NO jaws will drop at the news that none of the players who will start against Rangers at Pittodrie today are included in “Willie Miller’s Aberdeen Dream Team”. The current crop in red-and-white fall some way short of deserving a mention alongside the greatest to have pulled on the colours. It goes without saying that none are fit to lace the boots of Miller himself, their greatest player, current director of football development, and an occasional author on the club, whose latest book recently landed on the shelves.
Miller’s stature and longevity at Aberdeen – he has been there in various roles over the past four decades – meant his credentials were peerless when it came to assembling a book about their 11 greatest players. He is equally authoritative on their managers – having played under eight of them – been one himself, and overseen four more since returning to the club as a director in 2004. Frankly, it looked as if the head count might roll on to one more a few weeks ago when things were looking sticky for Craig Brown.
Miller has always supported chairman Stewart Milne’s belief that a struggling manager should be shown patience and support until his position becomes untenable. Eventually time was up for Ebbe Skovdahl, Steve Paterson, Jimmy Calderwood and Mark McGhee, their most recent quartet, and Brown was vulnerable when they won only two of the season’s first 11 games. Among those fixtures was the club’s customary humiliation against a lower league opponent in one of the knock-out tournaments, this time a home defeat by East Fife on penalties in the Scottish Communities League Cup.
Brown was wobbling. Criticism grew and there was the faint sound of knives being sharpened around a club which often seems to exist under its own permanent raincloud. “At a place like Aberdeen, being a top team in the public eye, if things are going badly you will get the kind of media coverage that you don’t want,” said Miller. “But it’s a fact of life that it comes at you and it comes pretty viciously.
“You have to stick together at those times and we’ve always done that. Sometimes it’s worked and sometimes it hasn’t. We try to give a manager as much time and support as we possibly can but every manager has to get results. If they don’t, the pressure builds up. If they do get results, hey, everything’s wonderful, it’s rosy in the garden and everyone is smiling. That result and performance made everyone feel good.”
The result and performance Miller was referring to came one unpromising Friday night at the end of September. Aberdeen – demoralised, beaten by East Fife and then Motherwell, unable to score a league goal to save themselves, looking like they were marching another manager to the gallows – suddenly let rip on Dunfermline. A 4-0 win let some light in and then Dundee United were dealt with, 3-1. Defeat at Parkhead last weekend did not damage the sense of momentum given that the score was only 2-1. Last year it was 9-0.
Beating Dunfermline and Dundee United and doing quite well against Celtic is no cause for an open-top bus through the city, but the impact on Aberdeen has been significant. It feels as though a corner has been turned. Miller is not the only one who sees an encouraging mix of youth, experience, height and strength.
Close season signings Kari Arneson and Isaac Osbourne have added presence in midfield alongside Rob Milson and Fraser Fyvie. Youl Mawene seems to have helped Andrew Considine improve in central defence. Rory Fallon has been added as another six-foot-plus striker alongside Scott Vernon. Richard Foster and Ryan Jack (the latter absent today through suspension) have athleticism and energy at full-back. David Gonzalez, on loan from Manchester City, has been pretty reliable in goal. Collectively they have steered Brown away from trouble. “That’s taken pressure of everybody at the club,” added Miller. “And I do mean everybody. When things don’t go well at Aberdeen even the cleaners’ pals are saying to them ‘what are you cleaning at that club for, they’re hopeless’. That’s what it’s like: it affects things all the way down. The same at academy level: you’re trying to convince kids from the central belt to come to Aberdeen and, if the first team’s not doing well, that job’s even more difficult.
“The first team is the flagship, it sets the scene for the whole club. The results and performances of late have been very encouraging and very refreshing.
“There was a fair bit of heat coming at them [Brown and his assistant, Archie Knox]. There was a build of pressure before the East Fife game and obviously after it. That’s when you needed calmness and composure rather than reacting to some of the things that can come at you and which make headlines. Craig and Archie can handle that. They have a huge amount of experience. Craig handled it well, got himself over that pressure and he’s put together some good results and given us something to build from.”
Miller, for what it’s worth, would not comment upon McGhee’s criticisms of the club this week. The pair are still friends.
Celtic won narrowly at Pittodrie and East Fife did so on penalties, but otherwise Aberdeen have been strong at home, winning four and drawing two. Attendances have been poor, though. Even when Celtic were at Pittodrie, the crowd was below 12,500. Does Miller fear that many have been lost for good, broken by too many years of mediocrity? “If we give them a winning team they’ll come back. I’ve heard it over the years, fans saying, ‘I’m never going back’ but they do come back. And the reason they come back is because you get a winning team on the park. If we start getting back up the table I’m sure the Aberdeen fans will come back.”
Up to 16,000 are expected for today’s lunchtime kick-off. The fixture is no longer the epic clash it was in Miller’s heyday as a player, but it still creates a stir around the north-east.
“Games against the Old Firm take care of themselves in terms of motivation. We’ve done okay against Rangers up here, especially considering the number of times we’ve been turned over by Celtic has been shocking. They’re the ones where we’ve been concerned about how the final score could end up, as we saw last season at Parkhead. But there is an extra edge to these games against Rangers and rightly so, because you’re playing against the top team in the land just now. It’ll be a great atmosphere. The Aberdeen fans love it.”