Interview: Roy Aitken back on trophy trail with Al-Ahli

Roy Aitken speaks to reporters shortly after being appointed assistant manager at Al-Ahli. Picture: Getty
Roy Aitken speaks to reporters shortly after being appointed assistant manager at Al-Ahli. Picture: Getty
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Former Scotland captain Aitken is in China as his United Arab Emirates side Al-Ahli attempt to win their continent’s Champions League

You join us as a disorientated-sounding Roy Aitken is trying to establish which idiot has just woken him up at 2 o’clock in the morning to request an interview. Although it is tempting to say “it’s Gerry McNee” before quickly hanging up, such a cowardly instinct is resisted.

Aitken in his playing prime with Celtic. Picture: SNS

Aitken in his playing prime with Celtic. Picture: SNS

Introduction made, Aitken is remarkably calm. We agree to speak again the next day. Mercifully, it isn’t (quite) the eve of the second leg of the Asian Champions League final, a competition that has stretched over two seasons in the case of many clubs and across the world’s biggest continent.

The sprawling tournament, split into east and west geographic zones, finally reaches a conclusion today in southern China, when Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Guangzhou Evergrande host the United Arab Emirates team Al-Ahli, where Aitken, still only 56, has been since 2010.

Which is why checking what time it was in Dubai when dialling Aitken’s number was an utterly pointless exercise. Because he too is in China, naturally enough for someone who now commands the title “sports director” of the club bidding to win the Asian Champions League title for the first time.

Aitken and his cohorts, including Romanian manager Osmin Olaroiu, arrived in China several days ago. Considering it is a flight time of nine hours between Dubai and Guangzhou, the players need to acclimatise, understandably. Unlike in Europe, it is not a case of flying out the morning of the day before the match.

Rodrigo Lima (No 9) was signed from Benfica to bolster Al-Ahli's push to the Champions League final. Picture: Getty

Rodrigo Lima (No 9) was signed from Benfica to bolster Al-Ahli's push to the Champions League final. Picture: Getty

One of Aitken’s logistical tasks was to come to China a few weeks ago to organise a suitable training camp. He has travelled back with his players. Leaving nothing to chance, they are already in situ days before today’s game.

Even though such an important fixture is still a few days away, there are better ways to request an interview with someone who wasn’t always too keen on journalists – hence the above reference to McNee, one of Aitken’s fiercest critics when he was Scotland skipper – than to phone him at 2am.

But then is there ever a good time to stir someone known throughout his playing career as The Bear from his slumbers? “Don’t worry, I was up late anyway,” says Aitken, very reasonably, at a much more sociable hour the following day. “My body clock is all over the shop so it’s not a problem.” He had been burning the midnight oil, he explains, plotting what he hopes will be the victory, or scoring draw, that will guarantee glory for Al-Ahli, following a 0-0 scoreline in the first leg a fortnight ago in Dubai. There is of course the prospect of a penalty shoot-out.

Al-Ahli won the west section, beating teams from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Uzbekistan. They are a government-run club but the major benefactor is Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai. He has paid for 400 fans to make the journey to China, although they are set to be heavily outnumbered by 60,000 passionate home supporters. “This year we have spent big money and it has paid off,” says Aitken, with reference to Brazilian striker Rodrigo Lima, signed from Benfica, among others.

It most certainly will have been worth it if Al-Ahli, whose crowds rarely number more than 4,000, can cope with the hostile environment in the Tianhe stadium today. Guangzhou Evergrande are the most successful team in this tournament and won this trophy two years ago under 
Marcello Lippi.

“It was a tight game in Dubai,” recalls Aitken. “There wasn’t much given either way. But I reckon they will be a bit nervous at home. The away goal can come into things, albeit we would like to have a wee bit of a lead. But we are not too disappointed, as it was a tough game. We go into the second leg full of confidence.

“People don’t know too much about Asian football back in the UK,” he continues. “But if you go to Iran, there’s 70,000 in the stadium. Go to Riyadh, there are 60,000 Saudis. These places are hotbeds of football.”

The one thing people do associate with football in Asia, particularly the Middle East, is the ephemeral nature of careers. Mostly we assume it is where players, and often managers, go for one last payday. But Aitken has been in Dubai since David O’Leary asked him over to be his assistant in 2010.

Results were initially mixed and O’Leary was sacked after only eight months in charge, perhaps proving the above point (he later won more than £3 million in an unfair dismissal claim). But Aitken was invited to stay on by club president Abdullah Al Naboodah in a different role, as the club’s sports director. “It is basically just director of football,” Aitken explains.

