DEREK McINNES brings a new-look Aberdeen team to Tynecastle this Saturday with something of an unknown quantity leading their attack. Calvin Zola is one of seven players recruited during a summer overhaul which saw manager McInnes attempt to put his own stamp on the Pittodrie club.
Since replacing Craig Brown in April, he has added the experience of midfielders Willo Flood and Barry Robson, plus goalkeeper Nicky Weaver – who will start against Hearts with first-choice Jamie Langfield suspended. There is also former Rangers winger Gregg Wylde, teenage striker Lawrence Shankland from Queen’s Park and on-loan Reading defender Michael Hector.
Yet it is the signing of 6ft 3in Zola which captured the imagination of many Aberdeen followers. He has yet to reach optimum fitness but his hulking frame ensures he is nothing if not imposing. Add to that a respectable scoring ratio in the lower regions of English football, where he represented Tranmere Rovers, Crewe Alexandra and Burton Albion, and it amounts to a player Hearts must watch closely. Fear of the unknown can be a rare commodity in Scottish football where teams play each other three and four times a season. McInnes fully intends to use it to his advantage with Zola.
“Calvin is certainly a different type of striker to what we’ve had,” he told the Evening News. “We brought him in to complement the forwards we have already. He could possibly be a bit of an unknown. He didn’t play a lot of pre-season games and we took a chance throwing him in against Celtic last week. He’s still to get up to speed.
“He’s played 55 minutes against Kilmarnock in our first game, then an hour at Motherwell, and then we took him off when Jamie was sent off against Celtic [just before half-time]. He’s gradually getting a feel for it but I think he’s the type of striker we were looking for.
“I brought these signings in to give us a freshness. We already had a lot of good players and I’m happy with the response from them all.” Many of McInnes’ signings are well-versed in the world of top-flight football, adding a nous to the Aberdeen squad which was less evident last season.
“Weaver certainly has that experience,” said the manager. “Robson and Flood have that and Zola has that. Wylde is only 22 and Hector is 21 so they are still young. We identified positions we needed to strengthen and we wanted good types coming in to those positions. I think we’ve managed that.
“Flood has been really influential. Robson played the first game and then got injured. Wylde has had to be patient, he hasn’t started for us yet, and Zola has still to get up to speed. Weaver will come into things for the Hearts game with Langfield suspended. Michael Hector from Reading has settled in as well.
“Our target is just to show improvement. I’d like to think we can be better than the last few seasons but it’s important not to get ahead of ourselves. We want a team on the pitch that is difficult to beat and that supporters want to come and watch. We want to keep the interest generated going and see where it takes us.”
Early signs are certainly encouraging. Aberdeen garnered full points from their first two Premiership matches before losing 2-0 to Celtic last weekend. That game was played in front of more than 20,000 supporters and offered evidence that the Granite City public believe in McInnes’ ability to relaunch their club as a force in Scottish football.
“I’m happy with how the players have done so far,” he said. “There were reasons why we lost against Celtic but, in the two games before that, we thoroughly deserved our victories. We were quite convincing in both games. The support is definitely there. Only 4000 of Saturday’s crowd were Celtic fans, the rest were Aberdeen. Our fanbase is huge but we need to try and keep them interested. We want them to come and watch the team and have a bit of respect about us as a club. We don’t just want them coming because it’s inherent through fathers and grandfathers taking kids along, although those fans are vital to us.”
A healthy support is expected to travel down the A90 to Edinburgh on Saturday to enter an arena where the word “support” has taken on a whole new meaning since Hearts entered administration in June. “Hearts fans have really responded to their team,” said McInnes. “There’s been a real solidarity shown for the cause so it will be good to have good numbers in the stadium. That will generate a good atmosphere.
“I would expect there to be a decent Aberdeen support at Tynecastle as well. We had just under 2000 at Motherwell two weeks ago. Having a 3pm kick-off on a Saturday always helps maximise the crowd. I’ve been delighted with the home support so far and we will take a good crowd with us.”
Although Hearts’ squad has changed even more than Aberdeen’s over the summer due to essential cost-cutting, McInnes has been well briefed on those left behind. “Whether we’re playing a team at the top or the bottom of the league, we only concentrate on ourselves. There will be no surprises in the Hearts line-up,” he stressed.
“It’s not as recognisable as it was last year but we’ve had them watched, seen them in the flesh and had reports on them. We’re well schooled on them and we’re expecting a difficult match. Tynecastle, traditionally, has always been a difficult place to go.
“I don’t want to talk too much on Hearts. I would always expect my team to be enthusiastic, energetic and fully committed. Hearts’ troubles have been well documented but they still have players who can hurt you. I’m expecting a tough game, but I’m also expecting Hearts to have a tough match as well.”