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RedMatchday Interview | The Alex Smith Story

June 14, 2018 7:35 pm Author: Malcolm Panton


Alex Smith MBE, most latterly the Falkirk Technical Director, announced recently that he was going to retire at the end of the season. The 78 year old brought to an end nearly 60 years in the game and will now move to Australia to enjoy his retirement with family. Before packing his case, Alex kindly granted the RedMatchday Editor an in depth interview.

Alex looks back at his astonishing career, time at Pittodrie, from the highs of the League Cup and Scottish Cup wins to the low of losing the league on the final day of the season. The ex-Dons boss gave a real insight into his time at the club.

(The following appeared in RedMatchday 17/18 Issues 23 and 24).

PART 1 1969-1988

“It has been very emotional since I made the announcement that I was going to retire at the end of the season. It’s not as if I am looking forward to a holiday, I am going for good! I am emigrating to Australia. We made the decision two or three years ago actually. We agreed my wife Janis would get her life to spend with the grandkids.

“I have had 50 years of management and 60 years all together in the game, so it’s her time now.”

Alex began his playing career at Kilmarnock, before spells with Stenhousemuir, Stirling Albion, East Stirling and Albion Rovers. In management, he started at Stenhousemuir, before a 12 year spell with the team he supported as a boy – Stirling – where he remained until 1986 before joining St Mirren. He led them to Scottish Cup glory in 1987 defeating Dundee United, before moving to Aberdeen a year later where he won the League and Scottish Cups.

After three and a half seasons in the North East, spells with Clyde, Dundee United and Ross County followed, plus some work with various Scotland teams below the senior level, before he had two spells in interim charge at Falkirk. Smith’s most recent spell in charge there earlier this season saw him named the oldest manager in Europe before Paul Hartley’s took over. Smith was inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame two years ago.

The first question had to be, how has he managed to stay so knowledgeable and passionate about a game that has changed so much over the years?

“I think the secret is to keep changing and to keep evolving. I was always into the coaching and would explore any new ideas. And there have been many different approaches and schools of thought about coaching since I first started.

“When I came into management in 1969 at Stenhousemuir, I had gone through the SFA coaching set up at Largs and got my coaching badges. Sir Alex Ferguson was getting his badges at the same time, but Alex was still playing though.

“Jim McLean was similar to me, he had stopped playing and was looking to get into coaching. I was the first of the three to be a manager, in October 1969. When I was offered the Stenhousemuir job, I was given five minutes to make my mind up. Of course, I wasn’t ever not going to take it! I was desperate to get my first job. But they were in a bad way at the time. They were bottom of the two league system and had been there for a couple of seasons. Financially they were in a similarly bad state. They were skint!”


“I remember I got one piece of advise from their chairman at the time, a gentleman called Peter Cowan. A plucky little man who had a good sense of humour, he was also a very strong person. He said to me, ‘I am going to give you one piece of advice Alex. You will stand and fall by your own decisions at this club. You will manage this club and you will make the decisions regarding signing players, regarding team selection and tactical work. Everything to do with the technical side and the management of this club is down to you. You stand and fall by that and don’t you be influenced by other people’s ideas.’

“It was a great piece of advice that stuck with me throughout my managerial career. It was also great assurance for me and gave me the confidence to do things and make my own decisions.

“So after a week, I thought, ‘I have survived a week!’ Then I was a month in. Then six months in. Then that was one season clocked up. That’s good! We were still near the bottom of the league but I think we had moved a place up which was at least a start. The following season, same again, we made a bit of progress in terms of league position and another year passed. Then three years and then four years. Steady progress, but we were doing ok.

“Then in 1973, we drew Rangers in the League Cup. We played the first leg at home and lost 5-0. It was the Rangers Cup Winners’ Cup winning team. They had beaten Dynamo Moscow in the final just five months earlier. They were too good for us of course.

