Football management doesn’t work like a lifetime achievement award. It’s one of the most infuriating things for fans to hear when apologists for any manager come out of the woodwork before or after an under-pressure boss is given the boot. In this case, the argument was that the Pittodrie faithful would do well to remember where they were before Derek McInnes arrived and what he was able to bring to the club, including ending their 19-year wait for a trophy. But how does beating Inverness Caley Thistle on penalties in 2014 make someone the right man for the job going forward in 2021? Easy, it doesn’t.
‘Going forward’ is the key phrase here, because that is not where Aberdeen were headed under McInnes. In his final three seasons, despite having the third largest budget, they three times failed to find themselves in the top three under the now former boss, finishing behind Kilmarnock, Motherwell and now trailing Hibs with six games remaining. Sure, they could recover this term, but that didn’t look possible before McInnes was shown the door. It wasn’t a precipitous drop like the one Motherwell suffered under Stuart McCall when their best-of-the-rest era in Scottish football came to a end in the mid-noughties, but there’s now been almost three years of evidence that things were gradually going in the wrong direction.
The club are still in the midst of an incredible period of consistency for any side in the SPL/SPFL era, where it’s much more common for a non-Old Firm club finishing in the top four to disappear from sight the following season than it is to have sustained respectable success. And, going back to the previous pre-McInnes years, even the most demanding of Dons fans know a top-four place is not to be sniffed at. There would have been more toleration for the past three seasons but for one thing – the football was awful to watch.
Having the third highest budget and finishing fourth is hardly criminal. Having the third highest budget and being one of the worst teams to watch in the league is a very different story, and Aberdeen were undoubtedly that over recent campaigns. As things stand, they have scored one goal in nine games. Let’s repeat that for those who don’t quite comprehend the gravity of the last sentence: THEY’VE SCORED ONE GOAL IN NINE GAMES!
It’s quite bewildering how this has actually happened. Yes, they had to change up their strike-force in the January window, which undoubtedly hindered things. McInnes’ third attempt at creating a new Aberdeen side under his stewardship was hamstrung this season by various factors largely outwith his control – like Marley Watkins and Ryan Hedges each suffering lengthy injuries, and Scott Wright finally showing his true potential just in time for Rangers to tempt him to Ibrox. But they’ve still got Jonny Hayes, Niall McGinn, Matty Kennedy and Florian Kamberi at their disposal. Give those players to any other team in the league and it’s hard to imagine them performing anywhere near as bad as one goal in nine games.
On Saturday’s Sportscene programme the commentator noted that, while Aberdeen had their extreme troubles in front of goal going into the clash with Hamilton Accies, they’d only conceded six times themselves. On the surface that would reflect better on the manager and his coaching staff, but for supporters it was further proof of their limitations. Organising a side, having a strong defence and fostering a determined group who weren’t easily beaten were three of McInnes’ main strengths throughout his time in the north east, but there was always a feeling, even when times were good, that they’d often play with the handbrake on and the style would suffer as a result. Only conceding six in nine wasn’t a positive for fans, it was just the continuation of the status quo. Hammerings bring embarrassment, but they also provide a rare form of perverse optimism. A real gubbing will shake everyone involved in the club. Plans will be ripped up, redrawn and a reaction will come as a result. Losing 1-0 or drawing 0-0 every week just breeds apathy, and that’s worse than anger for any fanbase.
The trick now for Aberdeen is to ensure their supporters are proven right about McInnes, because the alternative is getting the next managerial hire horribly wrong and them sliding back down the table. Dave Cormack is a man with grand ideas for Aberdeen and, considering the club were previously able to hold onto their ex-manager despite advances from Sunderland and Rangers, they should be push the boat out and get someone of a similar stature.
Stephen Glass, the current favourite with the bookmakers, doesn’t fit that profile. He has, however, been working for Atlanta United for the past three years. Aberdeen have a working relationship with the MLS franchise and they may have unearthed a coaching gem through this partnership, though his lack of experience as the man in charge (he’s only done so on an interim basis) will see plenty of scepticism from an impatient Red Army.
As for McInnes, it’ll be interesting to see his next move. Things at Aberdeen clearly got stale and he was well overdue for moving on, but that doesn’t make him a bad manager. His track record in Scotland speaks for itself, but will that be enough to land him a second chance at English football after his failed tenure at Bristol City? And given his decision to say no to both Sunderland and Rangers, will he bide his time until the right offer comes along, or will his mid-season departure after eight years light a fire and push him into getting right back on the saddle?