The tie that turned Fergie into Anfield's worst enemy
Thrashed by Paisley's legendary Liverpool side, the Dons manager banned laughter on the coach
Sunday 06 March 2011
It is six hours by bus from Liverpool to Aberdeen and they would not reach their destination until just before a thin November dawn broke over the Granite City. It was Alex Ferguson's first game at Anfield; his team had been humbled 4-0 and the first bitter, metallic taste of the European Cup was to linger. There are some who believe this night in 1980 marked the beginning of his long enmity against Liverpool; others that it simply made him stronger.
"He actually banned the players from laughing on the team coach on our journey back," Gordon Strachan recalled years later. "'Anyone who laughs will be fined £10,' he said. And he kept looking back, trying to catch one of us out."
It was significant in another way. Jack Nicklaus never played off against Tiger Woods; Joe Louis never threw a punch at Muhammad Ali. The greats from differing generations rarely overlap. And yet for the only time Bob Paisley faced Ferguson, the two greatest managers of their respective generations.
Paisley's side were unquestionably superior. It was the Liverpool dream team everyone of a certain age could name. Clemence in goal; Neal, Hansen and Thompson protecting him, the two Kennedys, Souness, McDermott and, ofcourse, Dalglish.
Just before the first leg, Ferguson and his assistant, Archie Knox, went to Anfield to watch Liverpool beat Middlesbrough 4-2. In the directors' box they met Bill Shankly and began, in Ferguson's words, to "behave like a couple of groupies". "So, you are down to have a look at our great team," Shankly said. "Aye, they all try that."
Ferguson's Aberdeen were starting to emerge. At the age of 38 he had already shown all the attributes that were to make him great. He dropped Aberdeen's most prolific goalscorer, Joe Harper, over weight and drink problems, even marching in uninvited to a dinner party and throwing Harper's favourite dish of haggis and neeps into the sink to make his point.
However, he curbed his instincts to maintain a fruitful but sandpaper-like relationship with Steve Archibald, and he had learned to use psychology. Recalling how Jock Stein's public concession of the title in 1968 had so unnerved his own Rangers dressing room that they blew up in the run-in, he returned the compliment to Celtic with remarkably similar results.
Dalglish confessed that Paisley's Scottish contingent were shaken by the fixture. There had been "Battles of Britain" before. The 1966 Cup-Winners Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Celtic had rammed 134,000 into Parkhead and Anfield. Four years later, 136,000 jammed Hampden Park to see Jimmy Johnstone pick Leeds apart and take Celtic into the European Cup final. But there had been very little since. It was a vast occasion.
"The moment we knew it was Aberdeen, the mood around the dressing room changed," Dalglish recalled. For himself, Alan Hansen and Graeme Souness – the Anglos, or Scottish players earning their money in England – it was a huge game. "Scarcely had the draw been made than all sorts of noisesflooded out of Scotland about what Aberdeen would do to Liverpool and about us Anglos being sent homeward to think again," he said. The reception the three received at Pittodrie was, Dalglish recalled, "horrendous, real vitriol spitting out from the terraces".
The tie gnawed into the Aberdeen dressing room too. "The fixture dominated and interrupted everything, it was nothing less than a nightmare," Ferguson wrote in A Light in the North. "We played Dundee in the League Cup just prior to playing Liverpool, and it seemed the shadow of Anfield had engulfed Dens Park. It got to us, it got to everyone." It was soon to get to them some more.
Liverpool landed at RAF Lossiemouth for the first leg and immediately Paisley went to war. Strachan was the pivot of Aberdeen's midfield and Paisley tried to unsettle him with lavish praise. "As he headed off for the press conference, Bob said, 'I am just going to give Gordon Strachan a wee piece of toffee'," Dalglish recalled. "Bob brought out the toffee for special occasions only; when he wanted to give an opposition player a compliment to soften him up. The boss was a master at it. On the morning of the game the papers were awash with his praise for Strachan."
He was unsettled, to the extent that he withdrew into himself. "I went totally the other way," Strachan wrote. "In the Liverpool set-up nobody did very much in possession, it was all about simple passes and not giving the ball away, and for some reason that is how I tried to play. I cannotrecall ever moving from the right flank and virtually every time I got the ball the result was a safe, square pass. Instead of playing like Gordon Strachan, I started to play like Sammy Lee."
Aberdeen lost John McMaster early to a Ray Kennedy tackle and were behind after five minutes when Terry McDermott, who had told Dalglish the result at Pittodrie would not matter because victory at Anfield was guaranteed, chipped Jim Leighton.
"The Liverpool players had a bit of grit and nastiness about them – good qualities when you need them – and they were well armed in the psychological war department," Ferguson said. The lessons Liverpool doled out were put to good use when Aberdeen overcame Bayern Munich, then Real Madrid to lift the Cup-Winners' Cup.
At Anfield, where Liverpool had not lost for 76 matches, Ferguson withdrew Strachan infield but he himself was banned from the touchline and the moment Willie Miller sliced a shot past his own keeper he began to yearn for the final whistle. "I have never been so glad to get a game out of the way in my life," he said.
In the away dressing-room there was a single, surreal moment at half-time. "We were three down on aggregate and I was lecturing the players on what they were doing wrong and how they could correct it when Drew Jarvie piped up. 'Come on, lads, three quick goals and we are back in it'.
"There was a stunned silence. Three quick goals against a Liverpool team undefeated at Anfield for almost two years! It was priceless." There was, however, to be no more laughter.
European Cup 1980
Second Round, first leg, 22 Oct Aberdeen 0 Liverpool 1 (McDermott)
Aberdeen Leighton, Kennedy, Rougvie, Watson, McLeish, Miller, Strachan, McMaster (Bell), McGhee, Jarvie (Hewitt), Scanlon.
Liverpool Clemence, Neal, A Kennedy, Thompson, R Kennedy, Hansen, Dalglish, Lee (Case 68), Johnson, McDermott, Souness.
Second leg, 5 Nov Liverpool 4 (Miller og, Neal, Dalglish, Hansen) Aberdeen 0
Liverpool Clemence, Neal, A Kennedy (Cohen), Thompson, R Kennedy, Hansen, Dalglish, Lee, Johnson, McDermott, Souness
Aberdeen Leighton, Dornan, McLeish, Miller, Rougvie (Cooper), Watson, Strachan, Douglas Bell (Hewitt), McGhee, Jarvie, Scanlon.
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