“Then we went to Ibrox a fortnight later. The players were on a big bonus, knowing full well we would not qualify. So I said to the Chairman, ‘Why don’t we leave the bonus just for the second game so we can motivate the players to give us a bit more in the game?’ I told them that we couldn’t go to Glasgow and get shown up and so, in order to keep the score down, I asked them if the lads could have the same £100 if they won the second leg. They agreed. It proved to be a very costly decision!

“Lo and behold, we played very well and beat Rangers 2-1 on the night at Ibrox! It was the first and only time a Second Division club have done that against them at their stadium. We played well on the night and deserved to win. Having to pay out the bonuses through just about caused the club to go bust! The Chairman moaned to me afterwards about how the club would be broke, so I had to sell a few players!”

1974/1975 Stenhousemuir manager Alex Smith


“The win at Rangers was a real boost for me and the club. The following year, we pushed up the league and were sitting in fourth or fifth position when I got a call one day from Bob Shankly at Stirling Albion. Bob had been very successful in the game as manager at Dundee and Hibs and of course his older brother Bill was the great Liverpool manager. I remember he came on the phone, this deep voice, and said, ‘We have lost Frank Beattie as our manager as you will have noticed. I have been watching you for a few years and I like how you go about things. You have impressed me and I would like you to come and consider being the manager of Stirling Albion’.

“Well, they were my team. The ground was about five miles from the village I lived in. I had been lifted over turnstiles to watch them when I was a wee boy. I had sold programmes for Stirling Albion. I had played for them and here I was getting the opportunity to manage them. It is special for any person to manage and be in charge of the team you support.

“Again, I went one month and did ok, one season, two seasons and landed up doing twelve seasons at Annfield. When I went in, there was quite a good team in place. Bob had been the manager a year before and then he retired and became manging director. Frank Beattie, the famous Kilmarnock player, had been the manager for a year, but it did not work out so I took over from Frank. But there was still the basis of a good side there.

“Around 1974/75 and 1975/76 was a bit of a strange time in Scottish football as the leagues changed during that period from the old two division system to the smaller leagues. But in 1976/77, we put together a good run and won the Second Division Championship, the same year Alex Ferguson won the First Division League Championship at St Mirren.

“It was interesting as we had just finished behind St Mirren the year the leagues changed. St Mirren qualified in sixth spot for the new first division and we were just behind them having been neck and neck all season. Then we both went on and won our leagues.

1984/1985 Stirling Albion manager Alex Smith


“1976 was also the year we played Aberdeen in the League Cup. We reached the quarter-finals after qualifying out of the group section. We went up to Aberdeen in the first leg and played really well and only lost 1-0 to a Joe Harper goal. The second leg was then at Stirling.

“I remember it was a horrible wet and windy night and there were 6,000 or 7,000 packed into the little stadium. We won 1-0 over the 90 minutes, a boy called Bobby Gray scored with a header. The tie then went to extra time and Jim Clark missed a big chance to win the game late on for us. We eventually drew 1-1 after extra time.

“At the end of the game, there was a discussion about the third game. Now we wanted to go to Pittodrie to get the money! After two great games, there probably would have 15,000! Big Ally MacLeod was the manager and I suggested to him we could toss a doubled headed coin! But he said we had to go by the book and leave it with the authorities.

“They took the decision the game would have to be played at a neutral venue and chose Dens Park. We lost 2-0 that night. Aberdeen scored fairly early. Jocky Scott took us apart and scored the goals. He played in the pocket behind the strikers, the number 10 role as they say now, and he was superb. We played a very set 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 but Jocky was picking up good areas. He was a great player.

“So we went out, but to take Aberdeen so far, that was a great achievement for us as Aberdeen were a strong side. They were really emerging then. You could begin to see that they were going to be a very good side as they had some great players, people like Jocky Scott, Davie Robb, Drew Jarvie, Joe Harper, Bobby Clark. Aberdeen went on and beat Rangers 5-1 in the semi-finals and Jocky scored a hat-trick. Then they beat Celtic 2-1 in the final after extra time. But they only just got past Stirling!

“Out of the three games, there was the start of relationship that came out of it between Aberdeen and myself, particularly with the Chairman Dick Donald.”

