Why Aberdeen and Kilmarnock can put in a serious Scottish Premiership title challenge

Kilmarnock travel to Aberdeen in the game of the weekend in the Scottish Premiership. Joel Sked looks at why both sides have the capability of challenging Celtic.

It would have been poetic if the game of the weekend in the Scottish Premiership took place in Kilmarnock rather than Aberdeen.

Two days after the East Ayrshire town rejoiced in their team defeating Rangers to move into second place in the league, only one point off the summit, it’s emotion switched to a period of mourning following the passing of one of it most cherished sons, literary great Hugh McIlvaney.

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For a man who has rubbed shoulders with the genuine greats of the sporting world, from Muhammed Ali to George Best, it would have been fascinating to read McIlvaney’s thoughts on the madcap nature of the Scottish game as it is now.

Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes and Kilmarnock boss Steve Clarke meet at Pittodrie. Picture: SNS/Bill Murray

His immaculate turn of phrase left readers amused and fulfilled; for fellow writers it would simply make them ponder whether there was enough time to take up a new profession.

Of Best he said the Northern Irishman had “feet as sensitive as a pickpocket’s hands”. He’d no doubt have to amend that if he caught even a fleeting glimpse of some of the forwards who have taken to the field in Scotland this season. Feet as sensitive as the hands of a particularly overzealous airport security officer, maybe.

More pertinently, it’s his words on his hometown club and their manager Steve Clarke which would be most alluring. The way the club have transformed in less than 18 months, the way they have reconnected with the community and the way special feeling has returned to the home support, who are now eager and excited to head to Rugby Park, no longer apprehensive and angry.

His words narrated by his brother William would perhaps be the only thing which would do an end of season montage of Kilmarnock’s potential Scottish Premiership success any justice.

But that is where we are. Speaking of Kilmarnock as possible Scottish Premiership champions.

Wednesday’s come-from-behind 2-1 win over Rangers was more than just three points. It was a pointed message that this team are not going anywhere anytime soon. With 16 games to go they sit second.

They may have lost their attacking inspiration Greg Stewart to Aberdeen and witnessed another key attacker in Jordan Jones sign a pre-contract agreement with Rangers, but they’ve maintained the key ingredients which have seen the team pick up 97 points in Clarke’s 51 league games.

Namely, the key man is still in tow. Clarke himself. He’s brought a strong, resolute mentality to the team. Organised, robust and a constant threat on the counter-attack, it was all there to see against Rangers.

They lack the fluidity and star quality of their league rivals but they make up for it in other ways. There is unlikely a better prepared side in Scotland, while Clarke, like the very best managers, has a supreme sales ability, garnering ultimate buy-in from his players.

His simplified message is embraced by a playing squad which could be described as unfashionable but as a collective are continuing to play above what many think is possible.

Killie possess some of the most consistent players in the league, especially the defence and Alan Power, who should be mentioned among candidates for player of the season.

Stewart will likely be in that conversation if he continues his Killie form with Aberdeen.

The Dons, with ten wins in their last 13 games, have played their way into the title race, and as each week passes there is an argument to be made that Derek McInnes is in charge of his most talented side since moving to Pittodrie.

Pundits bemoaned the fact they let a diminishing Adam Rooney leave for Salford City. There was reasoning behind the queries as the Dons failed to net more than once in their first seven league games.

Yet, slowly but surely they have eked out victories, become more potent and out of nowhere Sam Cosgrove has become an unstoppable battering ram. Deceptively quick, strong and hangs like an NBA player in the air, he has scored nine goals in his last seven league games.

Behind him, an interchangeable attacking trident. Stevie May works his socks off, often to little reward in terms of goals, while Gary Mackay-Steven provides blistering pace, crosses and a goal threat. And, now, with Niall McGinn struggling to regain the form of his first spell in Aberdeen, Stewart has returned.

The 28-year-old may have provoked the wrath of Clarke after he rejected a return to Kilmarnock after being recalled by Birmingham City, but he will have surely sought assurances from Derek McInnes that he would not be required to fill in as a wide midfielder and the defensive responsibilities which come with that.

Despite an abysmal display in the cup against Stenhousemuir, this Dons side is constantly improving. They have a robust spine, from Joe Lewis in goals, through Scott McKenna and Mikey Devlin (when he returns from injury) in the centre of defence, Graeme Shinnie and Lewis Ferguson in midfield and now Stewart and Cosgrove.

The return of Max Lowe should not be discounted. The blitzing he took for Derby at Leeds earlier in the month is a blessing in disguise for Aberdeen. He provides further pace and penetration down the flanks, something which the team don’t get with Andrew Considine.

McInnes has the players to play his favoured 4-2-3-1. And while there is not a natural holding midfielder who will dictate play at the base of the midfield it is offset by balance and creativity elsewhere.

It is still hard to look past Celtic, bolstered by a trio of attackers, for the league title. But it would also be foolish to discount two provincial teams who are in fine form, in a good state of mind, possess savvy managers and the players know what is required of them.

They meet at Pittodrie on Saturday afternoon as they look lay down another marker in their quest to achieve one of Scottish football’s most surprising feats.

Unfortunately, McIlvaney will not be able to put his poetry to any such success. But having famously documented Ali’s triumph over George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle, he more than anyone knows the power of sport and it’s propensity to confound expectation and leave fans in a state of bewilderment.