Nya Ullevi, Gothenburg

11 May 1983

Aberdeen FC – 2 (Black, Hewitt)

Real Madrid – 1 (Juanito)

Thanks to the stratospheric heights he has reached during his long and still unbroken stint in Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson’s incredible achievements with Aberdeen FC are often forgotten. It is a shame as the mountains he scaled with The Dons are enough to etch the name of any manager in the football history books. Ferguson’s domestic success with Aberdeen is unprecedented for a team outside Glasgow but the pinnacle of his tenure undoubtedly came in 1983 when The Dons upset two galactic names of European football to win the Cup Winners’ Cup.


Sir Alex led Aberdeen to their first league title in 25 years in 1979/80 season, following it up with a Scottish Cup victory in 1982 thus qualifying for Cup Winners’ Cup the following season. Their previous European venture under Ferguson had ended ignominiously when eventual Champions Liverpool handed a somewhat footballing lesson in a 5-0 second round whitewash. The Dons had learnt from that experience and improved rapidly in Cup Winners’ Cup as they reached the quarter-final without losing a single game, including a 11-1 thrashing of FC Sion in first round. Few expected them to get past a Bayern Munich side boasting the likes of Paul Breitner and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. A creditable 0-0 draw in Munich set up the tie nicely for the second leg but Bayern took a lead on 10th minute and made it 2-1 at the hour mark. The never-say-die attitude which would mark every Alex Ferguson side in later years became evident on 76th minute as Alex McLeish made it 2-2. Bayern would still have progressed on away goals but super-sub John Hewitt grabbed the third goal to finish off Aberdeen’s greatest European night. The greatest one till the final, that is. The Dons didn’t have much trouble getting past Thor Genk in semi-final but waiting for them in final were record time European champions Real Madrid.

They were no longer the force they were during Galacticos era but Real Madrid were showing signs of regaining their foothold in Europe. The Red machines from Liverpool proved too strong a challenge in 1980/81 European Cup final but the Los Blancos had managed to reach their second European final in three years. They survived a hard fought encounter with Internazionale in quarter-final and came back unscathed despite conceding early goals in both legs. They were all set to face Barcelona in semi-final but Austria Wien upset the odds and knocked the Catalans out. The Austrians didn’t replicate the same form in last four as Real Madrid reached their second ever Cup Winners’ Cup final. Real didn’t have happy memories of the last time they played in Cup Winners’ Cup final having lost 2-1 to Chelsea. They were determined to set the record straight against another British opponent. Legendary Alfredo Di Stefano was looking to win his second Cup Winners’ Cup title as manager, having done it with Valencia in 1979/80 season.

The Match

Aberdeen (4-4-2): Jim Leighton; Doug Rougvie, John McMaster, Neale Cooper, Alex McLeish; Willie Miller, Gordon Strachan, Neil Simpson, Mark McGhee; Eric Black, Peter Weir

Real Madrid (4-4-2): Agustín; Juan José, John Metgod, Bonet, José Antonio Camacho; Angel, Ricardo Gallego, Uli Stielike, Isidro; Juanito, Carlos Santillana

Doubts about Aberdeen’s young team being daunted by the enormity of the occasion were quelled by the third minute itself as Eric Black’s beautiful volley off a Strachan cross beat the Real Madrid ‘keeper but came off the frame of the goal. It was clear that the Spaniards had not expected Aberdeen to start as bravely as they did. Alex Ferguson’s ploy of hitting Real Madrid early on paid off as the underdogs took the lead on 6th minute. Strachan’s corner was headed towards the goal by Alex McLeish, who rushed in late and wasn’t picked up by Real defenders. McLeish’s header fell on path of Black who put the Dons ahead from a handshaking distance. Real Madrid had no idea what had hit them.

Alfredo Di Stefano’s men slowly gathered themselves and got the equalizer on 15th minute. McLeish’s backpass was slowed down by the murky pitch – Santillana was the first to react before he was brought down by Leighton. Juanito made no mistakes from the spot to make it 1-1.

Real Madrid’s goal seemed to have knocked the air out of the Scots who steadily dropped deeper and deeper as the half progressed. Real took control of pace of the match and were comfortable in building up slowly after retaining possession. However, Aberdeen’s defensive solidity meant Real didn’t get many chances to score a second goal. As the half time whistle went off it was clear that Aberdeen were bound to concede again should Real maintain their pattern of play of first 45 minutes.

Ferguson’s half time pep talk as well as a tactical tweak completely changed the match in second half.

His half-time pep talk worked wonders

Aberdeen focused more on wing-play, stretching Real Madrid defence as the Spanish fullbacks struggled on the slippery surface.

Nine minutes into second half, a deflected cross from Weir fell perfectly for Strachan who unleashed a fierce volley, only to see Agustín save it with his legs. Weir was involved again two minutes later as his corner was headed by Black with Agustín making another sharp save to deny the striker his second goal. Black and Weir could have easily put Aberdeen ahead on 64th minute in the best move of the match. Weir received the ball in his own half, then beat four Real Madrid players along the left touchline before crossing into the box. His cross was deflected off Metgod but fell perfectly for Black at far post. With Agustín out of position, all Black had to do was direct his header into the net but he somehow managed to sky his header over.

