Can Derek McInnes take Aberdeen to the next level?

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When I first started thinking about this post, it was going to be about what Derek McInnes needed to do to be seen in the future as a Don’s legend. That was a few months ago when the Dons were flying high in the midst of an 8 game winning run. The months between then and now have changed the goal posts, and the focus of this blog post, significantly. A week has now passed since the second first round cup exit of the season, this time after a limp showing against Hearts in the Scottish Cup. Notions of legendary status now seem fanciful, as the murmurs of the discontent that have been aired by a section of fans in the past few months become amplified. The question I’m now asking myself now is not What does McInnes need to do to be remembered as a great? but What does McInnes need to do to keep his job?

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Before we look at the issues that I feel are blighting McInnes, let’s go back, way back, to a bleak period in our great club’s history. McInnes took over from Craig Brown at a time when Brown had steadied the ship after the disastrous McGhee era. However, after successive 9th place finishes, it was a ship bobbing on the sea of mediocrity on a voyage to nowhere. A change was required. Home crowds had dwindled to around 8k and apathy reigned amongst the fans.

Following confirmation of McInnes’s appointment in March 2013, the reaction amongst the fans was certainly not universally positive. There were those who were wary of appointing a manager who had been ignominiously dumped by Bristol City only two months previous, with the club sitting bottom of the English Championship when he left. There were many City fans on online forums that were quick to provide ammunition to the doubters by decrying aspects of McInnes’s management style. There were others, smaller in number, for whom McInnes’s past as a Rangers (RIP) player was hard to swallow. Yet, there were many in the Don support who remembered him doing a good job at St. Johnstone and were willing to write his West Country nightmare off as a case of “wrong place, wrong time”. Personally, I was convinced the appointment was a bit of a coup. Before heading south McInnes had worked wonders at St Johnstone and I could see him being a breath of fresh air after the defensiveness dourness of Brown. McInnes also seemed to be a much more progressive appointment than Derek Adams who we had also stated an interest in at the time.

McInnes’s first full season in charge of the Dandies probably came as a surprise to everyone barring, maybe, the man himself. The signs were there early on: the addition of proven SPL players such as Barry Robson & Willo Flood, the highly astute loan signings of Michael Hector & Shay Logan and the reinvigoration of the previously errant Peter Pawlett. This was a team built on solid foundations – only 38 league goals conceded, the least since the 93/94 season. The team was happy to sit back, trust the defence, and then hit on the break through the pace of Pawlett, Hayes and McGinn. It wasn’t always pretty, there were a lot of performances where we’d go in front then rely on the solidity of the defence to get us the points. However, results were good and the fans were delighted we weren’t a fucking laughing stock for the first time in such a long, long time.

We were narrowly edged out of 2nd place by Motherwell and John Sutton’s pointy, pernicious elbow in the last game of that first season. The highlight of that season had already been and gone by that point. The Dons lifted their first trophy for 19 years but only after fucking penalties in the League Cup Final victory against ICT. The game itself was a dire but who cared, we’d won a major trophy, nothing else mattered. It was my best day as a football supporter (right up there with the Aberdeenshire Shield final of ’96 when the Broch came back from 3-0 down to beat Peterheid 6-3 after extra time, absolute scenes min!)

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Season 14/15 built on the previous, there was no trophy this time, but we finished 2nd in the league with a record points total and the most goals scored in a season since 90/91. The cup exists to the two Dundee teams were annoying especially the Scottish Cup game at Dens which came during an 8 game winning streak in the league. There was also a slightly alarming end to the season with 3 losses and a draw, with the players looking like they had decide to go on holiday a month early. But any concerns seemed churlish and greedy. In the grand scheme of things, compared to where we’d been, these were halcyon days. McInnes could do no wrong; he was treated with almost Messiah-like status in the toon.

McInnes’s approval ratings went through the roof at the start of this season when the team went on an 8 game winning run including a superb 2-1 victory over Celtic at Pittodrie. Everyone I spoke to after the Celtic game said the same thing, play like that on a regular basis and we had a chance, a real chance. The 8 game run left us top of the league on 24 points in the middle of September.

Then a strange thing happened – we started losing. Over the next 6 games, we lost 5 and drew one, getting knocked out of the League Cup by Hibs and losing 5-1 to St Johnstone at Pittodrie in the process. For the first time in McInnes’s tenure we looked nervous every time we stepped on to the park. It was inconceivable to the fans and outside observers that a team could go from 8 wins in row and looking unstoppable, to this mess.

Conspiracy theories abounded. Had there been punch ups between players? Did the manager get chinned? Was the manager shagging Ash Taylor’s missus? Did everyone hate Shay Logan because he wouldn’t let them read a paper in peace? We’ll probably never know the root cause (something definitely went down, of that I am sure) but the slump was more revealing in terms of the fans’ attitude towards McInnes.

