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The Day the Dons were Kings of Europe

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Aberdeen had taken the bulk of the support to their semi-final with Hibs a few weeks ago at Hampden but again those long-suffering supporters left Hampden defeated, deflated and dejected as the Edinburgh side won 2-1 to set up an all Edinburgh Cup Final, the first since 1896.

This was a chance for Aberdeen to give their supporters something back; my God they deserve it after their last success at Hampden was back in 1995 when goals from Billy Dodds and Duncan Shearer gave the Dons a 2-0 win over Dundee in the Coca Cola cup final, who would have thought that Roy Aitken would have been the last manager to lead the Dons to cup success?

Things have changed over the years at Pittodrie, managers have come and gone but maybe the real truth is that fans of a certain age in Aberdeen , remember times when winning at Hampden,especially in the eighties, became a regular thing.

But then it all changed! The Rangers revolution under Graeme Souness then Walter Smith (although look where that has left the club now!) and a better Celtic side emerged also through the years along with others in has to be said and Aberdeen have only had brief flirtations in finals and semi-finals in both cups over the years but that is not enough to quench the thirst of their success starved supporters.

The question may be, have the Dons fans been spoiled with the success of a time when a certain Sir Alex Ferguson cast his magic spell over all at Pittodrie and brought success at both home, winning all the trophies in his time at the club and abroad, leading the Dons on a European adventure that will never ever be forgotten.

No one can believe its 29 years since the Dons were crowned kings of Europe and their supporters sang that European Song as loud as they could and went to Sweden by any means possible to see their team face the mighty, the legendary Real Madrid in the Cup Winners Cup final.

The Dons had already seen off Sion, Dinamo Tirana and Lech Poznan before being handed their stiffest test when they were drawn against Bayern Munich in the quarter finals, these matches would see the team come of age on the European scene.

Not many would have given the Dons a chance in this tie but they certainly raised more than a few eyebrows after a splendid performance in the Olympic Stadium in Munich gave them a 0-0 draw in the first leg and all to play for in the second leg at Pittodrie.

For Dougie Bell, this was an extra-special night: “That year was great, we went to play Bayern Munich in the Olympic Stadium and all the lads played great but Fergie made me man of the match that night, which was great for me hearing something like that but on the Saturday we had to travel to Rugby Park and I was still on a high from the performance against Bayern Munich , playing well and then I found out I was 14th man, left out of the team after bumming me up all week after the Bayern performance, I had to sit in the stand and watch the game, but that was Fergie, he was good at those sort of things and made sure you kept your feet on the ground.”

The Aberdeen fans would pack out their stadium for one of the greatest nights in the club’s history and a match which is still seen as Pittodrie’s Greatest Night.

Many teams would have found being behind once against a team of Bayern Munich’s quality too much to handle but not this team. They had a team full of great names and quality all over the park. Bayern boasted the cream of the German national team in their ranks – Augenthaler, Breitner and star striker Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.

Under Alex Ferguson (as he was at the time) the Dons showed their never say die qualities and fought back twice from a goal down to stun the Germans.

Midfield powerhouse Neil Simpson forced the ball home after Eric Black knocked back a cross to the back post after Klaus Augenthaler had given the German side an early lead.

Aberdeen knew that Bayern would be a dangerous side throughout the 90 mins and even after being pulled level this would not upset the experienced German side.

Hans Pfugler put Bayern 2-1 up on the hour and knew that this would be enough to take Bayern through…..but Fergie had other ideas.

Still the Dons refused to buckle and Alex McLeish equalised for the second time after 76 minutes after Gordon Strachan and John McMaster fooled the German defence with a well worked free kick.

With all focus now needed on getting a winner, a minute later, with the Pittodrie crowd still buzzing, Eric Black climbed highest to reach a long ball and his header was only parried to super-sub John Hewitt popped up to make it 3-2 to Aberdeen and almost took the roof off the old stadium.

Aberdeen had seen off the mighty Bayern Munich and now headed for a European semi-final against Belgian side Waterschei.

