Aberdeen’s 2014 League Cup final win may be Derek McInnes’ most significant achievement so far as manager, but he believes even that would be eclipsed by steering them to the group stages of the Europa League.
McInnes and his players start their third attempt to do just that when Luxembourg’s CS Fola Esch visit Pittodrie tonight for the first of what the home side hope will be four successful qualifying rounds.
Previous years have brought memorable wins against Dutch side Groningen and Croatia’s Rijeka only for Aberdeen to exit at the third round, emphasising just how difficult it is nowadays for Scottish sides to reach the competition proper. Now, with the reward of what looks like another surely winnable tie against either FK Ventspils of Latvia or Vikingar of the Faroe Islands as the prize for seeing off the part-timers, the prospect of going further this time looks promising.
Of course Aberdeen have only been in Europe after Christmas once in the last 30 years, when Jimmy Calderwood took them to a last-32 tie against Bayern Munich in 2008, but only required one qualifying round to be negotiated on route.
Nowadays it’s a much longer road to get to the glamour ties, which is why McInnes believes it will be a significant step forward if they can stay in the competition beyond September this season.
He said:“Even if you get through the [first] three games, you have to play the fall-out teams from the Champions League games to qualify, so it is tough, but we are where we are and you can’t complain about it.
“Until we start making inroads into group stages, ourselves and others, then we have to deal with it. To play eight games to get to the group stages is a challenge and we view it like a domestic cup competition.
“I think winning a cup domestically could be, not easier, but more do-able than qualifying for the group stages.
“I would see us qualifying for the group stages as a significant achievement and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Aberdeen’s new striker Jayden Stockley believes it is already a significant step forward for his career just to be involved against tonight’s opponents after spending the last few years on loan at places such as Woking, Luton Town and Exeter City.
The 22 year-old spent seven years with Bournemouth, watching them go from League Two in England to retaining their place in the Premiership last season, which has only increased his appetite for some success of his own.
Stockley admits:”I was on the periphery at Bournemouth recently but I have really good friends there who have achieved great things.
“Watching them go through the leagues and get that success has made me a lot hungrier to go on and hopefully taste something special with Aberdeen.
“Seeing the standard of players at this club has made me really excited about what we can achieve. The prospect of playing alongside Adam Rooney is exciting. He has a big reputation up here and I can see why as his goalscoring statistics have been prolific.
“I can pick up things from him both in games and training, but there are aslo great players like Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes here, so this team has real quality. European football was a big pull for me coming to Aberdeen. Not many players get the opportunity to play at European level and I probably wouldn’t have experienced it had I stayed in England.”
Stockley has already scored twice in warm-up matches and his height and physicality will give the options up front that Aberdeen lacked, particularly when the title race entered its crucial phase last season.
Those options will be increased further by the arrival of Miles Storey on Friday when the player who spent a productive time on loan at Inverness last season completes his move from Swindon Town.