Dons manager tells Moira Gordon he’s enjoyed researching Macedonian rivals
DRAWING an obscure team from a relatively unknown league may have been an issue during Derek McInnes’ playing days but as the Aberdeen manager prepares to travel to Macedonia and lead his men into their first Europa League qualifying tie this week, he is already well-versed on what awaits them.
A squad that is well used to his expectations, by the time they take to the pitch at the national stadium in Skopje on Thursday night his players will also be familiar with opponents KF Shkendija’s personnel and their strengths and weaknesses, despite the fact the club’s staff have only been to see them once.
“We had stuff more or less straight away,” revealed the Pittodrie gaffer, having tapped into the expertise of those around him and leant heavily on technological advances that make it difficult for any club to hide from the opposition.
“Both scouts were up here yesterday and the full staff have been working overnight and all afternoon.” So within 24 hours he was already cramming. “We are even more familiar now. We have every game from last season and have watched the two pre-season games from this year as well, which they played on the 15th and 19th June.”
Their last competitive game was on 24 May but such is the extent of the homework carried out on the team that finished third in their domestic league, he already considers that line-up a red herring. “The team that was more familiar to us played the week before because they had qualified for Europe and they played about with the last game a little bit.”
The SPFL team is one of the 30,000 teams worldwide signed up to wyscout, which collates footage and information on around a quarter of a million players and allows access to matches in 150 championships from 80 different countries, including Macedonia.
“For us it’s useful in Europe, but it’s more of a tool for ruling players out quickly when you get recommendations and e-mails from agents. It’s for ruling players out – and sometimes ruling players in.” But with lesser known teams involved it also provides some valuable insight during the early stages of European competition and helps reinforce information included in scouting reports. In the past those scouting reports from one or two games would have been all they had.
“You would have totally depended on seeing them in the flesh and what the coach had told you. You might have got your hands on one DVD of a game, but certainly not to the extent you get now. But by the same token, they’ll be doing the business on us, so it’s not a huge advantage in terms of the outcome of the game. Where it’s a huge advantage is in terms of preparing the players.
“Even before we watch them in the flesh, we know their shape and if they stick to that we could probably pick a team based on what we have learned from recent games. There will be no real surprises. It’s just familiarising yourself with each player and then you put across to your team what they need to know. Just like any game. We are obviously having to work harder to be more familiar than we would with a team in our league, but I quite like that.”
The fresh challenge offered by European competition is as stimulating for the manager and players as the trips to new destinations can be for fans. Which is why, regardless of the travel and the logistical difficulties posed by the location and the ten-hour trip, both McInnes and Ryan Jack are happy they both signed new contracts at Pittodrie which will allow them to pit their wits in the qualifiers and build on the experiences of last season’s adventure.
“It’s a great experience to be playing different teams, playing in different countries and cultures and stadiums,” said the 23-year-old midfielder. “Last year’s games against Groningen and Real Sociedad in particular were against two really big European sides. This year we’ll take the first round as it comes and hopefully get through it.”
KF Shkendija are ranked higher than Daugava Riga, who Aberdeen battered 8-0 on aggregate in their first qualifying tie last season, but throughout their history they have won only one match in Europe and never negotiated a two-legged tie.
“We were quite comfortable against Riga, but then went into the Groningen game which was a lot tougher,” explained Jack. “Then to play Sociedad they were another level above that. It was just their technique, everyone’s ability on the ball, the passing and movement, their understanding of the game as well – it was such a high level. It was tough to play against but it was good to know that if you want to play in Europe that’s the type of standard you have to get to.”
Thursday, 2 July
First qualifying round, first leg
FK Shkendija v Aberdeen
• Shkendija are based in the Macedonian town of Tetovo. But the match against Aberdeen will be played in the capital city Skopje, at the Philip II Arena.
• Shkendija finished third in the Macedonian First League last season.
• The second leg is at Pittodrie on Thursday 9 July.
• Winners will face the Croatian side HNK Rijeka in the second qualifying round.