AFC Archives | Ally MacLeod
Ally MacLeod would have been 90 today (Friday 26th February). The Red Matchday team look back at his career and his importance to Aberdeen FC.
MacLeod’s impact at Aberdeen should not be underestimated despite only being in the hot seat at Pittodrie for the relatively short period of two years. When he arrived in 1975 Ally inherited a side that was languishing near the bottom of the table but with his guidance The Dons held on to their top flight status in what was the first ever season of the 10 team Premier League, on the final day of the season against Hibernian.
After retaining top flight status Ally’s attention turned to fulfilling a promise which he made to the Aberdeen faithful, to return a trophy to the Granite City. Remarkably within a year of his arrival MacLeod achieved just that when his side demolished Rangers in the Semi-Final of the League Cup before going on to beat Celtic 2-1 in the Final to lift the trophy at Hampden.
The League Cup success ran parallel with a major upturn in league from as Ally led his side to a third place finish in the 1976-77 season restoring Aberdeen as one of the leading forces in Scottish football. Unfortunately for Dons supporters Ally’s achievements did not go unnoticed by the SFA and he left Pittodrie to take up the vacant Scotland managerial position in 1977.
Ally the player
Whilst Ally’s managerial career is well documented, he was also a very decent player. MacLeod started his career at Third Lanark as a provisional signing as a schoolboy in 1947. He made his first-team debut against Stirling Albion at Cathkin Park on 6 November 1949.
The left sided winger joined the Royal Scots for National Service but was still able to turn out for the Thirds.
Despite Stirling being victorious 4–2 MacLeod frequently joked that his was a debut with a difference—although he did not set the local heather on fire, someone else did! As the teams trooped off the field at the end of the match, Cathkin’s grandstand was ablaze. The players had to run into the dressing room, grab their clothes and race out as four fire engines had arrived to tackle the fire.
In 1953, MacLeod was in the Thirds side that trounced Alloa Athletic in the League Cup opener, 10–0. Sitting 8–0 up, MacLeod’s teammates’ main objective was to get him on the scoresheet. He had set up five goals but had missed several sitters himself. A left-foot rocket shot, and a simple tap in took Thirds’ tally to 10.
MacLeod was reluctant to move to St Mirren in 1956, but having secured a guarantee that the reported £8,000 fee would tremendously help Third Lanark’s survival, he moved on. He spent only six weeks at St Mirren before moving to English team Blackburn Rovers.
Blackburn were managed by Aberdeen born Dally Duncan, also a left winger of great distinction during his playing career. Ally was in the Blackburn side that lost the 1960 FA Cup Final, in fact he was named man of the match. The game was one of the warmest cup finals recorded, with many spectators having to be treated for fainting, leading to the game being played at a very sedate pace throughout. The opening 15 minutes set the tone for the contest in both pace and with both teams ruthlessly applying the offside trap to nullify their opponent.
Wolves won the game and the cup after a 3–0 victory, with a Norman Deeley double after Blackburn defender Mick McGrath had scored an own goal. This was Wolves’ fourth and most recent FA Cup success. This was the first time the FA Cup winners would be given a berth for European competition, into the newly formed Cup Winners’ Cup.
While at Blackburn Ally MacLeod made strenuous efforts along with the PFA steward Jimmy Hill to help abolish the maximum wage, but when subsequently his promised wage increase was not forthcoming, while other players in the team were raised from £20 to £25 per week, he entered into discussions with Hibernian. When Blackburn realised that they were going to lose him to Hibs they matched their offer with an increase from £20 to £25. MacLeod, having already accepted the Hibernian offer, felt he could not go back on his word, so left Blackburn to go back to Scotland.
He played with Hibernian until 1963, when he returned to Third Lanark. During his two seasons at Easter Road he made over 50 appearances. In 1964 he signed for Ayr United, where he finished his playing career, with no major honours won. That would change during his managerial career.
Ally at Aberdeen
Any enthusiasm generated by the new look Premier League in 1975/76 was quickly dispelled by panic. A calamitous August resulted in the now familiar failure to progress from the League Cup group stages and was followed by a run of League games in which Aberdeen’s deficiencies were brutally exposed. Skipper Jim Hermiston had decided to look to his future by retiring to join the Police and Willie Miller took over the responsibility at a tender age, hoping to lead Aberdeen into what was effectively a new era in Scottish football. Millerhad already won his first cap, playing in midfield for Scotland against Romania in Bucharest.
The Dons’ problems came to a head with the visit of Dundee United in September. With his team trailing 1-3, Bonthrone sensationally hauled off centre-half Willie Young. The hot-headed youngster, incensed at the perceived injustice, marched to the dug-out, ripped off his shirt and flung it at the manager’s feet. Within days Young was gone, sold to Tottenham for £125,000. Two weeks before his dismissal, he had been involved in a fracas with the Scotland party in Copenhagen. Young fellow Don Arthur Graham, Joe Harper, Billy Bremner and Pat McCluskey found themselves banned from the national team for life. Although the ban was rescinded in 1977, the damage had been done. The fact that three of the players involved had past or present Aberdeen connections was hardly the kind of image welcomed at Pittodrie.
It was all too much for the genial Bonthrone. Following a Pittodrie defeat by Celtic in October, he knew the time had come. George Murray, appointed first team coach back in 1972, was asked to take charge until a successor was identified. Murray threw his hat into the ring but history was against him. Jim Bonthrone and Dave Shaw had both been promoted from the training ground and had failed to make the required impact. The Dons needed an injection from outside, and three weeks after Bonthrone’s exit, Ayr United’s Ally MacLeod was appointed to the post. The former Blackburn Rovers winger had been at Somerset Park for ten years, where his track record was steady rather than spectacular. MacLeod was nothing if not an exuberant character, and with hindsight, that was exactly what Aberdeen needed.