Aberdeen v Stirling League Cup Relay 1976-10-18

“In 1977/78, we finished fourth in the First Division and then had the funds to bring in better players. We had four or five really good seasons. In 1980, we played Celtic in the League Cup. The group stages had been scrapped, so you played one team home and away in the early rounds. You played on the Wednesday and then the Saturday.

“We beat them 1-0 at Stirling which was a famous win. A lad called Lloyd Irvine scored the winning goal. We were a good team defensively, well organised and well structured, so we were able to go to Parkhead on the Saturday and give them a real fright. We played really well in the opening part of the game and Matt McPhee, who played something like 600 games for Stirling, fired a free-kick past Paddy Bonner, so we were 2-0 up on aggregate!

“We got within seconds of the interval but another player with an Aberdeen connection Dom Sullivan smashed one into the top corner. The second half was like the Alamo, wave upon wave of attacks. We could have been surfing with the amount of waves that were coming our way! We were very strong defensively but I had to make a change in there with ten minutes to go and that weakened us slightly. You could feel the tension amongst the crowd. Billy McNeill, who had left Aberdeen for the Celtic job a couple of season before, was shouting across to me, “What are you doing Alex?! If we get beat I am in big trouble!”

“We very nearly scored to get to three, but then Tommy Burns scored a last minute equaliser, a poor goal for us to lose, he squeezed one through my goalkeeper and then we had a man sent off. Celtic went on and scored another four goals in extra-time. Two of the goals were scored by a young player I had not seen before. His name was Charlie Nicholas. They were his first goals in senior football.

“The early part of the season was quite exhausting and after a really good start to the campaign we struggled and landed up getting relegated after a poor run of results. From that point on, we became a developing club. We did not have the same funds but we had a good youth policy in place and we started developing players. Players such as John Colquhoun, John Philliben, Robert Dawson; they brought in a lot of money. It amounted to close to £1 million over a three year period.


Brian Grant in action for Aberdeen in 1987

“One of the other players we developed was Brian Grant. Brian was a very promising young player but had broken his leg so people had not seen much of him. One day I was down at Largs doing some assessing for an SFA coaching course and on the course was Willie Garner, the Aberdeen assistant manager at the time.

“We were bringing our young players from Stirling down to take part as runners and Willie asked if we had any promising youngsters. I said we had a few, but one in particular. Brian was one of the young players there and he really impressed.

“The chief scout for Aberdeen came to watch him in pre-season. We played Celtic, Rangers and then Dundee United. We would often play Aberdeen as well. Anyway, we were playing Dundee United that night. Alex Ferguson was in the Glasgow area so came along to our game. I was sitting in the Directors’ Box before match, next to Jim McLean. And then Alex arrives so Jim turns to me and started shouting, ‘What is he doing here?! If I had known he was coming here this game would never have taken place!’ I told him to calm down, he was just down in the area and came along to the game. Jim knew though that he was watching someone.

“Ten minutes to go, Alex gets up and taps me on the shoulder on his way out and said he would phone me at 11.30 that night. Jim at this point was going ballistic! ‘What is he wanting?’ I pointed out that we were beating Dundee United and he should just concentrate on the game! There was a great friendship there between the two of them. Jim and Alex really respected each. It was a kind of humorous friendship, but they could very quickly out of nothing have a confrontation!

“So Alex phones me dead on 11.30 about Brian Grant. The season started on the Saturday, so we agree a fee, I think of about £40,000 with add-ons. I liked add-ons. I was one of the managers who started requesting that when we sold players. For example, if a player made so many appearances the selling club would get more money.

“I came up with Brian on the Friday to Aberdeen. There were no agents back then! He went on to have a great career at Pittodrie.

“In September 1986, I then moved to St Mirren and at the end of that season we won the Scottish Cup. Of course, Ian Ferguson who scored the winning goal in the final was an ex-Aberdeen youngster. I eventually parted company with St Mirren in 1988 as I did not get on with the Chairman but a day after I left Love Street, the call came from Aberdeen.”

