When Paul Sturrock, Dundee United’s talismanic striker from their glory days in the 1980s, returned to his old stomping ground Tannadice Park recently, he received a standing ovation from the adoring public. The players weren’t quite so appreciative that a legend walked in their midst: “It’s a bit of a shame with the team now, because the players were going: ‘What’s all this clapping for?’ Half of them didn’t know me from Adam. They just saw this fat bastard walking along the track waving at everybody, thinking: ‘Who’s he?’”
Sturrock had been part of a team that had reached the European Cup semi-final in 1984 and the UEFA Cup final of 1987, staggering achievements for a club of Dundee United’s size, yet many of the club’s current players didn’t seem to know who he was. Perhaps therein lies part of the story of the decline of Scottish football in the years since United and Aberdeen laid waste to Europe’s elite.
At the point of writing, St. Johnstone have gone out of the Europa League to Alashkert FC of Armenia in the first qualifying round; Inverness Caledonian Thistle lost to Astra Giurgiu of Romania in the second; and Aberdeen exited at the hands of Kazakhstan’s FC Kairat at the same stage. Celtic, having squeaked through their Champions League qualifier against FK Qarabag of Azerbaijan, are the sole Scottish team left in European competition in mid-August.
Between them in the 1980s, Aberdeen and Dundee United put to the sword, among others, Barcelona, Monaco, Borussia Mönchengladbach (twice), PSV Eindhoven, Werder Bremen, Rapid Vienna, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Hamburg. It makes for staggering reading, and yet it seems some young Scottish footballers, aspiring to make their way in the game, couldn’t pick the players involved out of a line-up.
The average Scottish footballer would likely have problems identifying Peter Weir, a wonderfully talented wide midfielder in Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering Dons team of the ’80s, yet Weir is that rarest of things: a Scotsman who destroyed Real Madrid on the biggest stage. Despite that, he earned a paltry six international caps and until recently was operating a baggage recovery truck at Glasgow airport, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “Weir, driving in from the wing”.
Perhaps the Scottish penchant for self-deprecation and mickey-taking has as much to do with these players’ lack of prominence as modern ignorance. In Glory In Gothenburg, Richard Gordon’s paean to the Aberdeen side that won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983, Gordon Strachan describes his former teammates: “When I look at a picture of that group I say ‘legendary’, but when I see them individually I go, ‘That’s my mate; there’s Dingus [Mark McGhee], he eats too much; there’s Willie [Miller], he’s bald as a coot; big Alex [McLeish] is getting fat …’”
Strachan’s affectionate barbs are a Scotsman’s way of keeping his friends’ feet on the ground, of not letting them “get aheid ae thirsels”. But when Alex Ferguson swept into Pittodrie in 1978, he did away with the Presbyterian pessimism that so often plagues Scottish football clubs. His first demand was that his players break the dominance of Glasgow’s big two, Celtic and Rangers. “I think if we’d gone to Glasgow in previous years and got a point, that was a big plus,” said Neale Cooper, a combative midfielder at the time. “But he made us go there with the attitude to win the game and nothing but that.”
Ferguson himself was derisive when remembering a visit to Ibrox during his first season as Aberdeen manager: “I remember going there just when we arrived and we drew 1-1 with Rangers at Ibrox … and they’re all dancing and doing cartwheels in the dressing room at getting a point, you know? In a way that disappointed me, that … But all that changed. All that changed.”
One way in which Ferguson effected change was by nurturing a siege mentality among his players to build them up for their visits to Glasgow. His assistant at Aberdeen, Archie Knox, remembers Ferguson ramming home the message: “Everybody’s against you. The supporters are against you, the press are against you, you’ve just got to go and prove off your own bat that you’re capable of beating them.”
After finishing fourth in the league in 1979, Ferguson and his team sensationally won the championship in his second season in charge, wresting the trophy away from Celtic and Rangers for the first time since 1965. Aberdeen’s manager celebrated the victory wildly, famously running onto the pitch to throw himself upon the veteran goalkeeper Bobby Clark, and his unrestrained joy betrayed the significance of the victory for Aberdeen. Alex McLeish, a commanding centre-half in that side, is in no doubt of what that championship meant to the players: “The league championship win was the platform. That gave us the core belief that we could do something special.”
