Zero to Hero


by Ian Murray


When Alex Ferguson was sacked as manager of St Mirren Football Club, in the late seventies, the canny and extremely shrewd chairman of Aberdeen Football Club, (Richard (Dick) Donald) appointed Ferguson as manager of Aberdeen. Dick Donald was a member of the highly successful local family who owned and ran nine cinemas in the City plus His Majesty’s Theatre.

The true reasons for the dismissal of Ferguson by St Mirren have never been fully explained. One thing for certain however, it was not due to lack of success on the field. A few weeks prior to his dismissal Alex Ferguson had taken the unfashionable Paisley club to the Scottish Cup final.

As events have turned out St Mirren’s loss was Aberdeen’s gain and subsequently Manchester United’s.


When Ferguson arrived at Aberdeen players such as Gordon Strachan, Alex McLeish, Willie Miller and Jim Leighton (All Scottish Internationals) were reaching their peak. In this respect Ferguson was extremely lucky to have inherited a team with such a wealth of ready talent. To his credit, however, he made several bargain basement signings and under his management Aberdeen Football Club enjoyed six years of supremacy in Scottish Football. The domestic success culminated in Aberdeen winning the European Cup Winners Cup and the European Super Cup. A tremendous achievement by a Scottish provincial Football Club. In winning the Cup Winners Cup in Gothenburg in 1983, Aberdeen beat no less than Real Madrid 2 -1. For this match many of the fans travelled on the North Link Ferry the ‘St Clair’ which had been specially hired by the fans. Aberdeen had a support in Gothenburg which greatly outnumbered that of the Spanish giants Real Madrid.

When oil was discovered in the North Sea in the early seventies Aberdeen became known was the oil capital of Europe, those employed in the oil industry earned good money and this prosperity was also a factor in the success of the football club. At this time I was the Aberdeen Sub-Divisional Inspector for the force.


As a result of this prosperity Aberdeen F.C. attracted a huge away support. Each Saturday, (on away days) several thousand supporters journeyed the 300 mile round trip to support their team. It was not uncommon for between five and seven special trains laid on to convey this huge support to fixtures in Glasgow and Edinburgh. These specials required a police escort, and the resources of the Aberdeen Sub-Division were fully stretched, to muster four officers

for each train conveying around 550 fans, each. It should be brought to notice that there was no alcohol ban at that period of time. Accordingly cash rich fans joined the trains laden with whisky and other brands of drink to partake on their long journeys south.

Amongst this support were members of the notorious Aberdeen Soccer Casuals, who numbered around two hundred. It is to the great credit of the British Transport Police that in the main, the special trains were relatively free from any major incident. The soccer casuals did pose problems for the Home Office Forces, and they were dreaded in major cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh.


The main concern of the police escorts was the effect that the intake of alcohol had on the supporters by the time the trains had reached Dundee, seventy miles or so south. Supporters who had joined the trains at Aberdeen in a sober state were literally ‘bombed out of their minds’ with drink less than an hour into a 3 ½ hour train journey.


This situation led to the death of a supporter travelling to a cup final at Hampden Park. For a wager this alcohol crazed supporter climbed onto the roof of the train and was instantly killed when he was struck by an overhead bridge near Carnoustie.

This death led to the special train being halted at Perth. A superintendent of the local force along with a contingent of his own force met the train there and instructed that it would require to be terminated at that point. The action had not been fully thought out as the detraining of over five hundred football fans on their way to a cup final could have resulted in major trouble in and around Perth. After a lengthy discussion it was agreed that the train would continue to Glasgow on the understanding that the police escort would obtain statements of evidence relative to the circumstances of this tragic death en route.

The contribution made to the generally successful policing of this huge travelling support was I feel never fully appreciated by our senior officers in Scotland. Journeys to Glasgow and Edinburg entailed around seven hours of escort duty alone. On arrival at the destination station the train escorts were often required to carry out police duties at places such as Glasgow Central and Mount Florida making a long and extremely tiring day of around twelve hours.


British Rail made a lot of money from the football specials. On the suggestion of the British Transport Police, limited catering facilities were introduced on the special trains by British Transport catering. This turned out to be a huge success, and the entire stock of pies etc was sold out within an hour of departure.


Ferguson’s success at Aberdeen did not escape the notice of major football clubs in England. This led to Ferguson becoming the manager of Manchester United. Unlike his good luck period at Aberdeen Ferguson encountered a set of ‘over the hill’ professionals at Old

Trafford, who were enveloped in a culture of drink and gambling. He set about trying to turn things around and revamp the team to his liking. However success did not come easily or indeed quickly and his fortunes at Manchester United were at very low ebb, when the team reached the English Cup Final. The Wembley encounter with Crystal Palace ended in a 3 -3 draw. Jim Leighton the Manchester United goalkeeper was blamed for two of the goals. United won the replay but Leighton was dropped and never again played for Manchester United.

An interesting aspect of this situation is that when Ferguson moved away from Aberdeen he took south the said Jim Leighton who was then the Aberdeen goalkeeper. Leighton is currently the goal keeping coach at Aberdeen.

It is widely thought that if United had not won the English cup, Ferguson would have been sacked. Soon after the youth policy which was introduced and encouraged by Ferguson began to pay dividends and players such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and the Neville brothers made their breakthrough to the first team and as they say the rest is history.


Extract from the May 2013 edition of History Lines (No. 45)