ACTION REPLAY Tantrums and teacups: Fergie at Aberdeen

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His managerial style became famous at Manchester United, but Alex Ferguson had a fearsome temper way before that. In this September 1998 FourFourTwo feature, Mike Wilson reveals the story of Fergie's Aberdeen years

It was wall-to-wall Willie Johnston on the day Alex Ferguson’s appointment as Aberdeen manager was reported. Which, translated into column inches, meant the back and front pages for the errant winger – he’d been charged with stimulant misuse and was on his way home from the World Cup in Argentina – and a couple of paragraphs for Ferguson.

High summer; 6 June, 1978. Three days after Scotland’s abject defeat by Peru, the racier read was: ‘Why I took those tablets.’ Twenty years on, however, almost everyone makes way for Alex Ferguson. Now, newspaper articles speculate about his place among the managerial legends, alongside Bill Shankly, Matt Busby and Jock Stein. Johnston, meanwhile, runs a boozer in Fife.

We all know how the Aberdeen chapter in Ferguson’s managerial career reaches its thundering climax. That sublime moment on 11 May 1983 when, on a rain-soaked night in Gothenburg, a young John Hewitt threw himself at a Mark McGhee cross to win the European Cup Winners’ Cup against mighty Real Madrid.

How that chapter begins, though, is shrouded in mystery. The Scotsman newspaper, trying to make sense of his surprise sacking from St Mirren, began its article with the memorable line: ‘It must be the heat.’ Ferguson was accused of having breached the his contract: the St Mirren chairman, William Todd, said the board was unanimous. Ferguson had to go.

Ferguson’s response, with trademark gusto, was to become the first football manager to demand an industrial tribunal – which he lost, even though in his four years at St Mirren he not only secured promotion to the Premier Division, he also infused the team with young talent. His legacy at Love Street has a familiar ring to this day. But sometimes, given a sniff of success, clubs get ideas above their station.

November 1978: Fergie at his tribunal

‘I remember the day when he was sacked,’ says Iain Munro, a St Mirren player at the time. ‘We didn’t know any of the background; all we knew was that there had been a board meeting. Although it was the summer we had been coming in for some top-up training and he came down into the dressing room and told us. The players couldn’t believe it because he was so highly regarded.’

The sacking was also a bolt out of the blue for Ferguson’s assistant at the time, Ricky McFarlane: ‘It must have been a Tuesday, after a board meeting, and I phoned him from Blackpool Zoo. I was on holiday and I was just touching base. He told me he had just been sacked. He didn’t tell me why exactly and the St Mirren board tried to keep it as low-key as possible. The press speculated about it, that, maybe, it had something to do with how expenses were being paid.’

Ferguson’s agony didn’t last long, however, Aberdeen, without a manager after the departure of Billy McNeill for his first love, Celtic, were quickest off the mark to snap him up. The mutual regard that was quickly forged between Ferguson and the Dons’ then chairman, Dick Donald, was only hinted at when Donald said: ‘We are impressed with Ferguson’s record and he is a candidate for the job.’


When they play Fergie’s tune it is usually to the accompaniment of cheers. In the three years separating that wonderful night in Gothenburg from the call to manage Manchester United, there was the small matter of two more Premier Division titles, three further Scottish Cups and yet another League Cup. Plus a trip to the 1986 World Cup, as Scotland manager.

At United it took a little longer than it did at Aberdeen to secure the first League title, but at both clubs the effect was liberating. ‘The first title is the biggest thing,’ says McFarlane. ‘Anything after that is icing on the cake. The league championship for any manager is a big obstacle. When he was at Aberdeen, no-one outside the Old Firm had won the League championship for nearly 15 years.’

The title arrived at the end of Fergie’s second season but that was not soon enough to stop the critics airing doubts about his abilities. Between the summer of 1978 and Christmas 1979, Aberdeen lost two League Cup finals and their form was little more than ordinary in the League. There were moments, just as there were later at United, when both time and tide seemed to be running against him.

May 1980: That first league title at Aberdeen

‘At the end of the day the manager is a gatherer of a team,’ says McFarlane. ‘When he went to Aberdeen he was clever enough not to go out and just buy. That was quite a brave thing because he had a tough first year. Mark you, there were some good players already there, including some amazing signings such as Steve Archibald and Gordon Strachan.

But it would have been easy to have gone out and bought. Instead he kept his nerve, even though it wasn’t the smoothest of years. Aberdeen isn’t the easiest place for any new manager to go and he was a young manager from Glasgow. And there were a lot of strong-minded players there.’

