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Aberdeen FC

Jimmy Calderwood 20 years on: Darren Mackie believes ex-Aberdeen boss saved his Pittodrie career

On the 20th anniversary of Calderwood's appointment at Aberdeen, former Dons striker Mackie reveals how he feared his time at Pittodrie was at an end before his new manager's arrival.
Paul Third
Darren Mackie and Jimmy Calderwood.
Darren Mackie and Jimmy Calderwood. Image: Mhorvan Park/DC Thomson

Darren Mackie had resigned himself to the exit door prior to Jimmy Calderwood’s arrival at Aberdeen.

The former Don, who came through the youth ranks at Pittodrie, made 18 appearances for the club in the 2003-04 campaign, but started only five of them.

He was sent on loan to Caley Thistle in the second half of the campaign but was restricted to six appearances as injury cut his spell in the Highlands short.

Having returned to Pittodrie the striker was facing an uncertain future under then manager Steve Paterson.

Mackie doubted he had a future with the Dons but the club’s decision to replace Paterson in the Pittodrie dugout with Jimmy Calderwood in 2004 became Mackie’s own sliding doors moment.

He said: “Before Jimmy arrived I honestly thought I was heading out the door. His arrival revived my Aberdeen career.

“He gave me a chance, told me he fully believed in me, and he was a great manager to play for. I loved every minute of playing for him.

“He came in, sat down and said ‘I think you are a really good player but you’ve not shown it enough. I want you to knuckle down, work hard in pre-season and we’ll go from there.’

“We seemed to click right from the start. I liked the way he worked, liked him and Jimmy Nicholl, and it was a good vibe. His arrival seemed to kick me back into life at Aberdeen.”

The history books show Calderwood got the best out of the pacy Dons striker as 42 of Mackie’s 68 goals for the Dons came in his career under the Glaswegian.

His first season was the best of his Dons career too as Mackie scored 15 goals to end the campaign as the club’s leading scorer.

Mackie believes his renaissance under Calderwood was due to his willingness to perform whatever role was required by his manager.

He said: “A lot of the time I was brought in to do a job for him and I was often out on the wing. I wasn’t always played up front, I played a lot of my time under him out wide and I loved it.

“I would have run through a brick wall for him.”

Calderwood’s infamous pre-season training regime

Darren Mackie after signing a two-year extension in 2007.
Darren Mackie after signing a two-year extension in 2007. Image: DC Thomson

Calderwood’s energy-sapping pre-season training programmes were a big reason for the club’s rise back to respectability.

They were anything but enjoyable but reflecting on those punishing summer sessions, often in the most testing of conditions, Mackie believes there may have been methods in the madness.

Two pre-season trips come to mind immediately, the summer of 2006 in South Africa followed by the searing heat of Egypt a year later.

He said: “We were really fit. Pre-seasons were tough but we went into the season flying and if you look back the number of games we won with late goals was because of that.

“We did that pre-season in South Africa and training over there was unreal due to the altitude and the heat over there.

“We came back absolutely flying but I remember how punishing it was.

“He told us to go and run a lap to warm-up and we did half a lap and couldn’t breathe. We were dying.

“As soon as we finished the warm-up he had us running from the 18-yard line to the halfway line with a five second rest.

“We did 30 of them and I honestly couldn’t get a breath.”

Darren Mackie celebrates scoring against St Mirren in 2006.
Darren Mackie celebrates scoring against St Mirren in 2006. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

Altitude was not an issue in Egypt but for the coaching staff the country presented another insurmountable, but amusing obstacle.

Mackie said: “The heat in Egypt was brutal and of course it was a dry country on top of that so the coaches were not happy as they couldn’t have a drink and relax afterwards.

“I think it was after day two the gaffer was saying ‘we won’t be coming back here.

“It’s too hot for training and we can’t get a drink at night. We’ll enjoy it this year then we won’t come back.’”

‘He’d walk into the changing room a deep shade of mahogany’

Calderwood worked his players hard, but he loved to have fun in his work too and was a big believer of a strong team ethic on and off the pitch.

