The Madrid View

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As the old adage goes: history is written by the victor, and football is no different. No one cares about the losers in the aftermath of an epic match. Winners are hoisted upon shoulders, torrents of camera bulbs flash, triumphant images are frozen in time ready to be traded by future generations. Real-life has enough tales of nearly men, we want sport to provide the all-conquering heroes that make us believe that all things are possible. But as with most things in life, the interesting stuff is found in the margins away from the archetypes. The most instructive stories often happen far from the spotlight and involve those on the losing side.

One of the most fascinating aspects of researching the Neil Simpson profile was curating tales from the perspective of the losers of the 1983 European Cup Winner’s Cup Final – Real Madrid. Stories from inside the Madrid camp, including the narrowly averted half-time punch-up mentioned in the profile piece, came via Aberdeen fan David Massie. David’s incredible insights came about as a result of an unlikely friendship struck up with Madrid right-back Juan José. Ex-pat David was living and working in the Spanish port of Cádiz at the turn of the century while the erstwhile Spanish international was experiencing an extremely turbulent period in his life: a losing battle with his demons left him pushing a sweeping brush around local building sites just to keep the wolf from the door. The pair spent many a morning sharing a coffee while the Spaniard regaled David with stories from his playing days and, in particular, the inside track on that famous night in ’83. Stories ranged from the Madrid goalie cavorting with a procession of Scandanavian admirers in the build-up to the final to the cocksure Spaniards laughing up their sleeves at the sight of a drenched John Hewitt preparing to enter the pitch ahead of his match-winning substitute appearance. Keep an eye on future Gothenburg Project articles for more of these fascinating insights.

Another great source of information on the Madrid perspective has been Spanish newspaper archives. One article, in particular, published by Madrid-based daily El Pais in the build-up to the game gives a brilliant insight into the foreign view of Aberdeen- an almost unknown quantity in those pre-Internet days. The article is reproduced in full below. Enjoy!

Football and oil have transformed life in Aberdeen 

Just as in 1981, when it lost 1-0 in Paris against Liverpool, Real Madrid has to face in a European final another British Red Devils. On this occasion, the rivals will be the unknown Aberdeen of Alex Ferguson, a Scottish team lacking in European titles/accolades. Alfredo di Stefano’s men seem comfortable with a rival whom they consider beatable in the Gothenburg final and point to the fact that in a competition full of fearsome teams, like Bayern Munich, Tottenham, Red Star, Inter Milan or even Barcelona, the rival could have been a lot more uncomfortable. 

An El Pais correspondent was in the Scottish city which is living in hope of the European trophy. Life in Aberdeen has been transformed by oil from the North Sea and the European Final. This cold northern city is the main point of unloading of the black oil that brings an air of prosperity uncommon in a Scotland frightened by the ghost of unemployment.  However, in the neat Pittodrie stadium (with a 24,000 seat capacity), they say that the arrival of the manager Alex Ferguson in 1978 was more decisive than that of oil. Ferguson’s team is a good reflection of the cautious character of the northern Scottish folk. There is a sort of caution in the presence of foreigners, and although the players display a good sense of humour and cordiality when interviewed, they prefer to hide behind ironic or humorous responses rather than telling truths.

“I owe everything to my feet. The Tax Man is more of a worry than Real”, says the great Aberdeen star, Gordon Strachan.

Even the nickname of “The Dons” has an obscure origin to mislead the foreigner. Supposedly the club is named after the Don River, which goes through the city. But the true reason is that Aberdeen was founded in 1903 by a group of academics from the local university. 

Living under the shadows of the “big boys” 

Since its foundation, Aberdeen, just like most Scottish teams has lived under the shadow of Celtic and Rangers, the two Glasgow teams.  Until the arrival of Ferguson, they had won only one league title (1955), two Cups (1947, 1970) and three League Cups (1946,1956 &1977). With Ferguson, the Dons have won one league title and a cup in the last three years, and in spite of this, Ferguson continues his work without a contract; “I don’t care about pieces of paper, I trust the word of our president Dick Donald” says the coach. This season is very important to us because we are reaping the fruit of our work of the last five years. Our European season and especially our victory against Bayern has given us prestige, and finally, it has given us an identity within continental football”.

