European football has become a staple diet at Pittodrie over the last five seasons. Derek McInnes wants to ensure it remains on the menu.
Aberdeen have qualified for continental competition ever since McInnes’ first full season in charge – 2013-14 – and have got there thanks to their consistent league finishes.
This year has been slightly more challenging for the Dons manager, given today’s opponents Kilmarnock and their resurgence under Steve Clarke, as well as competition from Rangers, Hibernian and Hearts.
All four of those sides will have to be muscled out of the way to make sure that European run extends into a sixth season.
McInnes said: “We’ve been in a position in past seasons where they’ve tailed off, as we’ve secured Europe and second spot. Last season it couldn’t and this season is going to be something similar. We’ve got work to do. Hibs, Hearts and Kilmarnock will be fighting for that, because they’ve not had regular European football over the last wee while.
“We’ve got to demonstrate how important it is to us. Just because we’ve had it, doesn’t mean it’s less special. We’ve got a tough run of games but we’ve got a good record at Kilmarnock. We recognise it’s a tough game but it’s important they see it as a tough game as well.
“The split helps. It brings a bit of drama and brings head-to-heads together. There’s a lot of them at the bottom and the top to sort stuff out.”
Clarke has transformed Killie from perennial relegation-battlers to genuine European contenders in less than two seasons, which has unsurprisingly made him a leading contender for a number of managerial vacancies. The Scotland job, from which Alex McLeish was removed on Thursday, is just the latest.
McInnes said: “Steve’s done a brilliant job. It’s been well-recognised – a lot of managers can do a good job for a few months but to sustain it is more of a challenge. He’s raised the standards at Kilmarnock and they’re in a strong position to qualify for Europe. It’s testament to the work there and it’s no surprise he’s linked to potential jobs in the future. He’s done fantastic and I’m sure he’ll leave Kilmarnock, whenever he does, in a better place.”
Aberdeen will go to Kilmarnock with a stretched squad, with Shay Logan, Gary Mackay-Steven, Tommie Hoban and Niall McGinn out injured, while Lewis Ferguson suspended. Graeme Shinnie, however, returns from his ban.
On McGinn’s injury, which happened a day before the Scottish Cup semi-final, McInnes said: “It happened 90 seconds before we named the team on Saturday. His ankle went from under him. He blocked a shot and it was just the way he landed. It was so innocuous, as most of these things normally are.
“He was due to play on Sunday so there was an adjustment there to be made. We were a very young team and we could have done with his experience. It’s just one of those things. I’m gutted for Niall because he was in good form and wanted to finish the season strong with us. He’s got a couple of important games with his country he’ll miss as well.”
McGinn saw a specialist on Thursday to assess potential ankle ligament damage and faces a race to be fit for pre-season.