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Rise of the Underdog: Was beating Real Madrid with Aberdeen Sir Alex Ferguson's greatest achievement?

6:00 AM EDT 5/1/20
Aberdeen GFX Underdog
Before establishing his Man Utd legacy, Fergie found a way to defeat two European heavyweights with a club that had never enjoyed continental success

While Sir Alex Ferguson is best known for the many trophies he won while in charge of Manchester United - 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two Champions Leagues among them - his earlier success with Scottish club Aberdeen is every bit as impressive.

After guiding St Mirren to the second division title in 1977 - before being sacked for the first and only time - Ferguson was appointed at Aberdeen a year later, charged with delivering them a first league title since 1955.

Still finding his feet in management and only a few years older than most of his players, the ambitious young coach wasted no time and just two years later won the Dons that long-awaited league title.

But Ferguson wasn’t done there and he very quickly set his sights on conquering Europe feeling he had now earned the belief of his team.

"That was the achievement which united us. I finally had the players believing in me,” Ferguson said.

After winning the Scottish Cup in 1982, Aberdeen booked their spot in the European Cup Winners’ Cup after smashing Swiss side Sion 11-1 on aggregate in the preliminary round.

Ferguson's side then showed off their defensive strength in the following two ties against Dinamo Tirana and Lech Poznan, not conceding a goal across the four games as they moved on to a quarter-final clash with Bayern Munich.

In Germany, the first leg ended goalless, much to Ferguson’s disappointment, with Aberdeen twice going close to a crucial away goal. At Pittodrie, Bayern did what the Dons couldn’t, as they twice took the lead only for Aberdeen to equalise and ultimately score a dramatic winner via John Hewitt in the 78th minute. That night is still considered one of the best ever at Aberdeen’s home ground.

Full of confidence after knocking out the German giants, Ferguson’s side turned their attention to now-defunct Belgian side Waterschei Thor and quickly took control of the semi-final. Two goals in the first five minutes of the first leg ensured a comfortable 5-1 win on aggregate and took Aberdeen to the final against Real Madrid.

Los Blancos, who would go on to win a pair of UEFA Cups in 1985 and 1986, were strong favourites ahead of the decider in the Swedish city of Gothenburg.

Despite their opponents' strong European pedigree, which included six European Cups to that point, Dons fans were sensing something special. An estimated 14,000 made the trip - with some bravely making a two-day ferry trip to reach the final.

On the cusp of an early crowning moment in his managerial career, Ferguson wasn’t cutting any corners in the build-up and even banned players from communicating with their families to avoid any distractions. Midfielder Dougie Bell had a pregnant wife at the time, but even they weren’t excused from Fergie’s strict rules.

“If she went into labour she was to call Fergie, rather than her husband,” captain Willie Miller recalled. Rather than be discouraged by the determination of their manager, Aberdeen’s players were just as desperate to seal European success.

“The raw energy in that dressing room was frightening,” Gordon Strachan said in the book Glory in Gothenburg. “If you could have turned that into electricity you could have powered the whole of the north of Scotland."

As the Dons made their way onto the pitch for the final, they were greeted by torrential rain, which suited Ferguson’s side to a tee. Seizing the initiative, Aberdeen opened the scoring after just seven minutes as Eric Black tapped home after a header from Alex McLeish gifted him the simplest of finishes.

While adapting much better to the waterlogged pitch than their Spanish opponents, the Scottish side conceded an equaliser just seven minutes later as a back pass to goalkeeper Jim Leighton got stuck in the mud and left him no choice but to concede a penalty which was duly converted by Juanito.

After losing their momentum in the first half, a half-time rollicking from Ferguson lifted Aberdeen back into the game but neither side could find a winner after 90 minutes.

Heading into extra time, Ferguson and his assistants then made the bold decision to instruct defensive midfielder Peter Weir to play higher up the pitch. In the final minutes of regular time, Aberdeen also made their one and only change by introducing attacker Hewitt.

Both these tactical tweaks would pay off in the 112th minute as Weir passed to Mark McGhee, whose resulting cross found the head of Hewitt for the winning goal. After a tight and tense 120 minutes, Aberdeen were able to lift their first ever piece of European silverware as Ferguson completed one of his more remarkable managerial feats.

Even in the midst of such a disappointing defeat, Real Madrid’s manager at the time, Alfredo Di Stefano, had nothing but respect for what the Dons had achieved.

"Aberdeen have what money can't buy; a soul, a team spirit built in a family tradition."

Ferguson in all claimed three Scottish leagues for Aberdeen, the last team to win the title before the duopoly of Celtic and Rangers set it, as well as four Scottish Cups, the Scottish League Cup as well as the European Super Cup. But that rainy night in Sweden, when they dethroned European royalty, is remembered most fondly.