Sir Alex Ferguson will always be remembered for the empire he built at Manchester United during his more than 26-year reign as manager at Old Trafford.
13 league titles, five FA Cups, two domestic cup and league doubles, one Champions League and Premier League double and one treble – it is not hard to understand why Sir Alex Ferguson has a statue outside Old Trafford and why he will forever remain associated with Manchester United and the Premier League.
Awakening a sleeping giant, rebuilding the club from the grassroots and knocking Liverpool off the perch – Ferguson did all that and more as Manchester United manager.
However, by the time he arrived in England, Sir Alex Ferguson was already a managerial great in Scotland. His achievements at Aberdeen often get overshadowed by the behemoth he built at Manchester United.
But the Scot was a revered figure in Scottish football when he decided to take the journey south of the border to arrive in rainy Manchester. Here is the story of Sir Alex Ferguson, the Aberdeen legend.
The journey to Aberdeen
Not many may know of a club in the Scottish fifth tier known as East Stirlingshire, in Falkirk. It is where Sir Alex Ferguson’s legendary managerial career started.
It was a part-time job and he was on a contract worth £40 per week. Ferguson also walked into a squad that didn’t have a single goalkeeper.
However, he was there only for a few months in 1974 before he landed the manager’s job at St. Mirren, in the Scottish second division. During his four years at the club, he carried out a remarkable transformation at St. Mirren Park.
From attracting crowds of only a thousand per game, he turned them into Scottish first division champions. He discovered and nurtured players such as Billy Stark, Tony Fitzpatrick, Lex Richardson, Frank McGarvey, Bobby Reid and Peter Weir and his team played some of the most attacking football in Scotland.
The average age of his champion team was 19 with club captain Fitzpatrick being only 20.
However, St. Mirren also hold the distinction of being the only club to sack Sir Alex Ferguson in 1978. He was shown the door under dubious circumstances with both parties throwing allegations against each other.
But his managerial talent was for all to see and Aberdeen snapped him up in 1978 and he pushed himself to another level at the Pittodrie.
Rise of Sir Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen
Aberdeen finished second and third in the two seasons preceding Sir Alex Ferguson’s arrival. They were easily the best team outside the Old Firm of Celtic and Rangers but they had hit the glass ceiling and manager Billy McNeill joined the Hoops in 1978.
The Dons wanted to break the Celtic and Rangers stranglehold on Scottish football and needed an inspirational figure in the dugout. But Sir Alex Ferguson’s first season at Aberdeen didn’t go according to plan.
They finished fourth in the league, reached the Scottish Cup semi-final and lost in the League Cup final. But by his own admission, Ferguson was not fully there in his first season at the club.
The legal case against St. Mirren and the illness of his father contrived to keep him pre-occupied on stuff away from football. But the first year at Aberdeen was a learning curve for both Sir Alex Ferguson and his players.
The 1978-79 season also didn’t start as well as he hoped to but their form improved dramatically as the campaign wore. They clawed their way back in the title race after Celtic took an early lead and won the league in dramatic fashion on the final day when they beat Hibernian 5-0.
It was the first time in 15 years did a team outside the Celtic-Rangers hegemony that won the league. The league title earned Sir Alex Ferguson the respect of his squad, which contained senior players who were close to his age.
The Ferguson traits were visible at Aberdeen as well. He was a strict disciplinarian and famously fined John Hewitt for having the audacity of overtaking his car on the road and kicked a tea urn at the players following a poor first-half performance, a repeat of which happened two decades later at Old Trafford with David Beckham and the flying boot.
His ‘us against the world’ psychological warfare was on show in Scotland as well. He deliberately created the siege mentality amongst his Aberdeen squad and accused the Scottish media of being biased towards the two giants of Glasgow – Celtic and Rangers.
Following the first league title, Fergie’s side finished second in the next two seasons but winning the Scottish FA Cup in 1982 earned Aberdeen the right to play in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and Ferguson got his chance to show his mettle in Europe and boy he did!
They won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983 while beating European giants Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals and Real Madrid in the final. Aberdeen became only the third team from Scotland to win a European trophy, something very few at the club believed would ever happen.
The following season, Aberdeen beat reigning European champions Hamburg to lift the European Super Cup. Long before ‘Football, Bloody hell’, Sir Alex Ferguson was leaving his imprint on Europe with an unfancied Scottish team who also played in red.
Aberdeen also won the Scottish FA Cup for three years running in 1982, 1983 and 1984. These were heady days and Ferguson could do little wrong. But he was craving for more success in the league.
Sir Alex Ferguson proved that the 1980 league title was not a fluke and he was more than a cup football manager when Aberdeen won back-to-back league titles in 1984 and 1985.
A new force in Scotland had emerged and they were not Rangers or Celtic. The grip of the Old Firm on Scottish football had finally loosened and it needed a force of nature in Ferguson to make the unthinkable happen.
He was appointed an Order of the British Empire in the 1985 New Years’ Honours and was already a managerial great mid-way through his 40s. He also had an offer to move to Arsenal during the season but he resisted.
It was not the first time he was linked with a move to England as Wolves wanted him in 1982. His boyhood club Rangers were also keen to snare the Scot away from Pittodrie but he stayed put at Aberdeen.
But it was clear that Ferguson was outgrowing Aberdeen and he needed a bigger stage and the moment arrived in November 1986.
There was talk during the summer of 1986 that Ferguson would join Manchester United to replace Ron Atkinson but the Old Trafford bosses were not feeling trigger-happy yet. The story could have been all so different had he accepted an offer from Tottenham to replace Peter Shreeves that year.
But destiny had a different plan and on 6th November 1986, Sir Alex Ferguson was finally appointed manager at Manchester United. As he said on that first day, “I couldn’t possibly turn this down”.
Legacy at Aberdeen
To understand the weight of his achievements at Aberdeen, one only needs to glance at the list of clubs who have won the Scottish Premiership title in Scotland since he moved to England.
It has only two names – Rangers and Celtic. The last decade has been even more one-sided as Celtic have won nine titles in a row and are now favourites to win an unprecedented ten league titles on the trot. The Dons have won the Scottish FA Cup just once since Ferguson’s move south of the border.
It was no surprise that he was invited to officially open Aberdeen’s new training base in Cormack Park last year.
There has not been another Sir Alex Ferguson in Scotland since he left and Rangers and Celtic have again happily dominated Scottish football.
Ferguson made Scottish football more than just about Celtic and Rangers, he made Aberdeen relevant, not only in Scotland but gave them an identity in Europe.
His achievements at Manchester United will always overshadow what he did in his homeland but for a few years in the 1980s, Europe knew one more force from Scotland and they were Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen.