Monday, 29 February 2016

1983-84: Aberdeen

Aberdeen may fall short in their bid for Scottish Premiership success in 2015/16, but in the 1983/84 season it was a very different tale.

As an Aberdeen fan you may have been forgiven for thinking that things could not get any better than the night of Wednesday May 11, 1983. For the thousands who had made their way to Gothenburg on fishing boats and for those who had slept rough in the streets, the trip was most definitely worth it. Winning the European Cup Winners' Cup was an outstanding achievement, even more so when you consider that Aberdeen defeated Bayern Munich in the quarter final, and the mighty Real Madrid on that unforgettable wet Wednesday in Sweden. How could you better that?

Fortunately for Aberdeen, they had a young manager who was never willing to rest on his laurels. A man who had already played his part in establishing half of the New Firm in Scotland, and was not about to take his foot off the pedal after the celebrations in Gothenburg had subsided and the hangovers cleared. Alex Ferguson had already brought a great deal of success to Aberdeen during his reign, more than the club's loyal supporters could ever of dreamt of. Nevertheless, there was still more to come.

Just take a look at the honours won under Alex Ferguson before the start of the 1983/84 season: a Scottish Premier Division in 1979/80; back-to-back Scottish Cups in 1981/82 and 1982/83; and of course the memorable European Cup Winners' Cup in 1983. Ferguson was hungry for success, though, and had built a young squad shaped in his own image, all seemingly addicted to success. Fortunately for all involved, the 1983/84 season would take in further highs, with Aberdeen scooping three trophies and coming close to another two. Heady days indeed.

In his time at Aberdeen, Ferguson had "formed a squad who are the envy of every club in the land", to use the words of The Times' Hugh Taylor. A top class keeper in Jim Leighton, playing behind a rock solid defence including the centre defensive partnership of skipper Willie Miller and Alex McLeish, provided the foundations, Aberdeen only conceding 21 goals in their 36 league matches with 21 clean sheets on the way.

A hard-working midfield ably shielded the back four, Neil Simpson, Neale Cooper, and Doug Bell key cogs in this, with the width coming from Peter Weir and Gordon Strachan. And up front Mark McGhee, Eric Black and John Hewitt scored over 50 goals between them, the former attracting the attentions of European clubs as the season progressed.

Since winning the Premier Division in 1979/80, Aberdeen had come very close to repeating the feat. Runners-up in 1980/81 and 1981/82, and third in 1982/83 - just a point behind champions Dundee United - the club were understandably viewed as favourites for the title before the season kicked off. Celtic were trying to come to terms with the departure of manager Billy McNeill and star man Charlie Nicholas, with Rangers experiencing a period of relative decline, not finishing in the top two since 1978/79. Defending champions Dundee United would be strong contenders once again, and it was a sign of the times that the New Firm clubs were tipped for major successes at the start of the season.

Results in August certainly suggested that he season ahead would be prosperous, although there would be much bigger tests to come. An impressive 3-0 win against Dundee at Pittodrie on the opening day was slightly tarnished by the fact that Strachan suffered a leg injury and would miss the next eight matches, yet with new signing Billy Stark slotting in well, Strachan's absence wasn't telling.

Stark would score a hat-trick in the 9-0 League Cup Second Round first leg thrashing of First Division Raith Rovers, but even this was overshadowed by Eric Black's four goals, as Aberdeen easily progressed to the group stage. Dundee, St Johnstone and Meadowbank Thistle were never likely to cause Ferguson too many sleepless nights, and so it would prove. Five wins and a draw saw Aberdeen top the group with ease, to set up a semi-final clash with Celtic scheduled for February.

After a 5-0 demolition of St Johnstone, Aberdeen dropped their first point of the season in a 1-1 draw at Motherwell, John Gahagan's goal the the first conceded by Leighton in 530 minutes of action. However, a 2-0 win at Ibrox against a woeful Rangers pleased Ferguson greatly. "Rangers were unlucky to catch us on a day when our concentration and commitment were total. We had some exceptional performances this afternoon," Ferguson commented, as the pressure on Rangers' boss Jim Greig increased.

