Wednesday, 24 October 2018

1987-89 Scottish League Cup finals: Rangers v Aberdeen

Admittedly it isn’t a sporting trilogy as celebrated as the Ali-Frazier duels, but for pure sporting theatre, the Scottish League Cup finals contested between Rangers and Aberdeen at the end of the 1980s deserve a great deal of respect.

Anything that you may want from a cup final was crammed into the three clashes between 1987-89. Late goals, agonising misses, extra-time, penalty despair, goalkeeping heroics. Perhaps the only thing missing was a red card or two, which was a little surprising given the growing animosity between the clubs.

The Scottish footballing landscape was changing as the latter part of the eighties progressed. The arrival of Graeme Souness in Glasgow combined with the European ban imposed on English clubs saw a number of players moving north of the border to ply their trade. But one of the most significant moves happened in the opposite direction.

Alex Ferguson leaving Aberdeen in 1986 left Ian Porterfield playing the David Moyes role at the club. Following a legend is never easy, and Porterfield would only spend one full season in charge at Pittodrie. Nevertheless, Porterfield came close to winning silverware, only losing out in heart breaking fashion.

The 1987-88 League Cup final was a bona fide classic. Played in front of 71,961 fans at Hampden Park in late October, the match swung one way and another, both Aberdeen and Rangers taking it in turns to have a hand on both the Scottish League Cup and the sponsors’ Skol Cup.

Without the suspended trio of Chris Woods, Terry Butcher, and Souness, Rangers fell behind after just nine minutes when Woods’ deputy, Nicky Walker, brought down Willie Falconer in the box. Jim Bett fired home, but by half-time, Rangers held the upper hand.

A stunning thunderbastard of a free-kick from Davie Cooper, that would still be travelling now if it hadn’t hit the net, levelled matters, and Ian Durrant gave Rangers the lead at the break after a fine surging run into Aberdeen’s box.

It was an afternoon that kept on giving, though. Second half goals from John Hewitt and Falconer appeared to have settled matters, before a dramatic Robert Fleck equaliser three minutes from the end of normal time saved Rangers’ skin.

Ally McCoist would spurn the best chance to win the match in extra-time, after more great work from Durrant put him through on goal. McCoist’s wastefulness was a surprise; on the other hand, the performance of the 20-year-old Durrant was a revelation.

For the first time in the history of the competition, penalties would decide the final. Peter Nicholas would be the unfortunate man to miss from the spot, as Rangers won the shootout 5-3, keeping the Skol Cup after their third win under the sponsors of the competition.

The Glasgow Herald may have used the cliché of the real winner being the game of football, but after the recent bad publicity surrounding the Scottish game, the 1987 match was indeed “a great advert”, to use the words of Souness. Twelve months later, the teams would be at it again.

Porterfield had been replaced by the partnership of Alex Smith and Jocky Scott, but it would be the absence of Durrant that would fan the flames of the rivalry. Neil Simpson’s horror tackle on the Rangers midfielder would rule the talented Durrant out for two and a half years, and eventually result in an out of court settlement.

Coming just a few weeks before the 1988 final, tensions were running high as the teams met once more at Hampden. But at least the action on the pitch provided another classic. Rangers twice took the lead, through a McCoist penalty, and a cracking Ian Ferguson strike, the former consisting of a suicidal throw-in routine involving Theo Snelders and Bobby Connor. But two Davie Dodds goals left the match on a knife-edge.

Bett would blow a glorious chance to win the cup late on, failing to even hit the target when one-on-one with Woods. Aberdeen paid the ultimate price. With just four minutes remaining, McCoist struck from close range, and when Dodds was somehow denied his hat-trick by a combination of Woods and Gary Stevens, Rangers had sneaked home once again.

Bett must have relived his miss endlessly in his head throughout the next year. But at least both the player and club had a chance to gain revenge in the 1989 final. Bett’s fine display in midfield would be matched by that of Snelders in goal, as Aberdeen claimed their first trophy in three years.

Another hero on the day would be Paul Mason. Signed from FC Groningen for £200,000, the Liverpudlian scored both Aberdeen goals, with Smith also quick to praise the contribution of 18-year-old Eoin Jess.

Mason’s first goal was cancelled out when Mark Walters converted a controversial penalty, after Willie Miller had been adjudged to have fouled McCoist – “Well, that is quite remarkable,” commentator Jock Brown declared, when describing the decision – and Rangers would hit the woodwork three times in a strong first half display.

The rest of the match was nip and tuck, end to end Cup football played out in front of a cracking atmosphere, the crowd of 61,190 making their voices heard. It would take extra-time to separate the teams, but this script would have a happier ending for Aberdeen fans.

Snelders excelled in the extra half an hour, pulling off two crucial saves either side of Mason’s 103rd minute winner. Winning a Caribbean holiday laid on by Skol for being top scorer in the competition (along with McCoist), Mason described his delight and surprise: “I never believed I’d ever play at Hampden, never mind score in the final.”

The 1989 final was a fitting end to a decade of Scottish League Cup finals dominated by Rangers and Aberdeen. It may not have contained as much drama as the previous two years, but as Roddy Forsyth described it in the Times, it was “not a great vintage, but an entirely acceptable production nevertheless.”

The trio of matches the clubs provided in those consecutive finals will live long in the memory for any supporters lucky enough to have witnessed them. Sporting drama at its best, heroes and villains aplenty, and enough talking points to allow for an average blog on them roughly 30 years later.

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