The Curious Case of Jimmy Calderwood

by | Football | 2 comments

For most men, a two year hiatus from gainful employment would afford ample opportunity for self reflection.  However, if you have even a passing knowledge of Scottish football, you will know by now that Jimmy Calderwood is not most men. For Jimmy, silent contemplation has always has been overrated.

It is now almost seven years since Calderwood left Pittodrie, and two years since he’s had any involvement in club management after an ill-fated month as manager of De Graafschap. In the time since he waved us a not so fond farewell, he has talked of his on-going bewilderment behind the reasons for his departure with alarming regularity.

The latest installment in this horrific post break-up melodrama came only a few weeks ago when Calderwood gave his most incredible interview yet to BBC Radio Scotland. In a rambling half hour Jimmy let rip on former Killie chairman Michael Johnston, accused Willie Miller of getting rid of him because he was in danger usurping him as Aberdeen’s biggest icon, and even found time for a bizarre Steve Lovell segue which had clearly been heavily edited by the time it aired. In among the slanderous slavering was the recurring assertion that neither he, nor the legions of Aberdeen fans he’d spoken to since his departure, had been able to figure out why the Dons board had decided to make a change after 5 years of Calderwood’s tenure.

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On the face of it Calderwood’s departure in May 2009 could have appeared strange to the casual observer.  He led the club to 4th, 6th, 3rd and 4th placed finishes in his first four seasons at the club and the team had again secured European qualification by finishing 4th in the 2008/09 season. Considering where the club had been during the ignominies reigns of Skovdahl and Paterson these were heady days.

Despite Jimmy’s protestations to the contrary, any Aberdeen fan who watched Calderwood’s team during that last season could tell you exactly why his time was up. I was one of those on the terraces during the Calderwood era and my reasons are clear.

  1. Shelf Life

Everything has its time: Britpop, a North Sea Tiger’s marriage, a moderately successful football manager’s tenure. No matter how well things have gone, how heady the highs have been, things always become stale. And so it was with Calderwood’s Aberdeen reign.

After five years at the helm, by the end of 08/09 season it felt like things had run their natural course. Although European football had been secured with a final game victory against Hibs, this was only the fourth league victory since the turn of the year. Although the Pittodrie crowds during that period held up remarkably well, averaging more than 14k, the supporters of Calderwood’s management style had certainly dwindled.

Battles lines had been drawn on online message boards between the two camps of supporters:  those that were JMG (Jimmy Must Go) and the JIG (Jimmy is God) crew. The complaints from the JMG faction were funnily enough the exact same idiosyncrasies which had previously been his most endearing features. The once vaunted, cavalier 2-4-4 formation which we reverted to when trailing in the last 10 minutes of a game, was now sneered upon as a lack of tactical nous. The tactical tombola which saw the same players being shoehorned into increasingly bizarre starting formations reinforced the idea that Calderwood was less concerned with tactics and more with keeping his favourite players happy.

It wasn’t just the fans who had grown tired of Jimmy, the feeling seemed entirely mutual.  Calderwood openly criticised the fans on numerous occasions. “Unrealistic expectations”, that well-worn staple of the Glasgow press, being his main point of contention.

In a typically frank interview with The Times in January 2009, Jimmy seemed to concur with the majority of the fans when he said “This is a wonderful club, a fabulous club, but everyone needs fresh challenges. With every season that passes I think, ‘My shelf life here is getting shorter and shorter.’ You start thinking there is only so much you can do at one club.” The dye was cast. Jimmy thought he was destined for bigger things. The vast majority of fans were ready for a change.

The subsequent few years following his departure were not kind to either Jimmy or the club. That shouldn’t detract from the fact that the time was right for change. It is unfortunate for Calderwood that he has never fully recovered, while the club has been elevated to a new level under Derek McInnes.

  1. A dismal domestic cup record

Scotland is a small country:  5 million people, only 21 full-time professional football clubs. Despite a few notable blips over the decades, the sad fact is that over the course of a season the spending power of the Glasgow duopoly tends to ensure the league title ends up in Glasgow. The best chance of silverware for a team like the Dons is the cup competitions.

Without getting into a turgid argument over crowd sizes, trophies won (the Tennent’s Sixes don’t count Hearts fans) and all that jazz, Aberdeen are widely recognised as the 3rd biggest team in Scotland. To not lift a major trophy between 1995 and 2014 was therefore wholly unacceptable. Calderwood’s record in the cups was particularly dismal.  Considering the resources he had at his disposal, two semi-final appearances was a meagre return during his time at Pittodrie. There were embarrassing exits to Dunfermline, Kilmarnock and a horrific early exit to amateurs Queens Park. However, the nadir undoubtedly came against Queen of the South in the Scottish Cup semi-final of 2008.

