Alex Ferguson and Aberdeen’s uncharted journey to European glory

Before launching on his oft-quoted mission about knocking a certain Merseyside club off their perch, Alex Ferguson – this was long before royalty bestowed a title on him – led Aberdeen to the forefront of Scottish football. Not only did he take the Pittodrie club to the top of the tree domestically, winning three league titles, four Scottish Cups and a League Cup in half-a-dozen years between 1980 and 1986, the later-to-be Overlord of Old Trafford also gave the Dons undreamt of European success in 1983, when they lifted the European Cup Winners Cup, defeating the might of Real Madrid in the final.

Qualification for Aberdeen’s European adventure had been achieved following the 4-1 extra-time triumph over Rangers in the 1982 Scottish Cup Final. It wasn’t the first time that the Dons had entered European competition, but previous attempts at forays into the continent had been brief and often bruising, certainly in terms of confidence, as relatively early exits mirrored the exploits of the Scottish national team in major competitions. In 1983 though, Ferguson’s team was a young and hungry unit, full of bristling confidence and driven on by their manager’s unequalled determination to succeed.

Such had been the lack of success by Scottish clubs in previous European competitions, especially by those outside of the Old Firm, that Aberdeen were compelled to play a tie in the preliminary round before entering the tournament proper. They were pitted against Swiss cup winners, Sion. On 18 August 1982, Aberdeen got their European campaign when the Swiss club visited Pittodrie.

If Ferguson was looking for some kind of statement performance to indicate that his club were up for the challenge, they delivered it in some style. With less than two minutes on the clock, Eric Black netted the first goal, and from then on, it was a steady procession, with Stuart Kennedy hitting the last one, eight minutes from time. A comprehensive 7-0 victory, made the second leg the most mundane of formalities, but a 1-4 triumph in Switzerland neatly underscored the difference between the two teams. Aberdeen would go into the 1st Round proper with confidence on a real high.

When the draw was made, Ferguson’s team were scheduled to play Albania cup winners, Dinamo Tirana. To many Scots, it looked like being on the very edge of a ‘gimme’ tie, but when the home game produced just a solitary goal for Aberdeen, thanks to an early strike by John Hewitt, the 14,000 fans in the stadium watching the Albanians hold out without massive discomfort would have taken on a new realisation. With the game in Tirana to come, the tie was suddenly looking decidedly dicey. Nevertheless, a dogged defensive display in the away leg brought a staid but ultimately satisfying 0-0 draw and after the goal feast of the 1st Round, Aberdeen had shown that they could also win through with more stodgy fare if required.

When the 2nd Round pairings were announced, Aberdeen were matched with Polish club, Lech Poznań with, for the third round in a row, the home leg to be played first. Whilst the Poles proved every bit as redoubtable as the Albanians had been in the previous round, two goals just after the half-time break gave Aberdeen a useful lead to take into central Europe. A Mark McGhee header was followed by Peter Weir neatly turning in a cross by Gordon Strachan. After the game however, Ferguson was clearly not overly satisfied accepting that some may consider his team to be “fortunate” to be going to the second leg two goals clear. A couple of weeks later, in Poland, with a packed stadium roaring their favourites on, another resolute performance was required.

Sure enough, the team had been set up by their astute manager to be solid early on and try and deny their hosts an early breakthrough, and as time ticked away towards the break, Aberdeen began to grow in confidence as the Polish efforts started to look more and more forlorn. Just ahead of the hour mark, Dougie Bell delivered the coup de grace to put any lingering Scottish concerns to bed. A free-kick from the left was nodded on at the near post, and with the ball floating over the goalkeeper, Bell headed home from six inches into the empty net. The last eight beckoned.

If the competition draws had been relatively kind to Aberdeen so far, all of that was about to change. Bayern München were perennial West German champions, and therefore more used to competing in the European Cup than the Cup Winners Cup. In the previous season, however, they had tumbled from their lofty perch and finished in third place behind FC Köln and, eventual champions, Hamburger SV. Success in the DFB-Pokal with a 4-2 victory over FC Nürnberg, after being two goals down at the break had redeemed their season a little and seen them into this tournament instead.

In the previous round, the Bavarian club had accounted for Tottenham Hotspur with something to spare. A 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane, when a Paul Breitner strike in the second-half had cancelled out an early goal from Steve Archibald, being the prelude to a comprehensive victory in Germany. The fluidity of Bayern’s attacking play overwhelmed Spurs and a Dieter Hoeneß strike put them in front on the quarter-hour mark. Early in the second period, Udo Horsmann, up from his defensive position to supplement the attack netted the second.