Aberdeen continued to dominate proceedings in second half but couldn’t create concrete chances. Both teams came close to scoring three minutes before final whistle – Santillana’s close range shot was easily saved by Leighton while Strachan’s chip went over the bar. The match ended 1-1 in normal time.

The Dons had the first shy at goal in extra time, in first half as Agustín managed to smother Simpson’s header off a Weir corner. Real Madrid had their own chance from a corner minutes later but Santillana’s shot was aimed straight at Leighton. On 110th minute Hewitt almost latched on to a flick on from McGhee but was denied by Agustín’s timely interception.

Hewitt, the man who scored the all important goal against Bayern finally broke the dead lock on 112th minute. A long pass from Weir on left wing opened up the Real defence as McGhee had time and space on the wings. His cross evaded the outstretched arms of Agustín and Hewitt was present in the right place to apply a simple finish. Aberdeen 2-1 Real Madrid.

The Dons could have made it 3-1 seconds later but Agustín came off his line in time to deny McGhee. Real Madrid were expected to lay siege to Aberdeen goal in next eight minutes but incredibly, it was the Scots who came close to scoring through Hewitt and Simpson. Pepe Salguero’s freekick on 119th minute must have given a small heart attack to Dons fans as it fizzed past Leighton’s far post. But this was Aberdeen’s night. Alex Ferguson had upset all odds by taking a home bred bunch of players, the oldest among whom was 27 years old to an unexpected title. Even more jaw dropping was the fact that two 19 year olds scored Aberdeen’s goals in this high pressure final.

Differentiating Factors

This match was played under heavy downpour as the ground conditions steadily deteriorated. There were mud patches all over the field and one such patch played a role in Real Madrid’s goal. Aberdeen was much more acclimatized to these conditions. Their long ball game which relied on crosses from the wings was perfect for the situation as Real Madrid struggled to fully utilize their style of ground passing. Aberdeen had a younger and fitter team which also made a difference in second half and extra time as Real Madrid players gradually tired. Aberdeen’s wing play stretched Real’s defence time and again and contributed to their eventual fatigue.

Much of this match’s tactical jousting involved John Metgod. One of the main reasons behind Real Madrid’s dominance in first half was Metgod operating as a sweeper. His long passing caused Aberdeen defence problems time and again. In second half, Ferguson countered Metgod’s forward movement by dragging Black deeper to block Metgod’s surges. As second half progressed, Metgod drifted more to his left side to counter Aberdeen’s wing-play but Real’s central midfield was weakened as a result.

Mark McGhee might not have found the back to the net but overall he was one of the most important players for Aberdeen. He played as a deep lying forward and frequently opened up space for Strachan and Black. He worked extremely hard and did his share of defensive duties by drifting to the wings and stopping overlaps of Jose Antonio Camacho.


Ferguson got Aberdeen’s tactics spot on. Without possession, Abderdeen would have two banks of four in front of the goal. McLeish and Miller picked off each of the Real Madrid strikers while hard working Neil Simpson shut down Uli Steilike in central midfield. Aberdeen strikers would drop deeper to ensure that Real’s defenders couldn’t contribute too much in offence. When in possession Aberdeen’s system would become a staggered 4-3-2-1 with Strachan pushing up and McGhee dropping deeper and drifting towards wings.

Man of the Match

Peter Weir

The former St Mirren winger had a quiet first half but came into his usual self from second half onwards. On multiple occasions he would take on more than one Real Madrid player and would beat his marker to set up McGhee and Black. One such cross was wasted by Black while other forced a good save from Agustín off Strachan. It was his pass that opened up Real’s defence for the winning goal, as well. His movement on left wing ensured Real Madrid’s right-back and right-winger spent more time to contain him which deactivated their wing-play, with McGhee providing extra cover on right side.


This epic victory was hardly the end of the run for Alex Ferguson and Aberdeen. They would go on to set new club records by winning multiple domestic titles. Back to back league titles between 1984 and 1986 came after The Dons did a hat-trick of Scottish Cups. They would also become the first Scottish club to win two European trophies in a single year when they upset European Champions Hamburg SV in European Super Cup. European success eluded them but they did reach another Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final the following season, only to be outclassed by Porto. Their best performance in European Cup would come in 1985/86 season with Europe still reeling from Heysel disaster. Ironically their passage to semi-final would be stopped by Swedish club FC Gothenburg, in the same venue where they won the Cup Winners’ Cup almost half a decade back. Alex Ferguson would leave Aberdeen by 1986 and go on creating dozens of new records with another red tinted team in England.

Real Madrid might have lost two European finals in three seasons but this period was the start of an era of revival. The Los Blancos would become the first club to win back to back UEFA Cups, achieving the feat in mid-1980s. The Quinto del Buetros would also help the club break their barren phase in La Liga, winning the league title five times in second half of 1980s. The 82/83 season would prove to be heart-breaking for Los Blancos as they would end up finishing runner-up in five tournaments.

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