Aberdeen-Rangers clash will be one to savour, with McInnes’s fu­ture a fas­ci­nat­ing sub­plot

The Herald - Herald Sport - - FINAL SAY -

IT WAS in­evitable that Aberdeen would strug­gle to repli­cate the start they en­joyed last sea­son – their eight-game win­ning run in the Lad­brokes Pre­mier­ship was the best in their en­tire 112-year his­tory af­ter all. Yet, the Pit­to­drie club’s early form in the league this term has still been hugely frus­trat­ing for a sup­port which has had its ex­pec­ta­tions raised con­sid­er­ably by spir­ited, if ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful, tilts at the Scot­tish ti­tle in the last two years.

Draws with St John­stone, Hearts and In­ver­ness Cale­do­nian This­tle, a win over Partick This­tle and a de­feat to Celtic had left them lan­guish­ing in the bot­tom half of a tightly-packed ta­ble just two points above bot­tom spot.

The ab­sence of Jonny Hayes, the Ir­ish winger who had been side­lined with a ham­string strain since Au­gust, was keenly felt in the North-east. His re­turn to ac­tion against In­ver­ness ear­lier this month af­ter a six-week in­jury lay-off was met with wide­spread re­joic­ing.

A fine 3-1 vic­tory over Dundee at Dens Park yes­ter­day, though, has pro­pelled Aberdeen into fourth spot, just above Rangers on goal dif­fer­ence, and set up a mouth­wa­ter­ing en­counter with the Ibrox club at Pit­to­drie this Sunday af­ter­noon. It prom­ises to be one of the defin­ing matches of the 2016/17 cam­paign.

The first game be­tween these bit­ter ri­vals this sea­son was al­ways, re­gard­less of the cir­cum­stances it was played in, go­ing to be frac­tious. They last met in a league game at Ibrox way back in the Jan­uary of 2012 – shortly be­fore Rangers went into ad­min­is­tra­tion – some 57 months ago. Ab­sence is un­likely to have made hearts grow any fonder.

But the mount­ing pres­sure on Ibrox man­ager Mark War­bur­ton af­ter a heavy and hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat to Celtic and des­per­ately dis­ap­point­ing draws against Kil­marnock and Ross County, will crank the in­ten­sity lev­els up a notch or two.

Throw the po­ten­tial pres­ence of Joey Bar­ton into the mix – if, that is, he re­mains a Rangers player fol­low­ing the train­ing ground ban he was hit with af­ter his ill-ad­vised out­burst in the wake of the Old Firm loss – and it set to be a quite an af­ter­noon.

Should Derek McInnes’s side pre­vail, it will in­crease both spec­u­la­tion about and the like­li­hood of the Aberdeen man­ager tak­ing over at Rangers at some point in the fu­ture.

War­bur­ton is, no doubt about it, go­ing through the most dif­fi­cult spell of his ten­ure in Go­van just now. His team are un­der­per­form­ing and haem­or­rhag­ing points, his high-pro­file sign­ings are fail­ing to live up to ex­pec­ta­tions and he been sub­jected to some scathing crit­i­cism from both sup­port­ers and the me­dia as a re­sult.

The English­man has the abil­ity and in­tel­li­gence per­son­ally as well as the qual­ity and strength in depth in his squad to turn things around and will look to be­gin that process in the Bet­fred Cup quar­ter-fi­nal against new Cham­pi­onship lead­ers Queen of the South to­mor­row evening.

Yet, his lat­est com­ments about the neg­a­tiv­ity of the Scot­tish press did noth­ing to dis­pel the wide­spread be­lief that he sees his im­me­di­ate fu­ture down south and han­kers af­ter a re­turn to his home­land.

When War­bur­ton does even­tu­ally move on – ei­ther by his own vo­li­tion or oth­er­wise – there will be the usual glut of names from far and wide linked to the va­cant post. But McInnes will al­most cer­tainly be the fron­trun­ner. He ticks more boxes than any other po­ten­tial can­di­date.

As­so­ci­a­tion with Rangers? Check. The for­mer mid­fielder spent five years as a player at Ibrox. Ex­pe­ri­ence as man­ager? Check. He has had spells at St John­stone and Bris­tol City as well as Aberdeen. Suc­cess­ful track record? Check. He has led his side to the League Cup as well as back-to-back run­ners-up spots in the league. Young and am­bi­tious? Check. He is just 45 and is driven to suc­ceed. Af­ford­able? Check. His salary de­mands wouldn’t be pro­hib­i­tive.

De­spite Aberdeen’s slow start – McInnes felt that trips to Lux­em­bourg, Latvia and Slove­nia in the qual­i­fy­ing rounds of the Europa League had ad­versely af­fected his charges’ form do­mes­ti­cally in their early out­ings – it ap­pears as if they are a more com­plete unit this sea­son.

An­thony O’Connor, the for­mer Repub­lic of Ire­land Un­der-21 cen­tre­half who was signed from Bur­ton Albion in the sum­mer, has shored up a por­ous de­fence con­sid­er­ably. Joe Lewis has, by and large, per­formed solidly in goals – for a long time some­thing of a prob­lem po­si­tion – as well.

It is un­likely that, with Bren­dan Rodgers hav­ing suc­ceeded Ronny Deila at Celtic and strength­ened con­sid­er­ably this sum­mer, Aberdeen will trou­ble the Park­head club greatly in the com­ing months.

But they can cer­tainly fin­ish in sec­ond spot de­spite the re­turn of Rangers to the top flight. If they do, they may well have to be­gin a search for a new man­ager.

Should Derek McInnes’s side pre­vail, it will in­crease both spec­u­la­tion and the like­li­hood of the Aberdeen man­ager tak­ing over at Rangers at some point in the fu­ture

NORTH­ERN LIGHT: Derek McInnes’s side are up to fourth in the ta­ble af­ter their vic­tory over Dundee yes­ter­day.

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