Robin Scott-Elliot: Sir Alex Ferguson’s ghost still haunts his 13th successor in Aberdeen dugout

You would have fancied Fergie’s Dons to beat Ron Atkinson’s United

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The Independent Football

Remember, remember the fifth of November. They do in Aberdeen; it was the day Alex Ferguson cleared his desk at Pittodrie and headed south for fame, fortune, a trophy or two and a knighthood. On Tuesday Britain’s most famous travelling book salesman is back in the city, 27 years on from a departure that was as inevitable as the subsequent demise of the club he raised far above its station.

Ferguson will stop off at the only five-star hotel in town to make the draw for the fourth round of the Scottish Cup. It’s a trophy he claimed four times for Aberdeen, including a 1983 success over Rangers that he celebrated by giving his players one of his first well-known tongue lashings. Ferguson felt they had not matched the standards he demanded; three days earlier they had beaten Real Madrid to lift the European Cup-Winners’ Cup after extra time.

Those days are long gone but he will return to Aberdeen at a moment when there is flicker of a light in the north (if you are playing Alex Ferguson autobiography bingo that’s you off the mark). Aberdeen play Partick Thistle tonight and victory would take them back to second in the table. Last week, despite being down to 10 men from the 14th minute at Motherwell, they earned a place in the last four of the League Cup, a line-up notable for its lack of either side of the Old Firm. It is 17 years since the trophy cabinet Ferguson kept well stocked was opened but under the burgeoning stewardship of Derek McInnes there might, just might, be the beginnings of something, and something is an awful lot better than the years of nothing that followed Ferguson.

McInnes is the 13th man to occupy Pittodrie’s stubbornly old-fashioned dugout post-Ferguson and, as with all his predecessors, the ghost of the great man sits alongside him. There have been some who have done OK and others who have been a disaster; take the unfortunate Steve Paterson, once signed as a starlet by Manchester United, who already had a drink problem when he arrived at the club. He missed one game because he only woke up three-quarters of an hour before kick-off to the sound of his coach Duncan Shearer banging on his front door. Paterson now manages Formartine United in the Highland League.

McInnes played against Ferguson’s sides. “Those teams all had that edge, a bit of fear about them,” he recalled. “We just need to get that respect back from our competitors, and get that fear again in Scotland. Alex Ferguson’s teams had that in Europe, we just want to get it back in Scotland.”

Lowered expectations, a different era but still judged by the standards Ferguson set. It must be a curious existence for a club, and its supporters, to know that its best days are gone no matter what. For the likes of Nottingham Forest, double European Cup winners in the 1980s, the potential riches of the Premier League mean there is always the chance of a ridiculously wealthy buyer pouring money into the club – and so the hope remains that one day, one day…

Not so for Aberdeen, nor for that matter their old New Firm partners Dundee United. The economics of Scottish football will never add up for a potential McSheikh. These days Aberdeen collect the discards from England’s lower leagues, Calvin Zola free from Burton, Scott Vernon free from Southend and Nicky Weaver (remember him?) on a free from Sheffield Wednesday. Over the last seven years their transfer spending just about sneaks up to the £1m mark.

They are producing young talent, but no sooner does that talent show than it is easily lured to the heights of England’s lower leagues. The club have lost their best two youngsters of recent years to Wigan’s reserves – Fraser Fyvie is now on loan at Yeovil – and Ryan Fraser to Bournemouth. Jack Grimmer, Aberdeen’s youngest-ever first-team player at 16, went off to play for Fulham’s youth team rather than take his chance in the SPL. Grim and grimmer.

Ferguson was the seventh man to slip into the manager’s chair at Old Trafford in succession to Matt Busby, and of course the first to exorcise his fellow Scot’s ghost. Aberdeen have never been comparable to Manchester United, although you would have fancied Fergie’s Dons in their heyday to beat Ron Atkinson’s United. What Ferguson achieved at a club of Aberdeen’s size is, though, comparable to his achievements south of the border.

Financial realities meant an Aberdonian downfall was pretty much inevitable once Ferguson’s management was gone, but the hint of brighter times nevertheless acts as a reminder of how far they did fall. As another Scottish-led play unfolds at Old Trafford, the plight in the north also acts as another reminder to David Moyes of just what a Herculean task he faces.