With a top class German side out of the way, did captain Willie Miller have any thoughts of winning the trophy?

“Yes, that was probably the point at which we did actually believe we could win it. The German League was the best in Europe at that time and knocking them out gave us the added confidence to think that this could be our year.”

With the first leg at Pittodrie, Alex Ferguson wanted his side to grab the upper hand but even he could not have imaged the performance his side would put in as the Belgians were swept aside 5-1 in a truly memorable match at Pittodrie, especially with the performance of Dougie Bell who simply ran them ragged.

“That Aberdeen team worked as a unit, says Bell. When we came up against the top sides we all played, we had great players all through the team, up front we had guys like Mark McGhee and Eric Black who were fantastic and John Hewitt or the flair players like Gordon Strachan and Peter Weir, the flair players.

“All the players we had could play football and worked hard for each other as a team and I think that’s what Fergie liked about us. It is good to be remembered for the Waterschei game but I think I played a few good games at home in Europe but I think because I had a few good runs early in the game and set up the first goal for Eric Black, people remember that I did have a good game that night.”

Aberdeen lost the second leg in Belgium 1-0, their only defeat on route to the final and judging by the reaction in the dressing-room, you would have thought the Dons had lost the tie altogether, such was the determination to win every game.

That disappointment would soon change to excitement as they had a date with destiny to look forward to, 11th May Gothenburg 1983, the Cup Winners Cup final v Real Madrid.

But for Dougie and Stuart Kennedy it was agony as they both missed out through injury.

“We played Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden and I had taken a knock, I knew something wasn’t quite right, so Fergie took me to the hospital the next day and they told me that I had broken a bone in my ankle so I not only missed out on the Cup Winners Cup final v Real Madrid but I missed out on the Scottish Cup win over Rangers, within a week!

“I was just proud to be mentioned as part of that team that got to a European final and the supporters always include me in things too which is nice.”

Fergie made sure that the whole squad were involved in sharing any success the club had in his time there and this was appreciated by the whole squad.

While the squad made their way to Sweden on by air, fans made their way via the St Clair ferry, by car, by plane and any way they could to see their heroes take on Real Madrid in the Cup-Winners’ Cup Final. In Sweden the heavens opened and the rain poured down. Would this help the Dons?

Aberdeen’s substitute goalkeeper Bryan Gunn thought that the conditions just might suit the Dons.

“I suppose it was a great leveller, the wet conditions on the pitch in Gothenburg meant that Real Madrid could not play their fast, flowing football but we were a passing side also so who knows what would have happened if we played on a nice dry pitch-the result may have stayed the same!”

Many teams would be intimidated going in to face a team like the legendary Real Madrid but not the Dons.
They had a captain and a manager who would make sure they knew no fear as Willie Miller explains.

“We were relaxed and certainly we had no fear even although it was Real Madrid we were up against. We felt we could do it and the confidence had been building up, the further we progressed. Alex Ferguson and Archie Knox had made sure the pre-match atmosphere was jovial as opposed to tense.”

The fans and players did not care as they got soaked in the Swedish rain as their heroes were about to face the biggest match in their lives. A good start to the match was needed and after Eric Black had smashed the crossbar with a great volley the Dons took an early lead.

“It was great, I had a chance early on which I hit the bar with and that gave me a bit of confidence, obviously I would have rather it went in and it helped through the final but I must admit it was just like another game, although it was a big final, with the quality of player that we had we knew that we had a belief in each other we knew that we had a real chance of winning it.”

A Gordon Strachan corner was headed on by Alex McLeish only for Eric Black to turn and spin on the rebound to put the Dons 1-0 in front much to the striker’s delight.

“Well it is obviously something that nobody can ever take away from you scoring a goal in a European final, it was something that you can only dream about, obviously I had dreamt about it and on the night it landed at my feet fortunately, it wasn’t exactly a 25 yarder but I have managed to toe poke it into the net and as the say it’s a strike and they all count, it was a wee bit unbelievable, the next five or ten seconds after the celebration, we’re back and have to start the game and we’re focused again.”

