INTRODUCING YOUR CONTENDERS

Scottish football is almost unrecognisable now from the force it was in the early 1980s. Although ‘Ally’s Army’ had disappointed in the 1978 World Cup, they represented the coming of a force. Teams like Dundee United made runs deep into European competition in a way they hadn’t before and haven’t since.

One such foray took Aberdeen into the 1981/82 UEFA Cup. Their run took them past Ipswich Town and Romanian side Arges Pitesti before a third round clash with Hamburg. It was to be a Winter Classic.

Two years on from their first Scottish Premier title, but still under the management of Alex Ferguson, the Dons were a force to be reckoned with domestically.

Hamburg, meanwhile, were one of the most feared sides in Europe. They had been in the Bundesliga top two for three years in a row, and lost the European Cup Final in Madrid in 1980. Franz Beckenbauer had returned from MLS, but was by no means the only star in the side.

They were one of the favourites for the 1981/82 UEFA Cup, but knew they would face some fierce competition. In order to lift the trophy, they would have to see off a phalanx of Europe’s big names.

Real Madrid and their city rivals Atletico, along with Valencia, represented Spain. Napoli and Inter completed the Italian contingent, while the likes of Arsenal, PSV and Sporting were found elsewhere in the draw.

In the days when only champion sides made the European Cup, the UEFA Cup could often seem the trickier challenge, and 1981/82 was no exception.

Aberdeen went into the cup in bullish mood, and had added Peter Weir for a club record of £540,000 from St Mirren. Ian Scanlon went the other way and amongst a clutch of departing bit-part players, the retiring Drew Jarvie left a hole in attack that would prove difficult to fill.

STALEMATE AT PORTMAN ROAD

A poor start to the league campaign saw Aberdeen winning their first game at the third attempt. Having dispatched Partick Thistle, Ferguson’s men travelled to Portman Road for the first leg of their UEFA Cup campaign.

Ipswich were not just UEFA Cup holders, but had also started the season very well indeed in England. Their weekend victory over Liverpool was their fourth game unbeaten, and Portman Road was very definitely a tough place to go.

The Tractor Boys were on form that evening, though the Dons looked by no means out of their depth. The first goal came from Frans Thijssen on the stroke of half time. Collecting the ball out by the right touchline, he twisted and turned his way into the area.

Finding an inch of space to unleash a fierce shot, he would have been disappointed to see it fly straight at Jim Leighton. The Scotland goalkeeper could only parry it into the net, the kind of moment that one sees in blooper reels time and again.

Aberdeen were not dead yet, and fought back in the second half. Their equaliser, when it came, was from a set piece, a corner headed in by Neale Cooper was turned into the Ipswich net by John Hewitt. A respectable draw gave both sides a chance at Pittodrie.

BECOMING IMMORTAL

It is fair to say that the return leg was viewed with some level of both excitement and importance. Not only did the Aberdeenshire Evening Express describe it as ‘the greatest test of nerves in their 78 year history’, but Alex Ferguson did nothing to douse the flames in his press conference.

While deferring somewhat to the quality of his English counterparts, the future Manchester United manager insisted “Aberdeen stand only 90 minutes away from a result that would make them immortal”.

Locals without a ticket had to wait until 10.40 to see if their heroes had progressed. Not being shown live, the highlights were kept for Grampian’s Midweek Sports Special sharing the bill with gymnastics.

It was Gordon Strachan who showed the first signs of living forever, converting a 19th minute penalty after nicking the ball off a lumbering John Wark. Wark himself replied from the spot just after the half hour, but the 24,000 crowd was sent into raptures by a fine second half display from Aberdeen.

Peter Weir scored two fine goals to put the game, and the tie, beyond Ipswich. His first was a fabulous low drive, following the winger cutting inside after receiving a gorgeous cross-field pass from Strachan. The second was even better.

With the Tractor Boys reeling, Weir took a loose ball midway into their half. He strode forward an unleashed a furious effort into the bottom corner. Pittodrie was in raptures. Even the drama of a re-taken and saved penalty by Strachan late on did little to calm the home support, nor a delighted Jim Leighton.

DOUBLE DUTCH TREAT FOR HAMBURG

Meanwhile, Hamburg were recovering from a shock home defeat in the first leg against Utrecht to progress comfortably in the Netherlands. A somewhat flat match was illuminated by the Dutch side slipping the offside trap in the closing stages and Willy Carbo slotting home.

In no mood to give up their chances of silverware, Hamburg were 3-0 up by half time at Stadion Galgenwaard, and though Carbo did grab another, the Germans ran out comfortable 6-3 winners.

