Sean Graham


1983 was a year that every Dons (Aberdeen) fan will never forget. Not content with winning the Scottish Cup for the second time after defeating Rangers again in extra time, the Dons added European glory to domestic trophy bliss when they went on a European tour that saw them take care of Sion, Dinamo Tirana and Lech Poznan on route to a famous night and match against German giants Bayern Munich.

I managed to catch up with a legend of that famous Cup Winners Cup team for a trip down memory lane. A man who scored on the way to Gothenburg against Sion, Bayern and Waterschei as he was the heartbeat of the Dons midfield in the glory days.

Never fancy but effective, never dirty but a good ball winner, never seeking the limelight, just a team player. But this was no ordinary team, it was a team to do Scotland and Aberdeen proud in 1983 and Neil Simpson has the memories and the medals to prove it.

Neil Simpson (pictured right) was part of an Aberdeen side which dominated the Scottish game in the early part of the 1980s along with New Firm rivals Dundee United as they lay down the challenge to the Old Firm. Both clubs knew that the Old Firm had to be beaten in order to win things in Scotland and after the Dons beat Celtic to the league title by a point, the players and the fans Wanted more and they were sure in Alex Ferguson they had the right man for the job.

In the 1980/81 season only a Drybrough Cup win over St.Mirren at Hampden gave the Dons any joy on the trophy front as they finished runners-up to Celtic in the league and were knocked out of both cup competitions by Dundee and Morton.

They also suffered a heavy European defeat that season at the hands of Liverpool who hit five goals without reply over two legs to give the Dons a lesson in European football. But it was to be a lesson learnt for the future.

The Dons younger squad members like Eric Black, John Hewitt, Neale Cooper and Neil Simpson were now starting to mature and grow as players. Losing the league to Celtic by two points and going out of the League Cup at the semi-final stage to Dundee United were low points of the season, but there were highs also and knocking out the holders of the UEFA Cup in Ipswich Town after drawing 1-1 at Portman Road and turning in a fantastic performance at Pittodrie winning 3-1.

Again though harsh lessons had to be learnt, going out of the UEFA Cup at the hands of Hamburg. Aberdeen dominated the first leg at Pittodrie but could only manage a 3-2 win, and the price was paid with a 3-1 defeat in Germany.

It was in the Scottish Cup where the Dons would turn their fortunes around and after taking care of Motherwell, Celtic, Kilmarnock and St.Mirren after a replay they now had to face the other half of the Old Firm in Rangers, only a week after hammering them 4-0 at Pittodrie.

It must be every schoolboy’s dream to play in a Scottish Cup final, but when it is your first then it makes it extra special and against one half of the Old Firm, now that is even better!
“It was fantastic being your first final and being an Aberdeen supporter, you remember Joe Harper and Derek McKay in the 1970 Cup Final win over Celtic (3-1). And then in the League Cup in 1976 winning 2-1 again v Celtic, and then you think, oh, I am playing in a Cup Final now!"

“We did so much that season, we beat Celtic and Rangers in the cup that year and for a lot of the young boys it was their first final. The build up was great and there was great support, even after going a goal down. We got a great equaliser with big Alex’s curler into the top corner and even though the match went into extra time it was our superior fitness that told in the end."

“Afterwards the celebrations going through the streets of Aberdeen the next day, obviously I had never tasted that before, the huge crowd going through Union Street- it was brilliant."

Knowing that the Dons would now go into the Cup Winners Cup was exciting as you had shown before in knocking out Ipswich, combined with the lessons that had been learnt in matches against Liverpool and Hamburg. This must have added to the confidence?

“Yes, a huge lift in confidence that the club could compete at that level. But the Hamburg match was one that we should have quite easily won as we had a two goal lead, then Gordon Strachan missed a penalty and they came back to make it 3-2. It was really disappointing for all at the club but this was a good grounding as you say for everyone to get that experience."

As the Dons moved into their European tour of 82-83 and Sion, Dinamo Tirana and Lech Poznan had been seen off before the match against the mighty Bayern Munich. But what was the Dons reaction to this glamour draw?

“You knew that they were a quality side full of German internationals, so you knew what you had to do!"

“There were so many of our team in the Scotland squad and under-21 squad and that gave us a lot of experience playing against European type opposition, you knew what type of game to expect both home and away and that helped us greatly I thought.”

“It was an exciting time because the draw was made in December, so you had had January, and February, before the games, one being in early February and the other being mid-March, so all the players wanted to be part of that team and play in that game. As a result the form was good and everybody worked really hard to make sure that they were part of that.”

The Dons produced a good solid away performance to set the tie up nicely for Pittodrie.

“It was a good performance, everybody played well. Gordon Strachan was injured and on the bench that night so the manager went with Peter Weir, Dougie Bell, Neale Cooper and myself, and everybody really played to their potential that night. In fact we were unlucky not to get a result in Munich, but we got a 0-0 and still had it all to do at Pittodrie.”

That was a night that will live long in the memory of Dons fans old enough to remember, or those who have seen the footage since on the Pittodrie’s Greatest Night DVD.

“Having seen the Copenhagen match at Pittodrie, I thought the atmosphere was fantastic, everybody said it was the best since Bayern Munich”.

“When you are on the pitch it is different from sitting in the crowd but it really was a great atmosphere that night with the crowd willing you on and there were times when you thought that we would never score but we kept going to get the result.”

“When you are 2-1 down with 15 minutes to go against Bayern Munich, 99 times out of 100 there is no chance of getting through because they are so experienced in that (European) arena and many thought that they would just see it through, but that showed you the determination of that team and squad.”

