But 4-2 win not enough to please Alex Ferguson, reports Mike Aitken
Aberdeen 4 Celtic 2 The Scotsman, 10 December, 1984
There are times when Eric Black hovers in mid-air you’d swear the Aberdeen striker, who measures just five feet eight inches, was suspended on invisible wires.
The 21-year-old forward’s gift for flight was never better illustrated than against Celtic at Pittodrie on Saturday, exposing the Parkhead side’s defensive deficiences when he put his head to two decisive goals from Peter Weir crosses. Alex Ferguson’s decision to rest Black at Tynecastle the week before was amply justified as the player, whose career has been persistently interrupted by injury since Gothenburg, soared back to the fray like an uncaged eagle.
Those who had come to admire the impact Maurice Johnston has made on Celtic’s form must have left Aberdeen with renewed respect for Black. His darting runs, first-touch flicks and accurate crosses were all in evidence as well as that renowned heading ability.
Outstanding though Aberdeen’s team performance was, it was surely significant that Black played some part in all four goals, enlivening an attack that has rarely looked more imiginative since the departure of McGhee and Strachan.
In what was always going to be a significant encounter, though not one which necessarily decided the destination of the title, the emphatic nature of Aberdeen’s victory turned the spotlight on the birth of a new-look Pittodrie outfit.
“All the talk has been of the new Celtic,” Alex Ferguson mused, “but I think that performance will also remind people there is a new Aberdeen.
“There is no saying how far this team can go – they can be better than the last one.
“At the moment the priority is to build character into the team. When players like Strachan, McGhee and Rougvie were in the team, you knew they had it and could be cocky and confident when you went to places like Celtic Park.
“We didn’t know whether the young players who have come in would have that same quality. But against Celtic they showed they do have character by the way they responded to the two Celtic goals in the second half.”
When players such as Stark, McKimmie, McDougall, McQueen and Angus – half the side – look so much at home in Aberdeen jerseys, you have to examine the contribution made behind the scenes as well as on the field.
Having turned down opportunities to move to clubs like Spurs and Rangers, Alex Ferguson (unquestioningly the outstanding manager in Britain today) has responded to the challenge of rebuilding Aberdeen with his usual energy and drive, keeping the Pittodrie side at the forefront of the domestic scene in what might have been regarded as a transitional year.
Aware that the meeting with Celtic was their game of the season so far, Aberdeen worked overtime under Ferguson’s tutelage last week. Match-winning moves were concocted on the training ground while the manager hammered the message into his players: “Attack, attack – it was what we’d talked about all week because we knew Celtic just couldn’t handle it.”
Aberdeen’s best players responded as Ferguson had primed them to do – McLeish and Miller put Johnston and McGarvey under lock and key, Simpson delivered his best performance of the year by hijacking McStay from the midfield, and Weir and Black were the match-winners in attack.
It was a display of such authority, Ferguson was able to say with a straight face afterwards: “Quite frankly I was disappointed with the 4-2 scoreline. I thought we should have had more goals. There was no doubt it was our best performance of the season.”
The expertise of Weir and Black at set-pieces in particular could go a long way to propelling Aberdeen towards another championship on this evidence.
They manufactured the breakthrough goal in 33 minutes, Weir’s right-footed free kick being powerfully headed down underneath Bonner’s grasp by Black.
The pair were in cahoots again after a long-range effort from McKimmie and a Johnston penalty had brought the score to 2-1. This time Weir’s free kick was nudged towards the near post where Black’s leap and back-flicked header pulverised the Celtic defence. Thereafter McGarvey and McDougall completed the scoring in a game as open as it was physical.
When eight players finish up in the book you know you’ve been watching a competitive fixture. It would be going too far, however, to brand this as a nasty confrontation. The tackling was robust and sometimes reckless, as you’d expect from a fixture Ferguson now regards as “the hardest game in Britain”, but referee Hugh Young always had matters under control.
David Hay, the Celtic manager, sportingly thought Aberdeen just about deserved their victory but was disappointed by the result and the marking of his defence.
He was sure Celtic would remain a force in the title race in spite of the five-point gap that has opened up and had no doubt “we’ll pick ourselves up” for the Rapid Vienna game at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
Even if they delivered their most competitive form at Pittodrie, Celtic didn’t seem quite as hungry for victory as Aberdeen.
How much influence this week’s game in Manchester had on Celtic’s approach is hard to quantify. On the day Aberdeen, certainly, were the better side, though as Ferguson, who intends to be at Old Trafford himself, opined: “Whatever the result had been at Pittodrie, it wouldn’t affect how Celtic approached the Rapid game…”
Aberdeen: Leighton, McKimmie, McQueen, Stark, McLeish, Miller, Black, Simpson, McDougall, Angus, Weir Subs: Mitchell Hewitt. Scorers: Black (33, 61), McKimmie (46), McDougall (86).
Celtic: Bonner, McGrain, McLeod, Aitken, McAdam (W. McStay) (Colquhoun), McClair, Provan, P.McStay, Johnston, Burns, McGarvey. Scorers: Johnston (pen 57), McGarvey (84).