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Past Times

When Ebbe Skovdahl’s unforgettable spell at Aberdeen ended 20 years ago

Graeme Strachan
Ebbe Skovdahl's time at Aberdeen was a mixture of triumph and tragedy - but was never dull. Image: DC Thomson.
Ebbe Skovdahl's time at Aberdeen was a mixture of triumph and tragedy - but was never dull. Image: DC Thomson.

Ebbe Skovdahl’s colourful quotes and his wicked sense of humour made him a folk hero during his three-and-a-half year reign at Pittodrie.

Skovdahl enjoyed a loyal following amongst the Red Army despite the ups and downs of the team during his spell in charge which ended 20 years ago in December 2002.

The Dane, who was related to Brian and Michael Laudrup, became Aberdeen manager in 1999 following three spells in charge of Brondby and a season at Benfica.

So why was he so popular?

He could be too honest for his own good at times.

Skovdahl admitted the club was a lot worse off than he originally thought when he arrived in 1999 and said they had “no chance” of beating Celtic in his first game.

He was right.

Aberdeen lost 5-0 at home and so began a real rollercoaster ride of results.

Aberdeen finished bottom of the Scottish Premier League in his first season in charge but avoided relegation because of league reconstruction and First Division champions Falkirk did not have a stadium that met the criteria of the top flight.

Ebbe Skovdahl at Pittodrie alongside Stewart Milne at the start of his time at Aberdeen. Image: DC Thomson.

There were 21 defeats and 83 goals conceded yet Skovdahl guided the Dons to two cup final appearances in the same season which ended in defeat to Celtic and Rangers.

That 2000 Scottish Cup final against the Ibrox side felt like a bad dream.

The Dons were unfancied against a strong Rangers team but any hope of causing an upset was effectively ended after only three minutes.

Jim Leighton suffered a horrific double fracture to his jaw in a collision with Rangers striker Rod Wallace which required surgery to insert two metal plates.

Robbie Winters takes over in goal following Jim Leighton’s injury in 2000. Image: SNS.

The loss of Leighton was a huge blow to Skovdahl’s plans because SFA rules at the time only allowed for three substitutes in the cup, as opposed to five for league games.

Aberdeen and Rangers had gambled by going with three outfield players.

All bets were off for Skovdahl’s troops.

It was carnage.

Striker Robbie Winters took over and did the best he could, but Rangers won 4-0.

There was hope of better days

The next two years brought gradual improvement.

Skovdahl led the club to seventh-place and fourth-place finishes although some of the results under his leadership were nothing less than shocking.

A 7-0 defeat against Celtic was among the lowlights.

He did take the club into Europe twice although defeat to Irish part-timers Bohemians would rank as the most humiliating defeat in the club’s history.

Skovdahl shouts instruction from the touchline during his spell in charge at Pittodrie. Image: DC Thomson.

But for all of his failings in the post, the enigmatic Skovdahl wanted to play attractive football and tried to bring in football players rather than ball-winners.

Arild Stavrum, Cato Guntveit and Hicham Zerouali were among his signings while a raft of promising talent was blooded into the team alongside them.

Skovdahl turned to youth and Darren and Derek Young, Phil McGuire, Kevin McNaughton, Chris Clark, Ryan Esson and Darren Mackie became first-team regulars.

Mackie was handed his debut as a teenager by Skovdahl in 1999 and the faith shown in him was something he carried through his 300-plus appearances for the Dons.

Darren Mackie was among the Dons youngsters given his big chance by Skovdahl. Image: SNS.

“He had a huge impact on my career,” said Mackie.

“He gave me my debut and for that I will be forever grateful.

“He said a lot of nice things about me when I was there and pushed me on to be the best I could be. He showed good faith in me and I always enjoyed working with him.

“He had a different way of working from what everyone was used to. I was younger and it was all fresh and new to me. I was just excited to be involved.

“Looking back, he brought a lot of young players into the team at that stage.”

Statistics are like miniskirts…

Skovdahl’s famous sayings also helped endear him to Dons fans and included:

“Statistics are like miniskirts, good to look at but they hide the most important things.”

“The operation went well but the patient died.”

“Don’t count the skins until you have killed the bear.”

“If you point a finger at someone remember three others are pointing at you.”

Ebbe Skovdahl at Pittodrie looking at transfer sheets in the summer of 2002. Image: Michael Traill/DC Thomson.

Skovdahl tendered six months notice in accordance with the terms of his contract in November 2002 after a poor start to the following season’s campaign.

In his leaving speech at a press conference, he claimed at the time that he could take the club no further due to the tight financial climate of all the clubs in the SPL.

The fat lady was now clearing her throat.

So who was at fault?

Aberdeen manager Ebbe Skovdahl gives six months’ notice to the club. Image: Jim Irvine/DC Thomson.

Dons legend Joe Harper blamed the players while Evening Express columnist John McRuvie suggested it was the biggest mistake in Aberdeen’s 100-year history!

He said: “The sharks in Glasgow and those in our own camp who questioned his tactics have got their own way and now we are without a manager.

“I will always remember the day Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, the day we won the Cup Winners’ Cup and the day I heard that Mr Ebbe had resigned.

“Our board now have the task of finding a replacement. If it was up to me, I’d be kissing Ebbe’s shoes every day if that’s what it took to convince him to stay.”

But a 1-0 SPL defeat by Kilmarnock, which was watched by Aberdeen’s lowest league crowd for several years, prompted the Dons directors to make an immediate change to the management team.

Ebbe Skovdahl at Aberdeen Airport. Image: DC Thomson.

He still flew back to Denmark as a hero in the eyes of many fans and offered to help new management team Steve Paterson and Duncan Shearer if they wanted his advice.

That was the mark of the man.

Dons chairman Stewart Milne confirmed: “Ebbe and the club remain on the best of terms and he can continue to help us in the future.

“There won’t be a specific role as such for Ebbe but he has an extensive knowledge of Scandinavian football and I’m sure it will be beneficial for Aberdeen in the years ahead.”

Skovdahl died aged 75 in 2020 after battling cancer for several years which prompted an outpouring of grief and heartfelt tributes from across the footballing family.

Ebbe Skovdahl left his mark on Pittodrie during his three years with the club. Image: Jim Irvine/DC Thomson.

Aberdeen legend Willie Miller was among those who spoke of his legacy.

He said: “The rapport he built with the Dons fans was quite something.

“I seem to remember after Aberdeen had been beaten by Bohemians in the Uefa Cup, the supporters were chanting his name.

“It’s not often you would get that following a disappointing European defeat, but that shows the affection between Ebbe and the support.

“His quotes were incredible at times, the ‘operation went well but the patient died’ line was probably my favourite after a loss at Celtic Park.

“He always had time for everyone and was able to turn conflict into humour, which is a great ability to have.

“Ebbe was a great personality who will be fondly remembered by everyone at Aberdeen.”

He still is.