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Paul Third: Continental group stage football so close – now Aberdeen must fight to hold on to stars for European tour

Can the feelgood factor generated by Barry Robson help keep the Dons squad together this summer?

Bojan Miovski celebrates his goal to make it 2-0 against Rangers with his team-mates. Image: Shutterstock.
Bojan Miovski celebrates his goal to make it 2-0 against Rangers with his team-mates. Image: Shutterstock.

Aberdeen fans will be checking their passports are valid as the Dons took a huge step towards European group stage football on Sunday.

The 2-0 win against Rangers at Pittodrie – the club’s seventh straight league win – means Barry Robson has put the Dons firmly on course for a return to Europe after a one-year absence.

The third-placed Dons are five points clear of fourth-placed Hearts, with fifth-placed Hibernian nine points behind Aberdeen.

Leighton Clarkson, centre, after Aberdeen’s win over Rangers on Sunday with fellow loanee Liam Scales, right. Image: SNS

With only five top-six post-split matches now remaining, the games are running out for the chasing pack hoping to reel the resurgent Reds in and, to be blunt, a win or two more will render their pursuit futile.

Scottish Cup of huge interest at Pittodrie

Should the Dons go on to secure third place they will retain a strong interest in what happens in the Scottish Cup final, as the repercussions of the showpiece at Hampden will be of huge significance at Pittodrie.

The pairing of Celtic and Rangers in one cup semi-final ensures the league campaign will be done and dusted before the third-placed Premiership club knows whether they have hit the Euro jackpot.

Should the winners of Saturday’s semi-final between Caley Thistle and Falkirk fail to win the cup then the third-placed Premiership team will be guaranteed European football until Christmas.

In case you don’t know, this is because a place in the play-off round of the Europa League goes to the winners of the Scottish Cup, but, given Celtic will be playing in the group stage of the Champions League and Rangers will enter at the third qualifying round of the competition due to their league finishing positions, a cup win for either will mean the Europa League play-off spot goes to the Premiership’s third-best finishers.

Should this happen and the Dons are that team, losing in the play-off round of the Europa League and failing to make the groups in that competition comes with the safety net of entry into the group stages of the Conference League – with both scenarios looking like they’d be worth around £3 million in prize money alone to the Reds.

Of course, fourth and fifth-placed finishes in the Premiership will also come with European action, but earlier in the qualifying process, with group-stage action harder to attain – as Aberdeen know from years of experience trying to get there.

Robson close to delivering on his task

Dons boss Barry Robson. Image: SNS

Clearly there is much at stake for the teams involved in the fight for third in the Premiership, but, barring a late collapse, Aberdeen are on course to win the race.

That prize was the target Robson was given when he was placed in interim charge following Jim Goodwin’s dismissal in January.

Robson has done so well he was named manager for the rest of the season.

Having turned a team who were on their knees into European contenders has been a major feat in itself.

His continued success on the pitch means a contract is most likely awaiting the formality of his signature so he can take charge on a long-term basis.

Keeping this Dons squad together will be a formidable challenge

With that in the back of his mind, you can be sure Robson is now turning his thoughts to keeping the squad together for a European campaign next season.

The backroom staff of Steve Agnew and recent addition Liam Fox, supported by Scott Anderson, have given Robson a team he knows and trusts behind the scenes.

They are a settled and clearly effective coaching team.

On the pitch it is anything but settled, however.

Look at the starting line-up from Sunday’s 2-0 win against Rangers.

Only six of the players are under contract for next season and there is a huge question mark over one of them given Ross McCrorie is attracting interest from England.

Ross McCrorie is wanted by Bristol City. Image: SNS

Championship side Bristol City are reportedly in talks with the Dons about a summer transfer in the region of £2m for the man who captained the team in the absence of the suspended Graeme Shinnie on Sunday.

Angus MacDonald, who has been outstanding in defence after signing a short-term deal in January, is a free agent in a month’s time.

His experience and composure has been a feature of the defence since his arrival and making an attempt to keep him at the club long-term must surely be a priority.

Mattie Pollock and Liam Scales will return to their parent clubs, too.

Pollock has been terrific and the presence of the Watford man and MacDonald have helped transform Scales into the impressive defender former boss Goodwin raved about when he arrived from Celtic last summer.

Aberdeen’s Angus MacDonald, Mattie Pollock and Liam Scales (L-R) are all due to leave the club this summer. Image: SNS

Goodwin was keen on getting Scales permanently last summer. It would come as no surprise if Robson and the Dons remain interested in making that happen.

If the Hornets can be convinced to send Pollock back north for another season that would be a nice. The big man is clearly loving it up here.

If McCrorie goes, Jonny Hayes, who signed a one-year extension last week, could be the only defender from the weekend still on the books.

There is also the mercurial Leighton Clarkson.

A scorer of spectacular goals, Clarkson has been turned into the creator of the team under Robson and has contributed five assists in his last six games. Aberdeen have won all of them.


He will be in the final year of his contract at Liverpool and, given he ignored interest in Championship teams in his services in January the Dons would have a fight on their hands to bring him back.

It’s a fight worth having, though – with another inevitable battle on the horizon when clubs with big budgets come calling for the services of red-hot strike duo Duk and Bojan Miovski.

Fortunately for Aberdeen, both frontmen are on long-term deals.

The Robson factor will likely be key in Reds holding on to stars

What has been clear for all to see since Robson took charge is the bond between the players and the supporters has been rock solid.

The players, whether under contract, on loan or on a short-term deal, are revelling in the atmosphere being generated.

Provided all goes to plan in the remaining fixtures, that feelgood factor and the prospect of European football – not to mention remaining part of the Robson regime – could prove crucial in the manager’s attempt to keep the band together for next season.

But first things first – let’s get Europe sorted.