THE theme of last week’s build-up to the Betfred Cup from an Aberdeen perspective has very much been about carrying the fight. And if you have any doubts about their ability to raise a strong challenge to Celtic at Hampden this afternoon, then Derek McInnes may argue that you haven’t been watching what his team have done over the last few years.

The Pittodrie boss is proud that even now, with strong challenges restored at the top end of the table from the likes of Rangers, Hibernian, Hearts and Kilmarnock, it is still his Aberdeen side who are there to ask questions of Celtic at the business end of competitions.

“We’re still there,” McInnes said. “We’re still getting to finals and we still finished second last year and they’ve [Rangers] been back up for a couple of seasons now, so the challenge gets tougher and tougher to maintain.

“To maintain it for the last five, six years has been tough. To maintain it beyond that is the challenge that we all face but I’m actually really enjoying it and hopefully, regardless of who’s manager at Rangers or Celtic or what teams you play, I would like to look back in time and think that we did a lot of good work at Aberdeen and hopefully [we will] have trophies to show for it.”

One man who McInnes believes fully deserves to walk up those Hampden steps to collect the trophy is his captain Graeme Shinnie. Mentioning his name in the same breath as a Willie Miller may be premature, but his manager would love to see his inspirational leadership over these past few seasons rewarded with even a fraction of the accolades that the Dons’ greatest captain collected.

“I think it’s important for Shinnie, because there are those images of Willie Miller, Russell Anderson and Stewart McKimmie - but especially Willie, because he did it most often,” he said. “It’s important for Shinnie to lift a trophy. He did it with Inverness, obviously, but he’s a captain in the truest sense of the word and it’s important for me that he has that image of lifting a trophy.

“Every successful team has natural leaders and not everybody can be a leader. You either lead people or be led and Shinnie is one that the players definitely look to.

“It’s important for me to have other players with those winners’ medals and those important memories.

“If I could give them that winner’s medal I would, because they deserve it, but they’ve got to go and earn it. There’s still work to be done to achieve it, but so many of my players deserve to have those highs in the game and to enjoy those moments.”

Of all of the players that will take to the field today in red though, it could well be the case that it is a former Celtic player who could hold the keys to Aberdeen causing an upset. If Shinnie is the archetypal "Derek McInnes player", the same perhaps could not be said of Gary Mackay-Steven, who is renowned more for his tricky wing play than his dig and defensive diligence.

According to his manager, those areas of his game have improved, but it may be his more familiar qualities that prove vital today in a game where Aberdeen chances may be few and far between.

“I signed him because I knew what he was, so he is my player,” said McInnes. “I knew what I was getting with Gary. If I was to explain how I want my team to be it would be a hard-working, organised team, everyone knowing their roles but with the ability to let individual players flourish; guys like [Jonny] Hayes, [Niall] McGinn and [James] Madison. Mackay-Steven comes into that bracket.

“One of his first games for me was in Europe and he dropped his man for the goal against Limassol that effectively put us out. That ability to defend in wide areas, to be responsible for your full-back and being in the right position to defend is so important. Hayes became that for me and McGinn does it religiously too. In fact, every player does that for me. They’ve got responsibilities for the team with and without the ball. Gary probably maybe didn’t quite grasp the importance of that. But he’s become a Derek McInnes player. I trust him more without the ball.

“But I signed him because Aberdeen need players who can unlock defences and go past people with pace. He scored 10 or 11 goals last season and he’s well on his way this season with six so far. He’s become a key player for me. I used to say that when Jonny Hayes played well for us we normally won the game. And Gary has become that for me as well.

“He had a couple of performances that I wasn’t too pleased with but we’re seeing the importance of him accepting and then revelling in that responsibility and becoming a key player for us. Over the last 14 or 15 months he’s done that for me.

“He made a lovely run off the side to win the corner kick that we scored from in the semi-final. [Lewis] Ferguson found him with a ball over the top, Gary tries a cross and wins a corner. He was important in a lot of aspects in that game. He carried a wee bit more of the fight and showed quality when it was needed.

“In the final we’ll need to be resilient, organised, disciplined and aggressive but we still need to bring quality to the game. And Gary is one of a view that is capable of doing that.”