WHEN Derek McInnes pitched up at Pittodrie 20 months ago, among his first actions was to inform Ryan Jack that he wanted to tie him down on a new contract.
He also made it clear that he intended to crank up the career of the sometime full-back by selecting him solely in central midfield. Fast forward to the present, and the 22-year-old – today announced as the SPFL player of the month for December – has become the middle man who supremely knots together the most effective Aberdeen team in more than two decades.
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Much, rightly, has been made of the Premiership leaders’ niggardly defence. The Aberdeen back five have achieved an efficiency that has been jaw-dropping. In turn, this has allowed an attacking group to deliver the destructive qualities to overcome opponents. Yet, no team can prosper on having ten players essentially entrusted with either stopping or making goals. Jack, then, is the pivot in the Pittodrie machine.
McInnes has often suggested that the unassuming Jack’s contribution has been too easily marginalised. No longer could that be claimed.
The Aberdeen manager said: “I was so pleased when I heard that he had got the award, not for his own sake because I don’t think it’s important for him, but because it’s just nice to see good players recognised.
“When you work with players, especially in that area of the pitch, you look for that level of trust and ability, with and without the ball. I think he makes brilliant decisions and people who know the game appreciate the role he plays. He doesn’t always catch the eye but any good team in their successful eras have always had that type of player in their side.”
The brilliance of Jack’s decision-making is reflected in the fact that he exhibits such game nous that there is no sense of Aberdeen appearing imbalanced, despite the presence of so many forward-focused performers.
Jack said: “When you are young and full of enthusiasm you want to run around and get involved.
“The manager spoke to me about the role I sometimes have to play, and I’m happy with that. I have to sometimes reserve it and start attacks for us – feeding the likes of Johnny [Hayes], Niall [McGinn] and Peter [Pawlett] to go forward and try to get some goals.
“As a player, you have to be disciplined. If you are attacking, you sometimes have to think you are watching defensively as well. Our defensive record isn’t just down to the back four – it’s the whole team, starting from the front. We’ve had [David] Goodwillie and [Adam] Rooney playing out on the left and you’ve seen them tracking right back. It’s a real team effort on the clean sheet side of it. Just the same as creating a chance, I get a buzz out of stopping a chance and this team keeping a clean sheet.”
Yet, as demanding as it might seem, McInnes thinks Jack can be more than a midfielder sitter who breaks up play in his own final third, and picks sharp passes to make inroads at the other side of the pitch.
The manager added: “Maybe sometimes he’s not eye-catching in terms of his goal return but I actually think he can do that side of the game. But, if you’ve got Hayes, McGinn, Pawlett, Goodwillie and Rooney ahead of you, then there has to be some sort of restraint in that performance. There are a lot of individual goal threats in our team but he knits everything together for me in midfield. At times I still think we can let the chains off him a bit more but, whatever we have asked of him, he has done really well.”
Even if he hardly sports an obviously muscular physique, Jack is capable of clamping down opponents because, as his manager acknowledges, he has that “edge” which prevents him being intimidated, whatever the stature or aggressive intent of any opponent.
Jack said: “If you are playing against a lot of bigger, stronger players you need to be able to stand up for yourself and make sure you don’t get pushed about.
“That is the main thing. That is the way I am. I just have that natural bit that I don’t get pushed about, that just sticks with me.”
Another strength is communication and Jack added: “Even if you are younger or older, we all need to be giving each other information and passing things on the park. We don’t want to be quiet and not passing on simple instructions. You need to have your say on the park.”
Plenty is now being said off the park about the potential for Jack to be a player ripe to be plucked by bigger clubs. With four seasons – the first of these when he was attempting to help haul the team off the foot of the table following results such as the 9-0 humiliation at Celtic Park in 2010 – and more than 150 senior games behind him, he is approaching the fully formed performer. Not least because, as McInnes noted, Jack’s long stint with the Scotland under-21s and Aberdeen’s recent renaissance has allowed him to gain a fair smattering of experience in continental competition, as well as cup semi-finals and a triumphant League Cup final.
Yet, both the player and his manager seem to be of the mind that there is plenty of potential for development at a Pittodrie club now pitching to become a title challenger. It seems plausible that Jack will extend his current deal, which has 18 months remaining, and join the group comprising Rooney, Hayes, McGinn and Andrew Considine who have committed their futures to the club in the past couple of months.
Jack said: “We’ve had a lot of games recently so I’m sure when the time does come and the manager does want to talk to me, I’m sure he’ll let me know about that.”
A local lad who recently became a father to a baby girl, he added: “I’m very happy here, definitely, I’m loving it at Aberdeen. There’s a real buzz about the team at the minute, we’re doing really well and have a chance to do really well this season. So I don’t see any reason to change anything at the moment. It’s good for the team knowing there’s going to be that core, that base of players that are staying and tied down. It’s good to be a part of that. It’s been great to play in.”
McInnes believes even better days lie ahead for Jack in Aberdeen colours. He said: “He is really happy and content here and is enjoying his football.
“I recognise, and I think Ryan does, that, at some point, he will move on. We want him to do that on the back of playing 300 games for us and having won trophies.
“We want him to leave his mark on his time here and, for me, that time isn’t now.”
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