The Dons’ joy was short-lived as a short back pass from Alex McLeish was latched on to by Santillana as it caught up on the wet pitch and Jim Leighton had no option but to bring him down. Real were awarded a penalty from which Juanito scored to make it 1-1. The Dons’ spirits were as damp as the Ullevi pitch but did big Alex need any words of encouragement from his skipper?

“No, Big Alex really rallied himself and put the incident firmly behind him and went on to have a fantastic game. As Captain, you want to lead by example but to be honest; the lads didn’t need much lifting as the heads never dropped at any point.”

Striker Black agreed: “I think obviously maybe not deflate but it put things in perspective that we were back on level terms again, the pitch contributed enormously to the back pass and they have taken full advantage of it but we had to dust ourselves down and go again but as I said I think there was a belief that was running through Aberdeen at that time that we could overcome most hurdles that were put in front of us, there was no way that the heads went down it was more a let’s go again and that is obviously what happened.”

This team knew that they had come a long way, they did not come this far to lose, not even to Real Madrid. Chances would be missed by both sides and this match would go into extra-time, someone would make themselves a hero!

“We were a fit bunch, Miller said, extra-time had become something of a habit with us as most of our Scottish Cup wins against the Old Firm came in extra-time and we trained hard so we were actually looking forward to it!”

That man would be the superb sub who had come on to replace the injured Eric Black, who landed badly on an ankle as he came down from heading the ball over the bar. John Hewitt would come off the bench and make himself a hero for life.

“Obviously I was disappointed at coming off and if I remember correctly, I did have a fitness test with the reserves five days before the final on my ankle and it felt great, said Black. I had gone up and landed on it and come over I could see the ankle coming out the side of my sock and I thought that I didn’t look great, it was the same injury so I went off but Johnny had a great record as a goal scorer and coming on in the game he brought something else to the team and he is always that threat, ultimately it is a great goal. It is a great piece of play first of all from Peter and then from Mark McGhee and Johnny’s on the end of it with a very brave header to send us all into heaven!”

Things could have been so different as John Hewitt was nearly being subbed himself! Fergie and Archie Knox thought that they would have to take John off as the ball was getting stuck in the pitch as John tried to run with the ball. Thankfully for the Dons fans this was one substitution that the manager never made.

The magnificent Peter Weir had left at least three Madrid players in his wake as he went on one of his famous runs. He then chipped the ball to Mark McGhee who somehow got the ball on to the head of John Hewitt as the keeper missed the cross. Hewitt’s header landed in the Real net and as the super sub danced a jig of delight the Dons fans went mad!

Was this really happening? The Dons had beaten the famous Real Madrid 2-1 to win the Cup- Winners’ Cup and from Sweden to back home in Aberdeen the northern lights would shine brightly tonight as proud fans danced and sang their way through the night as their team were now European winners!

The Aberdeen fans who travelled sang their hearts out for the players and the players sang their hearts out for the fans…..well almost!

European winners on the football field they may have been but off the field, striker Eric Black explains they were no competition for the pop world.

“I think Eurovision can relax for another few years, you will not see the likes of that lot again! Unfortunately if we were singers we might not have made as many finals but thankfully we could pass the ball to each other now and again!”

The excitement from the stands made its way on to the pitch and Neil Simpson could not contain his excitement at the final whistle.

“It was fantastic just to be able to get your hands on the trophy, when I look back I always seemed to be standing next to Willie Miller in the photos and I have said to people that if you stood next to Willie, you were always guaranteed to get in the photo’s! it was pure chance to be honest, I must have been excited to get my hands on the trophy.”

The man who led Aberdeen through this fantastic campaign felt nothing but pride for his boys.

“At the time it was a feeling of pride for everyone concerned as to what we’d achieved and that pride has increased over the intervening years as you realise the magnitude of what you’ve done, it was a wonderful feeling!”

For Alex Ferguson, the man who had masterminded the team’s road to glory, he simply could not hide his emotion and delight at the full time whistle but it was just a pity his players didn’t seem to notice or care that their manager was lying in the dirt rather than celebrating with his players!

