing players in the January window, we needed to replace them. We never did, but that’s been said before. There’s no point dragging over that.
“I think in time people will look back favourably on my record and what we did at Aberdeen, not just me but the whole club.”
Kilmarnock offers a fresh start and the chance to build something again. It’s also a platform. Few would be surprised if McInnes, who turned 50 during the summer, was next to take the Rugby Park to Scotland route at some point in the future.
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