But then, after losing to Kilmarnock on 21 March 1980, Aberdeen embarked on a 13-game unbeaten run, eating up the massive lead built up by Celtic, who were beginning to go off the boil after their exit from the European Cup quarter-finals at the hands of Real Madrid.

Come 3 May 1980 it was neck and neck, thanks, in no small measure, to two quick-fire wins by Aberdeen at Celtic Park. The penultimate game of the season for Aberdeen was an away fixture against Hibernian, who were heading for relegation. On the same day Celtic, playing their last game, were away at St Mirren. All they could manage was a 0-0 draw while Aberdeen thumped Hibs 5-0 at Easter Road. For the first time in 25 years, the title was theirs.

Ferguson’s fingerprints were all over the trophy. ‘He seemed, even back then, to like mobile full-backs, midfield steel and a wide left player,’ says Pat Stanton, Ferguson’s assistant for the title triumph. ‘I never did ask him why he appointed me. We stayed in digs together. Both being new to the area we hadn’t yet taken our families up north. He liked a good laugh. He had a great memory for telephone numbers.

Fergie hugs Stanton at Easter Road

‘At a football club there are so many people around and maybe a few who don’t fancy the manager – maybe thinking he was a bit of an upstart – and I felt I was there to look after his back.

‘We were a much tighter outfit in the second season – his influence was starting to show. It doesn’t have to take much to turn a good season into a winning one. It might just be a few breaks of the ball, a couple of goal-line clearances, an incident or two that gets the team feeling they won’t lose goals and they will easily score them. The first season was hard. He had the industrial tribunal and his father was ill. He was travelling up and down the country all the time.’

In two with the tactical genius came the man-management of soon-to-be mythological proportions. Ferguson is routinely described as ‘streetwise’. That exact word is used, quite independently, by three witnesses from Fergie’s early days: Iain Munro, Alex McLeish and Craig Brown.

Brown was assistant to Ferguson during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and he well remembers Ferguson’s anguish when, after Scotland’s hasty exit from the so-called Group of Death (their opponents were West Germany, Denmark and Uruguay), Arsenal and Spurs both overlooked him in favour of other managers.

Fergie and friends say goodbye en route to Mexico

‘There are two outstanding things about Alex Ferguson – his photographic memory and his wonderful eye for a good player,’ says Brown. ‘He can remember every kick of the ball, which means he can adapt quickly to changes in a game.’

The obsessive nature of the successful football manager was easy to see in Ferguson during his managerial stints at East Stirlingshire (for four months at the start of his career), St Mirren and Aberdeen. Infamously Ferguson, son of Govan – the Glasgow district of shipyards and hard men with a love for education – was also a man with a temper. Brown remembers that, in Mexico, Ferguson was not only good at Trivial Pursuit but would take his defeats – albeit rare ones – badly.


Stanton recalls Ferguson’s great passion for the game: ‘He’d go crackers but his outbursts would never last, they were always soon forgotten. Maybe a few of them were premeditated. He tended to do the shouting at half-time. He took defeat bad, particularly games we should have won. Often he would disappear, go into his shell, keep out of the road by going into his office, sick and fed up with it.’

Munro says of Ferguson’s St Mirren days: ‘He was very good at taking the pressure off players before a big game by taking it on himself. Before games against the Old Firm he would invariably make some inflammatory statement that not only got the punters along but turned the spotlight on him and away from the players.’

McLeish’s recollections tap into a similar vein: ‘He would create causes. A regular one was the supposed west-coast bias of the media. He liked the players to have that chip on their soldier.’

l‘When St Mirren were still in the First Division,’ says McFarlane, ‘Partick Thistle were the number one team in the division. But he would wind up their manager Bertie Auld something rotten. They would beat us quite regularly but he made them out to be the enemy and eventually we started to get results. As the St Mirren players lined up in the tunnel to play them he would say: “Remember boys, God is on your side.”’

Neale Cooper, part of a tough Aberdeen midfield, endorses those views: o‘I’ve seen many a cup of tea thrown at half-time. You knew you had to do well for him or you would be told. But he was very fair. If you worked for him and did your best he looked after you. If you stepped out of line he would come down on you. His training was great, his coaching ideas were superb and he liked a laugh. He knew that different players thrived under different styles of management.

‘The thing about Fergie was that when you did well he would really praise you and that was a nice feeling. It was a very happy dressing room.

‘He was a winner. We were once playing Celtic and I was called in to the office beforehand and told I was man-marking Charlie Nicholas. He was their main player. Stop him playing and that will be half the battle. He wanted me to think about it all week in the build-up. The boys had a bit of a laugh about it, they kept asking if I was thinking about Charlie.

