Scotland Vintage 1977-87: When Fergie & McLean Challenged The Established Order

A particular fact I often tell narrow-minded people from other parts of the United Kingdom is that for all their World Cups, mega-rich clubs and conveyor belt of talented players, France has won fewer European club titles than Scotland. Paris St.Germain and Marseille are France’s two winners while Scotland has the trio of Celtic, Rangers and an Aberdeen side led by Alex Ferguson and featuring great players like Gordon Strachan and Jim Leighton.

The Dons’ stunning victory in the 1982-83 Cup Winner’s Cup took in wins over both Bayern Munich and Real Madrid and came during the last truly competitive era of the Scottish game. The early 1980s was a rare time when clubs from outside the Glasgow area usurped Scotland’s two traditional trophy-vacuuming giants.

League titles, European finals, cup wins and sparkling football mark the period in which at least four clubs were truly competitive. You can add to this list the brief standout sides that Hearts and St Mirren fielded in the middle of the decade which gives fans of Scottish football (outside the Clyde valley anyway) a warm feeling of misty nostalgia. The previous time that the Scottish game had known such openness was the immediate post-war era when Hibs, Hearts and Aberdeen all won League titles.

The question was whether the ancien régime was in decline or if their relative lack of trophies during the early 1980s was because of the rise of the new turks? It was, in truth, a bit of both.

Stoney-faced, teak tough and ambitious

For the twin towers of the so-called New Firm – a term so languid and tenuous it’s almost an insult to use it again – fortunes changed with the arrival of new managers. The late 60s to mid-70s period was completely dominated by Celtic, and afterwards Rangers again became a force. There were a few occasions when the apple cart was tipped over: the 1970 Scottish Cup when Aberdeen lifted the trophy and, famously, Partick Thistle, Hibs and Dundee all defeating Celtic in League Cup finals between 1971 and 1973.

The real breakthrough for the new challengers can perhaps be pinpointed to the victory of Aberdeen in the 1976 League Cup when, under the charismatic Ally MacLeod, the Dons fought back from a goal down to beat Celtic 2-1. MacLeod was tempted away by the lure of a Scottish national team he would lead to the World Cup finals in Argentina with a promise he would take them all the way to the final. A loss to Peru and a draw with Iran burst that bubble, though that’s another story that should never be retold! Celtic legend Billy McNeill replaced MacLeod at Pittodrie, but he departed after just one season when the carrot of the job at his beloved Celtic was dangled in front of his nose.


The Dons board looked to Alex Ferguson, then a promising manager who had started out at East Stirling and had just left St Mirren under a cloud, this despite having taken the club up to the Scottish Premier League with a unusually young squad boasting an average age of just 19. Ferguson endured a difficult start in the north-east and failed to endear himself thanks to his distinctive style of management; in one incident he infamously fined winger John Hewitt for overtaking his car on a public road.

The 1979-80 league campaign began slowly for Aberdeen but the performances kicked into gear and the Dons went on to win just its second-ever league title, secured with a 5-0 win over Hibernian at Easter Road on the final day. It was the first time since Kilmarnock edged out Hearts for the old Division One title in 1965 that neither Celtic nor Rangers were champions. Ferguson had deliberately adopted an ‘us against the world’ attitude to create a siege mentality amongst his squad. He accused the Scottish media of being biased towards the two Glasgow teams, and the reality was that he wasn’t that far off the mark with his assertions.

Aberdeen failed to defend its title and also finished as runners-up in 1982 as well with Celtic winning the title on both occasions. It got worse domestically in 1983 as the Dons trudged home in third, but that modest campaign could be considered understandable as attention was firmly focused elsewhere. Winning the Scottish Cup in 1982 saw Aberdeen competing in the following season’s Cup Winners’ Cup campaign. Generally considered the weakest of the three Euro competitions at the time, the Dons’ route to victory was anything but. 

It began with a Preliminary Round tie against Sion of Switzerland and a first leg won 7-0 at Pittodrie set up an 11-1 aggregate victory. The Second Round draw against Albania’s Dinamo Tirana seemed easy on paper, but proved anything but. A John Hewitt goal early in the first leg at home was all that would separate the sides over 180 minutes. Lech Poznan from Poland were dismissed comfortably 3-0 on aggregate in Round 2 to ease the Dons  into the quarter-finals.

