If Manchester United's players find themselves summoned to a quiz at their hotel in Spain on Wednesday night, they should not be surprised – after all it was part of Sir Alex Ferguson's winning formula on the only previous occasion he has got the better of Real Madrid in a cup tie. A heated argument over the spelling of Hamilton Academical sounds like the strangest way any football team has found to let off steam before a big game but it was good enough to help Ferguson's Aberdeen get in the mood to win the European Cup-Winners' Cup final in 1983.
"There was a question about Hamilton Accies – what's the longest name in Scottish football?" remembers Peter Weir, the former Aberdeen and Scotland winger. The row erupted over whether Academical should be spelt with a final 's' and Weir suggests it was precisely what Ferguson would have wished for. "He set it up definitely, that's the way he was. He wanted a riot among the players, a lot of arguing to take our minds off the game." Aberdeen's subsequent 2-1 triumph over Madrid on a rain-soaked Gothenburg night was the crowning achievement of Ferguson's Pittodrie reign, which brought 10 trophies in eight years. Twice with Manchester United, Ferguson has lost Champions League quarter-finals to the Merengues (despite winning a home leg in 2003) but with a modest-sized club from Scotland's east coast, it was a different story.
Looking back at how Aberdeen achieved that remarkable feat, it is evident Ferguson was already accomplished at mind games. He recounts in his autobiography how the great Jock Stein, who accompanied Aberdeen to Sweden, advised him to present Alfredo Di Stéfano, Madrid's coach, with a bottle of whisky before the game: "Let him feel important," said Jock, "as if you are thrilled just to be in the final." Weir remembers Stein's presence as "a great ploy" too. Stein's Celtic had upset the odds to win the European Cup and he now told Aberdeen's players they could do the same. "He just said: 'Guys, I wish you all the best, believe in yourselves, you can do it. Don't worry about the name Real Madrid, go and play it'."
Ferguson himself had every belief his team would do it. Neil Simpson, then a young midfielder and now head of Aberdeen's youth academy, recalls: "When he came back from watching Real Madrid, he said to the chairman that he thought Aberdeen had a fantastic chance. The chairman said: 'Oh don't tell the boys'." As it was, Aberdeen had started to believe after beating Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals, fighting back to win a thrilling second leg 3-2 at Pittodrie with two late goals. "They were better than Real. At the end, we sat in the dressing room and thought: 'Jesus Christ, we've got a chance'," says Weir.
Although a non-vintage Madrid side they still had big names like future Spain coach Jose Antonio Camacho, Germany centre-back Uli Stielike and Dutchman Johnny Metgod. Aberdeen's team included Scotland World Cup trio Willie Miller, Alex McLeish and Gordon Strachan; moreover they had something extra, defined by Di Stefano as an unstoppable spirit. Strachan, speaking in the recently published 30-year anniversary book Glory in Gothenburg, remembered: "The raw energy in that dressing room was frightening […] If you could have turned that into electricity you could have powered the whole of the north of Scotland."
The generator, of course, was Ferguson himself. "He was a hard man, so was Archie [Knox, Ferguson's No 2], and you were always on your toes, you could never relax," says Weir. "He never knew when he was beaten and he instilled that in the players," adds Simpson. Aberdeen also had the youthful energy and enthusiasm of the original 'Fergie's fledglings' – central midfielders Simpson and Neale Cooper and Gothenburg goalscorers Eric Black and John Hewitt were all 21 or younger. "He had great faith in young players," Simpson recalls. "For all the hard things you hear about him he was very encouraging. It was simple things like telling you as you walked along the corridor: 'How's my best midfield player doing?', and making you walk 10 foot tall – and then a few years later realising he'd said that to everybody."
Ferguson had them well briefed on Madrid – Weir remembers the "typed dossiers" each player got on his direct opponent before every tie – yet they were also told, in a calm pre-match address, to go out and play their game, and win it for themselves and their 14,000 fans inside the Ullevi Stadium.
"I don't think they were expecting how we went about the game," says Simpson of Aberdeen's bright start. The Scottish-style weather meant a rain-sodden pitch which "helped our cause because we could close them down quicker" and after eight minutes Aberdeen grabbed a goal. "We hit the bar and then scored through Eric Black at a set-piece that we did. We were very good at set-pieces," Simpson adds.
Although Madrid equalised through Juanito's penalty, Ferguson's subsequent instructions to Weir helped them regain the initiative. Ferguson's love of wingers is well documented and Weir emerged as a key figure with his driving runs down the left. "He told me to play as a winger," Weir recalls. "I'd played as a deep-lying midfield player in the first period. [Ferguson] said: 'Come on Davie, let's get pushed up and go at them'. To be fair I had half a dozen great runs against their number two."
It was Weir who started the move that led to the extra-time winner, a diving header by Hewitt from Mark McGhee's cross. Hewitt had come off the bench to score the quarter-final winner against Bayern and now he did it again – not the last time Ferguson would use a supersub to win a European final.
To Simpson, beating Madrid "felt natural"; only with time has the size of the feat become apparent. "It was a great achievement for a provincial club and it's hard to believe now when you tell your kids we beat Real Madrid," he says. Three decades on, Ferguson is still waiting to do it again.
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