Kenny Crawford

Terry Nutkins, Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan, hosts of a famous UK animal based TV show (The Really Wild Show) would be proud. Over a diverse managerial career, Mark McGhee has experience of working with Foxes, Wolves, Lions and Seagulls, not to mention Royals and Steel-men. Yet three quarters of the way through a season in which he has witnessed his fair share of Really Wild Shows, the current Aberdeen manager has realised he is now dealing with a different beast altogether.

Since the early 1990s, several men have ventured bravely to the North East of Scotland believing they had the ability to put a leash on The Dons’ plight and guide them back year after year to at least being the recognised third force in the Scottish football hierarchy.

McGhee’s predecessor, Jimmy Calderwood, exerted credible efforts over five seasons, restoring the club’s Premier League and European reputation to some extent. However, despite this, Calderwood never fully won the Aberdeen fans over. Some would say it was because he failed to succeed in what was the club’s most realistic route to silverware – a domestic cup trophy. Others held the opinion that a portion of the Dons’ faithful could not see past the fact that Calderwood was born and brought up in Govan area of Glasgow, home of the team that Aberdeen fans love to hate – Rangers.

Therefore, it seemed a much improved blend of attributes had been achieved when Mark McGhee was appointed in June 2009. Not only had he spent six years with Aberdeen as a goal-getting striker from 1978-1984, but he was part of the famous Dons side that conquered the mighty Real Madrid to lift the 1983 European Cup Winners Cup under Sir Alex Ferguson. Furthermore, off the back of a two season stint at Premier League comrades Motherwell, the new Pittodrie chief had rejuvenated his reputation as a boss. Amongst other praise-worthy aspects of his management style many pundits lauded McGhee’s ability to instil in his team a desire to play attractive and effective football. He had also enjoyed success developing promising young talent into accomplished, sought after individuals (Ross McCormack at Cardiff City, David Clarkson at Bristol City, Chris Porter at Derby County).

So roll on the good times? Well, not quite.

If the esteem in which Aberdeen’s supporters held McGhee was safely in the black on his arrival, the man himself was about to immediately reduce that amount somewhat through a seemingly unnecessary comment relating to the Celtic manager’s job he had missed out on prior to moving north: “On a scale of one to two, I’d put the Celtic job above Aberdeen. I didn’t get the Celtic job though and Aberdeen fans can be absolutely sure that they will get 100% of my efforts.” Now, while sensible Dons fans would have no qualms conceding that Celtic are indeed a bigger club than Aberdeen, it hardly tops the list of what they wanted to hear their new manager say barely a couple of days into his new role.

Nevertheless, focus shifted to the upcoming UEFA Europa League Qualifier against Czech Republic outfit SK Sigma Olomouc at the end of July. After encouraging performances against the likes of FC Copenhagen and Bayern Munich in 2007/08, it was another chance for Aberdeen to compete in an environment they feel their heritage deserves and a much needed opportunity to correct the recent widely held opinion that Scottish clubs in Europe are merely ‘also-rans’.

A humiliating score-line of Aberdeen 1:5 Sigma Olomouc hardly dispelled the stereotype though. Mark McGhee’s first competitive game in charge was indeed a really wild show. Aberdeen were completely inept against unfashionable Eastern European opposition. The stewards’ enquiry highlighted a trio of causes: the Aberdeen players had not been fit enough (it was clear that they were running on empty after an hour of play – it was 1-1 at that point); McGhee picked the wrong team albeit his options were limited through injuries; a distinct lack of new signings – partly due to the collapse of a TV deal with Irish broadcaster Setanta. The return leg saw Sigma Olomouc complete the inevitable with a 3-0 victory, amounting to an aggregate score of 8-1. Aberdeen’s European adventure was over before most other teams’ had started.

Eight points from 15 in the initial stretch of Scottish Premier League fixtures silenced the alarm bells to some extent, but it would not be long before they were sounding again. Really wild show number two came in the early stages of the Scottish League Cup when Aberdeen came up against second tier side Dundee and lost 3-2 after extra time. Again the Dons had hardly got started in a cup competition before they were kicked right back out of it. To make matters worse, this was one of the two domestic trophies that McGhee was expected to make Aberdeen prosper better in.

In fairness to the 52-year-old, compared to some fellow Premier League managers he had been given a pittance to spend on new players and was struggling to bring in anyone who would make a significant improvement to the squad. This resulted in three youngsters in particular being drafted in for a much longer shift than they might have anticipated throughout the campaign. It is safe to say that the emergence of Fraser Fyvie (17), Michael Paton (21) and Peter Pawlett (19) has been the highlight of a turbulent season at Pittodrie and an appreciative nod of acknowledgement should come from the supporters for McGhee’s role in that.

A period from late November to late January saw McGhee achieve four superb results that began to get him back in the good books of those fans who doubted his suitability. A 1-0 home victory versus Rangers is always an excellent idea for Aberdeen managers looking for acceptance. Add to that a 1-0 away win at Tannadice against ‘New Firm’ rivals Dundee United and wait on the embraces. Two further fantastic results against Hearts – one a comfortable home 2-0 triumph in the Scottish FA Cup and the other a 3-0 thumping for the travelling contingent at Tynecastle to savour – meant the prospect of a top four finish coupled with a glorious domestic cup run still remained.

However, a major spanner was about to be thrown into the works: Raith Rovers (of the First Division), were soon to ensure Aberdeen fans were fully topped up with angst towards McGhee as the campaign entered it’s final quarter. At first, the Scottish FA Cup Fifth Round draw away to the second tier side looked straightforward, but in truth Aberdeen were fortunate to leave Kirkcaldy with the chance of a replay after making it 1-1 in the final minute of injury time. As Aberdeen’s equaliser went in it was evident in the faces of the Raith players that they thought they had blown their chance. Even they did not realistically expect a victory at Pittodrie.

However, really wild show number three came at the worst possible time and a pathetic Dons side succumbed to Raith Rovers in a 1-0 defeat. Sections of the home support were clearly irate as McGhee trudged down the sideline towards the tunnel before giving offering the following synopsis: “This is without any shadow of a doubt, the worst result in the 800-odd games I’ve had as manager – and I don’t mean this with any disrespect to Raith Rovers, they firmly deserved their win. This was the worst result of my managerial career and that walk from the dugout to the tunnel was the most humiliating experience of my life. In any circumstance it was awful and I told the players they set me up for that. It is unacceptable.”

Since that horrible night in February, league form has been the only means by which Mark McGhee and his Aberdeen side can salvage their season. It remains far from convincing, with a top half finish possible, but highly unlikely. So he must use these final games to mastermind footballing displays that will appease the Aberdeen supporters and reassure the club’s board members, thereby showing why he should be the man to take them forward.

Mark McGhee will know only too well that being manager of the beast that is Aberdeen will be a thrilling and rewarding experience if he can get it under control. The emphasis is on the ‘if’.


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