Alex Ferguson’s Greatest Win

Sir Alex Ferguson’s achievements over 27 years with Manchester United were legendary, but surely his finest hour came before he arrived at Old Trafford. A remarkable victory while in charge of a much smaller club, achieved at the expense of a true giant of football, puts all his subsequent glories into context.

Ferguson left the game with a poor record against Real Madrid. In six games against them as manager of United he won just once, and that wasn’t a glorious occasion for him as he still lost the tie: all three of his European ties against Real ended in elimination, the most recent being his Champions League swansong. But he faced Los Merengues on one other occasion, with a provincial Scottish side, and emerged with victory and his first European trophy.

Ferguson arrived at Aberdeen in 1978, having been sacked by Saint Mirren and lost his claim of unfair dismissal as an industrial tribunal described him as “particularly petty” and “immature”. The Buddies’ reward was to look on as he created a third power in Scottish football.

If the hegemony of Barcelona and Real Madrid bothers you, take a look at Scotland, where Rangers and Celtic transcend all else. Even the remarkable current circumstances in the Scottish game, with Rangers demoted for financial reasons, has only altered the balance to an extent: they continued to monopolise attention with their neighbours while working their way up the divisions, the SPL title a one-horse race in their absence.

Yet Ferguson’s Aberdeen broke their duopoly, winning  three league titles, four Scottish Cups and the League Cup in eight years at Pittodrie. The east coast side, developed under his iron fist with his assistant, Archie Knox, featured many players who would feature prominently for Scotland during a period strong on promise but lacking when it came to substantial achievement. Many would go on to become significant figures in management, a testimony to the influence they came under during that glorious period.

Having made an impact in Scotland, Aberdeen went on the rampage in Europe. They’d already shown they meant business by testing European champions Liverpool as they defended their crown, but a subsequent run in the European Cup Winners Cup in 1983 was when Ferguson’s work came to fruition.

In the course of the run they managed to dismiss Bayern Munich over two legs, drawing 0-0 in the Olympiastadion, then coming from behind twice to snatch victory with two late goals in a remarkable 3-2 victory. Belgian cup holders Waterschei were swept aside in the semi-finals, leading to the most remarkable of finals: a rendezvous with Alfredo di Stefano’s Real Madrid at the Ullevi in Stockholm.

As one might expect, the Aberdeen fans travelled in droves, 14,000 of them cheerfully boisterous to the last and surely finding it hard to believe their side had landed such a remarkable date at Europe’s top table. Their side’s indefatigable spirit and genuine quality meant they were a force to be reckoned with though, but they were up against a side with great pedigree, of course.

Three years earlier Real had reached the European Cup final, where they were defeated by Liverpool. Now they were looking to end a European drought which stretched back to the 1966 European Cup victory of the Ye-yé team with a side featuring Jose Antonio Camacho, Uli Stielike, Santillana and Juanito.

They’d shown their quality in the quarter-finals when they were pitted against Inter. They fell behind at the San Siro, but Ricardo Gallego struck in the second half to earn a draw, and they had to show character at the Bernabeu as well. At half time Alessandro Altobelli’s goal had given Inter the lead, but the tie turned on a dramatic five minute period shortly after the break. José Antonio Salguero equalised, and then Santillana pounced to clinch a 3-2 aggregate victory.

The last four could have seen a clash with eternal rivals and defending champions Barcelona, but they feel to a shock defeat in the quarter finals at the hands of Austrians Rapid Vienna.

Toni Polster struck just four minutes into the first leg to raise the possibility that Rapid would complete a memorable double and eliminate both Spanish giants, but within two minutes Santillana had equalised. Still, Rapid struck back and took the lead again, only for Isidoro San José to clinch a 2-2 draw.

The second leg in Spain followed a familiar pattern. Once again Real struggled to finish the job after clinching a draw away from home; once again it was Santillana who came to the rescue.

He opened the scoring after just ten minutes, but Real failed to add to the lead and half way through the second half San José made amends for his first leg goal but putting the ball into his own net!

Real still held an advantage on away goals, but things were much more precarious now and they needed a couple of club legends to dig them out of trouble, Five minutes after San José’s moment of disaster Juanito put Real back in front on the night, and Santillana chipped in with another to ensure that Real went through comfortably…eventually.


Real obviously arrived as the favourites and European sophisticates, with Santillana deserving a winner’s medal to cap a fine European campaign which had seen him score seven goals, hitting the net in each of the four rounds. But Ferguson had filled his players with belief, and many have spoken subsequently of how he convinced them that Real were a weak team which they ought to beat.

His mind games extended to inviting Jock Stein, doyenne of Scottish management and the man who guided Celtic to their famous 1967 European Cup triumph over Inter, to accompany his side. Ferguson explained in his autobiography that Stein had told him to present Di Stefano with a bottle of whiskey before the match:

“Let him feel important,” said Jock, “as if you are thrilled just to be in the final.”