“I don’t know what happened, said striker Black, I only remember seeing him under Bryan Gunn’s feet that was the last I saw of him! He came flying off the bench and I think the gaffer slipped and big Ben wasn’t in any mind weather to stop or not, he just trampled over the back of him, I don’t think that he has ever forgiven him for that!”

“It was red ash!-as soon as the final whistle went we all wanted to rush out on to the field to congratulate the lads but unfortunately I crossed Sir Alex as he was running out and managed to trip him up and unfortunately the rest of the guys ran out and trampled over the top of him,” laughed Gunny.

“The next thing I remember was him running towards us with red ash running through his hair and his adidas coat and he was running towards us, I thought to give us a rollicking but he was running to congratulate Johnny Hewitt for scoring the winning goal!”

“I always remember him (Sir Alex) spending the first couple of minutes trying to get this red ash and red water away from his face as he was being interviewed!”

“When Sir Alex brought his Man Utd side to my Testimonial, I had managed to find a few great pictures of the trip and I managed to get one blown up and I presented him with it the game as it was a magical moment in his career and I believe it still hangs in his snooker room in his house.”

As many of the players celebrated long into the night, captain cool (Willie Miller) had his own way of taking in what the club had just done.

“Some celebrated more than others! For my part, I went for something to eat, had a few drinks and chatted to a few others. As I said, we’d always felt that we could do it so it wasn’t a case of being in shock at managing something we felt unattainable, more a feeling of ‘job done’.”

This was the biggest achievement in the clubs history but did in sink in to the players straight away after the final?

“I don’t think it did till well after, said goal-hero Black, I remember after the game it being so subdued at the hotel as I think everybody was just exhausted mentally and the way the pitch was we were all drained physically, I don’t know if it sunk in until the next couple of days but it really sunk in when we got back and went through the streets and I have never seen anything like it ,there must have been a quarter of a million people in the streets of Aberdeen and then at the stadium, I have never seen scenes like it, I was humbled by the response of the Aberdeen supporters.”

Bryan Gunn sums up the feelings of the Aberdeen players who played under Fergie.

“He was a great man, there are not enough adjectives used to describe what he does for individuals!”

“He was given the trust by the families of the younger players who he took to the club and he was like a father and mentor all rolled into one.”

“Sir Alex has to take a lot of credit for the development of his players not only as footballers but as men.”

“If you look at the number of former players from both Aberdeen and Manchester United who have went on to become successful managers or coaches and who have had the Fergie influence in their careers.”

Under Fergie, Aberdeen not only won the Cup Winners Cup but in the December of 1983 they also won the Super Cup after a two-legged final.

A 0-0 draw in Germany would see Hamburg come to Pittodrie and once again the Dons saw off their German opposition as goals from Neil Simpson and Mark McGhee made sure another European trophy would make its way to Aberdeen.

This gave the Dons the title of the best team in Europe in 1983 and they are still the only Scottish club to win two European trophies.

The man who started it all Sir Alex Ferguson,sums up just how big the achievement was for Aberdeen Football Club.

“My biggest achievement at Aberdeen was winning the European Cup Winners Cup against Real Madrid. Who would have thought a small club like Aberdeen could beat Real Madrid in a final?”

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About Author

Chief Features Writer for Scotzine.com. Sean has written for various publications and websites over the years and has been involved with making documentaries on Aberdeen Football Club, Dundee United Football Club, Henrik Larsson, Paul Lambert and Jock Stein and also Radio programmes, one of which "Old Firm Day" won a Bronze Sony Award. He also worked in the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park. His love of writing started off with The Punter and has gone on to write for the following FIFA magazine, 442, Scotland's Oracle, Players Inc, British Football Week, ESPN, Give Me Football, Inside Futbol, 67 Fanzine and the matchday programmes of Aberdeen, Carlisle United, Montrose, Partick Thistle, Stockport County and Queen's Park. He has also been asked to write a blog for Youth Football Scotland on St.Mirren YFC such was his passion for football at every level from Grassroots to the professional game.

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