‘So, by the time of the game, I was quite keyed up. Two or three seconds on the clock, Frank McGarvey passed the ball to Charlie and I went flying in. Charlie was lying there, holding his knee. At the time, I thought, you know, maybe I was a bit brainwashed.

Neale Cooper (Champagne Charlie not pictured)

‘But never, ever was I sent out to hit a boy. Look through the side, they could all play a bit. You have to win the battle before you start playing. But there is a difference between going out and kicking teams and refusing to be messed about. We refused to be messed about. No-one would trample over us. Teams knew they had a game on.’

A hint of where that mental toughness came from can be found in a conversation remembered by Stanton. But it must be prefaced with McFarlane’s observation that Fergie had sufficient self-confidence to listen and learn from other people.

‘As a player he would always argue his corner,’ says McFarlane. ‘He would be the one going into the manager’s office to fight for deals; on the park, as a centre-forward, he fought his corner. But he was good at learning from other people. He would acknowledge what people said, he would say: “Here, that’s a great point, there.” A lot of people wouldn’t be so public.

‘He was also a fierce trade unionist, always somebody who had an opinion. To be fair he went on coaching courses and was always keen to go into management.

‘You have to remember that, at that time, very few players talked about management. But he wanted to do that. We were still not that long out of the era when the manager was the figure in a suit and hat. No-one, for example, hand heard of player-managers in those days.’

The conversation Stanton vividly remembers involved himself, Ferguson and Stein, a mentor to Ferguson just as Fergie has become a mentor to many of today’s young managers, including McLeish. ‘Both of us were speaking to Stein one day. I think it we were sitting down, having a cup of tea.

'Big Stein said: “It wouldn’t be a bad thing to get a reputation for being a right hard bunch.” Like the Leeds United of the 1970s who battled their way to the top and then, once there, started to play good football. To have the feeling that everybody was against us – referees, the SFA, the media. I think he [Ferguson] took that on board.

Ferguson and Jock Stein in 1983

‘To be successful in Scotland you have to go to Ibrox and Celtic Park and win on a regular basis. Too many teams went with the attitude: “We’ll play well, but we’ll eventually lose.”’

McLeish – like Cooper, McGhee, Munro, Strachan and countless others – is a graduate of the clubs Ferguson managed early in his career who has decided to follow the same employment route. ‘There was one game in the League Cup against Celtic at Celtic Park which is now considered watershed in the club’s history,’ says McLeish.

‘I came off the bench to play, in midfield as it happened. And he said: “Put Tommy Burns out of the game.” I said, in true Nobby Stiles style: “For good?” And he said: “No, just mark him out of the game.” And we won that night, 2-1. That was when we started going to Glasgow and winning.

‘A lot of us had the winning mentality and Ferguson enhanced it. He did rule by fear. I had known nothing else because I was a new boy. I just thought this was the way every manager worked.

Gothenburg, May 1983: Fergie rallies them before extra-time

‘The biggest fear for me was losing my place in the team. That is what should drive every professional player.
‘It’s no secret Fergie could blast off in the dressing room. But as he has got more successful, he has mellowed.

'Some of it was definitely premeditated. He fined John Hewitt for overtaking him in his car after training. I can swear he turned that one on. I was in Fergie’s car when he was being overtaken and I’m sure he hadn’t noticed until we started winding him up about it. He was just humming away to his Frank Sinatra tapes.

‘So he says: “Aye, watch this.” He goes into the dressing room and blasts John. John leaves. White. Fergie comes out, winking at me. And I thought: “He can turn it on and off.” John Hewitt picked up his wages and found he was fined. I suppose Fergie didn’t have too much cause to blast me. I feel extra-privileged that I am closer than most who continue to keep in touch with him.’


The last word goes to Terry Scott, the kit man at Aberdeen. Scott symbolises another Ferguson trait: loyalty. Scott was in charge of the reserve team at Pittodrie when Ferguson arrived; 20 years later, Ferguson took his Manchester United back to Aberdeen for Scott's testimonial.

‘We got on great, right from the start, and we are still very close,’ says Scott. ‘His enthusiasm struck me at the start. He wanted to come in and do a job and I thought: “This is a man who knows what he is about.” He had a way with players, his man-management was excellent.

'He could sum up people right away and knew how to handle them. He knew those who could be shouted at and those who needed an occasional wee pat on the back. He took a lot of interest in the kids, which a lot of managers don’t.

The words of tribute come easily to Scott. In part, that is a reflection of the deep well of affection he has for the former Aberdeen manager. But it might also be because such words are well-practised. Before we spoke he had just been interviewed by a Granada TV crew who were preparing a documentary on the Manchester United manager. Nowadays the media can’t get enough of Alex Ferguson.

Gothenburg, May 1983: The final whistle goes

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