But did it make things possibly a bit awkward with O’Leary, his long-time friend? While he was jettisoned, Aitken, his assistant, was given what sounds like a promotion.

“I was actually moving away from the coaching area as well,” says Aitken. “I had a decision to make. Should I move away and take another job or do I move to a different role within the organisation? I discussed it with David at the time. There was no problem.

“I was not staying on as coach, I was staying on as sports director. In a sense I was stepping out of the firing line and was in charge of bringing people in.”

It sounds slightly similar to the scenario that developed at Aberdeen, when Willie Miller was sacked in February 1995 after a run of poor results. Aitken, whom Miller had recruited from St Mirren in a player-coach role, stepped into the breach, again with the sacked manager’s blessing.

This is another reason to wake Aitken this week. Because it was 20 years ago on Thursday when he led Aberdeen to their penultimate trophy to date, with a 2-0 League Cup final win over Jim Duffy’s Dundee, then in the First Division.

For longer than Aberdeen fans will care to recall, this comfortable victory on a dark November afternoon began to assume a significance that far outweighed what it was: a straightforward win over a team from a lower tier.

For 19 years it stood as Aberdeen’s last piece of silverware, until they finally ended these days in the wilderness by winning the same trophy last year after a penalty shoot-out win over Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Derek McInnes has now earned the tag of last man to win a cup with Aberdeen. But for so long it was the perhaps unlikely figure of Aitken who could claim this honour.

It seems notable that Aitken is now contemplating the prospect of winning trophies very nearly 20 years – and many more miles – apart. It is fair to say it would be a unique accomplishment – the Scottish League Cup/Asian Champions League double. But the League Cup win (he was only 36 years old) will always occupy a special place in his heart, as will his Aberdeen reign, truncated though it was. He has not worked as a manager under his own steam again.

“One thing I did enjoy which I had never done before in my career was tour the city in an open-topped bus,” he recalls. “Because even after all the trophies I won at Celtic we were never allowed to do that. Although it rained from start to finish it was nice to share in that.”

Momentous though the cup victory was – Aberdeen hadn’t won a trophy since the Scottish Cup five years earlier – Aitken insists it wasn’t his greatest achievement at Pittodrie, and many fans might agree.

If we conveniently ignore a calamitous defeat by Stenhousemuir in the Scottish Cup, his opening months were successful to the extent that he saved Aberdeen from the very real prospect of relegation, even beginning his tenure with a win over Rangers (the memorable 2-0 loss at Ochilview, Terry Christie’s duffle coat et al, followed six days later).

“We were in a pretty harem scarem situation,” he recalls. “When Willie was asked to leave I told him they have asked me to take the caretaker role, what do you think? He said: ‘don’t worry, take it on and see how you go’. We won the first game v Rangers, then lost to Stenhousemuir.

“But we managed to consolidate. The city got behind the team because they knew they needed to. Everyone had written the team off, we were down, finished. I made a few changes and the players started responding. I felt sorry for Dunfermline, they got us when we were flying by that time. We won the play-offs comfortably and stayed up.”

Like in the Middle East, Aberdeen at the time wasn’t the place to be if you wanted to make long-term plans. But while Aitken was sacked after successive multi-goal defeats by Hearts and Dundee United 18 years ago this month, setting in motion a chain of short-lived managerial appointments, he was at Aberdeen for five years in total, playing for two of them.

“When Willie called me at St Mirren to be his assistant I said: ‘great, but Willie I still want to play. I can still play, I will prove it you’.

“I played most of the games in my first season. When I came I was probably public enemy number one for Aberdeen fans over the years. I remember taking a lot of stick but that was because Aberdeen and Celtic were major rivals.

“I suppose Willie made a bold move. But it proved worthwhile. I played, managed and brought a bit of success. I loved my time at Aberdeen.”

“Obviously I am from the west coast but we never had any issues,” he continues. “You get the usual ones – the same ones who were shouting at Willie probably ended up shouting at me and then shouted at Alex Miller as well. That’s football. But my general relationship with the fans was great. I remember during the first share issue I travelled all over the north of Scotland meeting fans and going to functions, trying to drum up interest.”

As is the case with many “incomers”, including Sir Alex Ferguson, he now feels more at home in the north-east than anywhere else in Scotland. “If I ever moved back to Scotland, I know my wife, Jane, would want to go back and live there,” he says.

But right now Roy the Rover seems immeasurably happy where he is. Whether or not they put on open-topped bus celebrations in Dubai in honour of the Champions League winners, he is desperate to have reason to find out.