There were some other interesting results in that first round. West Germany’s Borussia Moenchengladbach saw off East Germany’s Magdeburg only on away goals. Dundee United eliminated Monaco, Radnicki Nis put Napoli out.

More unlikely still, Zurich’s representatives came out on top against West Bromwich Albion – a neat contrast to nature wherein Grasshoppers never get the better of Throstles.

Elsewhere, Arges Pitesti were rewarded for their easy home victory over APOEL with a tie against Aberdeen. Bordeaux swatted aside the Icelandic side Vikingur, only to be drawn against Hamburg. Tougher things awaited both.

A FINE BORDEAUX

Faced with a trip to France in the first leg, Hamburg looked far from their best. That said, Bordeaux were newcomers to European football, their victory in the first round being the side’s first appearance since 1968/69.

The hosts shot into the lead as well, Albert Gemmrich rifling home just before the quarter hour. Before half time, Hamburg had pulled level. During a period of play in which Bordeaux couldn’t quite clear their lines from a corner there was a few fouls that might have resulted in a penalty before the one that did.

Right back Manfred Kaltz converted for 1-1. Kaltz was on a high ebb, earning rave reviews for both club and country. He was full of goals, and not just from the penalty spot.

The match looked poised to end level until some fabulous inventive play from Alain Giresse allowed Gerard Soler to run clear of the Hamburg defence and prod home a beautiful goal.

Meanwhile, in Hamburg, Bordeaux found the going tough against their German opponents. Horst Hrubesch did the damage, first scoring a towering header to bring his side back on terms. A few minutes later, after a fabulous team move, he jabbed home a rebound to put Hamburg 2-0 up and the tie beyond doubt.

BATTLING ROMANIANS

Faced with much easier opposition in the form of Arges Pitesti, Aberdeen won 3-0 at Pittodrie and looked set to progress to the third round without any kind of scare.

It didn’t quite work out like that. In Romania, Aberdeen were left feeling sorry for themselves during a bad-tempered first half that saw the hosts testing the resolve of the Belgian referee time and again with their tripping and physicality.

The Dons themselves were no angels, and two first half set pieces brought Arges two goals. First a free kick near the corner flag was converted by an unmarked Marin Radu, before Ilie Barbarescu put another dead ball right into the top corner to give the hosts a 2-0 half time lead.

It took a Gordon Strachan penalty early in the second period to put the tie beyond Arges, with John Hewitt adding a late strike to give the scoreline a slightly lopsided look.

That same night, Scotland was getting the better of Germany as Dundee United smashed Borussia Mönchengladbach 5-0 to win 5-2 on aggregate, and Dinamo Bucharest needed extra time to eliminate Italian giants Inter.

The Nerazzurri found themselves flying home from the same airport as Aberdeen, which brought about an amusing encounter for Alex McLeish.

The centre-back was, it was reported, negotiating with some Inter fans for some souvenir badges, when an Aberdeen fan told the Italians they were dealing with a Scotland centre-back.

Ah, Gordon McQueen!”, came the response, “Pleased to meet you”.

For our heroes, however, things were about to get very involved, as Aberdeen and Hamburg were drawn to face one another.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

Although it might seem as though the two ties had little to link them, Dundee United’s victory over Borussia Mönchengladbach was not ignored by the press.

Using that result to indicate that the Scottish league might favourably to the Bundesliga seems unlikely now, but it was a point that could at least be argued in the early 1980s.

Ferguson was not above that, but was keener to reference his own side’s achievements to worry the cup favourites before they came to Pittodrie.

We couldn’t have asked for a harder one”, he told the press, “Hamburg are bound to be a bit wary of coming to Scotland after what Dundee United did to Borussia, and they are bound to know we have knocked out the holders and early favourites, Ipswich”.

There was a fortnight in which both teams could scout one another, and play mind games with one another. Hamburg were able to take a break from the Bundesliga, as well. They walloped Bayer Leverkusen after the draw before hosting, and thrashing, Darmstadt to lead them into an international break.

Aberdeen assistant Archie Knox took the opportunity to watch the Darmstadt game, and would have been impressed by Hamburg’s 6-0 victory.

Their lack of other action wouldn’t have hampered Ferguson, however. The coach had footage of four of their earlier league games shipped across to help his side acclimatise to their future opposition. That came in addition to advice from Celtic coach Billy McNeil.

ABERDEEN INJURY CRISIS

The Bhoys beat Aberdeen 2-1 the weekend after the draw, but had visited Hamburg in pre-season, and McNeil identified some of the difficulties Ferguson’s side might have. Former Aberdeen man Jens Petersen, by then back in his native Denmark, also passed on a dossier to Ferguson.

