LIFE was never dull at Aberdeen under Ebbe Skovdahl.
The Dane became the Dons first, and so far only, foreign manager in the summer of 1999, and was entrusted with the unenviable task of restoring dented pride in the Granite City following two and a half years of alarming decline. During his three and a half years, he took the Red Army through all the emotions, with the team going from one extreme to the other, forming a great relationship with his players and warming to the supporters even through the toughest of times.
Skovdahl arrived from Brondby, whom he’d steered to three consecutive titles in the 90’s and oversaw a win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League the previous season. With the success of Wim Jansen at Celtic, and the Dick Advocaat era at Ramgers off to a treble winning start, the Dons decided to go down the continental route to change the clubs fortunes, and identified the experienced Skovdahl to do just that.
Aberdeen at that point were in decline. Two sixth placed finishes and a seventh placed in the ten team league were way below expectations. Poor recruitment, not being attractive to watch and uninspired appointments in Alex Miller and Paul Hegarty all contributed to apathy within the club. Had it not been for the goals of Eoin Jess, now in his second spell at the club, Aberdeen could’ve went down.
To summarise, Skovdahl walked into a poisoned chalice, and he must’ve been wondering what he’d let himself in for in his first game as the Dons were trounced 5-0 at home by Celtic, who would go onto rack up an aggregate of 23-1 in the four league games between the two sides. It was the start of a dreadful start to the season where it took Aberdeen six and a half league games to score a goal, eight games to get a point, and ten games to register their first win in an incredible 6-5 win at Motherwell. Despite a mini resurgence at the turn of the year, the Dons did go onto finish bottom of the table in a season where the SPL decided to increase the top flight from ten to twelve teams, and Aberdeen avoided a three-team playoff with Dunfermline and Falkirk due to The Bairns failure to comply with the 10,000 seater stadium rule.
Throughout that goalless and winless start, there weren’t calls of “Ebbe must go” that had become a regular chant for his predecessors. It was a recognition of the task that Skovdahl had to rectify the clubs fortunes, so much so that Andy Dow’s free kick against United that ended the goalless streak was met with such a rapturous cheer from the Dons faithful. Despite the poor league form, there were moments of hope in the signings of Swedish striker Arild Stavrum and Moroccan magician Hicham Zerouali, and in the form of the two Cup competitions.
Remarkably, Aberdeen reached both Cup Finals that season. They defeated Livingston, Falkirk, Rangers and Dundee United en route to the League Cup Final before going down 2-0 to Celtic at Hampden. A return to the National Stadium was confirmed with wins over St Mirren (after a replay), Inverness (again, after a replay), Dundee United and Hibernian to reach the Scottish Cup Final against Rangers. However, their chances were dented after just two minutes when Jim Leighton, in his last ever game, was stretchered off after an unfortunate collision with Rod Wallace. With no sub keeper on the bench, striker Robbie Winters went in goal and Advocaat’s side ran out easy 4-0 winners. Without those Cup runs, the board might still have stuck with Skovdahl at that point, but reaching both Finals definitely strengthened the support towards him from the fans.
The following season, Skovdahl started to blood more youth into the Dons side. Kevin McNaughton, the Young brothers Darren and Derek, Phil McGuire and Darren Mackie became regulars in the Aberdeen starting eleven. A seventh placed finish and no long Cup runs may go on paper as an uneventful season, but the League form was more consistent and the progress of the young players was becoming evident.
Season 2001/02 is the campaign where Ebbe Skovdahl’s good work came to fruition. Despite losing Stavrum to Besiktas, Aberdeen enjoyed an improved league campaign. The signings of Eugene Dadi and Roberto Bisconti, alongside the return of Russell Anderson through a long term injury, helped the youngsters out, and in turn the young guns improved. Aberdeen found consistency, especially at home where they went on a record equalling nine wins in a row, clinched with a memorable 2-0 win over Celtic, which was the only league defeat suffered by Martin O’Neill’s side that season. A fourth placed finish and UEFA Cup qualification was commendable and rewarding of the great work Skovdahl had put into transform the clubs fortunes.
Along the way, the Dane became an infectious character within the media too. Quotes like “statistics are like miniskirts, they show a lot but hide the best bits” and “the operation was a success, but the patient died” are iconic and showed that he had a great sense of humour when analysing the game. Like the fans, he warmed to the press and always was willing to help out, whilst ensuring he didn’t slate his players publicly in the process.
More importantly, he had built a good team spirit amongst the players. His players loved playing under him, even when times were tough he was, largely, patient with them and kept keeping their spirits up. The fact Aberdeen qualified for Europe, playing attractive football, was testament to his hard work and the bond he created within the dressing room, and was a far cry from the mess he had inherited. You only have to look at the tributes since his passing was announced to see how well he was respected by them.
Unfortunately, that was as good as it got for Aberdeen under Ebbe Skovdahl. A collapse in TV negotiations with Sky and the failure to get their own SPL TV off the ground resulted in a reduced contract with the BBC, and Aberdeen suffered more than most with budget cuts. Key players like captain Derek Whyte, top scorer Robbie Winters and the skilful Zerouali all departed the club, and the Dons form nosedived. A 2-1 defeat by Partick Thistle in November 2002 led to Skovdahl announcing his resignation from the club.
Ebbe Skovdahl’s reign at Aberdeen won’t see him regarded as one of the best managers in the clubs history, but his warm, likeable character ensures he is a cult hero within the Aberdeen support. That recognition of the mammoth task he faced when he took the job, reaching two Cup Finals in the same season, his faith in youth and memorable quotes all place him in high regard within the Red Army. Only he could get away with finishing bottom of the league in his first season!
Tomorrow, Aberdeen face Celtic at Pittodrie. They’ll be hoping that the Spirit of Skovdahl can inspire them to victory like his class of 01/02 did, and that memorable Dadi train celebration at the end when they equalled the club record for consecutive home wins. Though maybe his spirit doesn’t have too much of a negative effect given the hammerings Celtic dealt the Dons during his tenure. One thing is for sure, when the Aberdeen squad of today take to the pitch, they’ll have Ebbe Skovdahl at the back of their minds as they look for a win to dedicate to his memory.