Derek McInnes: Is he the right man to take Aberdeen forward?
Derek McInnes has been Aberdeen's longest serving manager in decades. Photo by Ian MacNicol/GettyImages

Should Aberdeen stick with Derek McInnes? On paper, it seems a ridiculous question. Why could Aberdeen fans possibly be unhappy with the current manager? However, that’s very much where things are at. Aberdeen supporters are currently divided on whether the former St Johnstone and Bristol City manager is the man to take the club forward. While McInnes has undoubtedly been a success at the club - and a vast improvement on many if not all recent managers - the doubters do have legitimate cause for concern. Let’s look at both sides of the argument…

Be careful what you wish for?

In the manager’s favour, the statistics are as clear as they are devastating. Derek McInnes has been Aberdeen’s most successful manager of the 21st century, as well as the longest serving and arguably the best since Sir Alex Ferguson. Before McInnes took over in 2013, the club had finished in the bottom six for four consecutive seasons, with a high position of eighth. McInnes has since led the club to one fourth position, one third placed finish, and four runner-up spots. The Dons only silverware since 1990 was won under his stewardship.

So are the unhappy Aberdeen fans guilty of having short memories and not being grateful for what they have? Fans of clubs such as Charlton Athletic may certainly warn against replacing a long-serving manager who has ‘taken the club as far as he can’.

However, if statistics can be used in McInnes’ favour, they can also be used to question him. In Scottish terms, Aberdeen are a big club with a comparatively big budget and a wage bill comfortably ahead of all but Rangers and Celtic. Kilmarnock, who finished above Aberdeen last season, have average crowds well under half of those seen at Pittodrie, and an average wage of less than half of what Aberdeen can offer. While high finishes are of course welcome, finishing above the smaller SPFL clubs should not really be a cause for celebration for a club of this size. It should be an expectation. The transformation brought about at Kilmarnock by Steve Clarke shows how astute management can enable clubs on a limited budget to punch well above their weight. With a much bigger budget, it’s difficult to say McInnes’ Aberdeen have done much more recently than hit par.

Mixed transfer fortunes

The manager’s success in the transfer market has also been mixed at best. While the likes of Shay Logan and Graeme Shinnie soon established themselves as vital cogs in the McInnes machine, others such as Greg Tansey and Stephen Gleeson have troubled the wage bill more than the first XI. For every Adam Rooney there has been a Calvin Zola, for every James Maddison and Max Lowe on loan, a Wes Burns and Chidi Nwakali. In addition, other players deemed not fit for purpose have succeeded spectacularly elsewhere. Granted Sam Cosgrove has proved a success, but what could Lawrence Shankland or a rejuvenated Jayden Stockley do in this team? 

Lack of quality football

Finally, there’s the actual football. More often than not recently, it just hasn’t been good to watch. A team which for the best part of two seasons had relied too heavily on individual moments from the likes of Ryan Christie and Gary Mackay-Steven hits a nadir in early 2019, failing to win at home until April. While Kilmarnock and Rangers visited Pittodrie during this period, Stenhousemuir, Hamilton, St Mirren and Livingston all came away with at least a draw. Most disappointingly for Dons fans, none of them were in any way lucky. All came to defend deep and hit on the break, and all succeeded. With Aberdeen enjoying the vast share of possession but creating very little, opposing managers seemed to have worked out how to play at Pittodrie.

With huge gaps between the defence and the forwards, Aberdeen supporters were treated to long periods of centre-backs swapping passes before finally hoofing an aimless long ball. The introduction of Funso Ojo this term to address this is already starting to pay (qualified) dividends, but doubts over Aberdeen’s ability to break down the ‘lesser’ teams at home remain. Supporters can handle the opposition keeper having a brilliant game, but are less inclined to be forgiving when their team only creates the odd half chance. 

So how to rate McInnes? Perhaps surprisingly given the above criticisms, McInnes remains the right man. Granted the football hasn’t been good recently, but Aberdeen are now in a position where fourth place can be portrayed as a failure. A half-decade of top two finishes and cup final appearances have raised expectations to levels unheard of since the 1990s. That’s surely to McInnes credit, not a stick to beat him with.

Aberdeen have been unlucky to be constantly thwarted for silverware by a frankly superior and vastly richer Celtic side. McInnes has had to compete with Celtic (and now Rangers) on a far inferior relative budget than anything Fergie had to deal with in Scottish football. Consistently losing finals to the same side is frustrating, but the Celtic bench often consists of two or three players bought for several times the value of the entire Aberdeen starting XI.  

McInnes himself seems to be in it for the long haul, and indeed seems aware that his options elsewhere may be limited. While he understandably turned down Sunderland’s approaches two seasons ago (and similarly rejected Rangers), the English lower leagues seem the only option for a move. With Scottish managers nowhere near as fashionable as they were a decade or so ago, a struggling Championship or League One side may be his only viable option. McInnes seems genuinely happy at the club, and Neil Lennon’s tribulations at Bolton may be in his mind when planning his next move (or indeed stay). 

It seems that despite the valid criticisms - and some better football should surely be a priority - McInnes and Aberdeen continue to be a relatively good fit. Both club and manager may privately feel they could maybe do a bit better elsewhere, but will also know they could undoubtedly also do much, much worse. While 'be careful what you wish for' may sound like defeatism, a McInnes-less Aberdeen would be a step into the unknown, and with no guarantee it would be a gamble worth taking.