DEREK McInnes has a solution for Scottish football’s European woes. It’s simple enough, one which when said aloud is pretty obvious, and it’s an idea by Jove that just might work.
The Aberdeen manager’s cunning (or evil) plan is to keep his players working right through the summer. No break, no rest, just more training from the Monday after the season’s final match until it all begins again a few weeks later. Maybe then our teams’ record in the Europa League especially – we can leave Celtic out of this for now – would not be a stain on our national game.
McInnes was, of course, not being entirely serious but when every summer is the same – Aberdeen’s 1-1 home draw with Siroki Brijeg of Bosnia was a big upgrade on Rangers and St Johnstone – then some left-field thinking would not go amiss.
He has not written off his side’s chances of getting through this round, but Siroki will strongly fancy their chances on Thursday at their own place. If the Bosnian cup winners prevail, that is three down from three before The Open finishes.
“I understand why people look at us in the context of Scottish football as a whole,” said McInnes. “But just because other clubs didn’t get through it doesn’t mean we should have to take responsibility for that.
“We put pressure on ourselves because of the size of the club and what we want to achieve in the competition. But it’s a tough call for me because we gave the players three-and-a-half weeks off, but the only real way you can be properly ready for this competition is if you don’t stop at all. If you don’t have a break and train through, you’d be ready – but that’s it.
“We have come back early and prepared well, using more days than we have in the past because we’ve gone into the second round this year. In the past we have used the first round to prepare us for this round so we had a big call to make. We sat down as a staff and discussed it. We went that extra week to the cup final but we didn’t give them the extra two weeks off, we had to balance it between de-training, switching off and being ready for this tie.
“We have different players at different levels, the lads who have come up from England have had seven weeks off so it’s difficult to expect them to be fired up and ready. That’s the reality of being in this competition. It’s very hard to manage your squad, get everyone in condition and be ready to face quality opposition.
“It’s a difficult call to make as a manager because you can see the players are flat out at the end of the season but you can’t send them away for a long break to recharge.”
McInnes was keen to stress he wasn’t looking for excuses. These are the reasons why his side and the rest find it difficult. Although it has to be noted that not every foreign club to beat one of ours has been into their own domestic season at the time.
“Could you just train right through? I don’t think you could, it would be far too much,” said McInnes. “What we have asked them to do is stop training for two weeks, just do little bits that we give them to prepare them for coming back, and then get back into it again.
“The players were great, they were all ahead of where we expected them to be in their tests. We then have to fire them up to be ready and I think that we will be better next week.”
There was little to choose between the sides at Pittodrie. Aberdeen started well, scored a goal and put together some decent moves before their visitors, once used to the surroundings, got the ball wide which caused too many problems. When the equaliser came it was not a shock.
“Siroki grew in confidence as the game wore on and I think we played into their hands a bit in the first leg,” admitted McInnes. “Tactically they set up well, they used a similar shape to what we have used ourselves on the road.
“We caused them problems so we have to hang on to that and I know we will improve. The performance from us wasn’t what we wanted it to be, I don’t think we had the level of control we were looking for. But one thing we have noticed in the past is that you can expect significant improvement from the first game to the second game. We have made big strides from the first match to the second in the competition in the last few years.”
But as with Rangers, who lost to the fourth best – what a boast – team in Luxembourg, Siroki finished seventh and can hardly be classed as a big team in what is hardly a big league.
“Although Brijeg finished seventh they have changed a lot from last season,” said McInnes. “They have brought new players in and added to their squad. I knew from watching them in the last round they are a good side. Tactically they are very astute, their manager knows what he’s doing and so do his players.
“They were good at Pittodrie, they grew as the game went on but we played a part in that. We need to make better decisions and have better energy, then I still feel they haven’t seen the best of us.
“We want to get to the group stages – that would feel like winning it. Financially and from a prestige point of view, it’s where we would like to be.”