MacLeod raised flagging spirits almost at once.
The sight of the new boss racing from the Fir Park stand as he oversaw his team for the first time would become typical of what supporters could expect. Unhappy with what he had seen, MacLeod had to act. The improvement was quick and dramatic, and by January the more impressionable supporters were even talking about qualifying for Europe.
But no sooner had Aberdeen clawed their way up the League with back to back wins over the Old Firm than they went into freefall. In what was a frustrating season for all concerned, as clubs adjusted to the reality of facing the same opponents week in, week out, Aberdeen found themselves embroiled in a dog eat dog relegation battle. Not since 1960 had the Dons been pushed so close to the brink. The cutthroat nature of the new set up meant that the nerves of Aberdeen supporters were kept on edge right up to the last kick of the season.
Requiring a win against Hibernian, plus favours from others, Aberdeen won their match 3-0. Favours materialised and fellow strugglers Dundee joined previously doomed St Johnstone in the renamed ‘First Division’, effectively the Second. Ally MacLeod had already read the danger signs and pulled off a coup by bringing Joe Harper home from an unhappy spell at Easter Road. But Harper was signed after the transfer deadline and had to watch from the sidelines as the Dons fought their battles. It had been a close shave, and that summer MacLeod dipped into the transfer market to sign Stuart Kennedy from Falkirk and Dom Sullivan from Clyde.
This was a new-look Aberdeen – in what was MacLeod’s only full season at the club – in more ways than one. The new strip sported a distinctive white stripe down the left side. This was the first departure from the traditional all red jerseys that club had adopted before the war.
For once, the League Cup held few fears and MacLeod’s men strolled through their section. Joe Harper was back doing what he did best while Stuart Kennedy looked a snip at £25,000. Despite almost coming unstuck against Second (i.e. Third) Division Stirling Albion in the quarter-final, Aberdeen returned to Hampden to face Rangers in the semi. Optimism was high, and with good reason. MacLeod had stated when he joined the club that he would win a major trophy within a year.
Such a thought bordered on the ludicrous given the state of affairs he inherited. Yet in a few short months, he turned a losing team into a winning one. Rangers now stood in the way of Aberdeen’s third appearance in the final of the League Cup. The Ibrox club were fresh from securing the domestic treble, and would present a formidable obstacle. But Jocky Scott’s early goal set the pattern for the night and the Dons ran riot, a spectacular Drew Jarvie effort completing a 5-1 rout.
Ally MacLeod, it seemed, could walk on water.
Although never actually hailed as the Messiah, he came close to it when Aberdeen returned to Hampden a month later to face Celtic in the final. It was 21 years since the Dons last lifted the League Cup. They had to withstand a second-half onslaught from the Parkhead side who had a habit of reaching League Cup finals with monotonous frequency only to lose more than they won. The Dons may have enjoyed good fortune in the latter stages of the game, but Celtic had the early luck. Kenny Dalglish was cute enough to earn a penalty, which he converted himself. Jarvie then finished off a fine move to head an equaliser.
From that point, the Dons were pegged back, relying on Willie Miller to marshal the troops. Dave Robb, so often the hero in the past, then came off the bench to score what proved to be the winning goal in extra-time. The 17,000 Aberdeen supporters were in raptures, for their team had done it the hard way, beating the Old Firm in their own backyard. For Ally MacLeod, victory was especially sweet: ‘Part one of the plan is complete. We won the League Cup. It was great for the players, the city and the fans. The reception we received on our return to Aberdeen was unbelievable. It proved to me just what the football team means to the people here. It was quite remarkable.’
With tongue firmly in cheek, or perhaps not, MacLeod pointed out that Aberdeen were now the only side who could win the domestic treble. Logically he was right, of course, but, as often happens after a team lifts an early season trophy, the hunger to succeed was sapped. The Dons fell into that trap and subsequently slipped back to finish third. Nor did they last long in the Scottish Cup. Dundee,
trying – and failing – to win promotion to the Premier League, travelled north for a fourthround replay and won 2-1. The Dons were run ragged by the diminutive figure of young Gordon Strachan and, worst of all, Aberdonian Bobby Hutchison scored both Dundee goals.
In the fallout, careless whispers suggested that, not for the first time, Aberdeen players had got themselves enmeshed in a betting scandal. Although the 1931 mystery might have had some foundation – due to the fact that it was kept ‘in house’ – the 1977 drama was perhaps more indicative of press attitudes in an age when sensationalism sold newspapers. It was claimed that certain Aberdeen players had bet on Dundee to win at very long odds, but the truth was that no substantial sums were won on the result. The subsequent police ‘investigation’ ran its course, but in so doing merely fuelled the rumourmongers.
The success Ally MacLeod had achieved in his short time at Pittodrie alerted the SFA, who were searching for a replacement for Willie Ormond. The national team manager’s position was the one job that could tempt MacLeod away from Pittodrie. He had stated often that Aberdeen was his dream job and he would be foolish to leave. However, the lure of leading his country into the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina proved irresistible. MacLeod had swept into Pittodrie armed with infectious enthusiasm and had dragged the club out of its slumber. His legacy was to leave the Dons infinitely stronger than when he arrived.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the ‘76 League Cup triumph Ally MacLeod posthumously took his place in the AFC Hall of Fame in 2016. He will always be remembered as the man who led the Dons to that trophy whilst masterminding a complete turnaround in the fortunes of the Club.