There were no such problems for Ferguson, although he would show his fiery side as autumn approached. A first defeat of the season against Dundee United at a packed Pittodrie saw Aberdeen slip three points behind the visitors, Celtic and Hearts, and in the days of two points for a win left Ferguson talking of the "uphill fight on our hands". Full back John McMaster's missed penalty proved crucial, as shortly after Dundee United doubled their lead, and although the returning Strachan scored his own penalty after coming off the bench, the champions looked to have landed a big psychological blow for the rest of the campaign.

Two wins seemed to suggest that Aberdeen had recovered from their loss, a Peter Weir double handing Hearts their first defeat, and two goals from Stark against his old club St Mirren helping the Dons to another 5-0 win, yet a 2-1 defeat at Hibs resulted in Ferguson blowing his top publicly. He had history in this regard, his bollocking handed out after his team had beaten Rangers 1-0 in the 1983 Scottish Cup final going down in folklore. With anger oozing from every pore, Ferguson labelled his team's display that day at Hampden Park as a "disgraceful performance", and although he may have later apologised, his players were unquestionably made aware of the standards expected at Aberdeen.

Aberdeen had begun the defence of their European Cup Winners' Cup trophy in laboured fashion, a 3-2 aggregate win over the Icelandic team Akranes described as "undignified" in The Times, and on the eve of their second round match against Beveren, Ferguson decided that his players needed another tongue lashing. Accusing his players of a lack of professionalism, Ferguson even went as far as hinting that he might need to break up his side. "I have to face up to the realities before it is too late," Ferguson fumed. "Great clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and Celtic had no hesitation in breaking up their sides."

If Ferguson wanted a reaction, then he most definitely got one. Aberdeen's 0-0 draw in Belgium was mainly down to a fine performance by international keeper Jean-Marie Pfaff, and an easy 4-1 win in the second leg put the holders through to the quarter finals. But this only tells part of the story. Post-rant, Aberdeen would embark on a run of 27 matches unbeaten in all competitions, take 30 out of a possible 32 points in the league, win a European trophy/plaque, and at one point appeared to have a realistic target of winning five trophies. The very open dressing down seemed to have done the trick.

The league run started with an emphatic 3-1 win over Celtic, goals from Hewitt, McLeish and Strachan pushing Aberdeen back into second a just a point behind leaders Dundee United. Six straight wins propelled Aberdeen to the top and opened up a three point lead, with many memorable performances. A Hewitt hat trick resulted in another 5-0 defeat for St Johnstone; Rangers were totally outclassed, 19-year-old midfielder Ian Porteous scoring the last goal in a 3-0 win; and a pivotal 2-0 win away at Dundee United, pushed Aberdeen's odds out to 4/5 for the title, with Ferguson gushing about his team's form. "I cannot remember us playing so well at this time of the year. I think we always play much better during the second half of the season, and if that's to be the case this time, it's going to be marvellous for us."

During this period, Greig had resigned his post at Rangers, and naturally Aberdeen fans must have been fearful that Ferguson was perceived as the number one choice to fill the vacant role. Any worries were banished, however, when Ferguson put pen to paper on a new five-year deal worth £250,000, and when Dundee United manager Jim McLean also turned down the Rangers job, it gave a clear indication of the relative positions of the clubs involved at the time. Come the end of the season, Ferguson would also reject three separate moves by Tottenham. "I like preaching loyalty to my players, now I have to set an example myself."

Player loyalty would be an issue as the season end neared, with Aberdeen's success attracting plenty of other clubs to Ferguson and his staff. Indeed in December, Aberdeen's number two Archie Knox would leave the club (he would be replaced by Willie Garner), taking up the manager's hot seat at Dundee, with full back Doug Rougvie, Strachan and McGhee departing after the Scottish Cup final. The unfortunate side effect of a successful team is that ultimately the vultures will circle around, especially if the club involved is a relative minnow.

Ferguson would cope with these departures though, but one position that he had struggled to fill was that of right back. Stuart Kennedy's career ending injury before Gothenburg had seen Ferguson try a variety of options as a replacement - Rougvie, Cooper, and 19-year-old Tommy McIntyre all featuring - but it would be the purchase of Stewart McKimmie in December for £90,000 from Dundee that would go a long way to solving the problem. McKimmie would spend 14 years at Aberdeen; his second appearance at his new club would be some occasion.