Scotland now knew Ferguson’s ravenous desire to win, and Europe was next on his agenda. Any players who were content merely with domestic success were coldly cast aside. “He had an insatiable appetite to continually climb the next peak,” said Eric Black, a beautifully balanced striker in that vintage Aberdeen side. “You either climbed the peaks with him or you disappeared.”
One of the disappeared was the popular winger Ian Scanlon, who played his last European game for the Dons in a 4-0 drubbing by Bob Paisley’s iconic Liverpool side that served as a brutal footballing lesson, Liverpool’s canny superstars making Aberdeen look very naive indeed. Liverpool won the tie 5-0 on aggregate and left Ferguson so angry that he banned the players from laughing on the coach back up from Anfield. “The Liverpool players had a bit of grit and nastiness about them – good qualities when you need them – and they were well armed in the psychological war department,” said Ferguson.
Scanlon departed Aberdeen soon after, bound for St. Mirren alongside a swag bag of £330,000, with Peter Weir coming the other way in what was a club-record transfer for Aberdeen at the time. By the time Aberdeen faced English opposition again in Europe, Ipswich Town in the following season’s UEFA Cup, they were ready – and so was Weir.
Having endured a tough start to the season at Aberdeen with the fans, still loyal to Scanlon, on his back, Weir had a lot to prove. Ipswich, UEFA Cup holders at the time, provided him the ideal opportunity. The English side possessed a squad packed with talent including Dutchmen Arnold Mühren and Frans Thijssen, the Scottish duo of John Wark and Alan Brazil, and England internationals Terry Butcher, Russell Osman and Mick Mills.
Aberdeen gave Ipswich an unexpected bloody nose with a 1-1 draw in the away leg at Portman Road, John Hewitt levelling the tie from close range after a corner was headed into his path by Alex McLeish. The goal introduced two sights that would become part of the iconography of Aberdeen in Europe: a well-rehearsed dead-ball routine and a star-jump celebration from Hewitt.
Aberdeen’s preparation for the return leg at Pittodrie proved they had learned their psychological lessons from the Liverpool game the previous season. There had been little warmth between the sides in the run-up to the game and Archie Knox escalated the cold war with a daring bit of espionage, pressing his ear up to an air vent connected to the away dressing room as Ipswich manager Bobby Robson delivered his team talk. He was delighted with what he heard.
“Bobby Robson went through the whole gambit that night about stuffing it to us Jocks,” said Knox. The message was conveyed to an already keyed-up Aberdeen side who went out onto the pitch “really riled up”, according to Weir. Quite how inspirational Ipswich’s resident Jocks Wark and Brazil found Robson’s speech is not known, although the former’s pathetic concession of a first-half penalty suggests he was perhaps suffering from divided loyalties.
If the Aberdeen fans were yearning for Scanlon at the start of the game, it was Ipswich’s Mick Mills who was wishing he had played by the end of it. By then, Weir had announced himself as a major talent, floating in from the flank with those floppy, Eddie Gray-style hands that used to be copyrighted by Scottish wingers to smash in two goals, one with either foot, and help Aberdeen to a sensational 3-1 victory on the night.
Mills was England’s captain at the time but Weir left him with his pants around his ankles. “At no stage of my career have I seen a top international player getting a bigger doing,” said Willie Miller. Coming from a Scotsman with experience of playing in his country’s calamitous World Cup campaigns, that is quite a statement.
Aside from his ability to beat a man, Weir’s range of passing with either foot was on display against Ipswich. As he strode forward in the second half, socks around his ankles, and swept the ball effortlessly into John Hewitt’s path, it became apparent that this was a special player. As the fans purred, the relief of acceptance washed over the boyhood Aberdeen fan.
With their defeat of top-quality English opposition, Ferguson’s side had climbed another peak, but this time their European adventure ended in the quarter-finals, with Hamburg and Franz Beckenbauer proving insurmountable over two legs. A 3-2 first-leg win at Pittodrie against top German opposition was not to be sniffed at, however: after all, how often do those come along?
