Fergie's greatest triumph? - How Aberdeen conquered European football

By Steven Brocklehurst
BBC Scotland news website

image captionAberdeen captain Willie Miller holds the European Cup Winners' Cup aloft

For many in the north east of Scotland, Sir Alex Ferguson's greatest triumph took place on a rainy night in Gothenburg 30 years ago this week.

His achievement in winning the European Cup Winners' Cup competition with Aberdeen arguably ranks above his many later triumphs with the glamour of Manchester United.

It certainly does for the 12,000 Aberdeen fans who travelled to Sweden to watch the Dons take on Real Madrid in what defender Alex McLeish describes as "one of the greatest nights in the history of Scottish football".

Both of Glasgow's big clubs had triumphed in Europe previous to Aberdeen's success - Celtic winning the European Cup in 1967 and Rangers the Cup Winners' Cup in 1972.

But Aberdeen are the last Scottish side to lift a European football trophy and their victory was remarkable because it appeared to come from a "golden generation" who defied the odds to carry an unfancied provincial side to glory.

image captionThousands turned out to greet the winning teams return to Aberdeen

Ferguson was just 36 when he joined Aberdeen in June 1978 from St Mirren.

He quickly set about making an impact on the Granite City club.

Aberdeen stalwart Willie Miller says: "He had to put his own character into that team.

"He was a very young manager so he was a little bit abrasive in how he went about it."

Ferguson recruited Archie Knox from Forfar as his assistant and the pair were a formidable "bad cop/bad cop" combination who believed in discipline and hard work.

Training sessions were "repeat, repeat, repeat", says Alex McLeish and the dressing room was no place for shrinking violets, with midfielder Peter Weir admitting the manager's rages often gave him a fright.

Miller says: "Sir Alex knew he had a bunch of players there who were honest and he could trust but he had to get the best out of them.

"He used different tactics to get the best out of different players.

"If a cup had to go flying then it had to go flying. It certainly worked."

Archie Knox admits it was not an atmosphere in which a player could ever find a "shoulder to cry on" and they were expected to pick themselves up after a verbal battering and carry on.

He adds: "I had a baseball bat. I would sometimes go into the boot room with a baseball bat and let fly at a few of them."

"I grew up thinking that's what normal dressing rooms were like," says defender Eric Black.

Black also admits that as a young player he was sometimes phoned after the game and told he would have to babysit for Ferguson's children on Saturday night.

The manager fostered a mentality that suggested everyone from referees to the press to other team's supporters were against them.

image captionFerguson was at the quayside to greet the fans as they arrived back from their "legendary" trip on the St Clair boat

They had to make their own success because no-one was going to make it easy for them.

In 1980 Aberdeen won the Scottish league title for just the second time in their history and started to gain experience in European competition, although they came undone against English champions Liverpool.

The next year they beat defending champions Ipswich in the Uefa Cup and looked set for a strong run before tripping up against German side Hamburg in the quarter final.

Having won the Scottish Cup in 1982, Aberdeen qualified for the Cup Winners' Cup - which was seen in those days as the second most important trophy in European club football.

International stars

They began with a 7-0 demolition of Swiss side FC Sion followed by a 4-1 away win.

The general manager of the Swiss side was impressed and told Ferguson his team had all the ingredients which were perfect for Europe - energy, youth, good players and determination.

Dinamo Tirana and Lech Poznan fell as Aberdeen stormed on and then came Bayern Munich, the German giants, packed with international stars such as Paul Breitner and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.

A scoreless game in Germany suited many, but Ferguson was not best-pleased.

He says: "When we drew 0-0 over there I was the only one who was unhappy because I thought we needed an away goal and should have got one.

"We played really fantastic and were unlucky. We hit the post twice and were a better team."

It looked like Ferguson's concern was correct when Bayern scored early on at Pittodrie but Aberdeen "scrambled" a goal just before half-time.

The second half started well but a weak headed clearance from the usually reliable Alex McLeish gave Bayern the chance to grab a second goal.

