Thirty years ago on Tuesday Aberdeen stood on the brink of glory. In itself, there was nothing remarkable about this. This was the mid-1980s, after all, and Alex Ferguson’s Dons were by far and away the most successful Scottish team of the era.
Two years earlier, Aberdeen had become the first non-Old Firm club to win the League and Scottish Cup double. This time around they already had the League Cup in the bag and would become the only side other than Rangers and Celtic to win both domestic knock-out competitions in the same season if they triumphed in that day’s Scottish Cup final. Aberdeen may have been 90 minutes away from another momentous double, but the nation’s media largely ignored the fact and focused on their opponents.
The 1985/86 season belonged to Heart of Midlothian. Alex MacDonald’s Tynecastle side had lost the League Championship in the cruelest fashion imaginable at Dens Park the week before. Substitute Albert Kidd famously grabbed a brace in the last seven minutes of the league season to hand the title to Celtic. It was the Jambos first reversal since October and their 31-game unbeaten run had taken them to within touching distance of repeating the Dons’ feat of two years before. They had captured hearts and minds across the country and the vast majority of Scotland was willing them to bounce back from the gut-wrenching despair of Dens and triumph over a Pittodrie side spoiled by success in recent years.
“As soon as it became clear to me that we wouldn’t be winning the league I definitely wanted Hearts to win it and I didn’t for a second doubt they would,” said broadcaster and Dons fan Richard Gordon. “I think most fans of other teams had got behind them by that point and wanted them to win it rather than Celtic. I suppose it was the same when we came to play them the next week. Although I had wanted them win the league I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about how we might benefit in the final when they didn’t.”
Alex Ferguson was not a man who would accept his opponents’ wounds as a reason for giving them a sporting chance. Three years earlier, Aberdeen had secured the second of three successive Scottish Cup wins only for the manager to lay into his side for a “disgraceful performance” in the final against Rangers.
“We’re the luckiest team in the world,” he ranted live on television minutes after the full-time whistle. “Miller and McLeish won the cup for Aberdeen. Miller and McLeish played Rangers themselves. I’m not caring, winning cups doesn’t matter. Our standards were set long ago and we’re not going to accept that from any Aberdeen team. No way should we take any glory from that.”
Ferguson subsequently apologised to his players, but even before their gaffer’s outburst, they were in no doubt about their gaffer’s expectations. And, boy, did they deliver. Ferguson had been Aberdeen manager for less than two years when the League Championship flag was raised for only the second time in the club’s history in 1980. Further titles followed in 1984 and 1985, while the Scottish Cup was won each year from 1982-84. The Dons’ greatest triumph came not on Scottish soil, however, but in the Swedish capital of Gothenburg, where they beat the mighty Real Madrid in the 1983 European Cup-Winners’ Cup final. European Cup winners Hamburg of Germany were subsequently defeated as Aberdeen added the UEFA Super Cup to their lengthening list of achievements.
Having won the Premier Division by seven clear points in each of the previous two seasons, Aberdeen’s fourth-place finish in 1985/86 was, by their lofty standards, disappointing. The Dons’ 44-point total was their lowest since Alex Ferguson’s first season in charge and it was the first time for five years they went into the final day of the season without either already being champions or still having a mathematic chance of becoming them.
Aberdeen were effectively already out of the title race when they starred in the first-ever live Scottish league match with just three games left in the season. That made their meeting with Hearts at Tynecastle something of an anti-climax for the TV executives who had identified it as a potential league decider and the game was no classic for the armchair viewer either.
A Peter Weir penalty gave the visitors the lead as the match entered its closing stages but the spirit instilled by the Hearts management team had already seen them through battle after battle over the course of the season. Once again, maroon sleeves were rolled up, teeth gritted and defeat refused to be countenanced. Just five minutes after Aberdeen took the lead, John Robertson poked the ball into the net to spark scenes of wild abandon on the Tynecastle terraces. Aberdeen’s challenge was now officially over.
The added strain of six European Cup games plus 12 domestic knock-out matches were extenuating circumstances that meant even the notoriously demanding Ferguson could find little to criticise in his players’ efforts in 1985/86.
The League Cup was already in the bag, courtesy of a comprehensive 3-0 defeat of Hibernian the previous autumn that meant Alex Ferguson had finally completed a clean sweep of domestic honours. Despite league titles and Scottish Cups galore in the early part of the 1980s, Aberdeen had twice missed out on success in the third of Scotland’s major honours during Ferguson’s reign. The Dons had also reached the quarter-final of the European Cup, only to come unstuck at the scene of their greatest triumph as IFK Gothenburg progressed to a semi-final they were desperately unlucky to lose to Barcelona on penalties.
“We got to the League Cup final having not conceded a goal and having beaten Dundee United home and away in the semi,” remembered Richard Gordon. “There was an extra edge as it was the one trophy that had eluded Fergie. He’d won three leagues, four Scottish Cups, the Cup-Winners Cup and European Super Cup, but he’d never managed to win the League Cup so winning that meant a lot to him, the team and fans. We actually lost the first three finals under Ferguson then won every time we reached the final after that. There had been a couple of horrible exits in that competition so this was our chance to put all that right and by that time in Ferguson’s reign, we won finals if we got to them.”
Aberdeen’s record was certainly ominous as far as the already-reeling Hearts team and support was concerned. In a BBC preview of the Final screened days before the match, commentator Archie Macpherson noted that were the Hearts management team not made of stern stuff they would have been unable to withstand the emotional battering they had taken. Choosing to film the segment from the battlements of Edinburgh Castle, Macpherson reflected on the fact they were looking out “on a city that on Saturday night went into mourning for a cause that died so brutally.”
