WHEN Alex Ferguson arrived at Aberdeen in 1978 to take charge of the city’s persistently underachieving football club, few anticipated the spectacular success he was to achieve over the next eight years.
I certainly didn’t; I had been a committed Dons fan for 16 years and had grown too used to false dawns. Yet the foundations were in place. The club’s chairman and vice chairman were exceptional men who balanced each other perfectly. They were maybe Scottish football’s classiest ever double act. Both had played for the club: the chairman, Dick Donald, was wealthy, shrewd and a canny man manager; his vice chairman Chris Anderson was a football visionary, a progressive far ighted administrator who had been intensely frustrated at Aberdeen’s failure to realise its potential as the sole league club in Scotland’s third largest city. Further, Ferguson inherited a fine squad; the basis of it was the central defensive partnership of the supreme Willie Miller and the younger Alex McLeish. There were two other exceptional players, Gordon Strachan and Steve Archibald, who had been signed during the brief but impressive reign of the previous manager, Billy McNeill, and several other very good ones.
So the club was not in the doldrums. But it took Ferguson’s genius – and I use the word advisedly – to turn potential into achievement.
Five years later Aberdeen would be officially crowned as the best club team in Europe. The story of Ferguson’s adept building of the club, his inventive use of the solid base he inherited, has been told often, but never as thoroughly as in Michael Grant’s diligently researched book. Among other things Grant has interviewed each one of the illustrious team who splendidly triumphed in Europe in May 1983 – the Gothenburg greats.
I was privileged to be present at Gothenburg, but two earlier away games show Ferguson’s ability to keep learning, to gain from adversity, and to pick up lessons from every single game. He was the ultimate football obsessive, almost maniacal in his intensity, but also possessed of immense charm, which he deployed with both sincerity and occasionally, when required, with artifice.
Anyway, these two games: In late 1980 I was at Anfield, Liverpool, to see the Dons take on Liverpool in the second round of a European Cup tie. Aberdeen had lost 1-0 in the first leg at Pittodrie. Few of the small number of fans who travelled to Merseyside had any hope of success. Yet none of us expected humiliation. Liverpool beat Aberdeen 4-0, and the victory should have been far bigger. What impressed most was how Liverpool kept possession. For long periods of play no Dons player could get near the ball. Ferguson learned from the drubbing. Just over two years later, in March 1983, I was in Munich to see the Dons playing Bayern, a club replete with famed German internationals, in a European quarter final.
Aberdeen were composed and confident. When they got the ball, they looked after it, and didn’t give it away. It was the best 0-0 draw I’ve ever seen. They went on to beat Bayern in a momentous second leg at Pittodrie.
Ferguson had not changed the personnel much in the intervening 28 months. Of the team who played at Munich, eight had played at Liverpool. But the difference was yawning. At Munich I saw a team with extraordinary self-belief; Aberdeen were imperious, and thrived in the intimidating context.
Most Scots were emphatically not interested in this. They were more concerned about how Ferguson’s team was growing used to arriving in Glasgow and swatting away the Old Firm on their home territory. There was an unexpected sociological twist. Never have I known the fans – both the real fans and the armchair fans – of Rangers and Celtic to be so united. Unfortunately what united them, from around 1982 onwards, was a dislike of the Dons that bordered on detestation. For a time their atavistic enmity seemed forgotten, as the cocky upstarts from the North came to Glasgow with every expectation of winning at Ibrox and Parkhead.
But the arrogance remained. When Rangers asked their former player (Ferguson had played three seasons for Rangers before leaving because he had annoyed some in the club by daring to marry a Catholic girl) to be their new manager, my many Rangers upporting colleagues were convinced that he could not possibly decline. After all, he’d been born in Govan, between Ibrox and the Clyde, within walking distance of Ibrox, and he had grown up a Rangers supporter. For several days the tension mounted, till Ferguson said No. One of my journalistic friends – a decent man I greatly respected – turned pale when he heard the news. I thought he was going to faint. For a full five minutes he struggled to believe it.
Michael Grant is an Aberdonian, and he clearly loves his home town club. His book is excellent, not least because it is based on formidable research. He explains, as well as anybody can, Ferguson’s unique management style: highly effective, yet almost demonic at times, and consistently crafty, even when he appeared to lose control. And Grant is sure-footed as he charts the growing disillusion that Ferguson experienced towards the end of his Aberdeen years. Despite the success he provided, the club was supported by derisory crowds. At Pittodrie in November 1982 I watched Aberdeen beat the other half of the New Firm, Dundee United, 5-1. The likes of Gordon Strachan and Peter Weir played football that was beautifully inventive. Fewer than 10,000 fans witnessed it. That was bad, and things did not improve. Ferguson increasingly understood that his work deserved better support, more popular endorsement. The move to England became inevitable. He bided his time, and spurned several approaches; Grant reveals that the one that was most tempting for Ferguson came from Tottenham Hotspur.
When Manchester United eventually called, his departure was inevitable.
At first, he struggled – he harped on too much to his players about what he had done at Pittodrie – just as when he arrived at Aberdeen, he overdid the patter about how good his St Mirren team had been, which Grant brings out amusingly and well. This was one of the rare times he repeated a mistake. But after a problematic first few seasons, he was on his way to unparalleled success. He deserved it all. I doubt if anyone has ever worked harder and more obsessively at the chancy and volatile business of football management.
Fergie Rises: How Britain’s Greatest Football Manager Was Made At Aberdeen
Aurum Press, £18.99, ISBN 978 1781310939, PP352