Saints Manager Alex Smith celebrates with Kenny McDowall (L) and Neil Cooper (R).


PART 2 1988- 2018

In part two, we look back at his time in the Pittodrie hotseat which saw the club make some incredible signings, resulted in League Cup and Scottish Cup wins and so nearly a league title too.


A year after winning the Scottish Cup with St Mirren Alex parted company with the Buddies. However, he was not out of work for long…

“My relationship with Aberdeen went way back. When I was at Stirling, I would often go up to the European ties at Pittodrie. I would go up and stay at the airport hotel and then I had to be down at the stadium for 6.00pm and had to go into the manager’s office.

“Alex Ferguson had finished his work by then so was just killing time before the game and we would have a good chat. I would then stay over and then go down to watch training on the Thursday. So there was a really good connection there and I got a good understanding of how the club was run. I got a feel for the place.

“It was in April 1988 that I first got the offer to come the club. The day I left St Mirren, I remember being at my home in the Bridge of Allan feeling a bit sick and a bit disappointed with the way things had turned out. I got a phone call from Craig Brown and Andy Roxburgh who said they were coming to get me. They were going to the Aberdeen v Dundee United Scottish Cup semi-final replay at Dens Park and they refused to take no for an answer.

“When we got there, the Chairman Dick Donald was standing in the corridor with Bobby Morrison who was also on the Aberdeen board at the time. I had a lot of time for Bobby. The Chairman said he was sorry to hear the news but how would I like to come to Aberdeen?

“I had a relationship with the club by this time but the offer was still a surprise. They wanted me to come and work with Ian Porterfield. They felt that Ian was not that familiar with the Scottish scene and needed a hand. Jimmy Mullen, who was Ian’s assistant, had left about that time to go back down south.

“I said I would like that, but could I get time to consider it because Rangers had also been on the phone that day and offered me a position and the SFA also wanted me to help out. I had some decisions to make!

“I went to Ibrox the next day and they offered me a position to oversee the whole development of the players at Rangers Football Club from the youngsters in the Youth Academy to the first team. They were forward thinking. Graeme Souness, Walter Smith and David Holmes wanted me to take charge and redevelop the football side and wanted all the players to become better players and better athletes too, so it was looking at their diets for example. It was a great offer. I asked for time to consider two very high profile jobs and I took a fortnight.

It was a hard decision, especially as I had quite a few businesses in the central belt.

“In the end though, working with the first team squad on a day to day basis at Aberdeen, with that calibre of players, that swayed it. Initially, I was going to work with Ian Porterfield but he left a short time after. Ian was a nice guy. He was a confident person and believed in what he was doing.
He was quite strong that way. He was determined. He knew what he wanted. Unfortunately, his family had not settled in Aberdeen and that is very important if you are going to succeed”.

May 1988 Alex Smith shaking hands with Ian Donald


“The day I replaced Ian as manager, I was getting ready to take an Aberdeen side to Switzerland for a youth tournament. Because of Aberdeen’s reputation in Europe, they were invited to all these top tournaments. That morning I was working with the first team at Aberdeen University and then at lunchtime, I got a call to see the Chairman. Ian had resigned. Dick Donald, Ian Donald and Bobby Morrison asked me if I would be interested in creating a management team. I did not have to think about that for any length of time!

“They wanted me to create a strong management team. I thought of Walter at Rangers but he would have been unavailable, I thought of Tommy Craig at Celtic and of Jocky Scott and Drew Jarvie at Dundee. I decided to go and speak with Jocky and Drew who were doing reasonably well at Dundee. As I was talking to Jocky, I could sense a slight tone of disappointment that he was going from a manager to an assistant manager. But I told him he was coming to Aberdeen!

“I told him he and Drew could take most of the training. I knew Aberdeen was a massive club and needed a manager who could deal with all the off the field stuff such as the press. I got involved on a Thursday and Friday ahead of a game and they looked after things for the rest of the week. I don’t know where this came from, but I said, “To protect your management status we will title it as co-manager and Drew will be the first team coach”. It was more security for Jocky in case anything went wrong. He had the manager status. He agreed to that and I was delighted”.


