Alex Ferguson at Mexico '86: when the world got its first blast of the hairdryer
It’s almost a footnote on the CV of Alex Ferguson. An often-forgotten, ‘Did that really happen?’ passage, spanning his final days converting Aberdeen from Old Firm upsetters into Real Madrid vanquishers, just before the border-crossing to Manchester United where he created an empire as powerful as any the English game has known. In 1986, Fergie took Scotland to the World Cup finals.
That summer’s front and back pages may have been dominated by a certain Diego Maradona and his ‘Hand of God’, but Mexico was also where an English football audience got their first close-up of the man who would be king.
A relative unknown
The previous year, at the 1985 FA Cup Final between Manchester United and Everton where he had been a guest of United’s ex-Aberdeen stalwart Gordon Strachan, Ferguson was politely asked if he was Strachan’s dad. Such was his profile down south.
However, few were left in any doubt about who he was following Scotland’s eventful World Cup campaign. Fergie’s remarkable rant in the aftermath of an X-rated showdown with Uruguay – and the Tartan Army’s subsequent elimination – provided spectators with an intriguing snapshot of the future. Amid the tragic events surrounding the Scots’ passage to Mexico, the draw had placed them in a horrible group with West Germany, Copa America champions Uruguay and dark horses Denmark; a youthful blend of fine, fluid attacking talent.
The death of Jock Stein, who suffered a heart attack after the tense 1-1 draw with Wales at Ninian Park that clinched a play-off spot, opened the door for his part-time assistant Ferguson. Such was Stein’s value as a mentor, the younger man called him a “one-man university”.
Stein’s feats, winning the Scottish Cup with an unfancied Dunfermline in 1961 before tasting 1967 European Cup glory as Celtic boss, matched Ferguson’s own hopes and dreams.
It had been Stein, invited to travel to the 1983 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final with Aberdeen, who encouraged Ferguson to take a gift for Real Madrid manager Alfredo Di Stefano. “Give him a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label as soon as you get to the ground – he’ll not expect it,” he advised. A sharp bit of psychology, Stein believed it would charm and ultimately disarm Fergie’s opposite number in Sweden.
Aberdeen triumphed 2-1 after extra-time thanks to substitute John Hewitt. “Di Stefano was taken aback,” recalled Ferguson. “It gave me gravitas, having worked with him [Stein].”
To Ferguson fell the harrowing job of informing Scotland’s players and Stein’s family that his predecessor had passed away in Cardiff. While continuing to work at Aberdeen as co-manager with Archie Knox, Fergie steered Scotland through their play-off against Australia, winning 2-0.
His squad for the finals was met with raised eyebrows. Missing was Liverpool defender Alan Hansen, whose frequent absence from friendlies and last-minute withdrawal from the Wales match had led Stein to question his commitment. Fergie’s favoured pairing of Aberdeen defenders Willie Miller and Alex McLeish, coupled with the imagined reaction of Hansen at only being third choice, was enough to exclude him.
Also absent was Kenny Dalglish, who is popularly thought to have pulled out after taking umbrage at the axing of his Liverpool ally, although the 35-year-old actually required knee surgery. Those who made the cut were much vaunted. Skipper Graeme Souness had said it was the “best-prepared” squad the Scots had ever sent to a World Cup, and a look through the list – Strachan, Charlie Nicholas, Richard Gough, Steve Archibald and Frank McAvennie among them – reveals no shortage of talent at Ferguson’s disposal.
Andy Roxburgh, Craig Brown, Walter Smith and Knox – three of whom would subsequently manage the side – made up Fergie’s coaching staff. The mood in the camp was good. Ferguson took part in the squad’s official World Cup song, Big Trip to Mexico, and the players were even confident enough to put cling film over the toilet seat in Ferguson’s cabin – a jape appreciated as such.
Scotland, billeted in the shanty town of Nezahualcoyotl, began their Group E campaign with a narrow 1-0 defeat to Denmark. Preben Elkjaer’s shot crept in off a post after Willie Miller was unable to clear. Strachan, the pick of the bunch against the Danes, put the Scots ahead against West Germany, but Rudi Voller quickly equalised in Queretaro and they went down once again, 2-1.
Despite two defeats, qualification for the second phase was still on if Scotland could beat Uruguay. With the Germans and Danes through, the Group of Death had now become a case of who blinked first. The South Americans had already shown aggression aplenty.
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