Although they had trounced Swiss side Sion 11-1 on aggregate in the preliminary round of the 1982-83 Cup Winners’ Cup, and despite the clear progress they had made under Ferguson in Europe, Aberdeen did not enter the first round proper with any real aspirations of winning the trophy. “I think we just thought it was going to be another round, we were going to get more duty free,” said McGhee. “I think that was as far as we looked.”
The players would eventually become miraculous on the field later in the competition, but they needed a stuffy 1-0 aggregate win to dispose of Albanians Dinamo Tirana in the first round. Ferguson, wary of the local cuisine in the desperately impoverished Eastern Bloc country, brought Aberdeen’s food for the trip with him: in the days before club nutritionists, that consisted of cornflakes and Mars bars. Reports of a military coup the night before the game heightened tensions among the Scots-speaking Dons players: “Some of our boys thought there was a cow escaped,” said Cooper.
Polish side Lech Poznań were comfortably taken care of in the second round, with Weir among the scorers in a 3-0 aggregate victory. So far in Europe, Aberdeen had played six, won five, drawn one, scored 15 and conceded just once. Despite this formidable record, they were still expected to be fodder for the well-oiled West German cannon that was Bayern Munich.
The Germans’ name carried the weight of the three successive European Cup wins in the mid-70s, but the current side, although boasting the undeniable class of Klaus Augenthaler, Paul Breitner, Dieter Hoeneß and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, were in the middle of a rare fallow period (for Bayern Munich, this meant that they’d lost the European Cup final the season before). Aberdeen, by contrast, were about to hit top form.
“I think that possibly that game was our best performance ever,” said McGhee of the 0-0 first-leg draw in Bavaria. “In the purest sense of European-style football and going somewhere like that and passing the ball. That was probably the best we ever passed the ball as a team. It was a fantastic performance.”
A fine goalkeeping performance from a not-overly-tested Jim Leighton gave Aberdeen a chance and the Scots could have won it, McGhee and Weir both producing wonderful saves from Manfred Müller in the Bayern goal. The Germans, however, were typically unperturbed by their failure to score. “They were arrogant,” said Willie Miller. “You always got the feeling that they believed they would turn us over back at Pittodrie.”
And so to the return leg and one of the finest European performances by a Scottish team. Aberdeen went 1-0 down early on to a Klaus Augenthaler thunderbolt, but equalised through Neil Simpson before conceding again on 61 minutes, Hans Pflügler demonstrating the Germans’ class with an exquisite 18-yard volley. Aberdeen now needed two goals inside half an hour if they were to go through.
The majority of the 24,000 crammed inside Pittodrie fell silent; they’d read this movie script before and knew that this was the part where the Scotsman usually gets killed off. Aberdeen would probably get a goal back, they reasoned, and bow out gloriously, before being lauded for their bravery and chastised for their naivety in the pubs afterwards. European glory is best left to people in other countries, they’d say. Let’s no’ get aheid ae worsels.
Alex Ferguson, however, knew that the movie didn’t have to end that way. In 1967, when Ferguson was a 25-year-old Rangers player, he’d seen Jock Stein, the master director, guide his Celtic side to an improbable 2-1 win over Internazionale, Italy’s catenaccio experts. “There was not a negative thought in our heads,” said Stein of his players that day. Ferguson had spent time with Stein at Scotland national team gatherings and now he acted positively and decisively.
Not for the last time in a European campaign, Ferguson threw on two substitutes to change the course of a match. The experience and class of John McMaster were complemented by the youth and potency of 20-year-old John Hewitt; both would have a major say in turning the game Aberdeen’s way.
On 76 minutes, an impeccably executed piece of dead-ball subterfuge – a favourite ruse of Stein’s in Europe with Celtic – brought Aberdeen level. Strachan and McMaster pretended to run into each other as if they hadn’t agreed on who should take the kick. With the German defence and TV commentator laughing at Aberdeen’s perceived incompetence, Strachan suddenly turned and whipped the ball into the box where Alex McLeish smashed through Klaus Augenthaler to power the ball home. The photograph of McLeish, mouth agape, eyes burning as he watches the ball nestle in the corner of the net, is one of the great Scottish football images.