“My first job was trying to find a goalkeeper. Jim Leighton was leaving at the end of the season. It was not like it is now with freedom of contract, clubs still had to pay a fee for a player. There was talk of Jim going to France, but l thought the club would get more money if he went to England, so I talked to Alex Ferguson who was very keen on Jim. The Chairman was happy we were getting more money!

“Alex was so pleased that he was getting Jim. The first I saw him after that was when he came up to commentate on the Scottish Cup final, I met him in the old Hampden press box. I was doing radio commentary for what is now Radio FiveLive. I got a tap on the shoulder and Fergie asked if I had a goalkeeper to replace Jim. I said I had tried to get Campbell Money but St Mirren would not sell. I needed a keeper who could step into Jim Leighton’s shoes and gloves! I needed a top top goalie. He went in his pocket and gave me a card of an agent in Holland.

“I gave the boy a ring. Van Dalen was the agent. He used to be the general manager at FC Twente in Enschede before becoming an agent for the Dutch FA. He told me about this keeper who had played in the Enschede first team since he was 16 and a half and he had film of him.

“His name was Theo Snelders.

“I went over to see him, but he was injured. “I got him over to Scotland and put him to Largs for a couple of days to get an assessment from the SFA goalkeeping coach Alan Hodgkinson. He liked him a lot and the rest as they say is history. Jim was a massive man to follow but Theo made his debut at Dens Park and had a brilliant game. He was magnificent with the fans”.


“When I went over to see Theo that time, Alex Ferguson phoned me and asked for a favour. He said there was a lad playing for Groningen by the name of Paul Mason. He told me that he was a Liverpool boy and had been a young player at Everton but broke his leg. He recovered but got released, so went over to be a labourer in Holland on an

‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’ programme with his brother. He has started playing football over there and a Groningen scout also worked on the building site and he had started playing for

“Alex was needing a right-back. Paul had played at right-back so he wanted a rundown on him. I get there and find out Theo was not fit, but Mason was playing as wingback. And he was good! He was a good passer of the ball. His last pass was always great and his finishing was excellent. That day he scored two goals from the edge of the box. I thought, ‘He is a great player but he is too small for England!’

“So I get back and Alex comes on the phone for my verdict. I said Theo was injured but Paul is a good player. Good user of the ball, good enough to play for Manchester United but not right for you. ‘What are you trying to say?!’ I pointed out he was too small for a right-back in England. He would struggle at the back post area.

“We agreed that I would leave it for 14 days. If Alex never did anything for 14 days, would he mind if I got him up to Aberdeen? Paul was back in Liverpool over the summer and once the 14 days passed, I was straight on the phone! He trained with us for three weeks, did the pre-season up at Gordonstoun and played the pre-season games. We signed him without anyone knowing anything about him. We paid £170,000 for his services. Paul was a great wee guy”.


“The club was run with myself, Jocky Scott, Drew Jarvie and Teddy Scott. I don’t need to say anything about that man! The four of us ran Aberdeen along with Ian Taggart and Barbara Cook and the board.

“The set up with the three directors was brilliant. I would have a chat with them and everything would be agreed on the day. I would then get on with my work. I would not have to wait for a board meeting in two or three weeks time, it was done. Simple. Football clubs are very different now!

“Aberdeen were a big club but I don’t think they realised what they had achieved at that time. Jocky recommended David Johnston come in as commercial manager to set up a commercial department. When Aberdeen was winning all those games in Europe in the ‘80s, and with all the big oil companies, that is when Aberdeen should have exploded and become a major force and become a Rangers and Celtic in terms of finance. That’s not a criticism of anyone, people just did not think about these things back then as they do now. At that time I wanted them to purchase the field at Seaton for a training pitch and I believe the club should have invested then. Hopefully though the new training is not far away now.”


“When I wanted to sign a player I had to clear it with the Chairman of course and then the two board members. Dick Donald’s credo was never to put Aberdeen a penny in debt and I obviously had to operate within the budget which had been laid out.

