Football: Aitken's Dons on red alert

Phil Gordon says Aberdeen have familiar faces back to boost ailing fortunes
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Putting your club totally in the red is not something most managers would feel comfortable with, but for Roy Aitken looking back is the only way to get a better view of the future. The Aberdeen manager has restored his side to its all-red strip after several years when splashes of blue across the kit made famous by Alex Ferguson in the 1980s served only to leave Pittodrie fans feeling much the same.

The fact that the change in look was helped along by the former Manchester United and Scotland star Martin Buchan, who became the youngest trophy- winning captain in the Dons' history when he held aloft the Scottish Cup in 1970 at the age of 20, has helped to nurture the feeling that a blast from the past may be just what the club needs.

Having attended to what his players will wear for the Premier League campaign, which starts on Saturday, Aitken has also put three old Aberdeen favourites back inside those shirts. Jim Leighton, Eoin Jess and Gary Smith, all synonymous with more successful Pittodrie eras, have returned to the fold as Aitken strives to make his team what the rest of Scotland expects from Aberdeen: the main challenger to Rangers and Celtic.

While the Old Firm spend the summer with the cheque-book permanently open, Aitken has been one of the few Premier managers able to join in the fun, albeit more modestly. An outlay of pounds 2 million has allowed him to acquire Jess from Coventry, Smith from French club Rennes, Leighton from Hibernian, Mike Newell from Birmingham and Brian O'Neil from Celtic (the most expensive at pounds 750,000).

After last season, when Aberdeen finished a distant sixth, fans looked south at Fergie's success with United and wished for the clock to be turned back. Among their former manager's legacy was three championships and the Cup Winners' Cup in 1983, which gave the city justifiable confidence that it could intrude on the Glasgow monopoly.

As recently as 1991, Aberdeen were within 90 minutes of winning another league title, until Mark Hateley undid them in a classic last-day showdown at Ibrox, but even earning second spot is a hard job now, given the financial muscle the Old Firm have used to widen the gap. Aitken believes the Pittodrie players of old were a better breed, which is why he sought out Leighton, Jess and Smith.

"I don't agree that players should never go back to their old clubs," insists the former Celtic and Scotland captain. "There are certain clubs for certain players, and I feel that although Eoin and Gary did get what they were looking for elsewhere, Aberdeen is good for both of them and they can achieve more here than they maybe did elsewhere."

Jess and Smith shared a frustrating time after leaving Pittodrie in 1996. Coventry's perennial relegation problems left Jess a shadow of the player dubbed the new Kenny Dalglish when he made an outstanding debut for Scotland against Italy in a World Cup tie in 1992, and Smith's experience in France was disrupted by injuries.

Leighton returns to Aberdeen after a nine-year absence and at the peak of his game. Had he not been a free agent, Leighton would have cost more on the transfer market than the pounds 650,000 Ferguson paid Aberdeen in 1988 to take him to Manchester United. The 39-year-old goalkeeper's four years with Hibernian restored his credibility after his Old Trafford misery and helped him to regain his Scotland place.

Aitken has appointed Leighton captain. "Jim's experience makes him the best-equipped for the position. He has 76 caps for his country and is a leader. He's still our international keeper and is playing better now than at any time in the past. He could easily go on, like Dino Zoff and Peter Shilton. Forget his age, Jim is still hungry to achieve things. He has ambitions of going to France next summer for the World Cup finals, and that's the kind of player I need."

However, Aitken is not turning Pittodrie into some kind of football retirement home for old campaigners. Youth is very high on his agenda and, having blooded a batch last season, such as David Rowson, Darren Young, Russell Anderson and Jamie Buchan (son of Martin), he is looking for further progress from the quartet. "This is the strongest squad of players I've had since taking over the Aberdeen job," said Aitken, who brought silverware to the Dons in 1995 with the Coca-Cola Cup.

"I can't hide that last season was disappointing. It was a year of turnover; we moved a lot senior players on but it is in the past and we are approaching this season with a fresh appetite."

Along with Dundee United, the other half of the New Firm which emerged in the 80s to put Glasgow's football nose out of joint, Aberdeen will offer the best threat to Rangers and Celtic when they launch their season on Saturday at home to the Scottish Cup holders Kilmarnock. "We have to have the ambition and hunger," Aitken said. "I believe we've got those qualities and the ability to close the gap."

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