Aberdeen got back into the game through a free-kick trick which McLeish says he thought would never work and which he says was "embarrassing" when they tried it on the training ground.

Gordon Strachan and John McMaster both ran to take the free kick on the edge of the area and then stopped as though it was a mistake.

'Dropped their guard'

The German defence paused and the break in concentration saw Strachan turn and whip in the free-kick when they least expected it.

Alex McLeish, who got his head on the end of the cross, says: "Bayern were caught cold. Absolutely caught cold.

"We relaxed and for a minute they dropped their guard and one or two put their hands on their hips, including the goalkeeper."

Strachan says the Germans were so upset they carried on arguing with each other for far too long.

Within minutes John Hewitt had scored Aberdeen's winner and Pittodrie was in uproar.

The semi-final was a much simpler proposition.

The game against Belgian side Waterschei was effectively won in the first five minutes. The Dons went on to complete a 5-1 rout and thoughts turned to the final even before the second leg, which they went on to lose 1-0.

image captionFerguson urges on his players on a rainy night in Gothenburg

The final in Gothenburg was a major attraction for Aberdeen fans, with thousands having to charter planes or take the two-day "legendary" voyage on the boat St Clair.

Team captain and mature elder statesman Willie Miller says he tried to maintain some dignity as he stepped out into the cauldron of the Ullevi stadium.

But behind him Alex McLeish, Neale Cooper, Doug Rougvie and Neil Simpson were screaming and shouting at the Real players.

Ferguson adds: "Big Dougie Rougvie was roaring at them and he's quite a gruesome sight at the best of times."

McLeish says: "I could see the Real players looking across at us and some of them were laughing as if to say 'look at this bunch here'.

"But it looked like a nervous laugh.

"I could not see the same spirit in the Madrid team that there was in that Aberdeen team."

'Let rip'

It was another training ground manoeuvre, McLeish arriving late at the edge of the box from a corner, which led to Aberdeen taking the lead.

Eric Black took advantage of the ball getting stuck on the sodden surface after the keeper had parried.

But the heavy rain, which had left a layer of water clogging the surface of the pitch, was also to work against Aberdeen.

McLeish says: "It dawned on me I'd better remind the players that if we are passing we need to clip the ball to try to get it over the water because it will stick.

"I forgot to remind myself."

A dreadful short back-pass from McLeish led to goalkeeper Jim Leighton having to concede a penalty from which Real equalised.

Ferguson says he does not remember "having a go" at McLeish at half-time.

McLeish does.

"He just let rip," he says.

"I tried to hide behind three or four players going into the dressing room."

Assistant manager Archie Knox stepped in to calm matters down and Aberdeen decided on their approach to the second half, pushing Peter Weir further forward.

image captionJohn Hewitt celebrates Aberdeen's winning goal against Real Madrid

Eric Black made way for John Hewitt as Ferguson screamed at him to resist the urge to be dragged back into defence.

It paid off when Hewitt, who was about to be substituted, headed home a Mark McGhee cross in extra-time.

Aberdeen survived late pressure to lift the trophy and complete a famous victory.

The celebrations in Gothenburg and on the streets of Aberdeen live long in the memory.

An open-top bus through the city brought thousands on to the streets to salute their heroes.

When the St Clair limped into Aberdeen harbour a day later, the weary fans disembarked to a surreal surprise.

Ferguson was waiting on the quayside with the cup to greet them.

He says: "They were stunned as they came off.

"Some of them actually walked by me and I think they were maybe half-cut.

"They walked by and then they came back and said 'is that the manager?'"

BBC Radio Scotland Sportsound presenter Richard Gordon was in Gothenburg as an Aberdeen fan on the night they won the cup.

He says: "We kind of took it for granted at the time because we were used to winning.

"It is only when you look back, you really understand and appreciate just how unique that success was."

Gothenburg '83 will be shown on BBC Alba on Thursday 9 May from 21:00 to 22:00.

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