Aberdeen not only had a determination but what they did have was a manager who knew when he had to change a game and lucky enough for Aberdeen as you said they had a squad of players during that time- one such man would be known as Super-Sub and his goals for the Dons during the Cup Winners Cup run in 83 which saw him rise from Super Sub to Legend- enter John Hewitt.

“He was a master of bringing on a sub to change the game and John Hewitt obviously had a lot of say in that. He was a great guy to have on the bench or on the pitch as he was always able to get you a goal wherever he played, we were lucky at that time that we had a player of that calibre that we could bring on as a substitute.”

The Dons masterstroke had worked! A cleverly worked free-kick by Strachan and McMaster saw Alex McLeish bring the match back level and only a minute later, Super Sub John Hewitt scored the winner and sent Pittodrie wild ,but what now for the Dandy Dons?

“After the Munich match, I think that it was a quiet confidence but you can never say that we have a chance because the opposition would have that thought as well.”

“We knew that we did not want to draw Real Madrid in the semi-final,  and we picked out Waterschei from Belgium but we knew that they had done well to get this far and they put out a couple of good sides on the way to the semi-final so we knew that they would not be any mugs.”

“We demolished them at Pittodrie 5-1. I scored the second goal within five minutes, it was a fantastic start, 2-0 up carried us through to half-time and then a wee lull but then there were a few quick goals in the second half. They then scored and we scored to make it 5-1 and we had to make sure we finished off the job in Belgium.”

“We lost 1-0 away and even though we were through to the final, we were still gutted that we had lost this match and our unbeaten run, but at the time that was the kind of player we had at the club, we did not like to lose no matter what!”

After the disappointment of losing the second leg of the semi-final the Dons prepared for the final itself, what was that like for the players?

“The build up was good because we did a record and a few promotional things and it was a big build up to the game. What I remember most was how relaxed all the team were, some of the boys were quietly confident and determined just like the gaffer Fergie. Whether the boys were playing it low key I am not sure?”

“The way we had our build up was just like a normal game really, you just went about your routine like any other game.”

Going into the match the 16,000 travelling Dons support must have thought that they were back home such were the conditions and torrential rain in Gothenburg that night, would conditions play a part?

“I suppose they (Real Madrid) could not play their one touch fancy football and patterns of play that they were used to doing, I think it could have benefited us a little bit but in a cup final, no matter what they had world class players that could adapt their game to suit whatever conditions. I think we had a better team on the day and were more determined to actually win the game.”

“We should have won in normal time the chances we had; we did miss quite a number of chances during the game. And you always have it at the back of your mind that we’ve blown it here but then John has come on again and the rest is history!”

As the Dons beat the mighty Real Madrid to take the trophy, just what were the feelings of the players as they went up to lift the trophy?

“It was fantastic just to be able to get your hands on the trophy, when I look back I always seemed to be standing next to Willie Miller in the photos and I have said to people that if you stood next to Willie, you were always guaranteed to get in the photos! But it was pure chance to be honest, I must have been excited to get my hands on the trophy.”

As the champagne flowed the Dons were the toast of Europe as they were the team on everyone’s lips.

“I think we did get the credit at the time, it is up there with Celtic and Rangers winning a European trophy. In fact Aberdeen are still the only Scottish team to win two European trophies because we won the Super Cup in the same year, so that was a great achievement for ourselves and the city and I think we did get the plaudits that we deserved.”

The fact that Aberdeen went on to win the Super Cup beating the European Cup winners 2-0 at Pittodrie after a 0-0 draw in Germany saw them become the team of the year.

Neil and Mark McGhee made sure the Dons support could get one over their Old Firm rivals by still being the only Scottish side to win two European trophies in what Neil describes as “one of the best achievements of any team in Europe”. Considering that Aberdeen are not seen as a big club and it is possible this will never ever be done by a team like it ever again.

Many forget the Dons did reach another Cup Winners Cup semi-final, losing out to an excellent Porto side, going down in both matches 1-0 and they did get to a European Cup quarter-final where they lost out to Gothenburg on the away goals rule. But it will be the memories of the glory days that still are dear to Dons fans hearts.

Neil played in matches against the best in Europe but he is in no doubt what his favourite Dons match is!

“Although I scored against Bayern in the Cup Winners Cup and Hamburg in the Super Cup, the Real Madrid match was the pinnacle of my career!”

“It was a great time to be part of the club and obviously how they have done this season in Europe and getting so far just shows what can be achieved.”

“The match against Bayern last season gave the players at the club now the opportunity to challenge and play against the very best in Europe and at Pittodrie there is no better place to do that with the crowd behind you and atmosphere on these European nights.”

Everywhere you turn at Pittodrie there are constant reminders of the glory days and legends from the past still working at the club, should the players of today be asking Neil Simpson, Jim Leighton or Willie Miller how to beat teams like the mighty Bayern Munich?

“You can say look what can be done! But it is a new era now, new players and new management with their own ideas on how they want to approach the game. Of course I wish them the best of luck”.

Heroes in 83, Legends forever, what price would the Gothenburg greats reach in today’s money mad world of football?

No price could be enough for a team and a club who have given many happy memories to so many. A time when Aberdeen ruled not only Scotland but were the best in Europe also.

Thanks to Neil Simpson for taking time out to talk to me and may I wish him all the very best as he has recently celebrated his 47th birthday on the 15th November.

“There’s only one Neil Simpson!”