Stein’s inspirational presence also transmitted itself to the players, and Aberdeen started swiftly, and in the sixth minute Eric Black’s spectacular volley was tipped onto the bar by Agustín, the keeper making up for the mishit clearance which had allowed the opportunity to occur in the first place. It was to prove a temporary reprieve though, and Gordon Strachan’s corner was helped on by Alex McLeish to Black, who headed the ball in to give Aberdeen the lead

Their advantage would only last eight minutes, although the equaliser came about in fortuitous circumstances. Heavy rain had meant the match wasn’t certain to go ahead, and although efforts were made to clear standing water from the Ullevi pitch, it was still sodden throughout the game.

No doubt that inconvenienced Real in general terms as they were unable to move the ball around the pitch as they might have wished, but they profited from the conditions when Alex McLeish forgot to take the damp pitch into account and hit a horribly under-powered backpass from thirty yards out.  Swiftly, Santillana latched onto it and raced around goalkeeper Jim Leighton, who lunged full length and pulled him down. Lucky for him that the red card for a professional foul wasn’t a mandatory punishment then: the referee pointed to the spot but took no further action, and Juanito lashed the ball home to make it 1-1.

Real pressed home their advantage and dominated the rest of the half, but couldn’t find a way through a stubborn defence marshalled well by Dons skipper Willie Miller.

Matters appeared to worsen for Aberdeen when they were forced to make a change at half time, Eric Black being replaced by John Hewitt. However, Hewitt would turn out to be the match winner.

He’d have to wait until extra time for his moment of glory though. Aberdeen recovered to enjoy the better of the second half, but Agustín denied a Strachan volley with his legs and then averted a late catastrophe when he pounced on a loose ball after he’d dropped a Peter Weir cross.

With just eight minutes of extra time left, Mark McGhee set off on a  determined run down the left wing before slinging a perfect ball into the box, where Hewitt ran onto the cross without checking his stride and headed the ball past Agustín for the winner.

Simpson missed a glorious opportunity to put the tie beyond Real’s grasp, and could have been made to pay for it with seconds remaining. A free kick was awarded on the edge of the Aberdeen area which came to nothing but the referee demanded it be taken again as he wasn’t ready. With nerves shredded on the terraces, Salguero stepped up and lashed in a terrific low shot on the goalkeeper’s side – a proper toebuster which seared in a low trajectory before suddenly picked up height as it travelled towards goal. It just cleared the wall and looked goalbound, but whistled narrowly past the post and into the puddles behind the goal.

And that was that. Jim Leighton took the goal kick and the referee blew the final whistle. Aberdeen had overcome Real Madrid, the fledgling Ferguson had overwhelmed di Stefano, and a legend of the game had made his first real imprint on the European stage.

Meanwhile, Saint Mirren came fifth in the Scottish Football League.

Is Levante’s Pretty-Ugly Fairy Tale Finally Over?

Never ever give up
Inspirational jackets can’t save Levante now

As I watch Levante crash to a 4-0 defeat at home to Real Sociedad, a performance described by the Revista podcast as the worst by any team in La Liga so far this season, a kid sits in front of my wearing a coat bearing the slogan “Never EVER give up.” He left before the end.

To be fair, an awful lot of the faithful did, and those that didn’t only hung around to show their side the contents of their pockets as they left the pitch.

Whte hankies at the final whistle
White hankies at the final whistle

The progressive reaction to the four goals followed the classic stages of football depression:

Goal 1: Shock.

Goal 2: Anger.

Goal 3: Early departure.

Goal 4: Ironic applause of the opponents.

And soon afterwards coach Lucas Alcaraz had paid with his job. You could never criticise him for a lack of effort as his touchline gurning and gesticulating makes Jurgen Klopp look like Niles Crane. A cruel critic might have asked whether there was anything behind his exhortations for hard work. If his preparation for this match had amounted to something more than hanging that kid’s jacket on the changing room wall and chanting “Never EVER give up.” at his team until their ears bled it didn’t show against La Real.

So does this mark the end of Levante’s gritty fairy tale? Sid Lowe wrote evocatively of the side’s glorious flirtation with the top of the table four years ago, dubbing their collection of gnarled journeymen “The Expendables” as they battled their way to the top of the table. They held on well enough to finish sixth and enjoy an unlikely European adventure the following season. And now it looks like they have come full circle.

In the week after Lowe’s article Levante actually took outright top spot in the league, ironically beating Real Sociedad 3-2. Just one day off the anniversary, La Real delivered the coup which cost Alcaraz his job and leaves the Granotes looking green around the gills. (I know frogs don’t have gills, but it’s so close to a good metaphor I had to follow it through).