“I had to justify every signing I made.

“Bobby Morrison was fantastic. Very sharp. He had sold his bookmakers business and still had a bookie’s brain. He could tell you with seconds what a three year deal would cost Aberdeen with wages and bonuses, signing on fees, expenses for the houses and hotels. He would work out the age of the player and how much we would get for selling them on. He had it all worked out within seconds. When I wanted a player he would say,

“Go and get him. I will sort out the Chairman!”

“We tapped into the market in Holland to sign Theo Snelders, Peter van de Ven, Willem van der Ark, Paul Mason, Theo ten Caat and Hans Gillhaus. They came to Pittodrie because they believed they could further their careers, win trophies and compete in Europe”.


“The one thing I remember about walking in the first team dressing room my first morning was seeing all these international players sitting there. I think at that time, we had a dozen of them. They were experienced enough to know the team had not been doing as well as they should have been. They were desperate to be successful.

“I think they also respected me because they knew I was similar to Alex Ferguson in the way I worked. They wanted to get back to that sort of model. I had that confidence when I started that the senior players were keen on me.

“There was Willie Miller, Alex McLeish, Stewart McKimmie, Jim Bett, Robert Connor, John Hewitt, Davie Dodds, Peter Nicholas, Charlie Nicholas and Brian Grant who I worked with at Stirling. He had played about four games for the first team by then. Big characters. A big squad with the right characters. There was a base there for me and a good level of players to work with”.


“Giving young players a chance is something I have always been very passionate about. When I went to Switzerland with that young team, David Robertson was in that group although he had already been in the first team. Eoin Jess, Scott Both, Stephen Wright, Greg Watson, Graham Watson, Michael Watt, Andy Roddie – boys like that. I could see straight away that we had some very good kids. That made an impression on me right away. You also had other much younger players coming through behind them like Stephen Glass. They replaced top players.

“Stephen Wright was so good it gave me the option of playing McKimmie at left-back. I remember one day I was working one on one with a lad called Mark Humphries, and all these kids were sitting on the bench watching what I was doing. I remember saying to Drew that there was hundreds of thousands of pounds sitting there.

“One of the things I’m proudest about in my time at Aberdeen was these young boys coming through. In the last few weeks of my time at the club, when things were becoming difficult, I remember being so proud that I could look at these boys as first team players. When I had come to Aberdeen we had that group. Ok I brought in some Dutch players and also a couple from St Mirren, but I had integrated these boys into the team. Wright was a regular, Jess was a regular, Booth had become a regular, the two Watsons were involved with the first team. They were also all involved with the Scotland U21 side that Craig Brown coached and got to the semi-final of the UEFA European Championships.

“I felt with the mixture of senior players and young players, that dressing room was good enough to compete with Rangers. Over the three and a half seasons, we had a good record against them with six wins and three draws. Against Celtic we had seven wins and six draws”.

Eoin Jess scores against Celtic.


During his first full season in charge in 1988-89, good progress was made as Aberdeen finished only six points behind Rangers in the League and the League Cup Final was reached, but for the second successive year the Dons lost out in a classic final. There was one memorable victory over the Glasgow side that season, when Aberdeen won 3-0 at Ibrox on the final day of the campaign.

“We got through to the League Cup final but lost late on, second time in a row. It was very disappointing but I got the message that day that we were good, but not quite good enough to compete with Rangers and then the Dutch signings kicked in.

“Theo had settled in so that was a major problem solved, replacing someone of the magnitude of Jim Leighton. The next problem I had was getting the best out of Charlie Nicholas. First we had to get his fitness levels up, then we had to find someone to play with him, so Willem Van der Ark became the next Dutch import. Charlie had played with Alan Smith at Arsenal so we thought it would work having a big fellow who could knock it down for him.

“As it turned out he actually preferred – and was better – playing with a player like himself. But anyway, we got Van der Ark in and then the next one was Van der Ven and then we signed Hans Gillhaus.

He’d just won the European Cup with PSV and cost a fair bit of money, £600,000.