A 2-0 win over European Cup holders Hamburg at Pittodrie added the European Super Cup to Aberdeen's trophy cabinet, or should that be a rather underwhelming plaque; vice-chairman Chris Anderson had enquired about a more fitting prize for the winners, but his appeal met deaf ears. After drawing the first leg 0-0 in Germany - mainly due to excellent performances from Leighton, Miller and McLeish - Simpson and McGhee scored in the return leg to earn Aberdeen their second European trophy.

The excellence of Aberdeen's squad was beginning to be recognised at a higher level, with international call-ups for Leighton, Miller, McLeish, Rougvie, Cooper, Strachan, Weir, and McGhee at various points of the season, along with places in under-21 parties for reserve keeper Bryan Gunn, Simpson, Bell, Black, and Hewitt. As 1984 progressed, this squad would be tested to the max, the winter in Scotland causing postponements and fixture congestion that created many a headache.

At the turn of the year, Aberdeen held a healthy four point lead over Celtic, but would only play one match in the whole of January, a scrappy 1-1 draw at Ibrox which saw Black sent off along with Rangers' Ally Dawson. The situation was hardly helped when a power failure and then a blizzard meant Aberdeen's match against St Johnstone was abandoned at half-time with the Dons leading 3-0. Ferguson took his players off to Marbella for a break, yet with fixtures piling up as much as the snow in Scotland, the last four months of the season would be hectic to say the least.

A 1-0 win over Celtic at the start of February stretched Aberdeen's lead to six points, on an afternoon that once again showed Leighton at his finest. In truth Aberdeen rode their luck, leading the Glasgow Herald's Ian Paul to write that "Aberdeen illustrated the old football truism that champions win even when they don't play well." It didn't quite put the league to bed, but for the next few weeks cup football would dominate proceedings.

The last thing needed in Aberdeen's diary was a cup replay, but a late equaliser scored by Brian Gallagher gave First Division Kilmarnock another chance in the Scottish Cup third round, the replay at Rugby Park played just two days later. Aberdeen won 3-1, before beating Clyde 2-0 in the fourth round, in a six day period that had seen them contest three cup ties. There was little time to rest, however, with the League Cup semi-final looming against Celtic.

The first leg at Pittodrie had ended goalless, Strachan hitting the bar on a night when Arsenal caretaker manager Don Howe was in the crowd to watch the man who was attracting a lot of interest south of the border. Alas the return leg proved a step too far for Ferguson's team, a 1-0 loss ending hopes of a clean sweep of trophies, Celtic's goal coming from a hotly disputed penalty awarded by referee Bob Valentine. It would not be the last we would hear of Valentine in 1984.

The League Cup disappointment had come just three days after a defeat in the quarter finals of the Cup Winners' Cup that appeared to have ended Aberdeen's hold on the trophy. Despite avoiding the giants of Juventus, Barcelona, and Manchester United, a 2-0 defeat in Hungary against Ujpest Dozsa left Ferguson irate regarding missed opportunities, Aberdeen losing their first match in 27. When this was followed by the Celtic defeat, and then a 0-0 draw at Pittodrie against Dundee United in the Scottish Cup quarter finals, Aberdeen were in danger of exiting three cup competitions in as many weeks.

The mini wobble was averted in some style. On a glorious night in the Granite City, a Mark McGhee brace - the second scored with just three minutes to go after fine work by another young cab off the rank in Willie Falconer - sent the match into extra time. When McGhee completed his hat trick, and Hungarian keeper Jozsef Szendrei was later sent off for headbutting McLeish, the comeback was complete.

"Whatever happens you can be certain that we will be absolutely exhausted at the end," Ferguson had proclaimed before the match, so part of him must have been pleased when Aberdeen's next league match at Dundee United was postponed due to a flooded pitch (Aberdeen fans that had arrived at Tannadice were probably less chuffed). On the other hand this did little to help the growing fixture congestion. From this point on, Aberdeen would play 17 matches in just 50 days.

The road to a third successive Scottish Cup final continued, with both Dundee clubs beaten on the way to Hampden Park. In the quarter final replay, McGhee scored after two minutes and Aberdeen, aided by a strong performance by Leighton and some poor Dundee United finishing, held on for a semi-final date at Tynecastle with Knox's Dundee. A comfortable 2-0 win, with Porteous and Strachan scoring, set up another encounter with Celtic (and Bob Valentine), but before then there would be a rare low moment in an otherwise joyous season.

