“Beat the Old Firm. In their own backyards. Silence 50-60,000 Glaswegians. If you don’t you can forget about stopping for fish and chips in Stonehaven on the way back up the road.”
I presume Fergie’s mantra is in the Hampden museum, maybe pinned to the back of the door, which was where, en route to the park, the Dandy Dons might have found a newspaper cutting questioning their credentials as bona fide challengers to Celtic and Rangers. It certainly should be on prominent display.
And now, aged 79, officially retired but the preeminent emeritus professor of dressing-room psychology, he’s offering his old club his services as an unpaid consultant and telling them what they need to do in the post-Derek McInnes era: beat the Old Firm. In their own backyards. Silence 50,000-60,000 Glaswegians.
“Thanks a lot,” might have been groaningly sarcastic response of some of the faithful. “Where the hell do you expect us to find a manager who can make that happen? Er, are you doing anything at the moment? … ”
Fergie, in trying to help Aberdeen revive the glory days, has been marking the card of the Pittodrie chairman Dave Cormack. “It was really nice of Sir Alex [to do this],” Cormack said. “He reminded me that perhaps there’s pundits in the media who don’t want Aberdeen to do well. He said: ‘Find a coach that you can work with, someone who will go to Glasgow and aim to beat Celtic and Rangers. Don’t look for second-best as far as that goes.’”
The great man is not so conceited that he’s saying “find Fergie II” but that’s kind of what he means. The new boss will have to be absolutely bloody relentless, just like he was. Billy Stark, who goes all the way back to St Mirren with Fergie, told me he was a “whirlwind” even then. “In any walk of life I’ve never met anyone so driven.”
Can any boss nowadays be that driven? “It all comes from his background,” said his Pittodrie No 2 Archie Knox. “Govan lad, having to fight all the way, that absolute determination to succeed.”
I’ve interviewed a number of Dons greats over the years, each with slightly different recollections of how the bar would be set. But make no mistake: set it was. Stark remembered that Fergie wanted two trophies per season, minimum. Alex McLeish remembered him insisting on European qualification every campaign - “He’d say to us: ‘You don’t want to be stuck at home watching Coronation Street’.” And Mark McGhee remembered the manager’s stated aim of a Euro trophy within five years and wondered how this would be possible. But it was.
Neale Cooper, RIP, did the best Fergie impressions and Doug Rougvie offered this choice description: “One minute he was a genius, the next a bully … aye, he was a genius-bully!” Without exception, Fergie’s men make fascinating subjects. They’ve got the best material - Fergie - but it’s more than that. McGhee again: “We had McLeish, [Willie] Miller, [Gordon] Strachan, all bright, thinking guys, and then there was Stewart Kennedy who we called our Philadelphia lawyer because he was the one who’d knock on Fergie’s door and argue the case for our bonuses. What people forget or don’t know about the man is that he liked a challenge. I had plenty of full and frank discussion with him. ‘Uh-oh here we go,’ he used to say, ‘it’s McGhee and his big words.’”
Mind you, Fergie didn’t welcome every challenge. An older, grumblier group he dubbed the “Westhill Willy-biters” were moved on. Chief Willy-biter Joe Harper’s bust-up with the boss was bizarre for happening right after a Hogmanay party filmed by Grampian TV in the autumn, this to avoid any mayhem on the night (ha ha). Harper told me: “I was just about to start on some haggis, neeps and tatties when Fergie said ‘You with your weight problem cannae be eating that’ and threw the plate into a sink.” The row, which continued at the ground the next day, ended with Harper slugging the future knight of the realm.
This would never happen now, not in the age of player power, agent influence, managers forsaking the old disciplinarian ways and trying to baffle with science and touchy-feeliness. And sadly you have to wonder if the magnificent Aberdeen challenge of the 1980s (and that of Dundee United) could happen now.
The two Jocks, Stein and Wallace, had departed the Old Firm, leaving Celtic and Rangers vulnerable to the Reds revolution. The Big Two were still sharing out their gate money. Satellite TV with its riches didn’t exist. The Euro competitions weren’t paying out millions. Even a young, ferocious, zealous Fergie coming along now would struggle to have the same impact on this unlevel playing field when diddy has become diddier.
Some things haven’t changed, though, and Fergie clearly believes in conspiracies with that remark to Cormack about establishment resistance to Aberdeen progress. True or not, it’s how he fired up his men, as Dougie Bell confirmed: “He hammered into us how the press were based in Glasgow, didn’t like having to trudge all the way up to Pittodrie and just wanted to fall out of their offices and report on yet another triumph for Celtic or Rangers.”
The message hit home, all right. Miller, when I interviewed him about his 14 victories over Celtic in Glasgow, point-blank refused to accept three decades down the line that I’d found one success - 2-0 at Parkhead in 1980, a Walker McCall double - which didn’t involve him. That’s the kind of winner Fergie created. Good luck, Fergie II, whoever you may be.