By Brian P. Dunleavy
Aberdeen sit nine points clear of Rangers in the battle for second place in the Scottish Premiership, with six matches to be played. Solid position, to be sure. However, all is not well at Pittodrie.
The Dons lost to their rivals—in the standings and in the hearts and minds of supporters—on three late goals (including a brace by the ageless Kenny Miller) in the final quarter-hour of normal time. Shortcomings in the back line were laid bare for all the world—or at least some of Scotland—to see, but that is not all that ails Derek McInnes’ side.
While at the top of the table Celtic have announced a new, four-year contract for manager Brendan Rodgers, who in turn declared his intention to keep the core of the squad intact while adding new talent for next season, Aberdeen have resigned themselves to losing midfielder, and Pittodrie fan favorite, Niall McGinn. McGinn, who was recently recognized for earning his 50th cap for Northern Ireland, has reportedly turned down the club’s offer of a new contract, with an eye toward signing for a club in the English Championship.
We’ll save the it’s-a-black-eye-for-Scottish-football-when-a-player-prefers-the-English-second-division-to-Scotland’s-top-flight hand-wringing for others. But, it is not a good sign for what McInnes is trying to do in the northeast. Yes, ICT midfielder Greg Tansey will be joining the Dons in the summer, but he hardly fills the boots of McGinn. And remember: Jonny Hayes nearly left for Cardiff during the January window.
Will McGinn’s departure spur a mass exodus? Will other dominos fall?
McInnes has reassured supporters that reinforcements are on the way. As he told the Aberdeen Evening Express in March, “It’s the nature of the game that you will lose players you want to keep from time to time, but we will deal with it… I have an obligation to the players who are under contract to us to keep adding to the squad so that they can be part of a successful team.”
It’s worth noting, though, that the manager also acknowledged at the time that the club couldn’t win a bidding war for McGinn with an English Championship side. Add to that the fact that McInnes doesn’t have a training facility with which to entice potential recruits—as plans for a “new” Pittodrie remain stalled—and a pretty dim picture gets painted.
So can Rangers and new manager Pedro Caixinha close the gap? On paper, sure. And McInnes will have to work hard to keep the spirits of his team up in the wake of such a poor performance and dispiriting result, amidst the rumors about the present and future make-up of the squad.
All managers face these challenges, it could be argued, but McInnes and Aberdeen may be living on borrowed time: With the Old Firm back to business as usual, the Dons presence so close to the top of the table may be drawing to a close at season’s end—and with it, a preferred (albeit hardly comfortable) position in Europa League qualification and other spoils. And there’s also the small matter of a Scottish Cup semi-final (against holders Hibs) to contend with.
“We lost the fight today but it’s important we still win the battle for second place, and hopefully get ourselves into a cup final,” McInnes told the BBC on Sunday. “We’ve been on a very good run but that doesn’t give you any guarantees, and it’s a reminder that there is still work to be done. When you lose a game like today and the huge feeling of disappointment, wishing we could play it all over again, we’ve got to channel that the right way. We have plenty to look forward to.”
For now, anyway.