By the end of the weekend, there was an even more poignant illustration of Levante’s decline. In a separate piece Lowe wrote of Raimon the groundsman, who arranges the SPanish teams’ flags in order of their league position on the flagpoles that run down the side of the pitch. It was a happy task four years ago; it will have been rather different this week as Raimon shifted Levante’s pennant to the last position on the right side of the stand.

The flags of the Liga sides, always arranged in league position. Levante ended up at the end of the row after this one.
The flags of the Liga sides, always arranged in league position. Levante ended up at the end of the row after this one.

So what has gone wrong? To put things in context, over-achieving is always a fragile business. Surviving in a league where the TV money doesn’t trickle down on crowds of between ten and fourteen thousand isn’t easy. Once you fail to get the fundamentals right, deterioration can set in fast, and three key factors have gone against Levante this year.

JIM announces his candidacy for the Valladolid job
JIM announces his candidacy for the Valladolid job

Firstly, their success has been on the back of some excellent coaching. The trouble is, when you show your quality at Levante the natural next step is to move on. Luis Garcia established the side in the top division in impressive style, and his predecessor, the much loved Juan Ignacio Martínez, took his work a step further. After a couple of sure-footed managerial appointments, the club’s luck was always likely to run out though – show me a club that have made three consecutive good choices of coach – and Levante haven’t bucked the trend. If Rubi, the new man, is a gem, then they might have a chance, but my money’s on him not being in the hot seat by the end of the campaign. Rubi’s credentials – a spell on the staff at Barsa and an isolated, albeit impressive, successful campaign at Girona in fifteen years of coaching, leave him feeling like a punt more than a sure thing. But then Levante were never in a position to draft in a sure thing, were they?

Rubi: just happy to be here
Rubi: just happy to be here

Secondly, any good players Levante might uncover are always going to snapped up by someone with more cash. From Felipe Caicedo through Arouna Koné to Kaylor Navas, players have moved on to bigger and better things. It’s hard to constantly dig up diamonds in the rough, so there’s bound to be an inevitable creep downwards in quality. If you want a graphic illustration of this point: consider this. Navas, on current form for Real Madrid, might just be the best keeper in the world. They’ve replaced him with Rubén, whose most memorable contribution to a Levante match was this, when he was a Málaga player. Clearly he stuck in the Levante scouts’ minds!

So who have Levante lined up as their latest find, to groom and sell on? Deyverson is an interesting striker, but there’s work to be done if he’s to make a step up from here: a blunt performance against Real was prematurely ended by a red card for diving, which summed up his and his team’s day.

A red for Deyverson
A red for Deyverson

And then what do you have? Nabil Ghilas is fun to watch if you’re a neutral and enjoy seeing a chunky lad put himself about a bit, show flashes of quality, and threaten to do something decisive without ever quite managing it. He’s probably not so much fun to watch if you’re relying on him to pull something out of the fire for your team, and he’s not even Levante’s if they wanted to turn a profit on him.

And then there’s Roger, who runs about a lot.


Ghilas is fun to watch if you’re a neutral and enjoy seeing a chunky lad put himself about a bit

The third issue is hard to define, never mind to address. The quality of players haemorrhaging out is one thing; their character is quite another. Losing leaders like Sergio Ballesteros is not an issue which is easy to address. Juanfran remains, but his half time substitution against Real Sociedad illustrated the danger of relying on a 39-year old to hold your defence together and provide character. Juanfran has been a fine player and a great servant to the Expendables,  but there comes a time when even their value expires.

The cruel thing about it all is that while the dismissal of Alcaraz was inevitable, the Real defeat really did illustrate one of the classic patterns of football, played out throughout the ages. There were signs of promise in the last couple of weeks. Okay, they’d lost five of the last seven, which is relegation form in anyone’s book. But some of those performances offered up hope. Obviously there was the derby win over Villarreal, a terrific victory against a side tilting at top spot and in fine form.

Admittedly the Yellow Submarine had a player dismissed in the first half but still, the way a usually progressive side retreated so completely into their shell said something about how Levante imposed themselves on the game. Anyone who saw José Luis Morales and Toño ripping down the flanks and delivering a stream of crosses into the box would have thought this was a side with something about it.

The following week Levante arrived at El Bernabéu and showed plenty of cojones in a 3-0 defeat which saw them stretch their former keeper Navas when the result had yet to be cemented. They’d also shown heart to fight back from two down to claim a draw against Eibar, La Liga’s feistiest side.

But that’s how football goes, isn’t it? Teams start to show promise, often exhibiting fight in defeat against superior opponents, and you hope that level of performance will be sustained and lead to an improvement in results. But once they come up against beatable opposition, all that promise melts away and the cold facts of six points from nine games is all that’s left. The street smarts of Garcia, the quality of Navas, the heart of Ballesteos were all gone. So what’s left for Levante?