Whereas there had been no dissenting voices previously, with every game that went by without a winning, so more gripes were aired. That’s the fickle nature of being a football fan. I think everyone can still see how good McInnes has been for the club. He’s dragged us out of the doldrums, he’s given us respectability and he’s reinvigorated a fan base that was beginning to think our time would never come again. But, here we are in January, having failed to capitalise on a number of occasions on a very poor Celtic side, and out of both cup competitions at the first time of asking. There are some worrying themes developing.

  1. No Plan B: More than any other team in the league, our style of play must be the most well established. If all players are fit, even my wife could tell you what our starting eleven will be every week. We have become far too predictable. If a few key components of our team (mainly Hayes and McGinn) are having an off day, the threat we pose is now almost completely nullified by the opposition. McInnes’s almost pathological disregard for anything but 4-2-3-1 is chronic. The inability to make effective tactical or personnel changes during a game more often than not means when we are off the boil, we might as well not even bother showing up.

McInnes, and his coaching staff, need to find different ways for us to win games. Some games we need to be able to be more direct and more able to cope with the physical approach taken by the likes of Hearts. Games at home to the lesser teams, like Dundee United (fnar fnar), do not require two sitting midfielders and one man upfront. There must be an effective way of playing with two strikers. I understand that managers have their preferred systems and methods, but surely even the most limited coach can get across the basics of more than one formation to a group of professional footballers.

  1. Crucial Personnel Decisions: You get the feeling that McInnes comes from the Jimmy Calderwood school of man management. He has a core of trusted senior players who are guaranteed a game every week. In return, he expects loyalty, commitment and his instructions to be carried out when the lads are out on the pitch. This approach can have a massively positive effect, leading to a strong core group who, emboldened by the manager’s trust, take that solidity out onto the pitch. However, there have been a few times this season where I feel McInnes’s trust in certain players had clouded his judgement on major decisions.

Firstly, the decision to persuade Shay Logan to give the club another season has spectacularly backfired. Logan has been unrecognisable from last year and most observers have noticed that his head has appeared elsewhere from the outset of the season. Had McInnes been more astute, he’d have seen that mentally Logan had already checked out of Pittodrie and focussed his efforts on finding his replacement. McInnes’s thanks for sticking by Logan have been abject performances, and numerous reports of Logan returning late from club sanctioned trips back to Manchester to see his kids.

Logan’s form has been compounded by how poor Ryan McLaughlin was during loan spell from Liverpool. The lack of a suitable alternative at right back has meant that Logan has remained in the team during a horrifying dip in form. As much as I like Shay, it would be best for all parties if he was fixed up with a new club in this transfer window and we sourced a replacement.

The other major concern I have is the captaincy of Ryan Jack. The decision to hand Jack the armband in the summer, presumably in order to convince him to sign a new contract, has not been a success. As much as Jack had a great season last year, he is still learning his trade and the burden of the captaincy has not suited him. His on pitch leadership style many times this season has consisted of him screaming at players. I’m no management guru, but I’m not convinced of the motivational merits of having a 23 year old loon shouting obscenities at senior pros like Reynolds. In my opinion, Shinnie is the obvious choice as captain. He has a winning mentality, knows his own game and is able to be the motivation that a quiet group like ours needs. This switch would allow Jack to focus on his game. It would also change the dynamic of a team which, when things have started going wrong this season, has gone to pieces with no on field leadership to turn the tide.

  1. Chronic lack of youth players making the first team: Despite recently agreeing a deal with the bank to write off the debts which had previously been a millstone around the neck of the club, Aberdeen are a selling club. The only way we can operate sustainably, without injections of cash from benefactors like Milne and Willie Donald, is to nurture our own young players, enjoy their talents for a few seasons and then sell them for a handsome profit. This applies to every team in Scotland. I think most fans accept this reality and actually love to see young, local loons come through the system and show pride pulling on the red jersey.

McInnes’s record of introducing youth players into the first team is quite frankly shocking. This post isn’t meant to be a character assassination but this is one aspect of his character as a manager that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

We won the SPFL Development League last season, a fantastic achievement by Paul Sheerin and his lads. By my reckoning at least six players from that squad were released at the end of last season including the previously highly rated Cem Felek, Marcus Campanile, Kieran Gibbons and Jamie Masson. The only graduates from that squad that have had even a meagre involvement in the first team this season are Scott Wright and Craig Storie.

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Storie, Wright and Frank Ross especially have been regularly touted as big prospects when playing for Scotland youth teams but cannot force themselves into McInnes’s plans. Being thrown on for a few minutes at the end of a first team game is not aiding their development. I understand that McInnes’s first priority has to be winning first team matches but his total disregard for the development of youth surely must be a concern to those in the corridors of power in AB24 5QH.

