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Aug 10, 2004

Rae's say: Coming home

'The Northern Lights of old Aberdeen mean home sweet home to me.'

The opening words to this well-known song, in Scottish circles at least, are in my case rather apt. Despite having lived away from the North East of Scotland since 1986, Aberdeen will always represent home.

At least once a year, I travel back up north to the city which saw me through the first nineteen years of my life. Generally, as it did last week, the annual visit will coincide with a home game at Pittodrie. After all, this compact little red-clad ground (Britain's first all-covered, all-seater stadium), almost a 9-iron from the angry North Sea was where I got my football watching education in the seventies and eighties.

These were radical times in Scottish football and great times to be a Dons supporter. First Ally McLeod and then Billy McNeill constructed teams capable of outplaying the Old Firm. Then, in the summer of 1978, a certain Alex Ferguson arrived to begin an eight-year stint that smashed the old order of Rangers and Celtic supremacy to smithereens.

Suddenly, Aberdeen and their rivals from down the coast Dundee United no longer lived in fear of travelling to Glasgow.

Even died-in-the-wool Celtic and Rangers supporters will acknowledge that Fergie's men were the team to beat back in those days. The statistics speak for themselves; Aberdeen took the title three times under Alex Ferguson, lifted the Scottish Cup on four occasions, the League Cup once and then of course there was the small matter of 11 May, 1983.

It might seem unfathomable in this day and age but Aberdeen really did beat Real Madrid in Gothenburg on that rainy night to lift European silverware. As if to prove this was no flash in the pan, Fergie's Dons went on to overcome Hamburg and win the European Super Cup. Could anyone really dispute that albeit for one season, Aberdeen were the kings of European club football?

Aberdonians are not usually known for blind optimism however, and it came as no great surprise when Ferguson announced in September of 1986 that he was off to instill belief into an underachieveing Manchester United side.

In the eighteen years since Fergie's departure, with the exception of the underrated Alex Smith's spell in charge in the late eighties and early nineties, Aberdeen have experienced many more troughs than peaks.

In recent seasons, battling to avoid relegation, rather than possessing any grandiose ideas about splitting the Old Firm, has been the primary raison d'etre. We all know that as a one-city club with a vast northern catchment area, this is simply not good enough.

I could spend hours writing about the money wasted by a series of managers in the nineties on the salaries of inadequate players from Ilian Kiriakov to Paul Bernard, but I'll spare you that.

Memories: Aberdeen lift the 1983 European Cup Winners' Cup after beating Real Madrid.
Memories: Aberdeen lift the 1983 European Cup Winners' Cup after beating Real Madrid.

Instead, let's flash forward to the present, to August 2004.

The sense of excitement and anticipation was palpable walking down Union Street ahead of the first match of the new SPL season and not just because of the International Street Market that had set up camp in the city centre. This was to be the first competitive match under ther aegis of Jimmy Calderwood, lured from Dunfermline during the summer.

Rangers, managed by one of Aberdeen's Gothenburg heroes Alex McLeish, provided the opposition. This Aberdeen v Rangers rivalry has been a fiery one going back to Fergie's time in charge.

As I took my seat in the Main Stand at Pittodrie on Saturday, I had haunting visions of Rangers' new boys, Prso, Novo, Rae and Vignal completely outclassing the Dons. In the event, my anxiety was misplaced.

Calderwood's Aberdeen hassled and harried from the very start and produced a combative overall performance to earn a share of the spoils. Granted, Rangers had the edge in quality but Aberdeen's resilience was rewarded and it was fitting that virtually every sports page on Sunday featured a colour photograph of a jubilant Calderwood at full time.

Nil-nil might not sound like much but any points taken off the Old Firm are bonus points these days.

Another false dawn or has morning really broken this time? For the answer to that question, we'll have to wait a few weeks.

However this much is clear. Jimmy Calderwood is precisely the kind of passionate, uplifting manager Aberdeen need after a string of dour souls at the helm. After the Rangers game, Calderwood admitted that building up the players' confidence and restoring self-belief had been a big part of his early mandate.

Jimmy Calderwood: The man with the Aberdeen plan.
Jimmy Calderwood: The man with the Aberdeen plan.

The former Eredivisie player and manager has added experience to the squad in the form of Noel Whelan, Scott Severin and Derek Adams. The ex-Motherwell striker Steven Craig is another intriguing new recruit.

The fact remains though that there is a nucleus of decent players to build on at Pittodrie, carried over from last season. Look no further than the central defensive partnership of Zander Diamond, man-of-the-match at the weekend and Russell Anderson. Finnish midfielder Markus Heikkinen seemed to cover every blade of Pittodrie grass and Kevin McNaughton, a player once linked with just about every top club in Britain, returned to his best with a splendid performance on the right hand side of midielder.

Of course, we Aberdonians are loath to look completely on the bright side of life and there can be no denying that the Dons must make strides in attack if they're to compete for a European place. To be fair to newcomer Whelan, match fitness has yet to be achieved but he still looks capable of added much needed know-how.

We should be a lot wiser about this new Aberdeen side as the nights begin drawing in and late summer becomes autumn.

As for me, I'll be back to watch the Dons later in the season.

As the song goes, 'I've been a wanderer all of my life and many a sight I've seen. God speed the day when I'm on my way to my home in Aberdeen.'

Home is always where the heart is.

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