Aberdeen have what money can't buy - a soul; a team spirit built in a family tradition.' The legendary Alfredo Di Stefano, Real Madrid manager, uttered those poignant words following his side's defeat in the 1983 European Cup-Winners' Cup final. The crestfallen coach summed up what the Dons were all about under Alex Ferguson. The success achieved during his time at Pittodrie was unprecedented. Never before and certainly not since has a team from the provinces had the temerity to launch such a sustained assault on the Old Firm's dominance. If the Aberdeen side was moulded in Ferguson's character, then they were not for messing with. It all began after strenuous efforts by Dick Donald and Chris Anderson failed to keep Billy McNeill in the manager's job. Ferguson was not unknown to the club: he had been touted as MacLeod's replacement twelve months earlier, but McNeill had been first choice. On this occasion the circumstances were different. Ferguson, who had dragged St Mirren into the Premier League, had fallen out with the Paisley club and was now clear to take up the vacancy. Since his own playing career had come to a close, Ferguson had unleashed his coaching talents with East Stirling and then St Mirren. It appeared a solid grounding, and the Aberdeen job was as big as he could have hoped for. If the board had gone out on a limb a year earlier when appointing the inexperienced McNeill, they took the mightiest gamble with Ferguson.
It was a most unlikely success. Celtic had headed the race for months and, by the time the country emerged from a bitter winter, they were twelve points ahead and cruising. The Dons had a serious backlog of fixtures to catch up on. Gradually Celtic's lead was clawed back, but the Parkhead side did not seem unduly worried about the challenge from the north. They still had to play Aberdeen twice at Parkhead. Anything short of Aberdeen victories in both games would surely send the title to Glasgow. The Dons hit a winning streak and, against the odds, they not only beat Celtic twice in their Parkhead cauldron, but they did so in style.
The closing weeks were nervy times: would Aberdeen hold their nerve? The answer came at a sunny Easter Road in May. A win for the Dons, coupled with Celtic dropping a point at St Mirren, would take the title north. Aberdeen obliged their massive support with a 5-0 win that was full of a swagger unimagined six months previously. As news came through that St Mirren had held Celtic, the Aberdeen support erupted. The League title had come to Pittodrie for only the second time in the club's history. Bobby Clark recalls his memories of that day with a clarity that is hard to imagine, considering it was over twenty years in the past: 'Winning a cup is special, but winning the League is the true mark of a champion. I think I would always have been disappointed if I had not managed a league medal before I retired. We had a very good team and I think Alex Ferguson was the person who gave us the belief to go along with our ability. Alex, as history has shown, had that magic to make teams believe and I think he must take the credit for making the team fulfil its potential. 'The thing that stood out with me was the last five minutes of the game [at Easter Road]. We had clearly beaten Hibs but the key to the equation was the Celtic game at Love Street. I think I was paying more attention to the fans behind my goal with their transistors. After our game finished there was an uncertain pause and then suddenly there was a rush of excitement as the Celtic score came through and the reality of what we had accomplished became clear.'
The mantle of Scottish champions was a fitting way to lay recent ghosts. The Dons had lost the 1978 Scottish Cup final and also two consecutive League Cup finals. The side that won the League did so without Joe Harper, who was never to fully recover from a knee injury sustained in a League Cup-tie at Parkhead in November 1979. Drew Jarvie returned to the side to play a cameo role that brought him vital goals in the run in. Perhaps the jewel in the crown was Gordon Strachan, who finally stamped himself as a player of real class. With the central-defensive duo of Alex McLeish and Willie Miller looking imperious in every sense, Aberdeen were on the threshold of greatness. Pittodrie underwent a major facelift that summer when a cantilever stand was erected over the South Terrace, transforming the ground and making it not only the first all-seated, but also the first all-covered stadium in Britain. No longer would patrons in that stand shiver in the biting wind or drown in the rain. History shows 1980-81 to be a season in which the Dons had nothing to show in terms of silverware, but it was then that they made their debut in the European Cup. After a spirited win over Austrian champions Memphis Vienna, they came up against the might of Liverpool in the second round. Ferguson insists his side learned a painful lesson against the Merseyside giants. A full-house at Pittodrie in the first leg were stunned by McDermott's clever goal for Liverpool. Aberdeen fans have, over the decades, unfairly gained a reputation of not backing their side, but a Liverpool journalist covering the game recalls his belief that had the Dons scored they would have taken the roof off. The experience at Anfield taught rather harsher lessons. After a promising opening, in which the Dons held their own, they fell behind and the floodgates opened. In many respects it was an inexperienced side that was torn apart that day, but the 0-4 defeat was still hard to take.
