A northern light: Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen years

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Carly Simon clearly had Sir Alex Ferguson in mind when she penned the wonderful theme for The Spy Who Loved Me; nobody does it better. It will take a man of special quality to even attempt to do half of what Sir Alex has achieved at Old Trafford. After making the decision to watch Sky Sports News over The Queen’s Speech it did hit home how this man has been a totemic influence in the English game. There was however something of a glaring omission from the coverage of today’s events, that being Fergie’s Scottish connection. After all, a story has to start somewhere.

It was a long time ago admittedly and anything achieved with Manchester United would trump anything accomplished by a manager in Scotland but it was here where Ferguson was shaped and moulded by his upbringing, his career and his first steps in coaching. The man bears all the hallmarks of a ship that was, as they saying goes, “Clyde built”; steely, resolute, willing to travel but utterly indomitable.

Ferguson’s achievements at Aberdeen in the 1980s are almost identikit to what he has achieved since leaving the Granite City for England’s North West. When he took over from a Celtic Park bound Billy McNeil in 1978 Ferguson was faced with the task of reviving a side who had flattered to deceive despite regular cup final appearances throughout the decade. A more pressing matter was Aberdeen’s title drought, with Scotland’s top prize last residing at Pittodrie in 1955. He also faced with an unfavourable environment; Rangers had secured their fourth domestic treble, beating Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup Final and Celtic had been left in a strong state by the then Godfather figure of Scottish football, Jock Stein. When first arriving at United they had not won the title since the 1960s and he had the rather unfavourable welcoming committee of that Liverpool team and Arsenal to contend with.

What transpired was a whirlwind which shook Scottish football’s comfortable and dusty foundations. In the same way that Brian Clough had taken unfashionable Nottingham Forest from the realms far beyond near obscurity into orbit, Ferguson stamped his authority over Aberdeen and they were all the better for it ; three league championships, four Scottish Cups, a Dryborough Cup and the League Cup were all taken by Ferguson’s Aberdeen.

These were heady days for city and club alike; the city was at its brash and prosperous height amidst the North Sea oil boom and its team acted as a motif for this new found confidence. The siege mentality fostered by Ferguson at United was first perfected here; he took players who had been rejected by the Glasgow clubs such as Willie Miller and Alex McLeish and used their rejection as a sense of empowerment. This was a powerful emotion in Ferguson; he himself had been jettisoned by Rangers as a player following an abject display in a cup final against Celtic. He showed the stuffy custodians of the Ibrox boardroom and indeed their counterparts at Parkhead that Glasgow was not an impenetrable fortress; his teams would regularly leave Ibrox and Parkhead with the spoils of victory. He even, if you believe the talk of certain wags in Glasgow’s spit and sawdust bars, rejected the opportunity to succeed John Greig as manager at Ibrox. Scottish football will never again see an era when Glasgow’s footballing giants were brought to heel by a provincial upstart. Since Ferguson left Pittodrie, Aberdeen have been humiliated 9-0 at Celtic Park and have failed to triumph at Ibrox since the very early 1990s, unthinkable given that this club once soundly thumped Rangers 4-1 on the national stage , a Scottish Cup Final at Hampden.

It was also on the continent that Ferguson showed bravura and above all his incredible quality. If you asked a foreigner about Scottish clubs in Europe, Celtic’s European Cup triumph in 1967 and Rangers’ 1972 Cup Winners’ Cup defeat of Dynamo Moscow would have been the extent of their knowledge, along with the national team’s capacity for self-immolation on the world stage. Ferguson thrust Aberdeen onto that pantheon ; Bayern Munich and Hamburg to name but a few were defeated but most memorably of all in 1983 in Gothenburg’s driving rain Real Madrid were defeated as Aberdeen won the European Cup Winners’ Cup. The very idea of Aberdeen winning in Europe, let alone against a team like Real Madrid is utterly incredulous, but Ferguson made it seem normal.

His achievements at Aberdeen are the stuff of true legend and sadly stuck in the shadow of his achievements in leading Manchester United. Scottish football has not been the same without him; save for the odd flutter at the beginning of Rangers’ decade of dominance in the 1990s Aberdeen have suffered the ignominy of being relegated, only to be saved by Falkirk’s ground not being of SPL standard.

In the list of working class Scottish men who have shaped British football Ferguson is a worthy successor to Busby and Stein. I would argue that he is the greatest of the lot, as he managed to transcend the ages and seemingly have an answer for everything. This man has shown some of the truly fine qualities which can occasionally mark a Glaswegian man out as being made of something which gives him that special edge. While some of the media coverage of today’s news has shown a marked ignorance of Ferguson’s past, Alexander Chapman Ferguson would never forget it; Clyde built, Aberdeen perfected.

2 COMMENTS

  1. “anything achieved with Manchester United would trump anything accomplished by a manager in Scotland” – what an obtuse comment to make.

    • I think that depends in what context you take that statement. If the writer means to say that the Scottish League is not a proper challenge and therefore any achievements made in that League aren’t as impressive, then yes, it appears obtuse, especially as what Ferguson did with Aberdeen- breaking Celtic and Ranger’s hold on Scottish football – was no mean feat.

      However, I think what he means is that, as Manchester United and the Premier League are in a different stratosphere in terms of footballing quality, finance and global status, achieving success with Manchester United trumps anything that can possibly be achieved by a Scottish manager in terms of the global impact it has on football.

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