IT was the worst result Pittodrie had witnessed in European football.
A 90-minute car crash. Five years ago this month - a year for every goal the opposition scored - Aberdeen collapsed like a house of cards in the Europa League. Sigma Olomouc ran up a 5-1 win in the first leg and then administered another going over in the return game in the Czech Republic. By the time the horror show was over the aggregate score was a gruesome 8-1. After a long, long wait Aberdeen are back in Uefa competition tonight, with the chance to start rebuilding their European reputation, or at least exorcise the horrors of what happened the last time they faced a foreign side.
FK Daugava from Riga, Latvia, have never played in Europe before. There was a time when Aberdeen - and a few other Scottish clubs - would have taken that as a sign they effectively had been handed a bye into the next round. Not any more. Sigma Olomouc were no footballing aristocracy in 2009 (they are now a second division side) and the list of clubs to have recently embarrassed Scottish teams with early European knockouts reads like a grim litany: BK Hacken (Dunfermline), Nordsjaelland (Queen of the South), Vaduz (Falkirk), Slask Wroclaw (Dundee United), Minsk (St Johnstone), to name a few.
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The common denominator in these and other demoralising results has been the Scottish teams being thrown into competitive games in midsummer when they are physically unready. Tonight, July 3, is Aberdeen's earliest ever starting date in 29 European campaigns dating back to 1967. Only 53 days have elapsed since their final game of last season. A crowd of around 13,000 is expected at Pittodrie to see how rested, fresh and ready they look to go again.
Manager Derek McInnes tasted European football as a Rangers player but will tonight make his debut as a manager in continental competition. He was untroubled, yesterday, by the broader responsibility of flying the flag for all Scotland. "We're trying to make our mark on the completion," he said. "We are representing ourselves first and foremost and we want to do well because we haven't been in Europe for a few years. But we're representing the country as well. We want to make it a good experience. I want my players to test themselves. I think we'll be competitive, as we were last year. Last year we were still in the fight in all three [domestic] competitions until very late. I always think we will be competitive enough again. I am confident we are good enough to do well in Europe and the biggest thing against us, and all Scottish teams in recent years, is the advantage most other countries have against us in terms of the early starts. Our clubs haven't always been up to speed. That is an issue but we want to make sure it's not a factor we are discussing after this round. We don't want to have any excuses.
"We know our game awareness will probably be better in a dozen games' time. That's a fact. But in terms of general fitness, and how we want to play, and handling the ball and looking after the ball, I don't see that being a problem right now. We've had enough football work sandwiched between our fitness work. It's just the game awareness and decision-making that can sometimes play a factor at this stage in the season."
FK Daugava qualified for Europe for finishing fourth in the 2013 Latvian championship. After 19 games of the 2014 competition they are seventh. McInnes's reconnaissance has confirmed that they are a side which likes to control possession. Still, Paul Sheerin, the most recent addition to his backroom staff, watched them lose 5-1 at Skonto Riga last Thursday. Aberdeen should - should! - be strong enough.
McInnes has enjoyed this new aspect of management. "When you go to games and you see other managers in European competition there is a wee bit of you that thinks 'I want to experience that'. I'm looking forward to it. I actually quite like the fact that we've had to work really hard to get familiar with the team we're playing against. That's challenging. It's good to play against a team with a different style, with a foreign referee, stuff like that, everything comes into it. I enjoyed that as a player and I just want to enjoy it as a manager, but I'll only really enjoy it if we win it.
"This will be a big deal for Daugava too. They'll come here and they'll enjoy playing in our stadium, on our pitch. They play a lot of games on Astroturf over there, even some of their home games at different times this season, so I think they will be wanting to make their mark on the tournament as well. Any team, regardless of where they're from, have obviously qualified for Europe after a good season so they will have confidence. But if we play the way we can we will cause this team problems."
Only Jamie Langfield and Andrew Considine survive at Aberdeen from the team routed by Sigma Olomouc. For the club as a whole a scar remains, but a positive result tonight would begin the European healing process.