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'You must recognise that fans struggle to control their emotions. We all do at times'

THE electronic gates open smoothly after the housekeeper answers the intercom.

Stewart Milne has never considered walking away from the club, despite all the heartache. Picture: SNS
Stewart Milne has never considered walking away from the club, despite all the heartache. Picture: SNS

A long driveway winds its way up through elegant wooded grounds. The tennis court is over to the left. The indoor swimming pool is up there too. Not too shabby, this. In his home in one of Aberdeen's plush suburbs Stewart Milne comes to the door and leads the way through the stunning hallway to a beautifully equipped library. Tea and refreshments are served. We are here to ask Milne about where it all went wrong.

It will soon be 20 years since he joined the board at Aberdeen. The telephone rang one day and rather than something to do with the construction empire which made him one of Scotland's wealthiest men it was the former Pittodrie chairman Ian Donald asking if he could pay a visit. "I just thought, knowing Ian, he was probably after money for something," he says, teasing his old colleague.

Just three years later he had taken control of the club. So began a unique, polar existence in which Milne became synonymous with success and growth in his business life and malaise and failure at his football club. If his home accurately reflected Aberdeen's past couple of decades it would have a look of faded glamour, with old masterpieces hanging on the walls but a general sense that the place was under a cloud and past its best.

His position fluctuates on the Sunday Times' annual rich list but he is never off it. To the public he is recognised mainly because of football, a role which has brought few respites from criticism and occasionally verbal abuse.

As the unchanging face of Aberdeen while a succession of managers were trumpeted in and jeered out, he often has been a lightning rod for supporters' disappointment and anger. He has been there through all the humiliations: those defeats to Queen's Park, Queen of the South, Raith Rovers, Bohemians and Sigma Olomouc in the cups and Europe; nearly being relegated in 1995; finishing bottom of the league in 2000; countless hammerings from Celtic and Rangers; the 9-0 at Parkhead. Milne has endured enough to fill a trauma ward on his own. "There have been loads of very bleak periods, but there is no way I could have walked away from the club. There's never been a time when I've thought 'I've had enough, I'm packing this in'. But there have been a lot of bleak moments.

"You think things are bad and then something else happens and you think 'f*** me, things can get even worse'. There have been good times, but the trouble is we've never been able to sustain anything."

Supporters can debate which point was ground zero but any vote probably would be won by the 2008 Scottish Cup semi-final. Around 14,000 Aberdeen fans flooded to Hampden expecting victory over First Division Queen of the South. The team collapsed to a 4-3 defeat.

"That was the one. Everyone went down with real expectation and no-one could believe what happened. There have been a few, but that was definitely the worst."

Milne was in his car leaving a game after another dreary result when some fans physically threatened him. His young sons were in the car too. "That was an isolated incident in terms of potential bodily harm," he says, laughing. "There have been lots of occasions when the verbal abuse has been robust. I don't mind that if I'm there on my own. I struggle with it if the family is around because they find it difficult to cope with.

"You always have to keep it in context. It is a relatively small minority who go to that extent. I think if you are going to come in and survive in football you have to accept that that's part of the risk you're taking on.

"You have to understand the passion of the fans and recognise that at times a section of the fans maybe struggle to control their passion. We all do at times."

He can sound gentle and placid in his infrequent media interviews, but that is deceptive. No leading businessman is a pushover. Even his critics acknowledge his toughness.

His personal wealth has reassured the bank even as Aberdeen's debt reached a high of £15m. Why had Aberdeen punched way, way below their weight for 15 years?

"Several reasons," he says, explaining that the club began to turn around a few years ago and now the football side has caught up. "Behind the scenes we are probably one of the best run clubs in Scottish football but that's irrelevant if we're not delivering the part that everyone wants to see happening."

There is a point to all this talk of mediocrity and failure, and it is in the vibrant story which has unfolded at Pittodrie this season and in the last few weeks, in which a cup final was reached and Celtic were beaten twice. There have been a few promising periods in Milne's reign but nothing remotely close to the tantalising point the team has reached under Derek McInnes.

Next weekend there will a breathtaking migration of 40,000 fans to Parkhead following their team to the League Cup final. Club historians reckon it is the biggest travelling support the club has ever seen. They are favourites to beat Inverness and favourites, too, to win the Scottish Cup, although they are far too bruised by history to assume they will easily beat Dumbarton in the quarter-final this afternoon.

Milne is quick to recognise the roles played by Craig Brown and Archie Knox in shaping much of their resurgent squad but no-one is in any doubt that Aberdeen's rise this season has a single architect.

Milne, vice-chairman George Yule, chief executive Duncan Fraser interviewed only one managerial candidate last spring. They met McInnes at Milne's other home, in Gleaneagles, and were instantly in agreement. They had their man.

Milne spoke to McInnes' former chairman at St Johnstone, Geoff Brown, and heard only glowing praise. He called the chairman who sacked him at Bristol City and was told that club was not convinced it had done the right thing.

That bruising period in McInnes' career is now to Aberdeen's advantage. McInnes was hurt and Aberdeen gave him the platform to rebuild his reputation and pride. "Derek saw Aberdeen as a club that he would love to take back to the top end of Scottish football, and more importantly to keep them there," Milne explains. "He doesn't want to be viewed as a one-season wonder. He sees the challenge as being not to deliver success in the first season but to be judged on keeping the club up there for a long period of time.

"That's the approach he's taken with the players he's brought in and with the young ones he's persuaded to sign extended contracts. He's told them that this is the right place to be for the next three, four, five years. The semi-final at Tynecastle was a real show of what is out there."

They took 12,000 to Edinburgh that day. It was precisely the sort of fixture where Aberdeen teams have lost their nerve and folded in previous season. St Johnstone were buried 4-0. "For whatever reason we've failed as a club to generate the hunger and steeliness within our teams over the years.

"We know there will be people hoping we fall flat on our faces. We know how quickly things can turn. You think you've cracked it, everything's going great, and then wham! There's probably still a bit of suspicion among the Aberdeen fans.

"They're long-suffering. They ask themselves if this form can be sustained? But more and more people you speak to are starting to think that yes, this can be real."

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