A blight in the north

Aberdeen thought they had finally found the businessman with the financial backing to take them back to the glory days, but as Jonathan Northcroft reveals, things have not gone the way the fans expected

Earlier this year, Sir Alex Ferguson had to parade sheepishly down Union Street in the wind, sporting a jaunty feathered hat and more gold chains than a coachload of gangsta rappers. Then he was cuffed on the head with a ceremonial pair of old trousers and forced to mumble something in Latin. Even bringing the European Cup-Winners Cup to Pittodrie was not enough to spare him the ceremony required to become a Freeman of the City of Aberdeen.

On September 18, Andy Dow discovered a sim­pler method: he scored a single goal for Ferguson’s old club. Dow’s effort, a dipping, left-foot­ed free-kick against Dundee United, provoked Pittodrie to heights of rio­tous joy which only a few moments of the Ferguson era surpassed. It was Aberdeen’s first goal in a record 617 minutes of Scottish Prem­ier League football, bringing to an end a saga of incompetence which had gripped Scots more concertedly than Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The defender, who bounded towards the home support as though he was momentarily afflicted with rabies, was booked for over-cele­brating. It was a wonder he and the home supporters remembered how to engage in the activity at all.

Aberdeen still lost the game, of course, their tenth consecutive SPL defeat, another record, and though their players left to a standing ovation it was of the ­sentimental, “we’re-brave-but-crap” sort normally reserved for Scotland at World Cups or British tennis players at Wimbledon. Already the Dons are odds-on to finish bottom and though league reconstruction makes it difficult for any SPL team to go down this season – the bottom SPL club plays off with second and third in the First Division for two top division places – if anyone can find a way, Aberdeen can.

It is impossible to say definitively when things went pear-shaped at Pittodrie, because you’re talking about a very big pear, whose stalk stretches back 13 years to Ferguson’s departure. The origins of the present crisis can be traced to early 1997, however, when Stewart Milne became chairman. For years supporters had wondered why none of the city’s wealthy businessmen could be persuaded to invest in Aberdeen and Milne finally represented such a figure. A housebuilder, who made his fortune in the north east’s oil-led property boom, he seemed the natural successor to the club’s long-time owners, the Donald family.

Unfortunately, Milne has found that football teams are harder to build than three-bedroomed semis. His managerial choices have been disastrous. First he stuck with Roy Aitken, whose team had flirted with rel-egation, and allowed him to blow two seasons’ worth of transfer budget in one summer. Then came Alex Miller, whose record over ten years at Hibs was one win in every four games. This he replicated at Pittodrie, to Milne’s apparent surprise. The chairman now describes Miller’s appointment as “a major cock-up”.

Appointed as “mentor” to these managers was Keith Burkinshaw, who for two years has seemingly done little except commute from London at great expense and drone in a Yorkshire accent about how he once signed Ossie Ardiles. He is now trying to help Ebbe Skovdahl, the former Brondby manager.

Skovdahl has a great pedigree, with five Danish championships and a win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League to his name, but, in his mid fifties with most of his career behind him, he shows little drive. His theme in defeat – “these players I’ve inherited are terrible, what can I do?” – struck fans as ­endearing honesty at first. Now it looks unhealthily like fatalism.

Having initially limited Skovdahl’s transfer budget to the extent that Aberdeen could not afford English First Division reserve players, Milne has suddenly panicked, making available £1 million-plus to buy six new recruits. It is exactly the sort of switchback transfer policy which has seen Aberdeen’s average standard of player drop steadily to the point where they have no internationals and only two or three footballers who would make the first team of any other SPL club, Dundee and Motherwell included. Does Nigel Pepper, formerly of York, Rotherham and Bradford, who has been sent off three times in the ten games he has star­ted since signing last December, represent the nadir? Or is it keeper David Preece, conceder of 20 goals in seven games, plucked straight from Darlington’s reserves?

Supporters have been remarkably patient with Skovdahl so far, but Milne required a police escort to help him through a gauntlet of 300 demonstrators after Aberdeen lost to St Johnstone. Black rumours have circulated in the city about the chairman’s mo­tives. Pittodrie needs upgrading and he has commissioned a study looking into the possibility of selling it and moving to an out-of-town site. The stadium sits in a prime housing location and Milne has admitted that if Pittodrie is demolished, his preferred option, his building company would bid for the land.

Hearts have replaced Aberdeen as Scotland’s third best supported club and fans who have been Pittodrie regulars for 30 years are now staying away. The club’s potential, though, was underlined in an Under-21 league home game against Rangers in August, to which 3,500 souls trooped on a Monday night.

The biggest challenge to Milne looks likely to come from AFC 2000, a new and eloquent pressure group formed from minority shareholders, whose current plan is to elect to the board Willie Miller, Aberdeen’s for-mer captain and manager, now a broadcaster and successful local entrepreneur. Miller was able to subdue the likes of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in his day, but he might find the current Pittodrie directors’ box harder to operate in than any penalty box. 

From WSC 153 November 1999. What was happening this month