Eighteen months after Aberdeen last raided Motherwell for a manager, they’ve decided that one is not fit for the purpose, and have gone back to the same dealers to get a better one.
Eighteen months might not be, in the grand scheme of things, a very long time to give a manager to prove himself, but in this instance the prevailing opinion is that the Aberdeen board showed the patience of saints (or at least, the patience of a board who couldn’t afford a big pay-off) in giving Mark McGhee as long as they did. His stint at Pittodrie was little short of disastrous.
His predecessor Jimmy Calderwood may not have been universally loved but he did at least leave the team in fourth place – which looks a dizzyingly impossible target now. That also qualified them for Europe, which meant McGhee’s first game was a qualifying round tie against little-known Czech side Sigma Olomouc. Aberdeen lost the home leg 5-1, then the away leg 3-0, and that pretty much set the tone for the season. They finished ninth in the league, and continued their rather embarrassing record of losing in the cups to lower league opposition – away to Dundee in one, and home to Raith in the other, after which game McGhee was spat at by a home supporter as he headed for the dressing room.
Quite a few fans would happily have ditched him then and there; instead he was given the summer to reshape the team and have another go. The most high-profile of the new arrivals was Paul Hartley, whose experience, it was hoped, would provide a catalyst for the younger players to step up their performances. Optimism was heightened by an opening day 4-0 win over Hamilton, in which Hartley scored a hat-trick of penalties.
Since then though, and although they won their second game too with a late goal, it’s been mostly dross. Since those first two games they’ve taken only another four points, and the only slight redeeming feature has been an improvement in that cup record – twice this season they’ve found themselves behind, at home, to first division sides in league cup ties; both times they’ve come back to win. It’s given them a semi-final next month, the chance to reach their first final for ten years, maybe even to win their first trophy for fifteen.
The bad news is that the semi-final is against Celtic, who beat them 9-0 in the league a few weeks ago. That intensified the pressure on McGhee, which the cup run had done little to alleviate. Again, some called for his head after that defeat – my own view was that he shouldn’t so much be judged on games at Parkhead as on games like the one a few days later, at home to Inverness. They lost that too. And the next game against Rangers. And the next game against St Johnstone. And the next game against Kilmarnock, taking their losing streak to six on the trot. All in, Aberdeen won thirteen of their fifty-three league games under McGhee’s tenure. For a club that, despite recent belt-tightenings, still has one of the bigger budgets in the league it wasn’t good enough, and his sacking last week was inevitable, making him just the latest in a long line of managers to fail to live up to Alex Ferguson’s impossible legacy.
He leaves under a cloud, and with few mourners. He always seemed a decent and intelligent guy to me, and he’s had some success in his managerial career – it’s only a year or two back he was a serious contender for the Scotland job – but even at his better moments he never seems to have been top of the popularity stakes. If Ferguson is a sort of footballing Margaret Thatcher (he’d love that analogy), adored and destested by many in equal measure, then McGhee is more of a Tony Blair – reviled by his detractors, grudgingly tolerated by his most enthusiastic supporters. Maybe it’s the slightly arrogant, standoffish manner that he seems to project in public; more likely it’s the fact that, when he has been successful, he’s walked out at the first hint of a better offer. Even at Aberdeen, where he achieved his greatest success as a player and ought to have had a more receptive audience, he got off on the wrong foot in his first press conference when he implied that, actually, he’d really rather have had the Celtic job.
Word is that he remains good friends with Motherwell Chairman John Boyle, so it’s possible that Aberdeen’s trade-in may turn out to be exactly that. But in the meantime it’s former Scotland boss Craig Brown, aged 70, and his assistant Archie Knox, a slip of a lad at 63, who are set to take on the mess at Aberdeen.
It’s come as a bit of a surprise, not because he’s not a good candidate, and not because Aberdeen isn’t a bigger club with greater potential (sorry, ‘well fans), but because Brown had apparently turned them down flat on their first approach on Wednesday. Still, gentlemen of the jury will appreciate that when a football manager says no, he does not always mean it, and when Aberdeen’s chairman Stewart Milne made a second approach on Thursday the reception was more positive. What brought about the change of heart isn’t clear – those who know the two say it’s unlikely to be wages, so perhaps they’ve been given a reasonable amount of finance and scope to make changes when the transfer window opens next month.
Boyle is not happy with the way Aberdeen have handled it, and he might have a point, but since neither man was working with a contract – having initially come into to Motherwell as an interim measure following Jim Gannon’s departure last season – there is very little he can do about it. Personally, I’m delighted that Brown has been given the chance at this stage of his career. Some didn’t rate him as highly as I did when he was national manager, and he’d never managed a high profile club before that. It’s taken his spell at Motherwell to remind people that, actually, he’s a very good manager, and I’d love to see him turn Aberdeen round, both for his sake and for theirs.
He’s got his work cut out though. Aberdeen may have more potential in theory, but just at the moment he’s left a club challenging for Europe for one in very poor form and battling against relegation – a fate that the Dons have never yet suffered in their history and certainly no manager will want to be the first to break the duck. All I can say is, good luck Craig.
Follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter here.