Bellslea Park, July 9. A midweek trek to Aberdeenshire is as far removed from Hampden as Kilmarnock can get, but Derek McInnes asks them to close their eyes and think of the national stadium.

A challenge, perhaps, in the cramped confines of the away dressing room at Fraserburgh, but a first step in fostering the belief his players will so desperately require this evening. For where else can they realistically match Celtic? The Viaplay Cup holders, and Premiership champions, have the momentum, the best players in the country, and resources their semi-final opponents can only dream of.

But from all his battles with Celtic down the years, primarily as Aberdeen manager, McInnes know an upset is possible. Firstly, however, he requires his team to believe it is possible. “We did say the very first game at Fraserburgh in the group stage to try and see the bigger picture and that Hampden was not as far away as you think, to picture that,” McInnes recalled. The former Aberdeen manager casts his mind back to May 2018 and securing a victory at Celtic Park that guaranteed his team would finish second in the Premiership ahead of Rangers. It was an outlier in meetings between McInnes and Brendan Rodgers, but evidence that it is not beyond him.

 “I was hoping Brendan would keep some for the cup final and he didn’t,” McInnes said. “He put his strongest team out and we had to overcome that. It can be done. You need a lot of things to go right but I sense a positivity about the team, a belief that is definitely going to be needed.”

McInnes has a complicated relationship with Hampden. His Aberdeen were regular visitors to Mount Florida when the medals were being handed out, they just never quite managed to pick up the ones they really wanted. That cherished 2014 League Cup triumph came at Celtic Park, and he’s never really enjoyed the surroundings, even if the occasions remain special.

“I don’t think it is a great venue for managers and coaches once the game starts,” McInnes said. “It feels quite far away. It always feels as though you can influence it less at Hampden than most other grounds. It became a regular occurrence for us at Aberdeen, we were very familiar with the whole set-up and surroundings. I liked the fact that we kept our eye on Hampden all the time.

“As a player, I won a semi-final against Dunfermline at Parkhead, and won a semi-final against Hibs with Dundee United. But I have also lost semi-finals as a player and a manager. Semi-finals are normally fraught, full of tension, people not wanting to make mistakes. I think the games aren’t always a great spectacle with what’s at stake. It is important now we have got to this stage.”

Today will be McInnes’ 10th Hampden outing as a manager, more than enough to have experienced the full, torturous range of emotions that accompany these whirlwhind. Players and managers say these moments tend to whizz past in a flash, offering little opportunity to soak it all up. McInnes is unequivocal, however, that the lows linger with you much longer than the highs, something he is ‘determined’ to alter.

“You feel the enormity of defeats more than you enjoy the highs of winning, and that is something I’d like to change, to be honest,” he said. “The enjoyment has got to be there. I wanted them to enjoy this week, I want them to enjoy Saturday, but we aren’t just going there to enjoy the day. It is about winning, and performing, and bringing the performance that we need to bring. But anytime going forward, and if we get a positive result here, I’m determined to try and enjoy the moment more because you wallow in the defeats and pain. It is so much worse.”

It is not lost on McInnes that few are giving Kilmarnock a chance. Celtic under Ange Postecoglou have motored on to new heights this season, while Killie are still flirting with the Premiership relegation places. They have, however, saved their best form for this competition in knocking out Dundee United and Hearts.

Last weekend, they went to Celtic Park and despite losing by two, gave a relatively creditable account of themselves, at least, compared to the 5-0 trouncing they took at home in August. McInnes feared facing Celtic back-to-back could be psychologically damaging for his players, but he now believes they can take confidence from an improved showing.

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“I thought it wasn’t ideal but I actually feel when we had the game Saturday that the players feel more confident going into this one than they were on Saturday,” he said. “You try and instill the belief in them. It is my job, and it is my staff’s job, to make them tactically ready for the game. Physically ready and ready with the mental side of it.

“Everybody reads about Celtic’s domestic record at home, how strong they’ve been in the cup, how many talent players they have and how good they are going. And if we had had a right sore one on Saturday, it would have been a hard sell for me this week. So we set up in a way and were organised enough to stay in the game and we should have been nil-nil at half-time, and we’ve knocked off. And therein lies the danger, where if you just knock off they have the players to punish you. 

“I have been at Celtic Park as player and manager when your goal is getting peppered and battered and your goalie is pulling off worldies, and it wasn’t that. It was their first shot on target on Saturday they scored. We took a lot of pride in how we played in the first half. And even parts of the second half. But Celtic were the better team, there is no denying that, and they deserved to win. We’ve got to try and find a way for that not to be the case on Saturday.”