First Rangers, then St Johnstone. As the other Scottish Europa League representatives fell at the first hurdle, the burden of bolstering national pride has shifted squarely on to the shoulders of Aberdeen.
The Pittodrie men embark on their European assignment on Thursday, against Bosnian side NK Siroki Brijeg, but if the pressure on them to come through the game unscathed has intensified in the wake of other outcomes, newcomer Greg Tansey says the players are not feeling it.
“I think Aberdeen is a big enough club where we don’t really have to look at anyone else. The focus is firmly on us now because the other Scottish teams are out but there was enough pressure on us as players anyway just because we’re playing for Aberdeen,” says the 28-year-old midfielder.
“We’ll relish flying the flag for Scottish football. It gets a lot of bad press at times but looking at the quality of player in our dressing room, I don’t think it’s deserved. But all we’re focused on is getting to the group stages – and we believe we can do that.
“I want a run in Europe. That’s what all the boys here want. We’ve definitely got a realistic chance of progressing – and that’s what this club should be doing. We should be aiming at the group stages. It’s one the boys are firmly focused on.”
There was a time when teams from Luxembourg, Lithuania and Bosnia may have been viewed as easy pickings but one bad experience after another has bruised egos and served as an eye opener. The fact is those nations now view Scottish opposition as cannon fodder.
Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes will be happy if that causes this week’s rivals to underestimate his men. But he believes their performances in recent years, rather than simple nationality, would be a better indication of the challenge they pose. “If they look at us and what we’ve done in previous seasons, and certainly last season, I think they’ll expect a tough game,” said McInnes. “But a lot of these teams have got a real in-built confidence. I’m sure it’s a tie they feel they can get through, as do we. But we’re also aware, having watched them closely over the last couple of games, that we’re going to have to be good at so many things, and have good concentration to get through the tie. We’re looking forward to it nonetheless.”
In studying Siroki, McInnes says he has been reminded of his first Aberdeen team – counter-attacking, with two pacey wingers and real energy and good organisation. He says they didn’t give away a lot.
“We’ve got to try to deliver a performance that gets us through the tie,” said the Pittodrie manager. “A lot of the players have got the experience of playing in Europe in the last few years and hopefully that helps deal with situations.”
That European education is layered on year on year, with the manager and his players learning how to adapt to the different styles and disciplines of the continental game. But tuning in to the vagaries of the game, McInnes insists there is still a need to retain the essence of Scottish grit to add to the guile.
“A bit like the national team, I think we’ve got to be what we are as well. We’ve got to try to rein it in at times, and there’s a time and place for it. But I think we’ve got to try to show a lot of our traits as a team. You need an element of discipline and control in these games. But you also need to play with that tempo and attitude, and fire in your belly to get on the front foot and show a wee bit of what we are. Maybe we can bring a type of football that they’re not used to.
“But we’re also aware it’s a European tie, it’s not a domestic game, and it is a wee bit more of a game of chess at times. That doesn’t mean we can’t bring our natural game, with and without the ball.”
The fact they have several years of competing on this stage will help, with players and fans knowing that they have to be patient and streetwise and understand the permutations of a two-leg tie, and there is also the confidence that comes with having been there and experienced the highs and the lows and learned from both.
“I feel having that experience helps. Our crowd, ordinarily, at Pittodrie are respectful of the opponent and understand European football as well. There are times we want to be a bit more aggressive and have a go at it but we can’t be gung ho for 90 minutes. I think our crowd are very knowledgeable about that, and that helps us.”
It will be the first European night at Pittodrie for Tansey who cites the competition, along with the club’s quest to reel Celtic back in and finally get the silverware they have been striving for, as a major factor in his decision to join the club. But he enjoyed a sampler of such occasions briefly with Inverness Caledonian Thistle so he is not galloping into the unknown.
“It’s a completely different way of playing,” he said. “It’s not like the Scottish Premiership we’re used to, it’s a slower pace. You get punished for tactical mistakes and for losing your shape because you’re playing against intelligent players. It’s little things like that.”
The pressure is on but he says that after a season battling relegation, that is something he can not only live with. It is something he says every player at Aberdeen has to ultimately embrace.
“Last season at Inverness wasn’t good enough, but the previous seasons we were up there challenging, winning the Scottish Cup and playing in Europe. So I’ve had a little taste of that, going out and having to win every week to get where you want to be.
“Aberdeen is a much bigger club. You don’t realise how much until you come in and experience it. But being here is something I’m looking forward to. I need that challenge.”