The frustration at the lack of youth players being blooded in the first team is even more annoying when you look at the absolute shite which has been drafted in on loan to stand in their way. Step forward Monakana, Ryan McLaughlin, Alan Tate, Josh Park et al. There is not one Dons’ fan I know who would rather have these journeymen in the team over a product of the youth system. Anyone who says our youngsters must not be good enough to displace this procession of jokers is deluded.

Those are my biggest gripes with McInnes. From speaking with other fans, I think a lot of them share the same frustrations. The biggest fear at the moment is that McInnes isn’t capable of change and these issues end up being the things which stifle our progress and bring his time with the club to an end.

By no means do I want him to go, he’s been brilliant for the club but he must evolve. The worrying thing for me is that the issues highlighted above seem to be part of a well established pattern for McInnes. I recently spoke to Bristol City blogger Paul Binning (@TheExiledRobin on twitter) about McInnes ill-fated spell at Ashton Gate. Some of his answers were worryingly familiar.

Q: What was the original reaction between the fans when McInnes was first appointed? He must have been relatively unheard of and was certainly unproven in England. Were the fans cautious, optimistic, unhappy?

A: At the time I seem to recall there was a general excitement around it. We’d not long previously been in the play-off final to get into the Premier League, and many felt here was an exciting new manager with a great reputation, to perhaps just take us to the promised land. I think whenever a young Scottish manager who has proven himself north of the border comes to England, parallels are still drawn with Sir Alex and you hope you’ve found Mark II!

Q: The perception up here is that McInnes did well initially. What changes did he make from the previous regime?

A: To be honest it’s difficult to know what was ‘did well’ at that time. Some were still expecting us to be top of the league, others happy to be settled in mid table and the more pessimistic just happy to be clear of the bottom three. But yes, we were at the bottom of the Championship when McInnes pipped Mark Robins to the post and through a mixture of improved team spirit (he dropped David James, for instance) and a few decent loan signings – Andre Bikey in particular – he managed to keep us clear of the trap door that season.

Q: What was McInnes main style of play? Did he change it up depending on who you were playing or did he tend to stick with the same approach regardless of opponent? What was his squad rotation like? Did he tend to stick to same starting XI or mix it up?

A: He certainly wasn’t afraid to change his starting XI, partly due to the position in the league we were in, but many felt he tinkered and changed far too often for any stability. David James had been brought in on a whim, seemingly by the club’s owners, the previous summer but McInnes saw enough in a few months to drop him.

Key loan signings included Andre Bikey and Hogan Ephraim and both played an immediate part, adding a touch of quality to the team we didn’t previously have in place, but equally a string of loan signings kept others out of the team who perhaps deserved a spot and his 4-5-1 formation in particular came in for some criticism.

Q: What was his record on bringing through young players?

A: Like most managers during the last six or seven years, the league situation has seemingly deemed it impractical to bring through young players whilst fighting relegation.

The one notable player he brought through (having signed) was Yannick Bolasie, although then seemingly failed to understand exactly what a talent he had in his hands, with a regular spot on the bench causing Bolasie to seek a summer move to Crystal Palace. McInnes ultimately sanctioned it, although player and agent power clearly played a huge part. The rest, as they say, is history!

Q: What other good and bad points did he have?

A: His ultimate downfall in my mind were for three key reasons.

One, we’d spent a lot of money the Summer before he arrived on a load of players who turned out to be rubbish! This limited his ability to manoeuvre and bring in players as he’d have liked, although he brought in two good strikers in the summer he had and failed to address the centre half we desperately needed. Bikey never came permanently and we shipped nearly two goals per game for the rest of the season. Indeed, the owner pointed squarely at this very point, (This is Bristol Story). To get to the middle of January without having kept a single clean sheet tells you everything you really need to know.

Two, he relied on his links and knowledge of Scottish football to bring in some players who, ultimately, were nowhere near up to scratch. Ricky Foster will always be the symbol of McInnes’ time at the club, routinely played but never, ever looked to be good enough for the Championship.

Three, the club was in a five-year decline, slowly getting closer and closer to the epicentre of failure and racking up debts of £50m. In my view he simply wasn’t quite strong enough – at that stage – to stop the momentum. It continued for almost 18 months more after he left, and we were some 25 places worse off than he left us just a year later.

I thought Paul’s answers gave a very balanced appraisal of McInnes. The telling points for me, which echo my own concerns, are the insistence on sticking to the 4-5-1/4-3-2-1 formation, the failure to give youth a proper chance even when presented with someone with the talent of Yannick Bolasie, the succession of sub-standard loan signings and failure to spot when crucial changes in personnel are required.

And yet, the day before I post this, the Dons have won 3-2 away to Ross County showing great determination in the face of adversity. Startlingly, the team yesterday included two strikers and Craig Storie played the full 90 minutes. That alone gives me hope that Derek is the man to take us to that elusive “next level”. A real title challenge between now and the end of the season will go a long way to convincing me he is.