Derek McInnes reckons it’s a step too far to describe Aberdeen’s Scottish Cup clash at Kilmarnock tonight as season-defining.
But the Dons boss fully understands why some pundits and many of his club’s fans see it that way.
McInnes has often made it clear that, given how hard it is to compete for the Premiership title, cup competitions are where his side can make an impact – which points to a tense quarter-final replay at Rugby Park.
The Ayrshire outfit’s stock has risen dramatically since Steve Clarke came in as boss five months ago and established themselves as difficult to beat on their own patch while the Reds have faltered in recent weeks, losing to Hibs and Celtic and drawing with Killie in the cup and with Partick Thistle at the weekend.
And, as they sit five points behind second-placed Rangers and are 14 adrift of leaders Celtic in the Premiership, BBC Scotland pundits Steven Thompson and Michael Stewart are among those who believe defeat for Dons would see their season over.
McInnes said: “I understand that. There is still a lot to play for in the league but I would say the perception from having a good season or a very good season is normally demonstrated through the cups.
“This would be our sixth semi-final in five years if we could get through.
“Sometimes we’ve finished second in the league and haven’t reached a cup final and it hasn’t had the same perception as other seasons because the cups offer so much. It can be the difference between us being very successful or not.
“It gives us momentum as a club and we could all be doing with that at the minute, that feel-good factor that comes with winning games.
“If we can get to the semi-final it could help our league form and help us to keep that focus. Whether it can be called season-defining, that’s a bit of a stretch although I understand the question.”
McInnes admits Kilmarnock’s home form since Clarke’s arrival has been transformational and, despite Dons’ watertight record there in recent years, reckons it will be tougher tonight.
He said: “It is just about getting the job done. We’re up against a very good team, who are in real good form.
“It’s the first Kilmarnock team for as long as I can remember who have been really strong at home.
“I don’t think you can have a successful campaign unless you enjoy playing at home and you get home results. They managed to address that and there’s a real feel-good factor about them, a huge improvement from where they’ve been.
“We’ve got a good record there and against Kilmarnock but they seem to have sorted that out. We go there confident and motivated to take the opportunity.
“We set out to win the competition and nothing’s changed. We’ll need to get close to what we’re capable of to get the job done.”
McInnes was pleased Kenny McLean and Scott McKenna, two of his in-form players, had been selected in Alex McLeish’s Scotland squad for friendlies against Costa Rica and Hungary later this month and praised the influence the midfielder has had on his team.
McLean has remained on loan at Pittodrie since signing for Norwich City in the January window as he hopes his Dons finale after three years at Pittodrie, will be lifting the Scottish Cup in May.
He said: “That has always been the aim, my ambition and that of the manager and club. Everyone wants the last game of the season to be cup final.
“For it to be my last game would be special and that’s what we’re all striving for.
“We have the ambition and the quality to definitely do it this season. We ran Celtic close last season but we came away with nothing; that’s how I look at it. It was great to get there and a good occasion but we didn’t win so that’s it.
“We want to remember the ones we win and that’s why we are determined to get back to Hampden.
“Everyone wants to win and we know we have the squad that can do it. If we are underdogs that suits us. Kilmarnock have been on an excellent run but we have players who can hurt them.”
Meanwhile, McLean revealed he has put his holiday plans on hold as he looks to be part of Alex McLeish’s Scotland squad for the summer trips to Peru and Mexico.
The ex-St Mirren man revealed he had booked a trip to Las Vegas last summer but thought it was set to be cancelled when Gordon Strachan included him in the group of players he gathered for the World Cup qualifier against England at Hampden which ended in a 2-2 draw.
But McLean didn’t make the cut and was able to go through with his holiday plans.
He said: “I haven’t booked anything this time. I’ve been in that position a few times where I’ve booked and international duty has become the priority.
“Last year I was called into the squad but was cut and was able to go to Las Vegas after all. That softened the blow but I think I’ll wait this year.”
McLean featured in the friendly against Holland at Pittodrie late last year under interim gaffer Malky Mackay and believes he has something to offer at international level.
He said: “This is what I wanted, to get in the squad and stay in it.
“I played in the game at Pittodrie and did myself justice and I’ve been performing pretty well in the last couple of months.
“It is a big squad and there will be a lot of players but if I can be involved in the games that would be great.
“It is up to me to go and impress the manager and do all I can to be in his plans for the future.
“To be chosen at this stage is excellent but it is only the beginning of the hard work and it is up to me to keep performing.
“I’m sure the manager will have his way he wants to play and the players he wants to play it, but it is up to me to force my way into his team and into his thinking for future teams, qualifiers and championships.”
McLean will report for pre-season training at Carrow Road towards the end of June.
Meanwhile, Dons gaffer Derek McInnes pointed to young defender Scott McKenna, also included in the Scotland squad, as an example of his fortunes can turn quickly for dedicated players.
He said: “It shows how quickly it can go for a player, especially a younger player who is out of the team and then you get a run in the team and you just get better and better.
“He has played with a real confidence and it shows how quickly you can get yourself noticed.”
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