It was the week after the Celtic game that caused Aberdeen their main issues. Inevitably, after a tough game at the league leaders, they suffered injuries. McLeish and Doug Rougvie both raced to be fit for the trip to Hibernian the week before Hamburg visited.

With defenders already thin on the ground, having Neale Cooper stretchered off at Easter Road was far from ideal as well. A poor performance in Edinburgh would have pleased the watching Hamburg contingent, with Beckenbauer, Netzer and Happel amongst a part of eight in attendance.

Given the issues Ferguson was experiencing, it might have been wise for at least one of the Germans to visit Pittodrie, where Aberdeen’s reserve side were thumping Arbroath’s Second XI 5-2. John Hewitt had three UEFA Cup goals to his name already, and he found the net again.

With left-winger Peter Weir unavailable through suspension, Hewitt had been pushed wide for the reserve games to allow him experience in that role.

Meanwhile, Eric Black had been relegated to the reserves, and scored twice, while Alex McLeish was performing timed runs up and down the touchline before kickoff in a bid to prove his fitness.

Doug Rougvie was given a runout in another reserve game on the Monday, this time at Tannadice against Dundee United, as Aberdeen looked to balance match fitness with their defensive injury crisis.

He came through that with flying colours making McLeish the only issue in Ferguson’s mind, but that was resolved early on the Wednesday of the game.

As interviews with Hamburg coach Gunter Netzer and captain Franz Beckenbauer were taking place, McLeish turned up to Pittodrie and was clearly in no state to play.

THE FIRST LEG

Weeknight games at Pittodrie are always special, and the bigger the opposition, the better the ground seems to rise to the occasion. So it was that Wednesday night, with the snow fallen on the pitch and the bitter Aberdonian winter felt in force.

Eric Black, just 18 years old, found himself given the number 8 shirt by Ferguson and made it count early on. The youngster wrestled his way free of Beckenbauer as a corner came in, and propelled a towering header towards goal. It dropped into the net to send the crowd into rapture as Black wheeled away in delight.

With both sides looking a little tentative in the conditions, the first half contained a lot more by way of containment than free-flowing football and the score remained 1-0 to the hosts at the break.

Soon after the interval, however, Horst Hrubesch pounced after a mix-up between Jim Leighton and Stuart Kennedy saw Lars Bastrup emerge with the ball on the touchline. Steadying himself, the Dane was able to pick out the giant German striker in the middle of the box, and he converted into the unguarded net.

A little while after the hour mark, Aberdeen struck again. A corner was played to the edge of the box, wherein it was lofted to the penalty spot. With the Hamburg defence seemingly unable to control or clear, it worked its way through to John Hewitt a few yards from goal. He set himself and rifled Aberdeen back into the lead.

THE BIG MISS

Suddenly, the Dons were on top and Hamburg looked rattled. Mark McGhee went hurtling through on goal, escaped the challenge of Uli Stein and drilled the ball goalwards. The despairing dive of Caspar Memering ensured it missed the target, but it was rightly adjudged handball and Aberdeen awarded a penalty.

Strachan stepped up, and placed his kick high and to Stein’s left, but the German moved quickly and was able to force it round the post. The Dons kept their pressure up, however, and Black had another chance shortly afterwards that Stein only just managed to tip over the crossbar.

He could do nothing as the game entered its last ten minutes, however. Another loose ball in the box fell to an Aberdeen foot, this time Hewitt again, and he slammed a second goal low into the bottom right corner of the net. The Germans were rocked, 3-1 down and looking as though they had a mountain to climb.

The drama had not yet come to an end however.

With just five minutes to go, Doug Rougvie, who had struggled so hard to get fit for the match hobbled off the field after suffering an injury in a tackle. With Neale Cooper ready to come on, Aberdeen were short at the back and Hrubesch made them pay.

Put through on goal, he needed no encouragement to put the ball past Leighton and suddenly 3-1 was 3-2 and a comfortable lead was lost.

The game ended that way, a classic of Scottish and German football and, while one would favour Hamburg to get a result in Germany, the tie remained evenly poised though Rougvie, who was set to miss the next six months, was sure to be a big miss.

Ferguson, after the game, was rightly proud of his young team.

“I’ve heard an awful lot of moaning and groaning,” he said, “about missed chances, that missed penalty and the goals we gave away. But we can hold our heads up and say that we won the game. Aberdeen beat Hamburg – that’s a fact”.

It was a fact, but they would likely have to do similar in the return leg to be assured of a place in the Quarter Finals.

BEFORE THE SECOND LEG

There was a fortnight between the two legs, which afforded both sides opportunity for recovery, though the Germans had another benefit. The Bundesliga Winter Break began at the start of December and Hamburg visited (and beat) Werder Bremen the weekend after returning from Scotland.

