Part of the last Aberdeen side to win the cup, the ex-defender talks past glories and a Dons revival
Aberdeen’s separation from the Scottish Cup is in no danger of reaching Hibernian’s century-plus proportions. Yet, every year that passes without the Pittodrie club claiming the country’s oldest trophy is significant. In the post-war era, only Celtic and Rangers have lifted the cup more than Aberdeen. The seven successes of the club from the north meant they had never gone more than 23 years without getting their hands on this particular piece of silverware across that period. Until now.
It was in 1990 that the open-top bus celebrations down Union Street were last required to show off a Scottish Cup, the fifth time in nine years the Granite City had witnessed this kind of May parade. And if the Aberdeen faithful are seeking an omen for reason to believe such scenes might be recreated in 2014, the cup confrontation facing them today at Firhill offers one up. The last time they met Partick Thistle in the competition just so happens to have been the aforementioned 1989-90 season. The tie, then as now, was not merely in Glasgow but also came at their point of entry into the tournament.
It is a campaign that Brian Irvine remembers well. As he should. In many ways 1990 was the annus mirabilis for the then Aberdeen central defender. In many ways the trophy then won can be considered Irvine’s cup. Signed from Falkirk by Alex Ferguson in 1985, it wasn’t until the turn of the decade, with Alex Smith in charge, that he really made his name. In the final at Hampden in May of that year, he did so in unforgettable fashion. A decider against Celtic that yielded no goals across 120 minutes meant, for the first time ever, penalties and not a replay would be employed to produce a winner. That late afternoon, Irvine was entrusted with the 20th penalty in being the last outfield player to step up, and he tucked it past Pat Bonner to clinch a 9-8 shoot-out victory.
“I think that would have to stand as the highlight of my career, because it was unique,” said a player whose Pittodrie days stretched across 12 years, before spells with Dundee and Ross County. “No one had ever scored the winning penalty in a Scottish Cup final like this before and I see my chance to make that bit of history as a reward for my patience, for sticking with it. It didn’t happen for me overnight at Aberdeen. Winning a place in the team was a gradual process because, effectively, I was an understudy to Willie Miller and Alex McLeish. But that season was the first that, even with Willie fully fit after a time out injured, I still kept my place in the team.”
Irivine reflects on his penalty duties not in terms trepidation but opportunity. “Like all the other Aberdeen guys in the sudden-death part of the shoot-out, I was a reluctant taker. But, unlike them, I didn’t have to score to stop us losing. They had the real pressure. I was fortunate that the Celtic player before me, Anton Rogan, had missed. So I was the first guy with a chance to win it.”
It turned out to be the last medal Irvine would earn in his career, the player having appeared from the bench when, seven months earlier, Aberdeen beat Rangers in the League Cup final to claim the first part of their cup double that season. In September 1990, however, his favourite year was capped, literally, when he made his senior Scotland debut in the 2-1 European Championship win over Romania, the first of nine appearances he would make for his country in the next four years. “You can always say you could have done more, though there is no divine right to success for any player or any club,” Irvine says. “But I know that I was always pushing myself to the limit to play at the level I did. And for that to include playing for the national team was something I never thought I would do.”
In terms of winning more, Irvine recognises the failure to add the 1990-91 championship to the two cups won the previous season stands as the aching disappointment of the Aberdeen era for a player whose heart was with the club, man and boy. “We went to Ibrox on that last day only needing a point and with a good group of players, but it was Rangers that won the league. It wasn’t yesterday, though, and people who might consider it dramatic now that Aberdeen could easily have won all the major honours in two years in the post-Ferguson era, are judging the scene by how it is today.
“In the late 1980s and 1990s, we were always optimistic we could be contenders for trophies. Encouragingly, I think that optimism is greater now under Derek McInnes, and with the League Cup semi-final to come, than it probably has been since then. Although there are no entitlements, it does feel as if it is time Aberdeen won a trophy again. Other clubs with no more in their favour have done so in the past decade.”