20,000 Dandies had made their way to Hampden for an early kick off. They were full of expectation that after dispatching Celtic in a tense quarter final replay at Celtic Park, we would have enough about us to take care of Queens, and set up an epic showdown with Rangers in the final. The reality was to be very, very different.

We ended up losing a topsy, turvy game 4-3 but the reality was we were never ahead in the tie and having twice equalised in the second half, we quickly went on to go a goal behind again within a few minutes.  My abiding memories of the day are a disgraceful performance from Jackie McNamara, totally lacking in professionalism and bottle, and a nightmare 7 hour bus trip back to Aberdeen with the same Stone Roses CD on repeat for the whole journey. It took a long time but me and the Roses finally made up, me and Jimmy never really did.

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  1. He was a Rangers Man, don’t you know? 

There are two distinct trains of thought where football rivalries are concerned:

a) You think they’re the preserve of the small minded, an petty distraction best left in the playground, or
b) Like me, you think they are a visceral, vital component of the tribalism of being a football fan.

Regardless of your point of view, there would be few arguments that outside the much vaunted, sectarian fueled, best derby in the world ™, Aberdeen against Rangers was the hottest fixture in the Scottish football calendar. Seldom would a game between the two sides pass without significant incident both on and off the field. It was what the Scottish tabloids love to call, a POWDERKEG FIXTURE.

If you were brought up an Aberdeen supporter anytime from the 1970s onwards, a deep dislike of Rangers was ingrained into your psyche.

However, as the Scottish fitba pond is generally shallower than the Manitowoc County gene pool, it is inevitable that Aberdeen has had a good number of players and managers who’ve had an association with the team from Govan.  And we, as typically fickle football fans, have mostly been able to turn a blind eye.

This agreement was always predicated on a mutual collusion – once you stepped over the threshold at Pittodrie, your tainted past ceased to be, you didn’t mention it and the fans wouldn’t hold it against you. This unspoken agreement had served the likes of Fergie, Jim Bett and Eoin Jess well in the past.  All went on to become Dons legends despite once being in the employ of Rangers.

This type of mutually beneficial collusion is not even restricted to the crazy, irrational world of football, it’s just common sense. If you worked for Puma and spent half of your working day speaking about how great you thought Adidas were, and worse than that, how one day you’d outgrow Puma and end up working for their far superior Teutonic brothers, you’d have no complaints about getting Das Boot.

Calderwood has been around the block enough times to be fully aware of the relationship between Aberdeen and Rangers. He knew the history, he knew the rules. But Jimmy, being the cantankerous bugger that he is, decided he wasn’t going to stick to the script.  From the beginning of his tenure he took every opportunity to remind the Dons support that he was very firmly a Rangers Man. After-match interviews against Rangers were littered with purring references to “Wee Naisy” and “Big Lee”. We were even regaled with tales of how his old dad wouldn’t be able show his face at the bowling club if Aberdeen stopped Rangers winning the league. And so it went, on and on and on.

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When things were going well at Pittodrie, the success-starved support just had to ignore the continual reminders of Jimmy’s allegiances. Anything else would have made us look petty and narrow minded. However, as the years wore on and the legitimate on-field concerns mounted, the irritation became a major annoyance.

We all got it. Everyone knew. So why did he have to keep reminding us? Based on the recent interview with the BBC, Calderwood claims that he was previously anointed as future Rangers manager by David Murray before he joined Dunfermline. Having served what he thought was a successful apprenticeship by leading The Pars to the Scottish Cup Final and subsequently into Europe for the first time in 35 years, he expected the call from Ibrox to come. It never did. So the constant mentions of Rangers in the press may have been a public reminder to Murray of the job he was doing in the North. Regardless of the intent, the effect was marked, there is only so long that type of behaviour will be tolerated even by the most un-partisan of fans.

Regardless of his reasons for constantly harping on, it perfectly illustrates Jimmy’s stunning lack of self-awareness. This was again all too evident in the recent BBC interview. The interviewer posed the question that given a succession of acrimonious departures from Aberdeen, Kilmarnock and Ross County, had Jimmy reflected that his behaviour may have played a part? This led to an audible pause from Jimmy. For those brief seconds, I genuinely thought the planets might be aligning and Jimmy was on the verge of stunning us with some humility and insight.  The question was the perfect opportunity for him to take some of the blame, admit he’d learnt from his mistakes and extend the olive branch to Scottish football’s chairmen. Alas, the pause ended and gallus Jim nonchalantly declared he couldn’t take the blame for any of it. Classic Jimmy.

So there you have it. 3 very good reasons why it was the right decision for Calderwood to leave the club when he did, regardless of what was to follow under McGhee. So Jimmy, if you’re looking in, print this article off, laminate it and stick it in your wallet. Then the next time you’re left in a quandary about how it came to this, have a wee look, think again and move on…