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Football: Dour Dons were a bunch of zombies when we took over; RANGERS v ABERDEEN Today, kick-off 2pm, live on Setanta.

Byline: EUAN McLEAN

JIMMY CALDERWOOD reckons his Aberdeen troops were brain dead until his madcap management team gave them back their sense of humour ... and their self-belief.

As resurrections go the Dons' rise from last season's relegation scrappers to SPL high fliers who beat Celtic on their own patch is remarkable. Suddenly there is a buzz of excitement and confidence throughout the side as they head for Ibrox today looking to complete an incredible Old Firm double.

And Calderwood reckons the transformation started with the players learning to LAUGH again - thanks to his barmy assistant Jimmy Nicholl.

Caldo said: 'I don't know what it is with players these days but they would make ideal sons-in-law.

'They all seem to be nice, quiet boys - but that's not what makes a good footballer.

'I faced that problem when I started at Dunfermline and it was the same when we came to Aberdeen.

'The lads were so quiet and for the first two weeks Nic was tearing his hair out because he loves getting into the banter with players.

'But he said it was like pulling teeth trying to get anything back from them. 'Jimmy was cracking up. He would come out of the dressing room saying, 'I can't believe that place - it's brain dead.' 'Thankfully he gets his fair share of abuse thrown back at him now. The players are starting to open their mouths a bit and get angry with each other.

'You see that in their will to win during games.

'It's pleasing for me and Jimmy to see the change in them. To be honest I'm amazed at how big an improvement there has been.'

After the dour style of previous Dons boss Steve Paterson the arrival of the two Jimmys sparked a wave of fresh optimism in the Granite City.

And the hard-working managerial duo wasted no time in making their presence felt.

They sent every player a stringent fitness programme to follow before they even met up for pre-season training.

It was a clear message to the slackers that they would be spotted - and shipped out.

Yet the tactic has done much more for the team than just root out the unfit and the unwilling.

The squad's fitness is as high as Calderwood has seen at any of the clubs he's managed.

And he's sure they'll feel the benefit of that today after their midweek heroics.

Jimmy said: 'The lads are all in good enough shape to recover quickly from that Celtic match.

'When we took over our posts at Pittodrie we gave the squad a programme to complete.

'It outlined exercises they had to go through for the last two weeks of their summer holiday.

'They had to do work every second day and build up the intensity each time until they hit the maximum workload two days before the end of their break.

'On the first day of pre-season training we tested them and the results were positive.

'Those who hadn't put in the effort were found out. We could see the players who had stuck to the worksheet and those who had used it for toilet paper.

'There were a couple whose fitness was poor that day - but they are no longer at the club.

'The fact most of them were in good condition made it easier to start work on ball skills and our tactical plans.'

The change in Aberdeen was evident from the first day of the season when they held Rangers to a goalless draw at Pittodrie.

And Calderwood believes that result was the building block for Dons' best start in 12 years.

He said: 'We were so chuffed that day because it was such a positive beginning for us.

'I got slaughtered by Rangers fans for celebrating a point but it was important for us to get something because after that we had Hearts away then it was back to my old club Dunfermline.

'Those were tough fixtures and if we'd been without a point after the first three games it would have been a battle from then on.

'We've been progressing ever since. I thought in our last game against Rangers in the CIS Cup we played even better than in the first match despite losing 2-0.'

Today the Dons head to Ibrox knowing they can move up to second in the SPL if they can complete back-to-back wins over the Old Firm in four days.

Caldo added: 'I'm convinced we will play well. I don't know if we'll win but we'll do our best and enjoy ourselves.'

That's something the players have learned to do again under their new fun-filled regime.

CAPTION(S):

Making his point: Jimmy celebrates 0-0 draw but Eck is disgusted; Shaky start: Caldo greets Alex McLeish before first game of season; The banter boy: Jimmy Nicholl; Game for a laugh: Calderwood's enthusiasm has brought smiles back to Dons players
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Oct 31, 2004
Words:815
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