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