PITTSBURGH – Aberdeen’s demoralized youngsters trailed Celtic by 2-0 at half-time in the 1985 Scottish Youth Cup Final as they slunk sheepishly into the home dressing room at Pittodrie Stadium. The club’s Under-18 coach Willie Garner consoled his humbled players, encouraging them to relax and focus on avoiding a total embarrassment, as first-team manager Alex Ferguson crashed through the door.
“Ferguson came in like a hurricane,” recalled former Aberdeen left-back David Robertson. “He absolutely crucified everyone.”
The fiery Glaswegian embraced those same players with warm hugs and beaming smiles about 90 minutes later. Aberdeen had slipped three goals adrift before mounting a stirring comeback that saw them romp to a 5-3 win after extra time. Robertson went on to earn six Scottish championship medals for Rangers under Walter Smith before joining George Graham at Leeds United, yet that night at Pittodrie outlined to him why Ferguson was a class apart from other great managers.
“If he didn’t come in, we’d have lost that game,” Robertson told The Soccer Observer. “He just had that knack of getting the best out of everyone.”
Robertson, the current head coach of Phoenix F.C. in North America’s third-tier United Soccer Leagues, has a long affiliation with the retiring Manchester United legend that stretches back to his days in Aberdeen’s juvenile leagues in the early 1980s. Robertson played alongside Ferguson’s eldest son, Mark, for the city’s Deeside Boys Club. The man who had smashed the Old Firm’s dominance of Scottish soccer would often be standing on the sidelines.
“I used to panic,” said Robertson before Phoenix’s 2-1 loss at the Pittsburgh Riverhounds on May 9. “You used to see his car coming in and you’d start to get all nervous.”
Ferguson’s Aberdeen side was already renowned for its talented young players at that point. Goalkeeper Jim Leighton and center-half Alex McLeish had been snatched from the West Coast to form a formidable defensive trio with Glaswegian captain Willie Miller, while local lads Neale Cooper, John Hewitt and Neil Simpson had broken into the first team as teenagers.
Robertson was among the latest crop of hopefuls training with Aberdeen after school on Monday nights on the red ash surface across Pittodrie Street from the stadium’s Main Stand. Harlaw Academy pupil Robertson signed schoolboy forms with the club and earned his first professional contract shortly after the 1985 Youth Cup triumph. The 16-year-old trainee quickly learned of Ferguson’s unrelenting appetite for driving hundreds of miles each week to scout players in Scotland’s lower divisions, the Highland League and even amateur and youth leagues.
“I knew all about it because I had to wash his car,” Robertson said. “He had a silver Mercedes that would be caked in flies.”
Reserve team action beckoned for Robertson during his first season. The possibility of a senior team debut heightened early in the 1986-87 season after regular left-back Tommy McQueen was sidelined with a broken leg. Brian Mitchell, the versatile Willie Falconer and veteran European Cup Winners’ Cup winner John McMaster offered stopgaps, but Ferguson wanted to see if his 17-year-old defender was ready to step up. A pre-season friendly at Dunfermline Athletic saw the Fifers establish a two-goal lead minutes before the interval when Robertson took an elbow to the face that dislodged his two front teeth. The manager sensed an opportunity to test the mettle of his young full-back.
“I went in at half-time feeling sorry for myself,” Robertson said. “He came in and said ‘Do you want to play or do you not want to play?’ I went back out and played the second half.”
Robertson’s reward was a first-team debut as a substitute in a 2-0 win over Hamilton Academicals in a Scottish Premier Division game on August 16, 1986. His first start came four days later in a 4-0 thrashing of Alloa Athletic in the League Cup.
Ferguson’s time at Pittodrie was nearing its end as Robertson broke into Aberdeen’s first team. He had outgrown Scottish football and Manchester United would soon come calling for a replacement to Ron Atkinson. Yet Robertson was already familiar with the manager’s impassioned and occasionally enraged methods from his days in the youth and reserve sides.
“Even if you made a bad mistake and you won 5-0 he would crucify you for it,” Robertson said. “Every single detail he would have a go at you. You’d feel pretty bad afterward, but the next day he’d take you in and go through exactly what he meant.
A 2-2 tie with Motherwell on October 4, one month before Ferguson’s departure, prompted a harsh lesson for the youngster. Robertson’s ill-timed challenge in Aberdeen’s 18-yard box gifted the visitors a penalty kick that Andy Walker converted to earn The Steelmen what was a rare Pittodrie point in those days. Robertson was slaughtered by his manager and left out of the team’s midweek trip to Falkirk, though he returned to the starting line-up for the 2-0 win over Jim McLean’s Dundee United side the following weekend. He went on to start 39 games that season with four appearances from the bench.
“I know other coaches may have went out and bought someone else,” Robertson said. “Even though I was young, he had belief in me. I’ll always be grateful for that.”
March 11, 2013 — Darren Mackie: Raising Soccer In Arizona