With just less than 20 minutes remaining, Chris Hughton scored to offer a glimmer of hope to the North London club’s followers, but goals from Breitner and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge dispelled any fanciful thoughts of an unlikely comeback. At the end of the game, the English club had been comprehensively outplayed. Following the winter hiatus in the competition, Bayern München would face Aberdeen in the quarter-finals. If the earlier games had proven to be tricky for the Scots in parts, this was a task of a totally different dimension.

To be fair though, it was a vintage Cup Winners Cup competition that season. Among the last eight, alongside the Scots and the West Germans, were Inter Milan and the two giant Spanish clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Picking an easy tie would not have been a simple task.

For the first time in their run so far, Ferguson’s team had to travel for the first leg. On 2 March 1983, with the weather damp and overcast at the Olympiastadion, Alex Ferguson sent his team out to face one of Europe’s elite clubs, with the task of ensuring that the tie was still in the balance when the clubs met again in Scotland two weeks later. With the Germans wearing all red, Aberdeen were compelled to change to their second strip of white tops and black shorts. For all Dons fans, it looked more than a little unnatural, and for much of the game, the team wearing red would dominate the possession.

It was an outcome that Ferguson would surely have thought likely, but rather than have his team camped in and around their own area, he ensured that much of the play was disputed further forwards by his combative midfield and in the hard running of Mark McGhee and the eye for goal of Eric Black, his forwards also ensured that the Bayern backline was kept honest.

Indeed, in the first-half goalkeeper Manfred Müller had to plunge to his left to turn aside a 20-yard effort from Peter Weir. Then a break from McGhee, driving into the box, forced a diving save to keep the score-line blank. And that’s how it stayed at the break. Some would argue that Aberdeen may even have shaded the first 45 minutes. Ahead of the game, Uli Hoeneß had told the assembled press that Bayern would need a two-goal lead to take to Scotland for the second leg. With just 45 minutes remaining, that was looking like an increasingly distant prospect.

Needing to break down the stubborn Scottish resistance, Bayern pushed further forwards in the second period, but Aberdeen rebuffed the thrusts with calm assurance and a growing confidence as time ticked on. Entering the final stages of the game, the Germans began to penetrate, mainly through lofted balls into the box, as the Scottish team inevitably sank back into defence. Despite this, other than a diving save to his right by Jim Leighton between the sticks, and some calm defensive work, Aberdeen saw out the game for a highly creditable draw. If this had been a much harder test than the previous rounds, they had overcome the first leg with some assurance. The outcome of the tie would be decided at Pittodrie on 16 March.

Back in Scotland, Aberdeen were back in their traditional red strip with Bayern donned in all white. The game in Germany had been a chastening experience for a Bayern team who surely thought that the tie was there for the taking. They started the second leg though as if determined to put matters right. As early as the tenth minute, Klaus Augenthaler ranged forward from the back after a free-kick was tapped short to him. Reaching the edge of the Aberdeen box, he fired powerfully past Leighton for an away goal. It meant that Aberdeen would now need a minimum of two goals if they were to progress. As it turned out, they needed more than that.

For most of the remaining minutes of the first period, Aberdeen pressed in search of an equaliser without any tangible reward, but with just a little over five minutes until half-time, the breakthrough came. A cross from the right appeared to deceive the goalkeeper as the ball was headed back across the goalmouth, a scrambled clearance from the line by the German goalscorer fell to Neil Simpson who brought the game level.

Into the second-half, with the score still at 1-1, the Germans had the advantage thanks to that away goal, and just past the hour mark, they would build on that. From a cross, a weak headed clearance by Alex McLeish, fell to defender Hans Pflügler out to the left of the Aberdeen box. Firing in a shot left-footed that bounced twice on its way towards goal, his effort surprisingly beat Leighton. Aberdeen were behind for the second time. A further two goals would now be necessary, but time was drifting away and there was less than half-an-hour to play. A quick riposte was required.