The first day of pre-season would be one of the lighter, most enjoyable days of the campaign for the playing squad due to the manager’s famous penchant for a sun-tan.

Mackie recalls: “The conversation was the same on the first day of pre-season every summer: ‘Have you seen the gaffer yet?’ and then he’d walk into the changing room a deep shade of mahogany.

“It was brilliant.

“Jimmy Nic would set the sun lounger up in the morning and move it the whole day during the time of the sun.

“He used to joke the gaffer taped his ears forward to make sure he managed to tan every part of himself.

“He was good fun, he loved to have a laugh and joke with the boys but we all knew where the line was.

“It was clear when it was time to knuckle down and work, and the boys really responded to it.

“Right about now it would be a case of everyone counting down the days to Magaluf. He’d come into the dressing room and say ‘Daz, how many days? Get it up on the board, let’s go.’

“We were still fighting to get into Europe and focused on that but he was a big believer in the importance of enjoying our time together too off the pitch.

“It is the days I look back on as being the happiest during my time at Aberdeen.”

Mackie’s million pound goal

Mackie was able to repay Calderwood’s faith in him with arguably the most important goal of his career, the diving header in Dnipro which ensured his club qualified for the group stages of the UEFA Cup in 2007.

The elation at scoring lasted all of 30 seconds before the need to get back into position and withstand a barrage of pressure from the home side had to be endured until the end of the 1-1 draw.

Dubbed the million pound goal, Mackie’s header was the defining moment of his Aberdeen career, but his joy was tempered slightly by missing the chance to enjoy the fruits of his labours in the group stage games against Lokomotiv Moscow, Copenhagen and Atletico Madrid due to injury.

He said: “We had good quality players all over the pitch and what a season that was. The nights we had were amazing and my only regret is missing the group stage games because I was injured.

“I didn’t play any of the Uefa Cup games but thankfully I managed to get back for the Bayern Munich games in the knockout phase.

“To this day, playing over there in that stadium is the highlight.”

Domestic cup struggles cost Calderwood

If Europe was the highlight of the Calderwood era then the domestic cup competitions were the low points.

The 4-3 defeat to Queen of the South in the 2008 Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden in particular was a crushing blow for Calderwood and one Mackie believes signalled the beginning of the end for the manager, who would leave the club 13 months later.

The departing manager broke the news to his players after guiding them to Europe again on the final day of the 2008-09 campaign.

Aberdeen trio Andrew Considine (left), Derek Young and Zander Diamond (right) watch the celebrations of the Queen of the South players following the Scottish Cup final defeat in 2008.
Aberdeen trio Andrew Considine (left), Derek Young and Zander Diamond (right) watch the celebrations of the Queen of the South players following the Scottish Cup final defeat in 2008. Image: SNS

Mackie said: “We didn’t have any idea. It was only after the game back in the changing room and the chat was about the gaffer having gone. We were all stunned.

“It was surreal and I think we were all shellshocked a little bit.

“In typical Jimmy fashion he got us into Europe and left on a high.

“I think the Queen of the South cup semi-final the previous season had planted a seed. Had we won that game I think Jimmy would have stayed.

“I truly believe we would have gone on to win the Scottish Cup in the final as Rangers were dead on their feet by the time the final came round but it wasn’t to be.

“If you look back, I think if the club used the money spent to get rid of Jimmy and take in Mark McGhee and let him use it to invest in the team we would have kicked on again but obviously hindsight is a wonderful thing.”

Mackie’s sympathy for former manager’s health issues

The Calderwood of Pittodrie was a force of nature, a larger than life character who created a team in his own image.

Following his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2017, the former Dons boss’ health has deteriorated.

Mackie, who has experienced the devastating effect of dementia in his own family, has huge sympathy for his former manager and the Calderwood family.

The 42-year-old said: “It’s sad to hear what he is going through now. I lost my gran to dementia so I can imagine how it is affecting those closest to him.

“It’s a shame it is happening. Everyone goes through something don’t they but it feels such a shame given how much Jimmy was the life and soul of the room.”

Read more from our series on former Aberdeen FC manager Jimmy Calderwood: