Football: Red-carpet salute to a working-class hero

Phil Gordon describes the preparations as Aberdeen rolls out the tributes to a favourite son
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ABERDEEN IS a city of contradictions, as its architecture reveals. This is the place which resisted the temptation to cash in on its status as Europe's oil capital by copying the chrome and glass of Dallas, preferring instead the feel of solid granite which shrugs off the salt air whipped in off the North Sea.

Politically, Aberdeen regularly voted in a Conservative MP during the Thatcher years, although it is safe to assume that Alex Ferguson, who once led a strike while an apprentice in a Clydeside shipyard, never put his X in that particular box when he was on the city's electoral role.

Yet Aberdeen will turn out in force on Tuesday to bestow its highest honour on a genuine Red. Giant screens will be erected, while the working- class king is driven down Union Street in a carriage. It may be 13 years since Fergie left the dynasty he had created at Aberdeen FC for the empire- building which beckoned at Manchester United, but the people have not forgotten him. Freedom of the city of Aberdeen is not conferred lightly: Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela are among the few.

Ferguson may not have liberated a country but he did lead a club on the periphery of Europe to claim centre stage for a while. The chains which were shaken off belonged to Rangers and Celtic, as Ferguson replaced the Old Firm monopoly with one of his own. Three league titles and four Scottish Cups between 1980 and 1986 showed Scotland - and England - what he was capable of. Winning a European final against Real Madrid hinted to the rest of the continent what he could achieve. If Manchester United return home with the European Cup in May, the citizens of Aberdeen will be raising their own red flags in solidarity. "I'm surprised the city does not grind to a halt when United's European games are on," smiled Willie Miller, the man who lifted the Cup- Winners' Cup in 1983 and who was Fergie's inspirational captain throughout the trophy-filled era. "So many of the top men, in building and fishing, who have remained Alex's friends, travel south for the games. United are the second team for most people in Aberdeen simply because of Alex's connection and he is held close to people's hearts for what he did here."

What he did domestically, casting off the yoke of Old Firm oppression, was one thing. However, establishing Aberdeen among the continent's elite - they also won the European Super Cup - was in a different league, a feat unlikely to be repeated in football's present millionaire climate.

"For four or five years, we were among the best sides in Europe," reflects Miller. The peak came in Gothenburg when the Dons defeated Real Madrid to win the Cup-Winners' Cup.

Unlike the devalued trophy which Chelsea seek to retain before it is pensioned off, the cup then was Europe's second highest prize. The season that Aberdeen won it, the last eight included Barcelona, Internazionale and Paris St Germain. The Dons' quarter-final victims were Bayern Munich, beaten 3-2 at Pittodrie.

"That was a big one for us," recalls Miller. "We'd gone out to German teams in previous seasons and they were the best in Europe then, but after we beat Bayern we thought anything was possible." Yet, even with a rare sip of champagne on Ferguson's lips after the Gothenburg triumph - "he's not a drinker," confides Miller - the shipyard socialist never forgot his debt to the people. Many supporters had travelled by sea and missed the trophy parade back home, so Ferguson ordered his striker Mark McGhee, whose own excessive celebrations saw him still nursing a mammoth hangover, down to the harbour the following day.

"Fergie and Mark took the trophy and paraded it for the fans coming off the ferry," laughs Miller. "But that sums up Alex. He comes from an ordinary background, and although he mixes in high circles now, he has the gift of being able to identify with everyone. People in Aber-deen still talk about that day."

That Ferguson is still the talk of the town reflects more on Pittodrie's failure to maintain the standard he set. Miller was one of five managers who paid a heavy price with the sack, although the two cup finals and league runners-up that he achieved would warrant celebrations today.

"The legacy Alex left will always be a ghost for the club to exorcise," says Miller, who runs his own restaurant business in Aberdeen these days. "It didn't affect me because I had my own high standards, but we had a generation brought up on success in the 1980s and it was a hard habit to kick for some fans.

"There's a similarity between what Alex left here and what Matt Busby did at Old Trafford. I know Alex still feels that Busby shadow over him because he has not won the European Cup, but it will go when he does. He is the best manager Scotland has ever produced."