Aberdeen’s last successful Scottish Cup assault got off to a sticky start, as Irvine remembers. “I remember we lost a goal right away against Thistle and then I conceded a penalty to allow them to go 2-1 up. But we came through on a really heavy pitch – with the first round for the bigger sides in late January then – and Willem van der Ark hit a hat-trick to give us a 6-2 win. That cup run was pretty good to me. I scored in quarter-final win over Hearts [a 4-1 win] and was credited with two goals, initially in our [4-1] semi-final defeat of Dundee United, though one of those was really a Mixu Paatelainen own goal.”
In truth, more than for his footballing endeavours, Irvine tends to be remembered for playing on after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995 and his deeply-held Christian beliefs. Without being flippant, these might be considered crosses to bear for the 48-year-old as he has not enjoyed the coaching career he craves. “All that I lost in 1995 was being able to take my health for granted,” he says. “I played more games after the diagnosis than before it. I am keeping well, and fortunate.
“As for my religion, I do not regret standing up for it, I do not regret being true to myself. I think I was placed in a box ‘oh he’s dour, better not swear in front of him’, that is not true to the reality. We are all guilty of making superficial judgments, though. I would socialise with my team-mates but I wasn’t there every Saturday night and was never ‘one of the boys’. I sometimes wonder if this has hampered me in building the connections to coach as I would love to do. I took my A licence when I was at Aberdeen, and top it up with the CPD [Continuous Professional Development] course, but I sometimes wonder if that’s worth the effort.” Irvine had a spell in charge of Elgin in 2006 which ultimately “didn’t work out at all”, with his progress in dragging up the Highland club to the verge of the play-offs early that year undone by their slide to the bottom again by the end of it.
“I stay in Inverness and sometimes think, if you are not in the Central Belt, you are out of sight and out of mind and well away from the real football heartland,” he says, punditry work having also dried up because his measured analysis was out of keeping with the forced bonhomie now sought.
Irvine accepts that he put himself firmly out of sight in coaching alongside fellow Scot Martin Rennie in America for three years, first with Cleveland City Stars and then Carolina RailHawks. “That was an incredible experience. I loved it and Martin wanted to take me to Vancouver Whitecaps when he moved their in 2011,” he says, Rennie only recently having parted company with the Canadian side. “But I had a young family doing their schooling back here and it just wasn’t the right time. I just wish that opportunity had come up at the end of my playing days, or was available now. It is hard for footballers when you stop playing but want to stay in the game. You can’t really affect when and what chances come your way,” says Irvine.
He now working for the probation department of the charity Action For Children, helping people of all ages through community service and rehabilitation. “It is challenging and rewarding, but not as rewarding with some guys, who don’t want to change because doing the wrong thing is what has worked for them, as they see it.” Not like Irvine, who always has always done right by football, family and faith. The game still has time to do right by him.
ABERDEEN’S 1990 SCOTTISH CUP HEROES
Dutchman was SPFA Player of the Year in 1989 and left for Rangers in 1996. Capped once by Holland.
Spent 14 years at Pittodrie and won 40 Scotland caps.
Joined Rangers in 1991 and won six league titles. Went on to manage Elgin and Montrose. Now coaches in Phoenix.
Spent 12 years at Aberdeen. Was briefly manager of Elgin.
Dons legend, capped 77 times by Scotland has gone on to be a high-profile manager.
English-born midfielder scored both in 2-1 League Cup final win over Rangers that season.
Spent 12 years at Dons, and won League Cup in 1995.
Former Rangers midfielder. Won 26 Scotland caps.
Ex-Dundee man was capped four times by Scotland.
Cup final was striker’s last game for Dons before returning to Celtic.
Bought from PSV Eindhoven for £650,000 in 1989.
Youngster came off bench and scored in shoot-out but career failed to take off.
Unused sub in the final. Went on to win 18 caps for Scotland in a career which did not really live up to early promise.