Aberdeen’s Manager Alex Ferguson & Trainer Archie Knox celebrate victory against Real Madrid


There they faced the mighty Bayern Munich, European Cup winners three seasons in succession in the 1970s and still a major force with a powerful squad brimming with world class talent like Karl- Heinz Rummenigge, Paul Breitner, Uli Hoeness and Klaus Augenthaler. That Aberdeen held the West Germans  to a goalless draw in Bavaria was remarkable enough, but to score twice in the final 15 minutes in the return at Pittodrie and grab a breathless 3-2 victory on the night – and on aggregate – was an incredible achievement.

The little known Belgians of Waterschei provided little opposition in the semi-finals, so the Dons were on their way to Gothenburg to face Real Madrid. This was not a vintage Madrid side, but even the more modest ones are usually packed with star names; this one featured Johnny Metgod, Uli Stielike, Jose Antonio Camacho and Carlos Santillana.

Once again the Scots would play the role of underdog and once again they would emerge victorious, 2-1 winners through goals from Eric Black and John Hewitt, the latter in extra-time, to cap the most famous night, and season, in the club’s history. For good measure they added the European Super Cup by beating SV Hamburg at the start of the following campaign. Aberdeen won the league crown back in 1984 and retained it in 1985, but Ferguson was outgrowing the club and inevitably moved south where great success would follow over the next quarter of a century. Aberdeen would never find another Fergie and cup success has been intermittent since.

Dundee United’s heyday

Some 70 miles down the coast from Aberdeen lies Dundee, a city of two football teams that both famously reside on the same street. Historically Dundee FC were the bigger brother with an assortment of cup wins and a momentous European Cup run to boast about following their capture of the 1962 Division One title. By contrast Dundee United had been a hitherto middling club that had little more in their history books than a pair of second-tier league titles from the 1920s, but that balance of power began to shift when Jim McLean took them over in 1971 to begin a slow-burn improvement that would edge the club towards the upper echelons of the Scottish game. 

This was a time when managers were granted time to shape teams and mould young talent into men. McLean brought in Ralph Milne and David Dodds and persuaded John Holt to stay. Paul Sturrock, Maurice Malpas, Paul Hegarty, Eamonn Bannon and Richard Gough all signed on. All were just starting out in amateur leagues or the reserves, but McLean could see their great promise. The squad’s fitness levels were developed to previously unseen levels while the simple objective of ‘win the ball, keep the ball’ was psychologically ingrained into each individual.

Finally United were ready to step up a level and in December 1979 smashed through their glass ceiling to win a first-ever major trophy, beating Aberdeen 3-0 in a League Cup Final replay. A year later they won their second by retaining the trophy after beating neighbours Dundee at their rivals’ own ground. Not content with just cup competitions, McLean then led Dundee United to the Scottish league title in 1983 ahead of a Celtic side seeking its third successive one. In Europe United created waves too, reaching the European Cup semi-final in 1984 without losing either a game or a goal at Tannadice.

In that semi-final their opponents were Roma who featured a plethora of Brazilian and Italian stars, Falcao and Conti the most stellar. I phased by their opponents reputation, United won their home leg 2-0. After the game the Italian press accused United of using drugs. It was a sign of what was to come: Rome was hosting the final that year and Roma had to be there.

In the Italian capital, United’s players were given a frosty welcome during the warm-up. Of some concern is a Roma director’s admittance in recent years that there was an attempt to bribe the referee, even though it’s likely that no actual attempt was made to give him the money and the cash was pocketed by an intermediary. Retired Scottish referee Bob Valentine has said the SFA went as far as asking UEFA to investigate the matter and the governing body found there was no case to answer for. Valentine also says the whistler Michel Vautrot would’ve refused the money and reported the attempt to his bosses. In an atmosphere described as poisonous, Dundee United failed to play to their strengths, and Roma won 3-0.

