The greatest day of Ferguson’s Aberdeen revolution

Alex Ferguson is hoisted aloft by Peter Weir and Doug Rougvie. Picture: SNS
Alex Ferguson is hoisted aloft by Peter Weir and Doug Rougvie. Picture: SNS
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You turned up, you played a game, you got shouted at, you won a trophy, and then you moved on to the next season. This comment, from striker Eric Black, is a gloriously succinct summation of how it felt to be part of Alex Ferguson’s Pittodrie revolution, one that reached a peak in Gothenburg 30 years ago today.

It is included in the excellent book Glory In Gothenburg, which came out last year, and has recently been published in paperback form, ahead of the anniversary. The author, Richard Gordon, is best known as the ringmaster bringing sound sense and no little decorum to BBC Radio Scotland’s Sportsound programme. The book is a labour of love, meticulously researched. Gordon calculates that Black, who started 150 games for the club, won a trophy for every 19 matches he played at Aberdeen, an incredible statistic when you consider the cup famine that has been endured since 1995.

More remarkable still is the detail that the starting line-up for the Cup-Winners Cup final was chosen only once more by Ferguson – for the Scottish Cup final victory over Rangers, ten days later. Leighton, Rougvie, McMaster, Cooper, McLeish, Miller, Strachan, Simpson, McGhee, Black and Weir. “The most famous team-sheet in the history of Aberdeen Football Club and it was only ever selected twice,” writes Gordon, whose hospitality extends to handing you a cup of coffee served in a Dundee FC mug (his son, Oliver, has veered from the Gordon trend of following Aberdeen) when we meet at his home in the Stirlingshire village of Fintry, just days before Ferguson decided to lend further significance to this weekend’s celebrations in the north-east.

“Why don’t you write a book about the greatest night of your football-supporting life?” his publishers asked him, and they didn’t need to ask again. Gordon immediately set about the task of rounding up the greats, some of whom had fallen off the radar, surprisingly. “Doug Rougvie was the one who had been away, in Dubai,” he says. “Eventually, I used Twitter. I said, ‘he’s way too big to be lost. Someone must know where he is’. Within half an hour I had a phone number.”

Although he clearly knew where to find him (at least, he did then), only one key figure declined to be interviewed: Ferguson. “It was a real disappointment initially, but I got Archie [Knox] and all the players,” he says.

Back in 1983, even Ferguson was still learning. Something he has realised over the years is that football can be a punishing environment for those just starting out, hence his careful nurturing of the likes of Ryan Giggs. In Glory In Gothenburg, it’s hard to avoid noting just how many of the interviewees hirple into restaurants to meet Gordon. This victory, and others beside, came at a physical cost. “The young players were all finished by the time they were in their 30s, really. That is the tragedy,” says Gordon.

But he goes on to point out that not one of them would have traded what they experienced as young men as Aberdeen swept aside all before them, including a team we are bound to describe as Spanish aristocrats, led by the revered Alfredo Di Stefano.

Richard Gordon was a young man, too. He was only 22 when he resolved – after the second goal went in against Waterschei, in an eventual 5-1 semi-final first- leg win – to go to Gothenburg. He had never flown in a plane, let alone been abroad, when Aberdeen altered the lives of those many of their fans, and embarked on an epic journey to the shores of the Swedish city. Some decided against making the trip, convinced that this Aberdeen team would be back there again. It was almost sound reasoning. The Pittodrie side got as far as the semi-finals the following season, but nothing could beat the night they defeated Real Madrid, and nothing has come close since.

It is a victory that stands the test of time; indeed, as Scottish football becomes ever more diminished, and Aberdeen themselves struggle to be included among the top half dozen clubs in the country, this team of European overachievers have come to be held in ever higher esteem. Tonight, at a hotel in Aberdeen, several of them will re-group once again and trade old tales.

“I love to just watch them when they are together, and see their eyes sparkle,” says Gordon, who will be MC for the night, with funds being put back into the youth set up at Pittodrie, in an attempt to create some long overdue new heroes. “It is almost as if they are back in the dressing room again.”

Aberdeen remain the last Scottish side to win a European trophy, following up the win in Sweden with a Super Cup triumph at the end of the year, against Hamburg. But it is that sodden night in Gothenburg which continues to hold its charge, and had Gordon negotiating a special loan from his bank manager (for a ‘fridge’ and ‘carpet’, he smiles). It helped that he worked in a bank at the time, and also that his boss was an ardent Aberdeen fan.

Looking back, he realises that the game itself was very much of its time. “These days, the game would not have been played, the pitch was utterly unplayable,” he says. “And Jim Leighton would have been sent off for conceding the penalty from which Real equalised.”

The banner shown in footage from the game on BBC Alba’s excellent documentary about the European run, aired on Thursday and which is being shown again tonight, also dates the success. “Peter Weir has laid on more balls than Emmanuelle,” is the claim from a group of Aberdonian wags. He laid on the assist for the assist in the build-up to the extra-time winner, dancing around two or three opponents on the left wing, before clipping a ball into McGhee’s path. He crossed for the flying figure of substitute John Hewitt, who, by the time he splashed down on to the turf, had made himself immortal.

For most people, the name Real Madrid conjures up the image of pristine white shirts, and galactico signings. For Aberdeen supporters of a certain vintage, they represent a group of fretting players trading on former glories, in drenched shirts that hung down towards their knees, during what was the Spanish club’s brief and inglorious ‘drowned rat’ period.

It is fair to presume that there won’t be too many celebratory dinners going on in Madrid this evening to mark the occasion when the Spanish giants met their match in the young Dons of old Aberdeen.