EIGHT years ago, Derek McInnes walked into Pittodrie looking to rebuild his own reputation not just Aberdeen’s after his sacking by Bristol City a couple of months earlier. The timing of his arrival at the club was perfect as he was given five dead-rubber post-split fixtures to assess his squad. That final position of eighth place highlighted the task he had in front of him.
He leaves the club in fourth place in the Premiership table with six games to go, which in itself tells you all you need to know about the job he had done at the club. A third place finish in 2013/14, followed with four consecutive runners-up positions and then finishing fourth the last two seasons is pretty good going for a club who had finished ninth three years in a row, plus that aforementioned eighth place when he first arrived.
Then there’s the small matter of Cup competitions. Prior to his arrival, Aberdeen hadn’t even reached a Cup Final since the 2000 Scottish Cup Final, and only appeared in five Semi Finals over that thirteen year period. In his first season, he led Aberdeen to their first silverware since 1995 with that nerve wracking penalty shootout win over Inverness in the League Cup Final, where 43,000 Aberdeen fans turned up at Celtic Park in what became known as ParkRed. Three more Cup Finals followed, all of them saw the Dons defeated by Brendan Rodgers all conquering Celtic side, and there were another three Semi Finals in that time.
There were some good times in Europe too, with notable victories over Groningen and Rijeka being the highlights as the Dons strived to get into the Europa League Group Stages. Unfortunately, Aberdeen couldn’t even get to the playoff round for those lucrative Group Stages, going out six times in the third qualifying round out of seven attempts. Defeats to Kairat Almaty, Maribor and Apollon Limassol were particularly frustrating to McInnes, who was desperate to advance the Dons into the Europa League.
So having rebuilt the clubs reputation at home, and shown signs of progress abroad, people are within their right to ask why Aberdeen have made this decision to relieve McInnes of his duties, and why there became a bigger clamour from the Dons support for him to go?
The harsh truth is things became stale at Aberdeen, and McInnes’s shelf life had long since expired. Eight years is a very long time for a Manager, particularly in the modern era where three years is seen as a long spell in charge at a club, and recent performances have not been pleasing neither on the eye or in terms of results. One win and one goal in nine games, and only five goals in 2021, tells its own story where Aberdeen are at right now. In a season where Celtic have shot themselves in the foot on and off the pitch, it is frustrating as a Dons fan to see that we have failed to capitalise and at least put more pressure on them for second.
Of course, it has to be acknowledged that the club has lost a significant calibre of player over the last few years. Ryan Jack, Johnny Hayes (for three years), Kenny McLean, Graeme Shinnie, Ryan Christie (after an 18 month loan spell) and Scott McKenna have all left the club since the 2017 Scottish Cup Final, and the loss of those key players would hurt any team in the league.
However, the swashbuckling style of football that led us to two Cup Finals in that 2016/17 season has gradually been replaced with a turgid brand that is a tough watch for the fans. You turn a blind eye when results are still coming, but Aberdeen aren’t scoring goals let alone winning games, and with season tickets and AberDNA renewals imminent, Dave Cormack knew he had to make a tough decision over a Manager no longer backed by the majority of fans.
The harsh reality is that Derek McInnes’s shelf life had expired some time ago. Some argue that his time to go was after that 2016/17 season, where the Dons were runners-up to an invincible Celtic side. He did have a chance to move that summer but turned down the Sunderland job, then more famously turned down the chance to manage boyhood heroes Rangers in December 2017, so his loyalty to Aberdeen can never be questioned.
For me, with the benefit of hindsight, maybe the best time for McInnes to have walked away was after that 2017/18 season when we finished second ahead of Rangers. With Steven Gerrard coming in and more money getting thrown at their bid to end Celtic’s domination, it was always going to be difficult to match his earlier success. Finishing fourth behind Kilmarnock and Motherwell, with no disrespect to those clubs, is underwhelming for a club with the third highest budget in the league.
Whilst it has petered out, there is no question that Derek McInnes has been a success at Aberdeen Football Club. The difference between when he walked into Pittodrie eight years ago to now is night and day, and the bar has been raised considerably since his arrival. Unfortunately, he has become a victim of his own success and the time is right for freshness at the club.
It will be interesting to see who his successor is, and how true the phrase “careful what you wish for” becomes in this instant. The last time that phrase was used was after Jimmy Calderwood was sacked, which led to the appointment of a man who treated the club with utter contempt from day one. Cormack has made his first big decision since becoming Aberdeen Chairman in late 2019, his next task in finding a successor is even more crucial.