When Aberdeen midfielder Kenny McLean netted three times in Europe last season, his goals won over the Dons doubters after what he had admitted himself was a fairly underwhelming start to his Pittodrie career.
This season, the Scotland international will have to take even greater responsibility due to depleted numbers in the engine room, but the former St Mirren man is ready to thrive on it.
Aberdeen finally arrived in Latvia last night after a troubled journey, but they have the not inconsiderable cushion of a three-goal lead to take to FK Ventspils.
McLean will be just about manager Derek McInnes’ first name on the team-sheet – a trusted performer whose displays last term earned him a Scotland cap.
His importance to the Dons is vital. McLean simply must perform these days if the Premiership runners-up are to function. The retirement of Barry Robson as well as the departures to Dundee United of Willo Flood permanently and Cammy Smith on loan have left the Pittodrie side light in midfield and the onus is on McLean to put in an ever greater shift now.
Europe has been a happy hunting ground for McLean. Last season, he hit the campaign running – after taking some time to adjust to life at Aberdeen following his £300,000 transfer from St Mirren midway through the previous season – with vital goals in Croatia in a wonderful 3-0 win against Rijeka and Kazakhstan in a 2-1 defeat by Kairat Almaty. He also netted in the return against Kairat.
From there, McLean went on to be an ever-present in Aberdeen’s ultimately futile title challenge as McInnes’ side ran Celtic close last term. And he’s happy with the extra responsibility this season too as he tries to help the Dons reach the group stages of the Europa League.
He said: “There have been a few midfielders moved on, but everybody has a big responsibility and a big part to play this season and I think I’m in that bracket. There are still a lot of good young players coming through which will push us to try and keep working hard and stay in the team. The competition for places really brings the best out in the players. I’m sure that will be the case this season as we’ve signed some really good attacking players.
“We want to better ourselves every year, that is our aim. We want to keep improving year on year and I think we are doing that. We’ve built a really good squad and it is important to go far in Europe for this club and its history. We need to go back to pushing for the group stages and although we are in a good position just now, we won’t take anything for granted. Hopefully though, we can progress to the next round and take it from there.”
Aberdeen received an almighty fright in the last round when they came close to being embarrassingly eliminated by Luxembourg minnows Fola Esch. A 3-1 win at Pittodrie should have got the job done, but an oddly-lethargic Aberdeen lost 1-0 in the return and would have gone out had Fola scored late on instead of hitting the woodwork.
It is no secret that McInnes pointed out their inefficiencies that night in no uncertain terms and complacency will not be an issue tonight in the Baltic Sea port, which lies three hours north of Latvian capital Riga. A tie against the winners of the Levski Sofia v Maribor tie is the prize.
McLean said: “I can assure you there will not be a repeat. We’ve spoken about it at length and as I’ve said it was very early in the season, we’d only played a couple games, although it cannot be excused.
“We know we’ve got a job to do over here and we need to put it right to the travelling fans. It is going to be a tough game, but we are in a good position and hopefully we can stay there.
“We know what to expect. Like the first round in Luxembourg they came at us early and we will need to weather a bit of a storm at times. We know that, as playing away in Europe you will always be against a difficult opponent.
“We know what they are going to bring, but we have a lot of quality in this squad and we are confident we can go here and score which would give them a mountain to climb, but we know we have a real job to do and I am sure we can do it.”