This weekend, Aberdeen and Celtic will battle it out, like warriors in a north east coliseum, to see if either can gain an early advantage in the SPFL title race. Locking horns at Pittodrie in a sea of red, and an islet, tucked away in a far flung corner of the ground, of green. It’s a raw, intimidating ground where the fans are on top of you and their ire often spills over to become twisted and vengeful. They don’t like Celtic and Rangers up there, but why should they on the back of west coast bias and a system that in their eyes favours the ‘big guns?’
Most of us, fans, players and coaches, the real soldiers of the game, wouldn’t have it any other way. It makes for a wonderful atmosphere and a day trip that away fans all over the country relish and look forward to, and yet, there’s always that niggling bit of doubt as the buses, crammed to the brim, head north, with all the trepidation of a sheep heading to the abattoir. It’s always been a tough place to win alright.
On Saturday morning, the Celtic fans, like many others this season, will make the trip; a trip I made many times myself during the early ’70’s and ’80’s and they’ll be hoping for better luck than I had on many, many occasions.
Back then, the motorways were in their infancy and it really was a day trip. Our bus would leave at 8:30 and arrive at 1pm for a 3pm Saturday afternoon kick off. This was pre-Sky, where kick-off times never needed ‘consideration’ and weekends all over the country were planned in advance to accommodate where your team was playing that particular day. No last minute changes, no cancelled ferry bookings and no Sunday evening kick-offs.
You could pre-book the traditional stop at Forfar on the way home with confidence and never need to worry about missing out on a bridie because of a last minute switch to a Friday night.
Four and a half hours of Heaven, sitting with my Dad and Uncle John, listening to the songs and lifting my feet occasionally to dodge the remnants of the open can of Tennent’s, now dribbling its way down from the back of the bus. My Dad and Uncle weren’t heavy drinkers; they’d enjoy a pre-match pint (Bacardi and Coke for Uncle John) and probably manage two cans for the game. We’d make our way to The Wellie Boot, where the bouncer would always allow my Dad to sneak me into the corner, on the promise of a half bottle next time we were up, and then make our way to the ground.
In those days, hostilities were no less friendly than now and the away fans were ‘housed’ in the smallest end behind the goals, known as the Paddock, before later, in the mid-80’s being shunted to the Beach End. Crammed in, hunched on numbered benches that barely allowed the stadium to preserve itself as ‘all-seater.’
This Aberdeen team were good, they were very good. McLeish and Miller, Strachan, Archibald, Rougvie and Harper, McMaster and McGhee. Leighton in goal, who incredibly along with Archibald would go on to become a team mate of mine. I could never have foreseen that as I watched battering after battering from the confines of my illustrious Paddock bench.
In six years, I hardly saw Celtic score a goal, never mind take a point. There were 2-0’s, 3-0’s, 3-1’s, and a 4-1, a Frank MacDougall masterclass and games where Miller and McLeish played keep-uppy with John Doyle. Doing after doing and then, after a few years of suffering at the hands of Fergie’s mobilised Red Army, it happened…
Your T’s oot
September ’81 and we had followed all our usual routines and made our way, as always, warily and with just a little bit of fear, to The Paddock. Two cans of Tennent’s down the jacket sleeve and a can of Coke for the boy, through the turnstiles and we were in.
The game followed a familiar pattern at Pittodrie as Aberdeen took an early lead from the penalty spot and Gordon Strachan, after scoring at The Paddock end and wheeling away in obvious joy, was accosted by a Celtic fan who had managed to clamber past the police and onto the pitch. What the police were doing, that it was taking up so much of their time and allowing him to get past them so easily, I didn’t know. However, I was about to find out.
Amid dual disgust at losing yet another early goal at Pittodrie and the first can of Tennent’s being almost finished, the old man thought nothing of it as he received a tap on the shoulder. This was the year after the 1980 ‘Hampden Riot’ and alcohol, was now banned from Scottish football stadia, which meant this was no friendly “word in your shell-like” and, as Tommy Burns scored the equaliser at the Beach End just minutes later, we were escorted outside to join around 100 or so other fans who either didn’t have a ticket, or were suffering the same fate as us and had been unceremoniously asked to vacate the premises.
The decision was made to stand outside and wait for the gates to open at half time in order that we could sneak back in, or at least give the turnstile operator, the opportunity to accept the same half bottle as was proffered The Wellie Boot bouncer. It was all to no avail and it would be five minutes to go before we managed to slink our way back in, as the gates opened to allow the Glasgow masses to leave.
A huge cheer midway through the first half and another that shook the ramshackle Paddock roof, early in the second, coincided with various hand signals from the fans leaning over the wall, making sure we knew that we were heading home on the back of a 3-1 victory.
After around a dozen visits to Aberdeen, and a few heavy defeats, I had at last experienced a win at Pittodrie. I had seen 13 minutes of it and the fact I had only HEARD most of it, meant very little and ultimately became just another part of my Scottish football adventure.
As fate would have it, nine years later I would make my debut, at of all places, Pittodrie. They were not the team of the early ’80’s but still had a formidable squad – Snelders, McLeish, Robertson and Robert Connor forming the backbone and Jess, Ten Caat and Gilhaus the undoubted flair, but the best of all was to be my direct opponent Jim Bett. He had technique in abundance and used to glide across the ground as if he was playing in slippers. His, was the type of player I could only dream of being like, and on this occasion, all I could do was admire as he strode purposely all over the pitch, directing the team like a composer conducting his orchestra.
Aberdeen won 2-0, but if it hadn’t been for Goram, it would have been six or seven. I lasted 70 minutes before I was spared the anguish of having my 20-year-old nose rubbed in it, which would have been as much as I deserved, had I been able to get near enough to him.
It was a valuable lesson that making the transition from being a supporter to being a professional footballer would be a difficult one. I had a long way to go, but I now knew how far it was and what I had to do and at least on this occasion, I managed to walk out the front door at the end of the game, rather than being ejected out of the back door during it.
On my next visit to Aberdeen, I was ordered off in a reserve game, to preserve my unique record of failing to see out a match on three different platforms, so whilst I have fantastic memories of those early day trips north, it’s fair to say that it was far from a happy hunting ground for me and yet I still loved the place.
It was Scottish football at its raucous, intimidating best and whilst Pittodrie is no longer the cauldron Fergie and his all-conquering side of the early ’80’s had made it, the Celtic support will be making their way up the A90, with that same excitement and trepidation as I used to.
And due to the ridiculous 12:30 kick off time, they’ll have to leave even earlier than our bus did to negotiate the long and winding road, to their isolated corner of the ground. All they need to do after that, is leave their cans at the front door and make sure they don’t miss as much of the game as I did.
To read more about my debut and many, many other stories and insights, my first book – TAXI FOR FARRELL: FOOTBALL BETWEEN THE LINES is now available to pre-order from http://www.tecklebooks.co.uk All pre-orders before the November 1st release date will receive a signed copy and free delivery.
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