“Van der Ark was doing ok, but I felt we could still get more out of Charlie. I could see he was getting impatient and there was talk of him leaving at the end of the season and going to France. I told our Dutch agent this and he said there was a player I had to go and see. He was a striker who was good in the air, quick and a good finisher.

“I was wanting to go over that weekend but had something else on, so I sent Jocky instead. Jocky is so fussy when it comes to strikers so I knew he would be a good judge. There was some reserve game on the Friday night. Now by this time I had already watched Hans on video and I loved what I had seen. So Jocky goes over and watches him and comes back and says, ‘I’m not sure!’ Are you kidding me?!

“I find out he is playing again the following Friday and both of us went over this time. I said, ‘When we get over you go to one end of the stand and I will sit at the other and then we will compare notes at the end’. After about ten minutes, Hans was running riot, so I got up and went over to Jocky and told him I was away to speak with the people we needed to speak to at half-time. I did not want to leave it a second longer in case we missed out on him. Hans agreed to everything and what a deal that was!”


With the arrival of Brazilian Romário, Gillhaus found himself relegated to a substitute role at PSV and was therefore keen on the move to Scotland. On 11th November 1989 he made his debut at East End Park, Dunfermline. Anyone who was there that day will never forget it.

“When he came into training and played the small sided games after only a few days I saw something. I have always had a thing about the link up between players’ brains. It is something that really interests me. What is the link up? Is it just a natural thing that people get on well, is it because two players have the same style, or is there a physical or mental thing there that connects one great player with another? How does he know what another player is doing 35 yards away? How does he know that that other player is running across him when he has his eye on the ball? How does he know that he wants a one-two played on the edge of the box? How does he know where to play the final pass?

“And there is a link up, brain to brain. Since then, I have worked with a University and there is something called shared mental models. There is a tie up. When I saw Charlie and Hans in training I could see there was something, they had a good understanding. It was really exciting watching them in training that first week. We then went down to Dunfermline on the Friday night.

“Now Gillhaus was bought as a replacement for Charlie who we were expecting to leave, that is what I had told the Chairman, so the strike partnership going forward would be Van der Ark and Gillhaus. I went to my bed on the Friday night with the team picked, but I was not quite sure of the front two. I went down for breakfast in the morning and Jocky asked me which way I was going. I said, ‘Gillhaus and Nicholas. I’ve seen things this week’. I told him they were like Jocky and Gordon Wallace at Dundee. That exact same telepathy between them, they had got that magic. They were both international players so I felt they were worth a go. Jocky and Drew agreed.

“And his debut was sensational”


Before Hans had arrived midway through the 1989-90 season, Aberdeen had already lifted the League Cup after beating rivals Rangers 2-1 after extra time. They would also go on and lift the Scottish Cup at the end of that memorable season by beating Celtic in a penalty shoot-out.

“After losing the two previous League Cup finals, there was certainly a determination going into that game. I had a massive decision to make. Eoin Jess had come in and done well for the first team. We wanted to play a 4-3-3 and we wanted to play with Charlie Nicholas, Paul Mason and Jess. The rest of the team selection was fairly straight forward: Snelders, McKimmie, McLeish, Miller, Robertson, Connor, Bett, Grant and the front three.

“Saturday morning, we trained at the park beside the hotel. I pulled Eoin over about 11 o’clock and asked if his mum and dad were coming to the game. He said they were.

‘They expecting you to be on the bench? Well, you’re not. You are starting!’ He was in shock. I wanted to make sure he had time to tell his parents as this was before the days of mobile phones. He ran up the park and came back again. He said, ‘Are you kidding me on?!’ ‘No, you are playing!’

“I had not the slightest doubt about that lad. He was superb despite only being 17 years old. I had done the same with Paul Lambert when I played him in the Scottish Cup Final in 1987. Paul played ahead of Tony Fitzpatrick who was the club captain. Paul had no fear. Eoin had no fear. In the Scottish Cup final win, Graham Watson had no fear when he came off the bench and even took a penalty in the shootout”.


