Alex Ferguson won pretty much everything as a manager, but for many, especially those in the North East of Scotland, Aberdeen’s victory in Gothenburg on May 11, 1983, was greater than any of his other achievements in the game.
Following Celtic’s European Cup win of 1967 and Rangers’ Cup Winners’ Cup triumph of 1972 Aberdeen would become the most recent Scottish side to taste success in Europe, lifting the 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup, in one of the greatest stories in British football; while overcoming some of the best sides on the continent along the way.
Having taken the helm at Pittodrie in 1978 Alex Ferguson, ably assisted by his right-hand-man Archie Knox, had guided Aberdeen to the Scottish League title for just the second time in 1980 leading to one of the greatest periods in the club’s history
And the unlikely victory was just the start of an impressive run of success at home and abroad as, having won the Scottish Cup just two years later, Aberdeen found themselves in the European Cup Winners’ Cup going into the 1982/83 season.
Starting that campaign in August against Swedish side FC Sion, who they demolished 11-1 on aggregate, they then enjoyed victories over Dinamo Tirana and Lech Posnan as Ferguson’s men progressed to the quarter-finals where they would meet the mighty Bayern Munich.
Despite what many people would have considered an impressive 0-0 draw in the Olympic Stadium in the first-leg Ferguson was far from impressed claiming: “When we drew 0-0 over there I was the only one who was unhappy because I thought we needed an away goal and should have got one. We hit the post twice and were a better team.”
And it looked like his worst fears would be realised when the Augenthaler put the German side ahead after just 10 minutes back at Pittodrie in one of the most dramatic games of that entire season.
A Neil Simpson equaliser was quickly followed by another Bayern strike, this time a fantastic effort from Pflugler, which appeared to put the game to bed; but Ferguson’s side weren’t done as one of the most incredible 30 minutes of football unfolded.
A cleverly worked free-kick routine saw Gordon Strachan cross for Alex McLeish to head home and draw the home side level, and as the Bayern defence were still arguing amongst themselves John Hewitt scored the Dons’ winner just moments later to secure a place in the semi-final.
That semi-final actually turned out to be something of a formality as Aberdeen demolished Belgian side Waterschei Thor 5-2 over two legs meaning they would now face the mighty Real Madrid in the final across the North Sea in Sweden.
An estimated 14,000 Dons fans made the journey to Gothenburg by whatever means possible, chartering planes and some even embarking on a two-day ocean voyage on the now famous St Clair ferry for the overnight crossing.
When they arrived the weather certainly suited them more than the men from Madrid as the rain poured down relentlessly throughout the day ensuring the pitch was sodden by kick-off and became covered with puddles as the game wore on.
Alex Ferguson had briefed his team thoroughly going into the game, preparing reports on each Madrid player as he had done for much of the earlier rounds while also telling his side, in a calm pre-match address, to go out and play their natural game.
“The raw energy in that dressing room was frightening,” Gordon Strachan recalled in the 2013 book Glory in Gothenburg. “If you could have turned that into electricity you could have powered the whole of the north of Scotland."
Aberdeen revelled in their role as underdogs and Ferguson even used an old trick he’d learned from Jock Stein by presenting his opposite number, Alfredo Di Stefano, with a bottle of Scotch to give the impression he and his team were just happy to have got this far. "Let him feel important," Stein told him. "As if you are thrilled just to be in the final."
However, on the field they were far from overwhelmed and deservedly took the lead when a McLeish header stuck on the waterlogged pitch and Eric Black turned the ball in from three yards to send those who had made the tricky journey from Scotland wild with delight.
The surface would play a significant part in Madrid’s equalizer too, when an under hit back-pass from Alex McLeish left Jim Leighton with little option but to concede a penalty when he brought down the onrushing forward with Jaunito duly converting the kick to make it 1-1.
Despite Aberdeen having the better of things in the second-half, the score remained unchanged meaning the match would go into extra-time and with only seven minutes remaining the lottery of penalties on a quagmire of a pitch looked to be a very real possibility.
But once again Alex Ferguson’s tactical nous late in a game would be the difference between the two sides instructing Peter Weir, who had been playing as a deep-lying midfielder for much of the game, to get forward while also bringing on John Hewitt in a late change. “Come on, let's get pushed up and go at them,” were his instructions.
And it was Weir who started the move that led to Aberdeen’s eventual winner as he found Mark McGhee, whose cross deceived Augustin in the Madrid goal for the recently introduced substitute Hewitt to head into an empty net.
Against all expectations Alex Ferguson and his Dons, composed solely of Scotsmen, had won the European Cup Winners’ Cup sparking wild scenes of celebration on the streets of Aberdeen and Gothenburg.
While for those hardy souls who had crossed the North Sea on the St Clair and arrived back some two days later, there was a surprise waiting for them as Alex Ferguson and his skipper Mark McGhee were waiting at the docks to greet them with the trophy.
"Some of them actually walked by me and I think they were maybe half-cut,” Ferguson later explained."Then they came back and said 'is that the manager?'"
Ferguson would win three league titles with Aberdeen along with four Scottish Cups, a League Cup and a European Super Cup before heading south for Manchester United; but that rainy night in May 1983, when his team defeated the mighty Real Madrid to win the European Cup Winners’ Cup is still seen by many as his greatest ever achievement.