Aberdeen almost neglected to celebrate, Hewitt instead hauling the ball out of the net and making straight for the centre spot. Almost straight from kick-off, a pinpoint long ball from McMaster found the head of Black, hanging in the air in the Bayern six-yard box, but his header was clawed away by Müller. As waves of noise crashed from the Pittodrie stands onto the pitch like North Sea breakers, Hewitt forced the rebound home to seal an astounding victory.
“We really overwhelmed them with a combination of skill and Scottish up-and-at-em,” said McLeish. It was a deadly mixture and one that would prove too strong for the Belgians of Waterschei, beaten 5-2 on aggregate in the semi-final. Despite the convincing victory, Ferguson was typically dissatisfied after the second leg in Belgium, the 1-0 loss on the night nagging at his sense of perfectionism. It was the only game that Aberdeen would lose in the whole European campaign.
The final would be played in Gothenburg, and the opponents would be Real Madrid. The night before the game in the hotel (unbelievably called the Fars Hatt, Aberdonian for “where’s that”), the Aberdeen-supporting roommates Neale Cooper and John Hewitt pinched themselves at the thought of playing the world’s most famous team in a European final. Meanwhile, Ferguson set about arming Aberdeen in the psychological war department.
He had asked Stein to accompany the team to Gothenburg, as much as a symbol of Scottish success as for the advice he would provide Ferguson and Knox. One suggestion Stein made that Ferguson accepted was to give Real Madrid’s manager, the great Alfredo Di Stéfano, a gift of a bottle of whisky before the game. “Let him feel important,” Stein told Ferguson. “As if you are thrilled just to be in the final.”
In the dressing room prior to the match, Aberdeen’s players were in no mood to simply make up the numbers. “The raw energy in that dressing room was frightening,” said Strachan. “If you could have turned that into electricity you could have powered the whole of the north of Scotland.”
On a sopping pitch, Aberdeen roared out of the traps, with Black – has there ever been a more elegant Scottish footballer? – cracking the bar with an acrobatic 20-yard volley after just four minutes. Three minutes later and a superbly worked Aberdeen corner kick saw Strachan’s chip to the edge of the penalty box headed down by McLeish, arriving late. Black, lurking in the six-yard box á la Hewitt at Portman Road, seized on a ricochet to hook the ball home for 1-0.
Real, though, had been galvanised by the return of their German midfield colossus Uli Stielike after a lengthy spell out injured. “Fergie had told me not to worry about him, said that he was rubbish!” said Cooper. It was mind games, of course: Stielike was “astounding for a man who had been out of action for seven weeks,” said Ferguson after the game.
Real found a way back in the tie on 15 minutes after McLeish ignored his own advice to “lift the ball” off the waterlogged pitch to make sure it reached its destination, his back pass to Jim Leighton falling woefully short and forcing the keeper to concede a penalty. It was 1-1 at half-time, but Ferguson, already confident after watching Real in their semi-final victory against Austria Vienna, decided to be positive once more.
Aberdeen’s manager had deployed Peter Weir in a deep-lying role in the first half, but now he told his number 11 to play as an out-and-out winger. The Paisley-born midfielder, who had been working as a green-keeper when Ferguson signed him for St. Mirren just five years previously, was now to take the game to Real Madrid.
Weir did exactly that and was at the heart of almost everything Aberdeen created in the second half, his crosses resulting in gilt-edged chances for Strachan and Black that remained unconverted thanks to a combination of poor finishing and sterling goalkeeping from Agustín. The most glaring miss came after Weir had won the ball deep in his own half and humiliated four Real defenders before pumping in a deflected cross that Black met with an uncharacteristically poor header. But Weir had got inside his opponents’ heads now. “Peter was never the type to go past someone with a burst of speed over five yards,” said Willie Miller. “He would slowly rev up his engine and go past them in 10, 15 yards, which I know from experience is much more of a soul-destroying thing for a defender to cope with.”
