Neil Warnock's watershed Aberdeen moment awaits under spectres of Neil Lennon and Derek McInnes

Colourful Yorkshireman’s Pittodrie tenure has not gone to plan – and a defeat against Kilmarnock will increase speculation on his short-term future

A lot can change in a month. Just ask Neil Warnock, who on February 10 celebrated his first Aberdeen win with a perfunctory 2-0 Scottish Cup victory over Bonnyrigg Rose. At that point, the only way seemed up for the Dons, not down.

But down Aberdeen have slid, sitting tenth in the Premiership table, only four points above the relegation play-off. Warnock’s popularity ratings were not especially high in the north-east when he was parachuted in to replace Barry Robson as caretaker manager and those too have plummeted. The 75-year-old Yorkshireman’s record at the Pittodrie tiller is not pretty: seven matches, one win, two draws and four defeats, the latest coming in the most excruciating of fashions by conceding two stoppage-time goals to lose 2-1 to St Mirren last weekend.

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With the exception of that triumph over Bonnyrigg – a League Two team – Aberdeen have conceded at least two goals in every match they have played under Warnock. Rangers, Hibs, Motherwell, Kilmarnock, St Johnstone and St Mirren have all preyed on the team’s biggest failing: defence. They were not the most watertight unit latterly under Robson but they have become far more porous under Warnock’s watch. Goalkeeper Kelle Roos looks jittery, centre-halves Stefan Gartenmann, Richard Jensen and Angus MacDonald far from convincing and the usually reliable Nicky Devlin prone to errors at right-back. It doesn’t matter what system Aberdeen play at the back, they concede goals. Too many of them.

Kilmarnock have won all three matches against Aberdeen so far this season - without conceding a goal.Kilmarnock have won all three matches against Aberdeen so far this season - without conceding a goal.
Kilmarnock have won all three matches against Aberdeen so far this season - without conceding a goal.

Warnock has made a career out of resuscitating flailing football teams in England. Last year it was Huddersfield Town as he lifted the Terriers away from relegation. When Aberdeen owner Dave Cormack invited him to scratch a Scottish football itch that had been nagging at him for decades, Warnock appeared excited by the task in hand. Aberdeen have good players, one of the best forwards in the league in Bojan Miovski, who Warnock recently labelled as a Premier League hitman.

Miovski has kept his side of the bargain for this Aberdeen team – but others have not. Warnock has repeatedly called out his players for being too nice and lacking leadership. An old-school tactic, criticism can often go the wrong way and the Dons have so far failed to respond to their manager’s cajoling. Perhaps Saturday will be the day it all comes together, when Kilmarnock visit Pittodrie for an attractive Scottish Cup quarter-final tie.

Warnock made no secret of his desire to go deep in the cup when unveiled as the manager. Despite a largely successful career, he has never won a major trophy. He came close at Sheffield United, reaching a couple of semi-finals with the Blades, and he knows time is running out. This could be his last gig in football management (although it’s dangerous to write him off).

Standing in Aberdeen’s way is their old gaffer Derek McInnes, who is doing a fine job at Rugby Park. While the Dons are floundering in the bottom six, Killie are fifth in the Premiership and having a good season. What the peeved Aberdeen supporters would give right now for a little piece of McInnes magic. His eight years at Pittodrie were lucrative: a League Cup triumph, numerous semi-finals and some great European nights. There will be little confidence of a home win within the Red Army given Killie have prevailed in all three meetings so far this season without conceding a goal. They met last month, albeit in Ayrshire, and there was a clear gulf between the two teams. McInnes played down his old team’s travails – “Aberdeen are struggling for results at the minute but they have too many good players so they will start winning at some point,” he said pre-match – but there can be no doubt the wily manager will have his players well-versed on how to hurt the Dons.

Neil Warnock's only win so far as Aberdeen manager came against Bonnyrigg Rose in the Scottish Cup,Neil Warnock's only win so far as Aberdeen manager came against Bonnyrigg Rose in the Scottish Cup,
Neil Warnock's only win so far as Aberdeen manager came against Bonnyrigg Rose in the Scottish Cup,

This feels like a watershed moment in Warnock’s brief Aberdeen stint. Could the interim manager be sacked before the season is out? Would he walk if Kilmarnock inflict another damaging defeat? He did not give the most convincing of answers during his press conference on Thursday. A cup exit could conceivably leave either or both the board and Warnock considering whether there is anything he can do to transform their fortunes. When that scenario was put to Warnock, he said: “I think it’s hypothetical that, really. I think you have got to ask me that if and when it happens. All I’m concentrating on is trying to be positive and to get a result against Kilmarnock on Saturday. I think that’s all you can do. You can’t get dragged into what ifs.”

Warnock’s week will not have been helped by the revelations from Neil Lennon that he has his eyes firmly on the Aberdeen prize, for one thing is sure: Cormack needs a permanent manager for the start of next season. The ex-Celtic and Hibs boss is currently out of the game and would like a crack at guiding the Dons back to a more respectable standing in Scottish football. Lennon’s desire were batted out of the ballpark by Warnock. “Will Willie Miller be his assistant?” he retorted, with reference to the Dons legend who has also been critical of Warnock’s reign so far. “I don't comment on things like that. If I wasn't here, it wouldn't bother me at all who is in, are you with me? That's life and management, really. I've had a few jobs where I've known two months before I've left. At Middlesbrough I knew who was coming in. That's not very nice but that's football and you've just got to get on with it.”

And get on with it he will. With the BBC cameras in attendance, many eyes will be on Aberdeen and Kilmarnock on Saturday lunchtime. This is a scenario that Warnock relishes, being centre of attention in a blockbuster cup tie. A win will stop the noise, but a defeat could have pretty serious consequences for the rest of his time at Pittodrie.



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