Sir Alex North of the Border: Ferguson’s Transformation of Aberdeen

alex ferguson at aberdeen

The Pre-Aberdeen Years

There is arguably no manager as synonymous with a single club than Alex Ferguson with Manchester United. The Scot won an incredible 38 trophies at Old Trafford between his arrival in 1986 and departure in 2013. But before these glorious days, Fergie had a similar level of success north of the England-Scotland border.

His footballing education took place in the country, of course. Sir Alex played for six clubs in the Scottish football pyramid before making the move into management in 1974. The most prominent of these clubs were Rangers. Ferguson scored 25 times for in 41 appearances for the Glasgow club in two seasons between 1967 and 1969. He would return to Hampden Park as a challenger to their dominance – shared with Celtic – many moons later.

Ferguson was contracted to Ayr United when he finally decided to call time on his playing career in 1974. He quickly – almost immediately, in fact – moved into management. Ferguson took a job as head coach of East Stirlingshire, a Falkirk-based club who were, at the time, inhabiting the lower spots of the Scottish Second Division. He took over the club when they were in dire straits. With only the bones of a squad, Ferguson was expected to make East Stirlingshire competitive in the division. At the relatively junior age of 32, this was a huge amount of pressure for Ferguson.

He didn’t really have a proper bite of the apple, as it transpired. Instead, St Mirren approached Ferguson later that same year about the vacant managerial position at the club. It was a demotion in terms of prestige for Fergie – like East Stirlingshire, St Mirren occupied the Second Division but sat below their Falkirk rivals in the table.

A striker in his playing days, Ferguson had always favoured offensive, free-flowing football. Later on in his career, many detractors would mislabel the Scot as a superb man-manager and forward-thinker but not a particularly impressive tactician. But at St Mirren, he really began to flex his muscles as a strategist. His incredibly young team triumphed in the Scottish Second Division almost immediately after his arrival and success in the First Division followed suit. Two promotions in as many seasons meant that Fergie’s stock was on the rise.

He had always entertained the possibility of managing Aberdeen but – allegedly at least – nothing was set in stone. St Mirren sacked Fergie in 1978 citing a breach of contract as the reason for doing so. Despite the link between himself and Aberdeen being a primary reason for his dismissal, Ferguson did not take the role offered to him at the Pittodrie Stadium at first.

Starting Out at Aberdeen

Ferguson did not have to wait long before being offered the coveted role again, however. After Billy McNeill was offered the Celtic job in 1978, the managerial chair was left vacant once again. And this time, Ferguson was only too happy to sit down. 

Still just 36, Ferguson faced an uphill battle as soon as he arrived at the club in terms of trying to win the respect of his players, some of whom were older than he was at the time. His famous disciplinarian managerial style won the day though, and by the late 70s, Ferguson had transformed what was a struggling team into genuine challengers to Rangers and Celtic. He did so by playing the same brand of attacking football which had got him so far with St Mirren.

Aberdeen finished in 4th place in Fergie’s first season at the helm. They also staged a reasonable assault on both cup competitions in Scotland, reaching the penultimate rounds of both. It was a positive start but not a patch on what was to come over the next four or five years. In the 1979 campaign, Ferguson’s side would again go far in the cup competitions. They reached the Scottish League Final where they would draw 0-0 with Dundee United before eventually slumping to a 3-0 defeat in the replay at Dens Park.

But offsetting this disappointing performance in the Cup was Aberdeen’s tremendous showing in the Scottish Premier Division. They finished the season as champions, ending on 48 points, one clear of Celtic and six clear of Ferguson’s old club St Mirren. This was in the days when a win was worth only two points – had it been three as from 1981, Aberdeen would have amassed 67 and Celtic would have finished with 65.

