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Aberdeen legend Charlie Nicholas reveals how Sir Alex Ferguson saved his World Cup 1986 dream

Scotland manager Alex Ferguson (left) with Charlie Nicholas in 1985/86.
Scotland manager Alex Ferguson (left) with Charlie Nicholas in 1985/86.

Aberdeen legend Charlie Nicholas thought his World Cup 1986 dream was over – until Sir Alex Ferguson offered an unexpected reprieve.

While at Arsenal, striker Nicholas had fallen out of the Scotland set up under national boss Jock Stein.

Legend Stein sadly passed away in September 1985 after suffering a heart-attack during the 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw with Wales in Cardiff.

That result on a tragic night for Scottish football secured a World Cup play-off spot against Australia, and Aberdeen manager Ferguson was drafted in as interim national manager – guiding the Scots through the play-offs to qualify for the World Cup.

Ferguson would remain in his interim position to lead the Scots at the 1986 finals in Mexico.

Nicholas, now 60, was given a World Cup life-line by Ferguson and started the Group E opener against Denmark, a 1-0 loss.

Alex Ferguson (left) and Charlie Nicholas during Scotland training

He said:  “I managed to sneak in the back door for the World Cup.

“I was playing quite well at Arsenal at the time.

“We had sadly lost Jock Stein.

“I didn’t see that he (Stein) was going to give me another opportunity, he had just made his mind up.

“When he passed away Fergie took temporary charge.

“Fergie came to watch me for Arsenal and then had a chat with me.

“He said he didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t be involved in the squad and come to the World Cup.

“I was grateful that he gave me the opportunity to try to get in.

“Then I got in and he started to play me.”

Injury set back in World Cup opener

Scotland qualified for the World Cup by overcoming Australia 2-0 on aggregate.

Ferguson led the Scots to a 2-0 win at Hampden in November 1985, before a goalless draw in Melbourne the following month.

Nicholas was introduced for a dream start in the opening group game against the Danes in Mexico.

The Scots were edged out by a Preben Eljaer goal at the Estadio Neza 86 stadium in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl on June 4, 1986.

However, Nicholas would also suffer an Achilles tendon injury in that Denmark clash.

It ruled him out of the 2-1 loss to eventual beaten finalists West Germany.

Former Aberdeen star Gordon Strachan, then at Manchester United, scored a famous opener against the Germans.

Nicholas wasn’t fully fit for final group game against Uruguay, but Ferguson introduced him late on in the hope he could score a winner.

Unfortunately, it finished 0-0 and Scotland exited at the group stage.

A victory would have secured Scotland’s progression to the knock-out phase for the first time.

The full extent of Nicholas’ injury was not discovered until he returned to Arsenal.

He said: “I suffered a bad injury against Denmark.

“I was through on goal and the lad (Jan) Bartram came right down the back of my Achilles tendon as I was going through one on one.

“It took me out with about 15 minutes to go. I ruptured it, but we didn’t know the damage until I got back home to London.

“That’s the way it goes.

“I wasn’t fit against Uruguay, but Fergie wanted to try to see if I could nick a goal and I was grateful for that.”

Frustration against cynical Uruguay

Scotland needed to defeat Uruguay to progress from the groups as one of the four best third-placed teams.

The South Americans had been thrashed 6-1 by a Michael Laudrup inspired Denmark earlier in the group so the omens were good.

Scotland’s hopes took a further upturn when Jose Batista was sent off after just 56 seconds for scything down Strachan.

It remains the fastest red card ever shown in a game at the World Cup finals.

Cynical Uruguay then used every trick in the book to get the result they needed.

In the aftermath raging SFA Secretary Ernie Walker slated Uruguay as the “scum of world football.”

Ferguson was also incensed and said after the game: “They (Uruguayans) have no respect for other people’s dignity.

“It’s a disgrace what they did. Their behaviour turns the game into a complete farce.”

‘We should have qualified from the groups’

Midfielder Steve Nicol passed up a clear opportunity to score against Uruguay and the game finished goalless… and Scotland were out.

For Nicholas it was a “missed opportunity” to make history by reaching the knock-out stages for the first time.

He said: “The World Cup was fabulous just to take part in.

“However, we were disappointed because we should have beaten Uruguay and should have qualified from the groups for the first time.

“It was a missed opportunity.”

Working with managerial legends

Just 18 months after the World Cup, Nicholas would sign for Ian Porterfield’s Aberdeen from Arsenal.

News of the striker’s imminent arrival at Pittodrie broke on Hogmanay 1987, just as the Red Army saw in the New Year.

The signing, for a £400,000 fee, was officially confirmed on January 5.

Aberdeen FC manager Ian Porterfield (left) welcomes Charlie Nicholas to Pittodrie. Image: Aberdeen Journals

Nicholas would go on to win the Scottish Cup and League Cup double with the Dons in 1989-90 before moving to Celtic.

Although the 1986 World Cup would end in disappointment, it offered the opportunity to work with Ferguson.

As he wasn’t an Aberdeen player – yet – Nicholas never got the full hair drier treatment!

He said: “I got six weeks at the World Cup in the company of Sir Alex Ferguson and Walter Smith.

Aberdeen celebrate winning the Scottish Cup final in 1990.<br />From the left, Charlie Nicholas, Jim Bett, Bobby Connor, Alex McLeish with the cup and David Robertson.

“That was a fabulous education.

“They were two absolutely star men.

“Because we weren’t Aberdeen players we didn’t get the hair drier treatment – we got a softer version of it.

“The knowledge Fergie and Walter Smith had between them was absolutely fabulous.”