Alex Ferguson had further tinkered with his side. Jim Leighton had permanently replaced Bobby Clark, while Mark McGhee was now first-choice striker in the wake of Steve Archibald's sale to Tottenham in a near £1 million deal. Some of the youngsters groomed in the Aberdeen tradition had started making their presence felt. Local lads John Hewitt, Neil Simpson and Neale Cooper were already laying claims to regular places, and they were soon joined by Eric Black. Despite leading the race for the title throughout the first half of the season, an inexplicable dip in form in the early weeks of 1981 proved decisive. Once Celtic assumed pole position, Aberdeen found nothing left in their tank. The signing of left-winger Peter Weir from St Mirren in the 1981 close season was to prove a master-stroke. Many observers considered Weir to be the final piece in the Aberdeen jigsaw. The fact that the £330,000 transfer established a new record between Scottish clubs underlines how much the game had evolved. The very idea that the costliest Scottish transfer would involve neither of the Old Firm as buyer or seller would today be unthinkable. Aberdeen posted their intent when they defeated West Ham and Southampton in a pre-season tourney at Pittodrie. Willie Miller celebrated his first ten years with the club in a testimonial against Tottenham. Meanwhile, Joe Harper had slipped quietly away, taking over as player-coach at Peterhead.
The 1981-82 UEFA Cup campaign was as stunning as it was ultimately painful. The Dons reached the third round of a European competition for the first time, knocking out Ipswich and Arges Pitesti. Ipswich under Bobby Robson were defending the UEFA Cup, and displayed no little arrogance when faced with the prospect of opening their defence against the Dons. A gripping 1-1 draw at Portman Road set up a classic Euro night in the Pittodrie return. Robson had publicly claimed that Aberdeen could not play so well a second time, but he had underestimated his team's opponents, and a Peter Weir brace in the second half gave the Dons a 3-1 win. It was in the unlikely outpost of Pitesti, in the heart of an agricultural wasteland in Romania, that the legendary 'tea-cup' throwing tantrums of Alex Ferguson first came to light. The Dons had threatened to squander a three-goal first-leg lead, but the tea-cup missile had the desired effect and the Dons survived. SV Hamburg and 36-year-old sweeper Franz Beckenbauer ought to have been despatched in the third round, and perhaps they would have been but for a catastrophic closing spell at Pittodrie. Aberdeen were set to take a 3-1 lead to Germany, but suicidal late defending gave Hamburg a second goal, transformed the tie, and in the second leg Hamburg mercilessly made Aberdeen pay. In the League, the Dons took the race with Celtic to the last day. Facing Rangers at Pittodrie in a dress rehearsal for the Cup final a week later, the Dons required a five-goal win and needed Celtic to lose at home to St Mirren. At one stage it looked on: Aberdeen had raced in to a four-goal half-time lead, but Celtic responded to the news by turning the screw themselves.
The thrashing of Rangers set the Dons up nicely for the final. Never before or since have a provincial team been such overwhelming favourites against either of the Old Firm in a cup final. Rangers were an ageing lot, with several players about to play their last game in blue. Aberdeen, for their part, were an emerging force which already provided the backbone of the Scotland national side. On paper it was no contest. The final result of 4-1 to the Dons suggested that it was indeed so. However, it took an exquisite shot from Alex McLeish to level the scores, and Aberdeen only really turned the screw in extra-time. They clearly relished the idea of trampling over tiring opponents. Perhaps they were motivated by seeking retribution for previous defeats. In any case, the Dons had claimed the Scottish Cup and done it in style. From start to finish it had been a triumphal journey. John Hewitt's nine-second goal at Motherwell in round three had set the ball rolling, and it was the same player's deft overhead kick in the next round that had put paid to Billy McNeill's Celtic. Aberdeen now embarked upon a season yet to be surpassed. First of all, however, Ferguson had the task of persuading skipper Willie Miller to sign a new contract. Negotiations did not go smoothly, added to which Miller had also been invited to join Rangers as captain!
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