The following weekend after they faced second tier Aachen in the DfB Pokal. Alex Ferguson considered travelling to Germany for that game, but opted to stay home after comparing Aachen to Berwick Rangers.

The game in Bremen was a peculiar one. Trailing 2-0 after just eight minutes, Hamburg fought back to win 3-2, Felix Magath sealing the points three minutes from time. This result was achieved without Manfred Kaltz, perhaps Germany’s best right back, who scored plenty of goals for both club and country, but had suffered a foot injury.

By contrast, Aberdeen endured a goalless draw against Airdrieonians shorn of a number of their best players. That was followed by a trip to Cappielow.

Aberdeen’s games at Morton were always memorable, though they came out of that one with a 2-1 defeat, prompting Ferguson to declare that the league was over winning the UEFA Cup was his side’s best chance of returning to Europe next season.

As the Dons sat in Aberdeen Airport waiting for the snow to be cleared for their flight, they had every intention of doing just that.

Optimists could point to the return of Peter Weir for the second leg after his suspension, while it was acknowledged that Hamburg’s two goals in the first meeting came from errors that would be unlikely to occur again.
There was also the adverse weather conditions to consider.

The snow had a knock-on effect at the other end of the flight meaning that when Aberdeen arrived in Hamburg, there was a solitary fan at the airport to meet them. Of course, more followed, by both land and air.

That was on the Tuesday, which meant that Ferguson’s side were in Germany in time for a full training session on the Wednesday morning. Usually, such things pass without incident, but disastrously, Peter Weir suffered a back injury during that period, serious enough to rule him out of the game that evening.

Whatever plans had been made were hastily re-written.

HAMBURG SEIZE THE INITIATIVE

It was a much more dynamic Hamburg side that appeared through the snowy athletics track onto the pristine green playing surface that evening and Jim Leighton’s goal was immediately under threat.

Efforts from Magath and Hrubesch looked dangerous, and a cross from the former bounced off the crossbar, before McLeish mis-kicked a ball that went just over his own crossbar.

With just over half an hour gone, Bernd Wehmeyer hung up a cross from the right flank to the far post. Hrubesch, demonstrating his power and strength again, shrugged off the challenges of both McLeish and Willie Miller to power his header home and his side level.

In no mood to stop there, Hamburg pressed on looking for a killer blow. It took them until just before the hour mark. With confusion in the Dons defence, Neil Simpson pulled down Magath, and Memering stepped up to give the hosts the lead.

His spot kick, under considerable pressure, was perfect; drill high and to Leighton’s left, the Scot had no chance as the ball slammed into the crossbar and down again, over the line.

Aberdeen looked finished, and they were flattened by a third Hamburg goal, a few minutes later as Milewski’s cross was met by Ditmar Jakobs for 3-0.

There was still time for substitute Mark McGhee to score the best goal of the game (if not the tie), hammering home from just outside the box after a deft piece of control, but on the night Hamburg were just too strong for the Scottish side.

Ferguson was magnanimous in defeat as his side returned to Britain.

I must congratulate Hamburg,” he said, “on a win they deserved. They were the better side on the night, we have no complaints”.

As he spoke, more snow fell – covering the pitch and rendering the markings invisible. Within an hour of their elimination, the pitch was unplayable.

THE AFTERMATH

Aberdeen returned to Scotland to better form, and ended the season just two points behind Celtic. They won the Scottish Cup to secure a European Cup Winners’ Cup spot for the following season – a competition they would also go on to win.

Their form was such that they lost just twice more all season, at Celtic in January and at Cappielow (again) in April. With Aberdeen enjoying seven consecutive wins before, and eight after, Morton clearly had something over the Dons.

This tie against Hamburg instilled a confidence in Ferguson and his young side that they could compete at that level which stood them in good stead against the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, both beaten during that glorious campaign.

Hamburg, meanwhile, made it all the way to the UEFA Cup Final, beating Neuchatel Xamax and Radnicki Nis on their way to a two-legged defeat by IFK Göteborg. They won the Bundesliga to qualify for the European Cup, which they went on to win, too, beating Juventus in the final.

All of which meant that the 1983 European Super Cup pitted Aberdeen against Hamburg. That two legged affair was won by Ferguson’s side. After a goalless first leg in Germany, Aberdeen (wearing white shirts) grabbed two second half goals at Pittodrie to claim the trophy.

The 1982/83 Bundesliga remains Hamburg’s last title, while Aberdeen won the Scottish League in 1983/84 and 1984/85; they, too, remain their last successes.