“As long as our players give it their best shot then we can’t ask for anything else from them,” said Alex MacDonald, almost sounding as if he was attempting to lower expectations. “They’ve done that since we started that run way back and if they can do that then I think it’s going to be a good game.”
Continuing his Cup Final preview, Macpherson turned to Hearts’ opponents and commented that “Aberdeen though have been the form team in finals in recent years, winning three out of the last four. Even in a transitional period they remain a formidable force and have to be clear favourites for Saturday.”
The Aberdeen team, who had signed off their league campaign with a 6-0 thrashing of the Bankies the week before, contained no less than six full Scottish internationals and many of the greatest players in the club’s history. For a team drained by a season of highs followed by a week of the most crushing low imaginable it was a daunting task.
Predictably, taunts about the previous week’s events rang out from the Aberdeen end and the ruthless Dons team instantly took the game to their opponents rather than allowing them to grow into the match and forget their pain. The opener duly arrived after just five minutes, when John Hewitt cut across the Hearts defence to fire the ball low past Henry Smith from 18 yards. The Jambos had decent chances to equalise through John Robertson and Gary Mackay while Smith was forced to parry another Hewitt shot away to ensure there were no more goals in the first half.
“Aberdeen fans were making plenty of noise,” recalled Richard Gordon. “Hampden was a second home to us. This was our fourth Scottish Cup Final in five years. Everyone was very confident, partly due to the fact we won finals and partly because what had happened to Hearts. That run lifted them onto a different plane but when you looked at the team’s player-for-player, I wouldn’t have swapped any of theirs for ours. Jardine and Levein were great but we had Miller and McLeish. John Colquhoun had a great season but we had Peter Weir. Frank McDougall had done great for us so I wouldn’t even have taken John Robertson, who was their star. That’s testament to what an incredible job Alex MacDonald did at Hearts.”
The second period began in almost identical fashion to the first, with a John Hewitt goal and though Hearts endeavoured to find a way back into the game but Neil Berry’s effort cannoning off the bar was as close as they came to scoring. Substitute Billy Stark wrapped things up for the Dons with a header in the 74th minute and the Jambos’ misery was complete when Walter Kidd picked up a second booking late on for throwing the ball at an Aberdeen player.
“I’d had a real dislike of Walter Kidd ever since he’d smashed Eric Black in a game at Pittodrie,” said Gordon. “So him getting sent off while we were 3-0 up was the coup-de-grace.”
As Gordon and his fellow supporters watched their side parade a fourth Scottish Cup in five years around a sunny Hampden, he reflected that another piece of history had been written by his beloved Dons.
“In seven years we’d won almost as much as we had in the 70-odd before that,” he said. “There was an expectation and belief at the time that we would win a trophy or trophies and the players would have believed that too. Fergie’s attitude was ‘what did we do last season? Well, we must try to do better this year.’ Every season we had the utmost confidence in the players and manager that we would win something so winning a treble or the European Cup wasn’t an outlandish proposition but any expectation of them had been settled down fairly early on.”
Celebrating Aberdeen supporters could also take comfort from the fact that Ferguson – then temporary manager of the Scottish national team following Jock Stein’s sudden death – had ruled himself out of the running for the job on a full-time basis. He had also rejected offers from Rangers, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. Dons fans braced themselves for the inevitable speculation whenever a high-profile managerial vacancy opened up, but one after another was turned down. As they cheered their greatest-ever manager from the Hampden terraces there was no way of them knowing that he held the last trophy he would ever win in Scotland in his grasp. Within six months of that sunny May afternoon, the lure of restoring Manchester United to their former glory would prove too strong to resist.
“All the top football journalists from England used to travel to Europe for Aberdeen’s games,” said Ron Scott of the Sunday Post. “Alex Ferguson was always very welcoming and accommodating to them. He wasn’t stupid. He’d always fancied a crack at English football and knew having allies down there would help him. I’ve always suspected he saw the writing on the wall at Aberdeen as well. He’d already lost several of the Cup-Winners’ Cup team and, while he was doing well to replace them, the new players were maybe just below the standard of their predecessors with more rebuilding to come. I think he knew the time was right to move on.”
Richard Gordon also believes that Ferguson realised he had achieved all he could at Pittodrie. “The disintegration of the Gothenburg team was already underway. Strachan, McMaster, McGhee and Rougvie were away and Eric Black was famously left out the Cup Final against Hearts because he’d agreed his move to Metz. Half the team were gone but we still had a very good side, obviously. There was no way of knowing what would happen next.
“I think everyone knew Fergie would move on to bigger things at one point but everyone expected him to stay to the end of the season. We still had good players but it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t going to be the same. How could it be? It would never be the same again.”
After winning 10 trophies in less than a decade, the Dons would lift silverware only four times in the next 30 years. The season may have belonged to Hearts but it marked not just the end of Aberdeen’s golden era but the passing of a special time for Scottish football. The Souness revolution was around the corner and never again would a team seriously challenge the Old Firm like Aberdeen – and to a lesser extent Dundee United – did back then. Thirty years is a long time indeed.
By Grant Hill
Grant Hill is the author of ‘AK-86: Two Shots In The Heart of Scottish Football’, available now for Kindle, Kobo and iBooks. More information is available from www.tecklebooks.co.uk.