By this time in his career, Ferguson had a highly-talented crop of players at his disposal. Gordon Strachan – who Ferguson would later coach with Manchester United – was bossing things in the middle of the park. At the back, Willie Miller was keeping things tight. Miller was capped 65 times for Scotland in his career and was once given the title of the “best penalty box defender in the world” by Sir Alex. Upfront, Fergie could call on the semi-legendary Steve Archibald; as well as his triumphs under Sir Alex at Aberdeen, Archibald won a UEFA Cup and two FA Cups with Tottenham Hotspur and a La Liga title with Barcelona.

Cup Domination and European Success

This incredibly strong backbone to the Aberdeen team helped Ferguson enjoy some excellent times in the next few years. In fact, under his stewardship, the club had just one trophyless season between 1979 and 1986. That single unsuccessful season came in the 1980-81 campaign when Aberdeen finished a distant second to a hugely impressive Celtic side. The title-winning margin was seven points but would have been 14 had it been three points for a win. However, this brief moment of failure was followed by a veritable barrage of victories.

In 81-82, Ferguson finally got his hands on the Scottish Cup trophy at the third attempt. They beat Ferguson’s old club, St Mirren, in the semi-final, although a replay was needed. In the final, Aberdeen put four past Rangers, conceding once. It was this victory which opened the door for what was Ferguson’s greatest achievement in Scotland: European success.

By winning Scotland’s premier cup competition, Aberdeen qualified for the European Cup Winners’ Cup tournament. Though it is now defunct, the tournament was held in high regard across Europe. When Aberdeen won it in the 82-83 season, therefore, it brought Ferguson to continent-wide recognition for the first time. Aberdeen were truly superb throughout the competition, beating the likes of Bayern Munich and Lech Poznan on route to the showpiece final. The final, held in Gothenburg, Sweden, was won 2-1 by Aberdeen against European footballing royalty: Real Madrid.

In that very same season, Aberdeen lifted the Scottish Cup yet again. History repeated itself as they overcame Ferguson’s former club from his playing days, Rangers, in the final. At the start of the following campaign, Aberdeen reminded everyone why they were feared as a supreme force. The club won the European Super Cup – contested by the winners of the Cup Winners’ Cup and the European Cup – against Hamburg courtesy of a 2-1 aggregate win.

Title After Title: Sustained Success for Aberdeen             

Though they had won five trophies under his stewardship so far, only one of Aberdeen’s triumphs was in the Scottish Premier Division. If they were going to assert themselves as the best team in the land, they needed to turn their attention to the SPL title.

With renewed focus, Aberdeen stormed to the 1983-84 title. They won 25 of their 36 games and finished well clear of challengers Celtic. Far from feeling that this was enough, however, Aberdeen and Ferguson made it a double when they won the Scottish Cup for the third season in succession. 

He was now on the radar of top clubs from all around Europe. Rangers and Arsenal came calling for his services, joining Wolverhampton Wanderers as sides which had approached Fergie before he eventually joined Manchester United in 1986. He decided that he had not yet achieved all he could in Scotland and committed to staying for at least another season.

His loyalty was rewarded with a second Scottish Premier Division title in as many years. Again, they finished well clear of 2nd place Celtic, however, they were unable to make it four Scottish Cups in a row.

The following season, Ferguson’s last at Aberdeen, he rectified the lack of cup success in the previous campaign by taking home both the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup. They won both finals by 3-0 margins. In the league, however, Aberdeen were not their usual domineering selves. They finished in fourth place, six points behind champions Celtic.

This might have been due in part to the fact that Alex Ferguson was trying to balance the dual responsibilities of club and international management. Fergie was appointed as Scotland boss in 1985 following the tragic death of the legendary Jock Stein. However, he remained in charge for the remainder of their 1986 World Cup qualifying campaign. Ferguson navigated the qualifying stage with relative ease, but Scotland came a cropper at the World Cup itself, failing to make it to the knockout stages.

Honours and Achievements:

Scottish Premier Division (1979-80, 1983-84, 1984-85)

Scottish Cup (1981-82, 1982-82, 1983-84, 1985-86)

Scottish League Cup (1985-86)

European Cup Winners’ Cup (1982-83)

European Super Cup (1983)