Ferguson is a very colourful character. As a player, he played for Queen’s Park, St. Johnstone, Dunfermline, Rangers, Falkirk and Ayr. Rangers got rid of him abruptly after a 0-4 loss against Celtic in 1980. The coach at the time tasked Ferguson with the job of marking McNeill when he went up for corner kicks. Within a minute of the game starting Celtic went up 1-0 thanks to a McNeill header from a corner kick.

Ferguson started coaching at East Stirling, then to St Mirren and finally ended up in Aberdeen when he replaced Billy McNeill (the same one with the header from the corner kick). At Pittodrie, Ferguson has built a fearsome block around the red-haired central midfielder Gordon Strachan, the smallest player in a squad where the average height is above 1.80 metres. Strachan impressed in the Scottish national team that played in last year’s World Cup, but as soon as he returned from Spain, asked for a transfer, saying that he wanted to seek “wider horizons”. The manager was quick to respond, “Gordon was happy to sign a contract for four years and he has to stay until 1984. Anyway, Strachan’s transfer is worth three million dollars (405 million pesetas), a very reasonable figure if we consider Maradona was bought for eight million. In my opinion, Gordon demonstrated a lot more than Maradona in the World Cup”. 

A British styled team 

While Strachan captures most headlines, Ferguson prefers to talk of a team without weaknesses that practice a typical style of British football, and that according to the critics; they practice it better than anybody.

The goalkeeper, Jim Leighton (24 years old) just earned a Scottish national team call. “He doesn’t look like an athlete, right?” smiles Ferguson, “but he is the best keeper in the country. He has a very peculiar style that not everybody likes but he stops the ball and that’s the most important thing”.

In the defence, the central defenders Willie Miller and Alex McLeish stand out. The sweeper Miller (27) already has more than 50 caps while the stopper McLeish (23) has already represented his country 20 times.

The right-back Stuart Kennedy (30) is the most senior player of the team. Perhaps the weakest point of the last four could be the left-back Doug Rougvie (26) who is more comfortable playing as centre back. Because of this could cause Juanito can cause him a lot of problems. 

In the middle of the pitch together with Gordon Strachan are Neil Simpson (22) and Doug Bell (24), or the blonde Neale Cooper (20). 

Upfront the tireless worker of Mark McGhee (25) is a standout, he has already scored half a dozen goals in this competition. To his right plays Eric Black (22) and to his left, the skilled and quick winger Peter Weir bought from St Mirren two years ago for a Scottish transfer record of 65 Million Pesetas. On the bench, John Hewitt (21), a striker with a nose for scoring stands out.

Aberdeen’s secretary, Ian Taggart, says that thousands of fans have already registered to watch the final in Gothenburg and it is expected that a lot more fans will do the ferry trip between the two cities that share their latitude as well as their climate. All the hotel rooms in Gothenburg have been taken by the Scottish fans. It is the first time a Scottish team has made it to a European final since the 1972 Cup Winner’s Cup when Rangers beat Dynamo Moscow 3-2, and as a thank-you, their fans half destroyed the Camp Nou. However, the owners of Gothenburg’s Nya Ullevi stadium should not be too worried about this since The Don’s followers have so far been exemplary in this competition. The Scottish show a great admiration for Madrid, they consider it a “magic name in world football” and they believe that in Gothenburg there awaits a fascinating mix of pure whisky with a fine Jerez of Juanito, accompanied by a few drops of Metgod’s Genever and the powerful Schnapps of Stielike.

This article first appeared in the print edition of El Pais on 22nd April 1983. Many thanks to Juan Saavedra for his great work on the translation.