An injury to Black meant that Hewitt was introduced to the fray with just three minutes remaining, but the super-sub against Bayern could not find the winner this time. The game went into extra-time, most of which Hewitt spent being abused by his manager who was annoyed that Hewitt was dropping deep in search of the ball instead of holding a high line up front as he’d been told. Ferguson can clearly be seen shouting, “John! You fucking stay up!” on the TV footage, and his annoyance with the striker’s ignorance of his instructions nearly prompted him to replace the substitute.
While this was going on, Real were making a change of their own. Isidoro San José replaced José Antonio Camacho in the first half of extra time and the Real number 14’s first act of note was to punch Mark McGhee at a corner. “If I was running out of any energy at that stage, it revitalised me,” said McGhee. The corner had been taken by Peter Weir and his accuracy with the dead ball, kicking left or right-footed depending on which side of the pitch he was, was causing havoc in the Real defence. However, the scores remained locked at 1-1 as the referee blew for half-time in extra-time.
Straight from the kick-off, Weir ghosted past another three Real defenders who were clearly now terrified of him, but his cross was wayward. Seven minutes later, his distribution would not be so flawed. Dispossessing Juanito in the aftermath of a dangerously positioned Real Madrid free-kick, Weir’s options were limited: Aberdeen had pulled everyone bar McGhee and Hewitt back into the box to defend the set-piece. He had to create some space for one of them.
This he did expertly, handing Ricardo Gallego his dinner with not one but two trademark feints. With Juanito and Juan José closing in, Weir looked up and saw McGhee moving into space ahead of him on the left flank. Just as he was about to be dispossessed, he pulled back his left foot.
The beautifully stroked pass curled straight to the feet of McGhee and suddenly, from looking hopelessly outnumbered, McGhee and Hewitt had a two-on-two situation. McGhee looked up and found himself confronted by none other than San José, the corner-kick pugilist. Still raging from the incident, McGhee bulldozed past the Real number 14 on the outside and, summoning all his remaining energy, readied himself for a cross with his weaker foot. Meanwhile, Hewitt was “making his way into their box in a straight line, with no thought of bending his run as he had constantly be told he should”, as Ferguson would have it later. With the Aberdeen manager “muttering all sorts of abuse” at Hewitt, McGhee looked up and crossed.
There is around one second from the moment the ball leaves McGhee’s foot to the moment John Hewitt snaps his head through the cross to win the Cup Winners’ Cup for Aberdeen, yet from the language Hewitt uses in his vivid recollection of the incident you would think he had oceans of time to make his decision. It is a fascinating insight into the mind of the professional sportsperson. “I could see the ball coming across and I could see the goalkeeper and I knew that he was late in moving for the cross. He delayed and he delayed and when he did decide to come for the cross, I knew he was never going to get to the ball.”
In Glory In Gothenburg, Richard Gordon calls Hewitt’s celebration “a less than impressive limp star-jump”; personally, I think it’s one of the best celebrations ever, a spontaneous explosion of joy that found its expression in an oddly thrilling way. The way he wipes his hands on his jersey afterwards like a wee boy getting ready for his lunchtime sandwiches only adds to the charm.
As for Peter Weir, no-one had done more on the night to ensure that the cup came back to Aberdeen. Ferguson paid him the ultimate compliment years later in describing his contribution to the game. “Peter Weir came into his own … [He] was the deciding factor. When Peter played, Aberdeen were a top side.” Peter did indeed play the following week in the Scottish Cup final, a hard-fought 1-0 win over Rangers after extra-time, although you wouldn’t have known it from his manager’s apoplectic post-match interview.
“We’re the luckiest team in the world. That was a disgrace of a performance. Miller and McLeish won the cup for Aberdeen. Miller and McLeish played Rangers themselves … And I’m no’ caring, winning cups disnae matter … we can’t take any glory from that.” The rant could be summarised in one maxim: dinnae get aheid ae yersels. Turns out Ferguson did have it in him after all.
By MJ Corrigan @corriganwriter