x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Al Ahli to gain from Roy Aitken's leadership values

The Scotsman provided strong leadership as a player and then as a coach, and will do the same behind the scenes for Al Ahli.

Roy Aitken has proven his leadership qualities both on and off the pitch during his footballing career.
Roy Aitken has proven his leadership qualities both on and off the pitch during his footballing career.

It is highly unlikely Al Ahli's players know that their director of football, Roy Aitken, enjoyed two very different nicknames during his long career as a player.

The first moniker that he earned as a teenage professional was Shirley, as in Temple, because of his curly locks. The second was Bear, which if you ever saw the Scot play needs no further explanation.

It would be wise of the Dubai club's charges, who will be closely monitored by Aitken over the coming months, to resist calling him by that first nom de plume.

"Feed the Bear" was the cry from Glasgow Celtic fans ever time Aitken gave them cause to cheer him, which in 669 appearances, third top of the club's all-time list, was quite a lot. He was, after all, a big man who certainly looked as if he could eat a centre-forward for breakfast.

If Al Ahli's thought process regarding Aitken returning to the club is to provide the squad with some backbone, then they could hardly have employed a better man.

The lingering image of Robert Sime Aitken, in the minds of those who watched him in his long pomp, is with first pumped, barking orders to his troops. When he charged forward from defence, head down with ball at his feet, the other team got out of his way if they knew what was good for them.

However, it would be wrong to suggest the only thing Al Ahli's players and coaching staff will learn from Aitken is the ability to scare the wits out of opponents, although there were few better at those dark arts.

"If Roy had been playing now, he'd be worth millions," so said Andy Roxburgh, a technical director with Uefa and the Scotland manager when he named Aitken his captain at the 1990 World Cup.

"He played as a centre-half for most of his career, but in all honesty he was a world class defensive midfielder, which weren't common in his day. Now, every team has at least one."

And, yet, there were always some not entirely convinced by a player who made his debut at 17 and was a first-team regular at Celtic Park for 14 years during which time he won six league titles, five Scottish Cups and League Cups.

Two League Cup finals against city rivals Rangers (1984 and 1986) where lost to penalties he conceded, and he was never as dominant in Europe as the domestic scene, however, it would churlish to suggest that he was anything other than a top class footballer who also won more than 50 caps for his country.

"We did a stats test once and found that Roy's stats were miles better than anyone else. He just never gave away the ball, said Craig Brown, who was Roxburgh's assistant with the Scotland national team, before going on to manage the side himself.

"He was a far more skilful and intelligent player than people ever gave him credit for. He could have kept possession all day."

Aitken's peak came in the 1987/88 season, Celtic's centenary. He was captain, and an inspiring one at that, as Celtic won the league and cup double.

"Roy was immense that season," said Billy McNeill, who was the Celtic manager at the time and is top of the club appearance list.

"We won so many matches late on and I'm not sure we would have if he hadn't been there to roar on the boys."

One memorable game was the Scottish Cup semi-final against Heart of Midlothian when, with three minutes remaining, Celtic were a goal down and staring defeat in the face. Paul McStay, the other man who sits above Aitken on that appearance list, spoke about that day in the club's official history DVD. "We managed to equalise late on through Mark McGhee and there were 10 of us on the park who had settled for a replay, and then this voice comes from the back 'come on, we can do it' and we scored in the last minute," he said.

"We would have all just played out the final minute but Roy urged us to attack and dragged us up the park. The man was amazing."

Aitken left Celtic in 1990 and went on to captain Newcastle United in England, and the Scotland sides St Mirren and Aberdeen, who he later managed and led to the 1995 League Cup final, the club's last trophy.

Then England and David O'Leary, who became a friend through his brother Pierce, a former Celtic teammate, called.

The two took Leeds United to the Champions League semi-final in 2001 "one of the sweetest moments of my life" Aitken, the first-team coach, said at the time before they lost to Valencia.

When their time at Elland Road ended in 2002, another Premier League side in Aston Villa was the next destination for the pair where success was far more modest, and then Aitken was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006. Within six weeks of his surgery, he was back at Villa, despite the fact O'Leary had been dismissed that summer and chances were he would soon be on his way as well.

"I felt I had to be seen to be doing the right thing," Aitken told the Sunday Times.

"It was professional, to make sure things were ticking over. The boys responded well, which was important for me. We won all our [friendly] games. If the manager's job was going to be available, I was as equipped as anyone to do it and I was going to make sure I proved that."

Aitken did not get the job, with Martin O'Neill instead getting the nod, and he instead worked with Alex McLeish in the Scotland set-up, a time that included a famous 1-0 victory over France in Paris, and he then followed McLeish to Birmingham in 2007.

However, he told O'Leary that no matter what job came up, he would be by his side, and that is why Aitken followed O'Leary to Ahli and the Pro League 17 months ago, although the pair left midway through that first season.

And now he returns to the Dubai club and you can say with absolute certainty that he will approach this new role with the same determination that has marked his career on and off the field.

Indeed, with almost as much certainty that none of the Ahli players will be calling him by a girl's name.

ncameron@thenational.ae