When the draw was made for the Cup Winners' Cup semi, many felt that Aberdeen had drawn the easiest option in Porto, avoiding the mighty Juventus, and a Battle of Britain against Manchester United. In fact, bookies immediately installed Aberdeen as 2/1 favourites to win the tournament, yet Ferguson knew the size of the task ahead. "We will have to play well. But if we do I am certain we are capable of reaching the final."

Sadly Aberdeen would fall just short in two very closely fought matches. A 1-0 defeat in Portugal looked to have set up the second leg nicely, Ferguson adamant that Aberdeen had accomplished the hardest part and that Porto would not enjoy the prospect of defending a single goal lead in Scotland. But try as they might, Aberdeen failed to break down a strong Porto side, who would provide nine of Portugal's squad that would go close to reaching the final of Euro 84. A 76th minute strike from Silva killed any chances of Aberdeen becoming the first team to successfully defend the Cup Winners' Cup, but fast forward a week and the mood was a lot different.

A 1-0 defeat at Celtic at the end of March and a 1-1 draw against Hearts in the next league match had given Celtic a glimmer of hope, yet the door was resoundingly slammed by Ferguson's team. Six straight wins put Aberdeen on the brink of the title, and a trip to Edinburgh on Wednesday May 2 proved to be the coronation. McKimmie's first career goal sealed the deal, Ferguson celebrating with his players on the pitch in front of the travelling support, with the champagne flowing in the dressing room afterwards.

The title was claimed with four league games remaining, but inevitably minds started drifting towards the Scottish Cup final. They may well have lost their final league match 3-2 at St Mirren, but it gives a good idea of just how strong Aberdeen's defence was that even with the goals conceded at Love Street (without Miller and McLeish) the champions had gone through the whole season letting just nine goals in away from home.

Before the cup final, it was announced that Strachan and McGhee were to leave at the end of the season, moving to Manchester United and Hamburg respectively. Their transfers were hardly unexpected, but when Rougvie left for Chelsea later in the summer, Ferguson was faced with the task of rebuilding the team, but it was a challenge that he was openly relishing; Ferguson had bought Stark at the start of the season fully predicting that Strachan would leave, and would later sign Frank McDougall to cover McGhee's departure.

But the rebuilding could wait. On May 19, Aberdeen had the chance to win their third Scottish Cup in a row - only Rangers had done that in the 20th century - and become the first team outside of the Glasgow giants to win the double. Priced as 11/8 favourites (to win in 90 minutes), all looked to be going smoothly enough when Black scored the opener after 24 minutes - although Celtic's players were adamant that the striker was offside - but a decision taken by referee Valentine after 38 minutes would turn a final that had initially flourished into a scrappy affair.

Roy Aitken's sending off for a crunching tackle on McGhee changed the complexion of the match. Celtic were furious, manager David Hay later citing pre-match interference by SFA secretary Ernie Walker who had demanded that the final be a showpiece occasion, and with previous gripes regarding Valentine - at the end of the League Cup final, Valentine had to be protected by police after Celtic's players attempted to protest over two penalties he had awarded Rangers - feelings were running high.

It was great credit to Celtic that they managed to take the match to extra-time, Paul McStay equalising with nine minutes remaining, but they were out on their feet during the extra half hour. When McGhee slammed home his last ever goal for Aberdeen in the 98th minute, the double was secured. The cup may not have been won in style, but with yet another trophy in the cabinet it didn't really matter. Thousands of supporters lined the streets of Aberdeen to celebrate the win, and 15,000 turned up at Pittodrie to see the cup paraded. The culmination of a stunning campaign.

63 (and a half) matches; a League title won with four games to spare; 25 league matches won out of 32 by the time the championship was secured; just 21 goals league conceded (16 in "live" matches); a third consecutive Scottish Cup and the first double claimed outside of the Old Firm; two semi-finals, including a sterling defence of the European Cup Winners' Cup; and the European Super Cup success, making Aberdeen the only Scottish club to have won two European trophies. Now that's what I call an impressive football season.

You might also enjoy.....

Hearts 1985/86:
http://www.theguardian.com/football/that-1980s-sports-blog/2015/may/01/albert-kidd-day-hearts-dundee-hibs-celtic-1986

Dundee United 1986/87:
http://www.theguardian.com/football/that-1980s-sports-blog/2015/mar/18/dundee-united-1986-1987-barcelona-uefa-cup-scottish-premiership

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