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Sir Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen: Making history before his Old Trafford days

Alex Lynch has a look at Sir Alex Ferguson’s exploits at Aberdeen and why his time at the club was so significant for Scottish football.

Love him or hate him, Sir Alex Ferguson will always be remembered for his time at Manchester United. The Scot won 13 league titles, 2 Champions League titles and much, much more during his reign at the club. His accomplishments at United were historic to say the least, and his impact on English football is well documented. But for all of the great things that Ferguson did during his tenure at Old Trafford, there is one part of his illustrious career that is often forgotten about: his career at Aberdeen, and what he accomplished during his time in the Scottish Premier League. Most people don’t know about how the Scot got to such a big club like United, but his incredible time at Aberdeen is why he got the Manchester United job in the first place.


After taking over the club in 1978, he immediately began to make a difference. He took them to the semi-final of both domestic cups in Scotland in his first season but his second season in charge is when he really imposed himself on Scottish football. Similarly to what he would do in England, Ferguson went on to win his first league title in the 1979-80 season. That triumph was only the second in the history of Aberdeen, the other coming 25 seasons earlier. His league title was also incredibly significant because it was the first time in 15 years that neither Celtic or Rangers won the Scottish title. This was an incredible accomplishment for any manager, much less one who was only in his 2nd season with the club.

Ferguson Aberdeen

The historic league triumph of Aberdeen in the 1979-80 season would soon be topped by Ferguson in stunning fashion. He would win the Scottish Cup in the 1980-81 season, and again in the 1982-83 season. Even though the cup wins are impressive, what he did next was even more impressive, as Aberdeen made their mark in Europe. Having won the cup in 1982-83, the Reds of Aberdeen qualified for the European Cup Winners Cup, and went on to lift the trophy. Their European triumph made them the third Scottish team to win a European trophy, the other two being Celtic and Rangers. The Reds did it in fashion as well, beating European powerhouses Bayern Munich and Real Madrid en route to the Cup. Aberdeen then won another European trophy in the following December, when they beat the then champions of Europe Hamburg to win the European Super Cup. The two European victories by Aberdeen put Ferguson on the map, and Arsenal and Rangers offered him their managerial positions during the following season, but he turned them both down, which demonstrated how strong the Aberdeen squad was at the time. In that 1983-84 season, Aberdeen topped their other domestic achievements by winning the League and the Scottish Cup. The Reds’ continued success was remarkable at the time, considering how Celtic and Rangers had dominated Scottish football for not only the previous 15 years, but the entirety of the history of Scottish football. Those two clubs were used to getting all of the best Scottish talent on the pitch and on the bench, but Aberdeen trumped them both despite having less money.

After the 1983-84 season which saw Aberdeen win the double, Ferguson was honored with an OBE for his contributions to Aberdeen. Being awarded the OBE shows that Ferguson was a legend even before he ever stepped foot in Old Trafford. Hardly anyone receives one, much less a football manager who wasn’t managing a particularly prestigious club. And Ferguson kept winning after his award, as Aberdeen won the league in the following season as well. The Reds became the first club besides the Old Firm club to retain the Scottish League title, and despite losing key players, Ferguson kept on winning trophies. By winning that league title, Aberdeen recorded the 4th title in their history, which at that time was tied for third for any Scottish club. Celtic and Rangers both had over 30 before Ferguson took over at Aberdeen, which says everything about Scottish football.

After winning the cup double in the 1985-86 season, yet another historic achievement, he was appointed manager of the Scotland national team. Getting that job justified everything that he did at Aberdeen, as his country saw him as the best man to take the reins of their team. And soon after he would be appointed manager of Manchester United, and the rest is history.

Impact on Scottish Football

While Ferguson had tremendous success at Aberdeen, and won all that he could, his impact on Scottish football might’ve been his biggest achievement. First of all, despite their rocky relationship, one of his finest pupils at Aberdeen was none other than Gordon Strachan. Strachan is the current manager of the Scotland National Team, and he was one of Ferguson’s brightest stars during his time at Aberdeen. He developed into a great player under the Scot, and he ended up winning a league title with Leeds United as well. Strachan compiled 50 Scotland caps, and he was so successful that he ended up in the Scottish Football hall of fame. Also, he managed Celtic before Scotland, and he was loved by the Glasgow based club for all that he did during his tenure there. Strachan’s  abilities as a manager show just how much of an impact Ferguson had on him. He wasn’t the only Ferguson pupil who had an impact on Scottish football, as other noteworthy names include Jim Leighton, Willie Miller and Alex McLeish.

These three players are also some of Scotland’s all time greats. Leighton was a goalkeeper, who would later play for Manchester United with whom he won the FA Cup. He had 91 caps for Scotland, second on their all time list, and he is also a Scottish football hall of famer. He made over 300 caps for Aberdeen, and he developed into a top class goalkeeper under Ferguson’s guidance, and he was awarded with an MBE to his name. Miller is another Scottish legend, as he spent his entire career with Aberdeen, making over 550 caps as a central defender. He made 65 international caps, and he came to Aberdeen in 1972, but he had his best seasons under Ferguson, and was eventually voted as Aberdeen’s greatest ever player. Miller is a true legend, and he is also a Scottish football hall of famer, and was voted in Scotland’s greatest starting 11. He eventually became manager of Aberdeen, and these days he the Director of Football Development for the club. He also has the prestigious MBE to his name, just like Leighton. Miller’s defensive partner in McLeish was almost as legendary as Miller. McLeish made over 490 caps for Aberdeen, and during most of those he was with Miller. McLeish earned 77 international caps, and  he is also a Scottish football hall of famer. He was in the all time starting 11 with Miller, and he became Scotland captain at the end of his career. And just like his teammate Strachan, he became a manager after what he learned from Ferguson. He won promotion with Birmingham City in the 2008-09 season, and he won 7 trophies during an impressive spell as manager of Rangers. His managerial ability stemmed from Ferguson, who got the best out of him as a player.

The pedigree of all 4 of the players that he developed at Aberdeen shows just how much of an impact on Scottish football that Sir Alex really had. Without those players, Scotland wouldn’t have qualified for the World Cups that they participated in. And even when their careers ended, Strachan and McLeish became two of the Scottish Premier League’s best managers at Celtic and Rangers. The coaching abilities of Sir Alex’s pupils shows that he had a huge impact on their careers. The fact that they’re all in the Scottish hall of fame demonstrates how legendary they are, and how much Scottish football owes Ferguson.

Since Sir Alex Ferguson was so successful at Manchester United, most football fans won’t know about what he did at Aberdeen, and the significance of his achievements. The significance of his tenure at Aberdeen shouldn’t be understated, as The Reds haven’t won a league title since their dominance under Sir Alex. At the same time, no Scottish club has won a European trophy since then either. Those remarkable stats tell you everything you need to know about Sir Alex, as he was an incredible manager who’s done as much for the game as anyone. And it’s okay to reminisce about the Scottish legend because of all that he did at Old Trafford, but his Aberdeen tenure should be remembered as well.

Written by Alex Lynch

Alex Lynch

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