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Kevin McNaughton reflects on Aberdeen career under Ebbe Skovdahl and ‘fitting’ opportunity for Dons to end Scottish Cup wait

Ebbe Skovdahl and Kevin McNaughton.
Ebbe Skovdahl and Kevin McNaughton.

Two near misses in two cup finals underlined Ebbe Skovdahl’s time in charge of Aberdeen.

It would be somewhat fitting then, in the year of the Dane’s passing, if the Dons were able to put that right with their own piece of history.

Skovdahl’s death last week at the age of 75 came after a long battle with cancer, something his former Dons player Kevin McNaughton was aware of having worked with his son Rene at Cardiff City.

McNaughton has gone on record before to say he believed what Skovdahl introduced at Aberdeen had him somewhat ahead of his time. The fitness and tactical work that, while not necessarily generating results on the pitch, was improving his players off it.

But he also credits Skovdahl with giving him the break in his career he needed, coming through among a crop of young Aberdeen players thrust into the first-team fold amid periods of poor form.

“Looking back, if he wasn’t in charge, would I have got my chance at that age? Probably not,” said McNaughton, who clocked up more than 200 appearances for Aberdeen. “He was quite happy to send the young lads in.

“You have to take that opportunity but he wasn’t scared to put anybody in. That was testament to him.

“He was a character in the dressing room and the guys took to him. He set my career off on the right path; whether I played badly or well, he always gave me a bit of time.

“If I had a bad game, he wouldn’t pull me into his office. I remember him speaking to me after I had a bad spell and he said ‘I’m not going to take you out of the team’. It’s not an easy thing to do, when you’ve got a young player who’s not playing as well as he could be, to show faith in him.

Kevin McNaughton receives a cake from Ebbe Skovdahl on his 20th birthday.

“When he left, my career dipped a little. I was injured the first month Steve (Paterson) came in and I struggled under him. Sometimes you get managers you take to and Ebbe was that for me.

“He wasn’t a shouter, he wasn’t a screamer and that’s the kind of approach I took to. He was quite relaxed and that probably transferred to me on the pitch.”

That man-management is something which has cropped up several times since Skovdahl’s passing last week, in the way he dealt with players and showed no compunction in giving McNaughton, the Young brothers and Darren Mackie their chance.

Camaraderie was a binding factor in that dressing room even results were not going their way. “Skovisms”, as they came to be known, brought amusement among the players and were inscribed on a dressing room table, which was only belatedly discovered.

“He was one of those guys you need in football. I still sit in the pub with my dad and chat about some of the stuff, his mannerisms,” added McNaughton. “I wouldn’t say we set the world alight under him – we got to a couple of cup finals – but the fans took to the fact he was a character and a likeable guy.”

Aberdeen Manager Ebbe Skovdahl cheers on the fans before his first game in charge against Celtic in August 1999.

The 1999-00 season was forgettable on a league front, with the Dons finishing four points adrift at the foot of the table in Skovdahl’s first season in charge.

However in the knockout competitions they struck up a run of results, reaching the final of the League Cup and Scottish Cup. Celtic beat them 2-0 in March to claim the League Cup and then Rangers – in the game that become known for Robbie Winters replacing a stricken Jim Leighton in goal – saw off the Dons 4-0 in the Scottish Cup showpiece.

“It was the first season I went full-time. We got to two cup finals but finished bottom that year and avoided relegation on a technicality (Falkirk’s ground did not meet SPL standards). If Ebbe didn’t get to those two finals, I’m not sure if his job would have been safe.

“The following season he threw in a lot of young lads, like myself, and we finished top of the bottom six. It was a step in the right direction from the season before.”

The Dons meet Celtic on Sunday, with a chance to achieve their own slice of history and do what Skovdahl’s team could not: bring the Scottish Cup back to Pittodrie.

“It would definitely be fitting. They’ve got close in recent years but not quite over the line. You need a bit of luck at times but certainly, with the way they’ve been playing, they’ve got it in them to do it.

“If he’s looking over the team, especially after getting to two cup finals under him, it would be a positive step.”