More than half of that time had gone when Aberdeen finally prised open the door of the German defence for the second time. A short corner on the right eventually brought a cross into the box and, redeeming his earlier error, McLeish nodded powerfully into the net. The scores on the night were level, but now with two away goals, Aberdeen were still on the way out. That would only be the case for a further 60 seconds or so though. An acrobatic save from Müller to block a goal- bound header fell to the floor in front of the goalkeeper. With a striker’s instincts blaring in his ears, John Hewitt was the first to react and he volleyed home between the legs of the goalkeeper as the gallant Müller struggled to his feet. For the first time in the tie, Aberdeen were ahead, and they would see out the remaining few minutes for a memorable victory.

Unheralded in Europe, Aberdeen, who had needed to play a preliminary tie to get into the tournament proper had dismissed one of the most celebrated clubs in Europe.  Not only that, they had done so with a concentrated and disciplined performance in the first leg, and then recovered after twice being behind at home. Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen were in the last four of the Cup Winners Cup. It was a position that they had thoroughly deserved.

With Bayern disposed of, Barcelona surprisingly tumbling out to Austria Vienna and Inter sent packing by Real Madrid, the last four clubs in the competition looked a lot less frightening than those comprising the last eight had. Ideally, Aberdeen would have liked to avoid the Spanish club, and when the draw was made, fate had favoured them. The Dons would face little known Belgian club, Waterschei Thor, whilst the Austrians would need to see if they could defeat the other of Spain’s big two, when they played Real Madrid.

Compared to facing the might of Bayern München, a semi-final tie against a club from Belgium that not many people had even heard of may have looked like a simple tie. In fact, the kind of tie where you take your foot off the gas and coast along fully expecting to win, until you run to a brick wall. Fortunately for Aberdeen, the manager at the club was unlikely to let any such complacency seep into his side’s thoughts.

When the Belgians visited Pittodrie on 6 April, the attitude of the Scots became pretty clear, pretty quickly. Just six minutes into the game, they were two goals up as Black and Simpson effectively took the tie away from the visitors. With a little more than 20 minutes to play, McGhee added a third, and two minutes later Weir netted a fourth. A goal with 15 minutes remaining by Icelandic player, Lárus Guðmundsson, was the scantest of consolations, and if there was any need for further confirmation of that seemingly self-evident fact, a fifth goal by McGhee provided the necessary evidence. Two weeks later, the second leg was heading towards a goalless draw when Eddy Voordeckers scored to at least give the Belgians the luxury of winning the home leg. The Dons took the major prize of qualification with some comfort.

For Aberdeen, the reward was a place in the 1983 Cup Winners Cup Final against the aristocrats of Real Madrid, managed by the legendary Alfredo Di Stéfano to be played in Sweden at Göteborg’s Nya Ullevi stadium on 11 May. If Aberdeen were to triumph it would take a performance a step or two above the magnitude of the one played out against Bayern in the quarter-finals. Were Aberdeen and their manager up to the task? It was Graduation Day.

It’s entirely understandable that for the biggest night in Aberdeen’s history, fans would be prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to ensure they were there for the game; some apparently even made the journey in fishing boats. Suffice to say that in a crowd of nearly 18,000, the Scots were neither underrepresented or out sung. Both teams had injury worries ahead of the game. For the Spanish club, German midfielder Uli Stielike was considered doubtful with a thigh injury, but he came through a late fitness test. Aberdeen had similar concerns about Eric Black, but he also made the cut.

Alex Ferguson is often painted as a steely-eyed winner, unabashed by faux sentimentality on the road to victory. Ahead of the final though, he gave the lie to such assessments, selecting Stuart Kennedy as a substitute. Initially, there may seem nothing notable in that, but the full-back had been injured in the semi-final against the Belgians and would not be fit to take part in the final in any way. In fact, so bad was the injury that Kennedy never played professional football again. On that night in Göteborg though, the manager granted him a place on the bench. Some may argue that the decision was less a gesture of sentimentality, and more one designed to boost a bond of togetherness within the squad. Whatever the reason the manager sacrificed one of his substitute options for Kennedy. It was a remarkable decision.

Not unusually for the time of year in Sweden, the weather ahead of the game was rainy, and the stadium authorities had the pitch largely covered with tarpaulin. Although inevitably some of the rain found its way onto the playing surface, the referee deemed the pitch perfectly playable, if more than a little wet, and the game got underway on schedule.

Very much as when facing Bayern in Bavaria, Ferguson had clearly instilled a positive attitude into his team and from the kick-off they ploughed forward in an attempt to take the initiative. Half-a-dozen minutes in, Madrid goalkeeper scuffed a goal-kick restart gifting possession to the Scots. Gordon Strachan surged forward and controlled, before lobbing a pass to Eric Black. The striker hit a volley on target that Agustín managed to divert onto the crossbar and away for a corner. The danger had only been delayed though, not avoided.

