Burnley’s success in the English Premier League last season may have surprised many, but not Derek McInnes as Thursday’s Europa League first-leg tie at Pittodrie will not be the first time the Aberdeen manager has confronted his Turf Moor counterpart.
Sean Dyche’s achievement of guiding the Lancashire club to seventh place in the world’s wealthiest division was the culmination of years of graft at equally unglamorous clubs, something McInnes is well aware of
Their first contact came 16 years ago as opponents on the field in the English First Division when McInnes played for West Bromwich Albion and Dyche was an uncompromising figure in the Millwall team.
Scroll forward nine years and they occupied opposing dugouts during their respective times in charge at Bristol City and Watford, neither of which ended well, with Dyche sacked in the summer of 2012 and McInnes going the following winter.
Now they meet up again at a time when their managerial stock has never been higher as Aberdeen have finished best of the rest behind Celtic for the last four years while Burnley effectively occupied the same position in England behind the seemingly untouchable big six of Manchester City, Manchester United, Spurs, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal.
However it’s not really a reunion McInnes would have hand-picked at this stage of the competition, as he admits: “We’re huge underdogs for it, but we look forward to it at the same time. It’s an opportunity for us to put ourselves up against a very good team.
“Sean was always one where you could always see the work had been done. His teams were always very well coached, well-drilled, good on set plays with good physicality about them.
“It’s no surprise why a lot of clubs have tried to take him away from Burnley, but it looks a good fit for him. You can see his reputation is growing and growing.
“He was wholehearted as a player, fully committed and his team are certainly like that as well and we’re expecting a tough game. Burnley have got players who can hurt you in various ways.
“They’ve got good technical players, front players who impose themselves on you and are a threat at set plays but you don’t finish seventh in the English Premier League just by being predictable though.
“You have to be doing a lot of things right. Sean’s rinsed everything out of that squad to get to where they have.
“For them to have finished above a lot of teams with far bigger resources is a brilliant achievement, and it shows what can be done when a club’s operating in the right manner, with stability, familiarity and an identity about what they are.”
It’s a statement that can equally be applied to the work McInnes himself has done in rehabilitating Aberdeen reputation since replacing Craig Brown as manager just over five years ago.
Four runners-up spots and a third place finish have followed in the league as well as their only trophy in the last 23 years and a regular return to European football, but the man who has been key to that revival is still left wondering what more might have been achieved with a bit more money to spend on players.
While Burnley are able to make multi-million pound bids for players, McInnes has so far been unable to increase the £250,000 offer Doncaster Rovers rejected for their striker John Marquis.
At the same time he’s seen players like Ryan Jack, Kenny McLean and Jonny Hayes leave for Rangers, Norwich City and Rangers but more painfully been helpless to prevent Anthony O’Connor head to Bradford City, Ash Taylor join Northampton Town and just this week Adam Rooney was sold to Salford City in the fifth tier of English football. So it’s hardly surprising that when asked if the new season would be the toughest yet McInnes response was: “Who knows? We’re judged on what we do against the Old Firm and the like, whereas it wasn’t so long ago that wasn’t the case. It pleases me that people put us in that bracket and we’ve earned the right to be there.
“You’ve got to try and get the best out of what you’ve got, and we’ve always done that. I would love more money to spend. I would love to have been able to give the players who have left us in the last couple of years more money to stay.
“I think of some of the players who have left in the last couple of seasons, and if we could have that team still together, if we could pay the money that would have kept them here, who knows how good we can have been.
“The challenge is to keep trying to replicate that. It’s tough, but that’s the job and we’ll try to do it again.”
“We’ve always had that belief in the dressing room. Privately, we always set our own targets and demands of each other as a squad and by and large we’ve always given ourselves a chance to meet them.
“Privately, we’re always very ambitious. The first target is probably to go and try and be in European football, that’s always been very important to us. That’s one of the things we always want to have to look forward to at the start of the season.”
Extending their stay beyond this week’s opening Europa League qualifier would certainly be a good way to start.