Nevertheless, United remained a force in Europe and did reach a final three years later, this time in the UEFA Cup. Having ousted an impressive array of high calibre sides beginning with Lens of France through Universitatea Craiova and Hajduk Split, McLean’s men faced Barcelona in the quarter-final. The Spanish giants featured Andoni Zubizarreta and British stars Gary Linker and Mark Hughes. United couldn’t match that profile of player, but they were undaunted by the reputation of their illustrious opponents and won by a single goal at Tannadice, then incredibly 2-1 at the Nou Camp with two late goals from John Clark and Iain Ferguson. Borussia Monchengladbach were no slouches either and they were seen off in the semi-final with the Tangerines winning 2-0 in Germany.

United travelled to Gothenburg for the first leg of the Final against IFK and left with just a single goal defeat, a deficit they were unable to overturn as they were held to a 1-1 draw back at Tannadice. The Terrors rued a great opportunity to emulate Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen as Scottish European trophy winners.

Celtic’s league titles

As for the Glasgow sides, while Celtic had their moments during this era, their great rivals across the city were experiencing one of the most fallow times in their long history. Under the management of the man who lifted the European Cup in Lisbon in 1967 as captain, Billy McNeill’s charges regained the title in 1979 after defeating Rangers in their final match of the campaign, and despite playing almost the entire second half with ten men after Johnny Doyle was red-carded. It would lend itself to the song ‘Ten Men Won the League’ which was regularly broadcasted over the speakers at Celtic Park. Celtic would also lift the league title in 1981 and 1982 ahead of Aberdeen on both occasions. But the former giants of the European stage struggled to repeat their glory days abroad, suffering humiliating defeats to Wacker Innsbruck and Politehnica Timisoara, and only once surviving beyond Christmas after 1976.


Poor play couldn’t be blamed on their exit from the Cup Winners’ Cup in the 1984-85 season when Rapid Vienna resorted to disgraceful antics at Parkhead. After losing in Vienna, Celtic raced to a 3–0 lead in Glasgow with goals from Brian McClair, Murdo MacLeod and Tommy Burns. The match erupted near the end when Burns was punched. In the ensuing chaos items were thrown onto the pitch, although none appeared to hit anyone on the field of play. A Rapid player went down and was carried off with his head swathed in bandages. Television highlights showed that Rudi Weinhofer had not been hit by a bottle and a Red Cross volunteer who tended to him submitted a report that said he saw no sign of bleeding, bruising or any other injury on the player.

Nevertheless, Uefa acquiesced to Rapid’s second appeal and the result in Scotland was voided, meaning a decider on neutral territory was necessary – in this instance Manchester. Rapid won, but football was the big loser.

Sub-standard Rangers

Rangers endured a torrid time after winning the league in 1978. During the first half of the 1980s the Ibrox club found itself nowhere near title contention and in one campaign finished as low as fifth. These were dark days for Rangers with no respite in Europe, and only occasional domestic cup success giving them anything to cheer.  Unlikely as it seemed, Hearts had a better chance of winning the top prize until they succumbed on the final day of the 1985-86 season against Dundee in heart-breaking fashion, gifting the title to Celtic. And even St Mirren battled to a third-placed finished, their best ever, in 1980 and lifted the Scottish Cup in 1987.

The tide began to turn for Rangers after 1986 when Graeme Souness arrived as player-manager and was handed millions of pounds to spend on English internationals such as Chris Woods and Terry Butcher. It was the end of an era when the country’s major clubs were on a relatively level financial playing field. Rangers’ money raised the stakes with the ultimate ambition of trying to match Celtic’s feat of winning the European Cup. It would never happen, but the club won the league title in 1987 and while Celtic regained it in their anniversary year, the Ibrox club would dominate the domestic scene from 1989 onwards when they won the first of nine successive titles.

But those pre-money years belong to the teams from Scotland’s third and fourth largest cities; nostalgia for better times is all that’s left for fans of Aberdeen and Dundee United, now that they struggle to bridge the huge gulf in quality and money between themselves and the Glasgow giants. 

One thought on “Scotland Vintage 1977-87: When Fergie & McLean Challenged The Established Order

  1. I stopped reading when you said “…France has won less European club titles than Scotland.”

    If you don’t know the difference between fewer and less then I’ve no wish to read any more.

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