Thirty seven years ago, Alex Ferguson’s team in red were marauding across Europe. Not yet the scarlet of Manchester United, but the colour of Aberdeen. Ferguson guided a team from the north east of Scotland to European glory, defeating Real Madrid in the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. But while Britain’s finest manager was in charge of a team littered with internationals, it was local 20-year-old John Hewitt who would be the hero of Gothenburg. Here, he tells you his story…
Neale Cooper and I had got used to standing at the side of the Pittodrie pitch. Two Aberdonian schoolboys – best friends – frozen, waiting behind the Beach End goal to scurry away after shots.
But only a few years later, we found ourselves a long way from home and from our ball boy duties, yet still side-by-side. We were lying in adjacent beds in the team hotel, buried somewhere in the Swedish forest, dreaming about beating Real Madrid in a European final the next day.
“Just imagine,” he said.
I went down to Manchester United on trial for a week. On the second day, Dave Sexton, who was the manager, took me into his office and said he wanted to sign me. I couldn’t give him an answer there and then. He flew back up to Aberdeen with me the next day and stayed in a hotel, where I met him with my parents. I called him and told him I was flattered by the opportunity, but my heart was set on Aberdeen.
It was ironic that when I did eventually sign for the Dons, Alex Ferguson had just been appointed manager. I was his very first signing. I had spoken to Dave on the Wednesday, and chief scout Bobby Calder and Alex appeared at my house on the Thursday to try to sell Aberdeen to me. They didn’t have to – I was only ever signing for Aberdeen.
Everybody had a fine from Sir Alex at some point. Even for the slightest things – you were in the treatment room without his permission, you got fined. He used to love fining you for anything he could.
The classic was when we were training in the winter – we were on the way back from the gym and the roads were clear but it had been snowing. I had a car full of players, He was in front of me in his Mercedes doing about 10mph. I was egged on to overtake him, which I did. The guys were hanging out the window, waving, which infuriated him.
Within 30 seconds of getting back, he burst into the dressing room, hurling abuse at me. The following week I saw I had a £20 fine in my wages and that was it.
Aberdeen won the Scottish First Division in 1980, and then the Scottish Cup in 1982, a victory over Rangers at Hampden which earned them entry into the European Cup Winners’ Cup. An 11-1 aggregate victory over Swiss side FC Sion was followed by a tight 1-0 win over Albania’s Dinamo Tirana. A 3-0 win over Lech Poznan set up a quarter-final with Bayern Munich.
Once we knocked out Bayern – I came on as a sub to score the winner – we were the best team in the competition. That’s what Alex Ferguson said and I think he was right. They were basically the German national team. We beat Waterschei in the semi-final to set up the final with Real Madrid. People say ‘oh the mighty Real Madrid’ but that was the thing about us, we never feared anybody.
We knew Sir Alex had spoken to Jock Stein beforehand. He had done his homework and made sure that nobody would be in the way of our preparations. He booked us into a hotel in the middle of a forest. It was peace and quiet. Even the wives were told not to phone us – they were in a five-star hotel in the centre of Gothenburg having a great time.
Initially an itinerary had gone round to them saying they were staying in dorms – trying to wind them up. Willie Miller was the captain so the dossier was directed at his wife Claire, and she threw a bit of a wobbly, but they had a good try at winding her and the rest of the girls up. In our hotel, we were playing scrabble.
The weather turned overnight. It was torrential rain. We had a lazy day, got up for breakfast and lunch, had a couple of hours of kip in the afternoon and got ready for the game. Once we got into the dressing room, you could see the tension and nerves. We realised that we were playing in the biggest game of our lives.
I was a bit disappointed to not start but I never really thought I would, so I was just glad I was on the bench and could hopefully come on and sneak a goal.
We walked on to the pitch together, had a little kick about and then went to the bench. We were wrapped up in sleeping bags trying to keep ourselves warm. When you put the ball down, it was floating on the water. You were kicking it but the ball didn’t go anywhere.
We started so well. It was elation on the bench when Eric Black scored after seven minutes. The goal came from a corner routine that we had worked on in training. Alex McLeish came in late, Gordon Strachan pinged it to the edge of the box, his header was on target but deflected down and Eric latched on to it. It eased any nerves.
Real got the penalty which got them back into the game and knocked us back. We still pushed forward to get the winning goal but it never happened in the 90 minutes. Then I got my opportunity.
Alex said to me ‘go out there, enjoy yourself and try to get on the end of something’.
When Mark McGhee had the ball on the wing, you were never sure if he was going to whip it in first time or beat the man, then double back and do it again because he sometimes had a habit of doing that. I could see the goalkeeper and the goal, so I made a beeline for it and hoped that Mark would whip it in.
All of a sudden, he took a touch to his left and put in the cross and as it came in, I could see the keeper rooted to his line and then eventually come for the ball. I knew he wasn’t getting to it so I just had to make sure the ball made contact with my head, which it did.
I wasn’t sure what I was doing, I jumped up in the air to celebrate, my hands were covered in mud. Big Dougie Rougvie wrestled me and I don’t remember much after that. Just jubilation.
Real got a free-kick in the last minute and I was in the wall. It flew past the edge of us and I just glanced round to see it shave the edge of the post. I wasn’t sure whether Jim Leighton had it covered or not. I knew then that the referee was going to blow for full-time. We were all running about the park hugging each other.
It was pretty low-key after the game because it was still pouring with rain. The wives came back with us, we had a meal with the directors and a few drinks, then it was off to bed because we had a 09:30 flight the next morning.
It never really sunk in until the next day. There were people stood on the roof of Aberdeen Airport, we had an open-top bus into town with people lining the streets. You couldn’t see Union Street, there must have been 250,000 people on it, a sea of red and white.
The camaraderie in the dressing room was amazing, even to this day we have a group chat with the Gothenburg boys – the banter is amazing. We have a chat every day without fail. Big Alex McLeish loves a bit of banter.
For any local boy to even play for his club is a massive achievement but for myself and Neale to have the success that we did in the 1980s under Sir Alex, even just winning a domestic trophy would have been a great achievement. But to win the Cup Winners’ Cup with Aberdeen and to win the Super Cup as well, it’s the stuff dreams are made of.
Not bad for two ball boys.
John Hewitt was speaking to BBC Scotland’s Jordan Elgott.