The pictures on the corridor walls seem to have haunted him for the past five years. He couldn’t escape them and they’re now etched on the corridors of his mind. Now he has been relieved of his duties, he may also be relieved of the images of his boss as a young man holding aloft trophy after trophy on behalf of Aberdeen Football Club. It may soon dawn on Jimmy Calderwood that those pictures of glory upon glory are merely fond reminders of a time when Aberdeen bucked the trend of their existence and rose above the giants of the game, and not what the supporters of the club expect year in, year out.
But then again, it may not. Any epiphany of that sort would lead to that rarest of things in Scottish Football: Jimmy Calderwood admitting he got it wrong. And that is one of the reasons why Aberdeen fans have never taken to him. There is not an Aberdeen fan alive who does not appreciate the job Calderwood has done in finally getting the club up off its knees after a decade of humiliation and ineptitude. However, there is also not a Dons fan alive who will ever appreciate their club’s manager telling anyone who will listen that their expectations are too high when all they expect is a team they are happy to call their own with the occasional bit of success along the way.
In the myopic backwater that is Scottish Football, Aberdeen fans are condescended at every given turn when mumping and moaning about their manager. Earlier this season, the insufferable Hugh Keevins of the equally insufferable Daily Record claimed Aberdeen supporters were intolerant of Calderwood because he was from Glasgow. It’s a fair point. Oh, how they danced down Union Street when that pesky Glaswegian Alex Ferguson departed for Old Trafford. Thank goodness he also took Jim Leighton with him. It’s just a shame he didn’t bother to take Miller and McLeish as well. Thankfully, Mark McGhee had left two years earlier.
This, of course, is as far from the truth as could be. Calderwood came to Pittodrie with a reputation as a manager with heavy emphasis on attacking. This appears to have been lost on the road up from Dunfermline. Only Alex Miller has served up performances and tactics more sterile and mind-numbingly boring than Calderwood’s. He also had the unfortunate trait of throwing mud at his own players, while apparently being in awe of the opposition’s stars. Gushing praise of “Big Kris (Boyd)” or “Wee Scotty (Brown)” is in stark and frankly sickening contrast to the contempt he holds for his own. Andrew Considine has been so regularly verbally slaughtered in public it is a surprise he hasn’t cut off his ears. Considine’s confidence is shot. A potentially good player is now looking a nervous wreck.
Amongst the awful soundbites, the terrible tactics and the self-absolving of any blame when things go wrong, there were some terrific moments under his stewardship. Qualifying for Europe and beating Copenhagen 4-0 and then pushing the star studded Bayern Munich all the way in a 2-2 draw on Valentine’s Day ‘08 saw a lot of love come from the Pittodrie stands for Calderwood and his charges. There was also his fantastic record of only losing one league game to Rangers at home in five years and some relatively big and successful signings in Noel Whelan (falls into the 'big' section, rather than successful), Scott Severin, Jamie Smith, Barry Nicholson, Mark Kerr and Sone Aluko.
The disappointing B-side that only the real fans will remember is somewhat depressing, however. Signing players such as Derek Young – a player the fans were positively delighted about leaving some years earlier – and the only comment you can give regarding their potential worth is that they’re “good to have around the place” is largely disconcerting, if not utterly galling. Calderwood was never slow in reminding people that money has been tight. It is tight, in comparison to Celtic and Rangers. But he still had the fourth largest budget of all teams in the country, and yet, in five years has failed to even enter a cup final. He lost to Queen’s Park, Queen of the South and Dunfermline, been utterly battered by Dundee United (twice) and Hibs, all in the cups. And as he walks away, he must surely be aware that this has been his ultimate downfall, not those unrealistic expectations of the people who paid his wages and at one point, sang his name.
He always saw Aberdeen as a stepping stone to a bigger pay-cheque down south. I am loathe to say “stepping stone to something greater” because there are Premiership clubs who will never have Aberdeen’s history. Burnley opted to hire Owen Coyle as their manager ahead of Calderwood. Coyle is an articulate and enthusiastic manager; he also sticks up for his players (see also: Ferguson, Sir Alex). When he was hired by Burnley he was in the Scottish First Division, a full league below Calderwood, and yet the Aberdeen manager wasn’t even interviewed for the position. Calderwood has always hinted at moving to the English second tier, and yet a man with a fraction of his experience is preferred on this occasion. There can only be one reason for that: public perception.
And now we come to the end. The horrible hotch-potch Calderwood called his first team at Aberdeen qualified for a Europa League place on the last day largely due to being slightly better than Dundee United after the split, but the shameful antics of first team players during the week were indicative of Calderwood’s reign. Mark Kerr – one of the few stand-outs in a hugely unremarkable season – managed to get himself hospitalised on a night out during the week. Five days before his club’s biggest game of the season. The whole squad was out. If Calderwood sanctioned this, he’s an idiot. If he didn’t know it was happening, he’s an idiot as it was one of his players’ stag nights.
So it turns out that the club blinked first. Jimmy is always sitting with a Jack and Seven of Diamonds. With Calderwood, Aberdeen could always be assured of a safe hand. Top Six in the league – a false glory Calderwood has indulged as his annual cup failings have metaphorically dug his grave – had been proved to be guaranteed under his tenure, as was challenging, to some level at least, for Europe. But if the game between board of directors and manager was Blackjack, and Willie Miller and Stewart Milne were staring at cards worth 17, they had to twist. They did, and the house won.