Aberdeen midfielder tells Scott Davie that the Dons will mount even bigger challenge
ABERDEEN’S bid to win a first league title in 30 years may have faltered lately but Jonny Hayes is convinced Celtic can expect the Pittodrie club to mount an even stronger challenge for honours in the future.
The versatile midfielder joined the Dons three years ago when they were struggling to break free of the bottom six under the stewardship of veteran manager Craig Brown.
Since then Derek McInnes has secured a first trophy since 1995 by winning last season’s League Cup final and transformed the team into what is currently the second best side in the Premiership.
The midweek victory against Inverness ended any doubt about being denied a runners-up spot that was snatched away in dramatic style by Motherwell’s final-day win at Pittodrie last season.
It will be the first time since Willie Miller was in charge 21 years ago that Aberdeen finish that high in the table and Hayes believes plans are already in place to ensure the historical similarities end there.
The Dons ended that campaign just three points behind Rangers but within months Miller was sacked and the ignominy of relegation for the first time ever was only avoided in a play-off with Dunfermline.
Ageing quality players Alex McLeish and Jim Bett had departed as had the likes of Hans Gilhaus and Paul Mason the previous summer and they proved impossible to replace adequately.
Now, despite the disappointment of seemingly failing to prevent Celtic making it four league titles in a row this season, Hayes only sees the current Aberdeen squad getting stronger.
After all, McInnes signed St Mirren’s best player, Kenny McLean, during the January transfer window and he already has Caley Thistle captain Graeme Shinnie tied up for next season with more certain to be added in the summer.
Hayes points to these sort of deals, and the long-term contracts most of the current pool of players are already on, for giving Aberdeen the sort of strength in depth most other sides can only envy.
It also strengthens his belief that after just two years as manager McInnes is constructing a side capable of putting even more pressure on Celtic in the years ahead.
He said: “The manager doesn’t want to be where Aberdeen have been the past few years, lingering sort of mid-table. He wants to push us as far as we can go.
“We’ve obviously won one cup but he’s hungry to win more. That has a knock-on effect on the team and the club and it’s good that the chairman and the board are backing him.
“I thought Graeme Shinnie had a great game against us for Inverness the other night. He’s always been a difficult opponent for me to play against and I’ll be happy next season when he’s on the same side as me.
“The way the manager’s built means it’s one of the strongest squads in the league in my opinion, with most players signed for the long term, and that can only help our cause going forward.”
Aberdeen head for Rugby Park at lunchtime today knowing a win will see them equal last season’s points tally with six matches left to play.
The major disappointments have come from losing all three league meetings with Celtic, which Hayes admits has diminished some sense of satisfaction about what they have achieved.
“Obviously the league’s Celtic’s now, but we want to see how many points we can get on the board, set a standard to try and break it again next season,” he said.
“The run that we had is a run that Celtic can do two or three times a season with just the odd mishap but for a team outwith Celtic to put together a run like we have is pretty outstanding.
“People will say we haven’t been great for the past couple of games but we’ve still managed to not lose those games.
“I think if we can kick on now we can bridge some of the gap between ourselves and Celtic and it gives us something to aim at next season.”
While Aberdeen look to have already wrapped up second place in the division, today’s opponents are not yet safe when it comes to which team will finish second bottom and endure the dreaded play-off.
Kilmarnock do have a comfortable cushion over the teams below them but matches against Aberdeen today and Celtic on Wednesday look pretty daunting for manager Gary Locke.
“I wouldn’t say I was worried,” Locke explained. “Obviously you look at the league table and it is tight. I am pretty sure I am the same as the players. We are well aware of the situation but we are still in a reasonably good position at the moment.
“We are still a few points clear and if we win a few games we can take ourselves out of that equation.
“I would be more worried if we had to rely on other people.
“But it is very much in our own hands and we have to make sure that we win a few games in the next two or three weeks and if we do that we will be okay.”