Strachan cleverly crossed the ball in, aiming towards the edge of the penalty area rather than the crowd scene inside the six-yard box. Aware of the ploy, McLeish rushed forward to power in a header. The ball struck a defender and dropped to Black who put the Scots ahead. Aberdeen had started the game off with no sign of trepidation against their more celebrated opponents, and now they had their reward.

Despite the tarpaulin and the referee’s decision, it quickly became clear that the pitch would cut up very quickly, turning patches of the ground into a tangle of mud and grass, cloying at players feet as tried to run through it. The deteriorating conditions would work in Madrid’s favour shortly after they fell behind.

On 14 minutes, an attempted through ball was intercepted by McLeish. Turning back towards his own goal, he played the ball towards the sanctity of Leighton’s gloves. The defender however had reckoned without the condition of the pitch slowing down the progress of the ball and the lightening reactions of Madrid striker Santillana. The Madrid striker, who would spend no less than 17 years with Los Blancos, got to the ball ahead of the goalkeeper and flicked the ball past him just as Leighton’s arms crashed into his legs. There was no hesitation from Italian referee, Gianfranco Menegali, and few protests from Aberdeen player. There was even less argument from the goalkeeper as skipper Juanito stepped up to convert from 12 yards, sending Leighton the wrong way.

To many watching it may have seemed that Madrid had now exerted their superiority after the upstart side from Scotland had enjoyed a brief moment in the sun – well, perhaps the light from the floodlights, anyway given that it was the evening of a rainy day – and would now take control of the game. For the remaining 30 minutes of the first-half, that seemed to be the case as Stielike prompted and probed from midfield and at the back, Dutchman John Metgod coolly organised the defence. At the same time, the Aberdeen players were scurrying around in pursuit of the ball and plugging holes. At the break though, the game remained level on the scoresheet.

The break and chance to receive fresh instructions form the manager seemed to reinvigorate Aberdeen. A volley from Strachan was blocked by Agustín, and then Black sent a header over the bar after a cross from Weir. The Madrid goalkeeper was called into action again to block a header, and after a brief scramble was delighted to dive onto the loose ball. Aberdeen had played their way back into the game and, very much as in Bavaria, although the Spaniards had more possession, the Scots seemed the more dynamic team. With extra-time beckoning and just ten minutes on the clock, a late half-chance for Ferguson’s team presented itself. A cross from Weir was fumbled by Agustín, but the relieved ‘keeper recovered to secure the ball before any Aberdeen player could react and the chance had gone.

At the final whistle, both teams looked shattered by their exertions on a pitch that had become steadily worse as play had progressed. Just ahead of the end of the 90 minutes, Ferguson made a change, bringing on John Hewitt, for the hard-working Eric Black. In the first period of 15 minutes, Di Stéfano would respond by replacing José Antonio Camacho with Isidoro San José and Isidro with Pepe Salguero. Although none of the changes brought immediate reward, with just eight minutes of the second period of fifteen remaining, Ferguson’s switch struck gold.

Weir played the ball to McGhee down the left flank, and the wide man galloped forward before crossing into the box. Running forward in support was substitute Hewitt, and as the ball reached the penalty area, he hurled himself forward to head into the net. Seemingly not knowing what to do, Hewitt ran in circles arms aloft before being collared by the muscular Doug Rougvie, and his remaining team-mates. By now both teams were virtually spent and despite Madrid rallying they couldn’t find a way back into the game. Aberdeen had lifted the Cup Winners Cup and would take the first European trophy in the club’s history back to Pittodrie.

How good had Aberdeen been, not only to defeat Real Madrid in the final, but also the might of Bayern München whilst on their journey to the tumultuous night in Göteborg? Losing manager Alfredo Di Stéfano had little doubt, magnanimously declaring that, “Aberdeen have what money can’t buy; a soul, a team spirit built in a family tradition.” It wasn’t a bad assessment. The gesture with Kennedy had proved to be sound, and some reports have it that when the fishing boats returned to the harbour in Aberdeen with a number of fans somewhat the worse for wear, the club’s manager was waiting on the quayside with the trophy to shake hands and thank them for their support. If a few of the matelots had suffered through excess and a choppy passage, there could hardly have been a better cure.

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