The 1990-91 season had started strongly but when Motherwell put the cup holders out of the Scottish Cup in the 3rd Round at the end of January, there did not seem much to play for. However the following week Aberdeen hammered Hearts 5-0 and the win was the catalyst for incredible 12 game unbeaten run with eleven wins and just one draw. During that spell there were so many highlights, none more so than Jim Bett’s late winner at Love Street. That was some time to be an Aberdeen fan. Alex Smith’s side would go to Ibrox on the final day of the season for a League Championship showdown, just needing a draw to take the title but sadly it was not to be after a controversial 90 minutes with young keeper Michael Watt deliberately targeted by the striker who would go on and score the two goals that day.

“We took 23 points out of 24, two points for a win at the time. That run-in for Aberdeen, that team deserved greater credit for what they did but they did not get it.

“There were some people who said we played the wrong way at Ibrox. They said we played for a draw. I have never heard so much rubbish in all my life. They claimed we played a 4-4-2 when we had been playing 4-3-3 every game during the unbeaten spell. We didn’t. We played 4-3-3 one week and 4-4-2 the next. We would change formations during matches. We even played Charlie Nicholas as a number ten in one of the games. We varied it from game to game.

“We had two teams in our mind for that game against Rangers on the final day of the season. One was a 4-3-3 and one was a 4-4-2 but we went out to win the game and we had two massive chances to do it. If we’d scored one goal, we would have won that game. I strongly believe that. They scored the first goal but I said to the players at half-time don’t worry about it. That goal is incidental, if we get one goal. But we gifted them the second with a bit of inexperience, a mistake.

“Instead of that group of players and my staff getting credit for that, people remember something else. It was the finest finale to any League Championship in Scotland and yet it was all about Rangers winning it and us playing in a way to lose it. We dominated the first half. We dominated them but nothing went for us.

“But I was proud. I was very despondent we did not win the title for the fans and Mr Donald, but I was proud of my players. Maybe looking back now, I should have shouted more about that instead. Those players, every single one of those players were winners and they did not deserve to get the label of losers. They carried out the game plan almost to the letter but it did not happen because we did not finish off our good work in the first half and did not get ourselves in front. But it was still a wonderful, wonderful run”.


The 1991-92 season had started brightly, which included a 2-0 win at Ibrox. But after a dip in form Alex parted company with the Dons in February 1992. It was a black day for the club and a decision everyone accepts now as being wrong. It was a course of action that would lead to a spiral of decline during the 1990s. With Fergie having left just five years before, expectation levels were still far too high. Not that Alex felt any pressure from what his good friend had done previously.

“Sir Alex Ferguson is up there in a different stratosphere. At the time I was at Aberdeen, Alex was struggling at Manchester United but he was starting to get there. I had been to watch them win the Cup Winners’ Cup in Rotterdam, so that was the start of the big stuff. He was an incredible man. He forecast two years before Aberdeen won the Cup Winners’ Cup that they would win it. How could a man from a club in Scotland think they could do that?

“I will leave this last thought. Everyone says that all the Aberdeen managers have worked under the shadow of Alex Ferguson. I never worked under the shadow of Alex Ferguson. I was in awe of his achievements but Sir Alex was a motivation for me at Aberdeen. He had set it up and I used him as a catalyst for the team to handle the big games and to handle the big occasions. He was an inspirational figure. Not a figure who would become a weight on Aberdeen’s shoulders.

“I used all Aberdeen’s success as an inspiration for me to match it or do better. I felt we were on our way to being a successful club again. It was never a heavy club to manage. The last week or two, I felt it a bit because of the disappointment and the cloud that was gathering because of a few people, but that did not bother me. I was stronger than what people gave me credit for.

“It was a wonderful time, just under four years, and I look back at my time with Aberdeen with a lot of pride”.

Alex, on behalf of everyone involved at Pittodrie and the Red Army, thank you for all you did for the club. Thank you for some wonderful memories. You will always be regarded as one of our top managers. Enjoy your retirement.

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