There had never been anything like it before and there will never be anything like it again for the hundreds of Aberdeen supporters who embarked on a unique floating football special 40 years ago.
But those who bought their tickets for the ferry St Clair, prior to embarking on a pilgrimage to Gothenburg to watch their beloved Dons tackle Real Madrid in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in May 1983, were rewarded for their faith by being involved in the greatest night in the club’s history.
It was the stuff of dreams and even though many of the Red Army hordes risked sea sickness, cirrhosis of the liver, sore heads and only fleeting memories of what had actually happened on the trip, the revelry on board bore testament to the myriad ingredients of that magical mystery tour.
One of the travellers, Hamish Mackay, wrote in the Press & Journal: “As I left the ship, I said to Captain Mike Gray: ‘If I live to be 100, I will never forget that homecoming. The scenes on board the St Clair were something else’.
The odyssey had started at 1.30pm on Monday May 9 when a total of 493 fans and 63 crew set sail from Aberdeen Harbour to Gothenburg with cries of “Cheerio, Cheerio, Cheerio” to their loved ones who stood on the quayside.
Captain Gray, a redoubtable Shetlander and a keen-as-mustard Aberdeen aficionado, who died last November in Lerwick at the age of 84, realised this would be a once-in-a-lifetime challenge, but he and his colleagues had stocked up on lager – with no less than 25,000 cans of the stuff – and were ready to embrace the joy and jubilation among their passengers.
The fans were optimistic and why not, given the memorable fashion in which their team had beaten Bayern Munich a couple of months earlier at Pittodrie, before thrashing Belgian side Waterschei 5-1 to cruise through to the final.
Nobody was underestimating the threat posed by Real Madrid. But as Gordon Cunningham recalled: “We honestly thought it was our destiny. Fergie (Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson) had achieved so much already we never really doubted the boys could do it. Bayern showed us anything was possible.
“Fergie even came down to wave us off and wish us luck. That was the sort of man he was. A tough nut with a softish centre. He changed everything and, when I look back, I just marvel at how we took these triumphs for granted.”
This was no ship of fools, but there were a few mishaps along the way as you might expect when such a large group decide to paint the decks red. One of the group’s set of false teeth was found later, embedded in an apple, and while the ship advanced through the night, the concept of time became a little foggy.
Kevin Milne told me: “We managed to secure berths in inside cabins, not fancy but slightly more appealing and cheaper than the reclining seat option. The weather was grey and damp, but the atmosphere amongst the near-500 supporters on board was electric and confidence was remarkably high.
“The smooth passage through the waters of Aberdeen harbour were quickly replaced by choppy seas as we left the shelter of the harbour walls.
“In fact, we were only around an hour into the journey when one of our group retreated to his cabin due to severe sea sickness. He managed to get a good sleep and was pleased to wake up around 8.30 feeling so much better and believing he had had a fine night’s sleep.
“Heading up to the restaurant for breakfast, he was surprised to learn that the time was actually 8.30pm on the same day as he departed Aberdeen!”
Thousands of other Aberdeen acolytes had ventured by plane to Sweden, and most were checked into their hotels, even as the ferry continued on its way.
Kevin added: “The first evening on board was a full-on party. Everyone was in great spirits and the pre-match nerves were beginning to build. Copious amounts of Tennent’s Lager, which we bought by the case from the bar, were consumed as the St Clair made its passage across the North Sea.
“The following day (Tuesday) was spent at sea until we docked in Gothenburg late that afternoon. We then made our way into the city for food and more drinks before heading back to the ship for another evening of partying.”
The passengers had prepared myriad banners, reflecting their reverence for icons such as Willie Miller, Jim Leighton, Alex McLeish and Gordon Strachan.
And, as Gordon Bannerman recalled: “Nobody I met was anything other than 100% confident that Aberdeen were going to make history.
“I wouldn’t say it was written in the stars, but we bought our tickets for the ferry the day after the Bayern match. It wasn’t us being arrogant, but we just thought if we can beat that side (Paul) Breitner, (Karl-Heinz) Rummenigge, (Klaus) Augenthaler and the rest of them, we can beat anybody.”
That heartfelt conviction would be tested during a dramatic denouement and the tragic death of one of the St Clair passengers during the match. Yet when the fans arrived in Gothenburg and discovered that the streets around the central Nordstan and Drottningtorget area were filled with Aberdeen amigos, the sound of The Northern Lights was soon reverberating around the city.
Cometh the dawn of Wednesday May 11 and everybody recognised the wait was over and Aberdeen, players, officials and supporters alike, were venturing into uncharted territory with a major prize up for grabs at the Ullevi Stadium.
Kevin Milne said: “The mood amongst the travelling fans was more subdued, possibly drink induced, but with a sense of realisation that today was the day that ‘we’ could be crowned European cup winners had began to sink in.
“We spent the day wandering around Gothenburg, where we were all given a very warm welcome from the residents and we enjoyed visiting their city. Afterwards, we headed back to the St Clair for an early dinner, then we headed to the Ullevi Stadium for the game we had all been waiting for.”
Rain lashed down on the venue, but almost nothing could dampen the St Clair brigade as they celebrated Eric Black’s early goal, bemoaned a McLeish mistake which allowed Juanito to level from the penalty spot – and then, they were in ecstasy when John Hewitt sealed victory with a header which ensured that all these players will forever be acclaimed as the Gothenburg Greats.
Milne added: “The weather was atrocious; cold and wet as the action started. But the game itself appeared to flash by in next to no time. That said, the final few minutes of extra time took forever before the final whistle was blown and the emotions of every Aberdeen supporter in the stadium and around the world just poured out. We had done it!”
However, amidst the joy, Graham Shand and his friends from the Hawthorn Bar also felt tristesse at the news of the death of their confrere on the journey.
He told me: “Unfortunately, during the first half, tragedy struck as one of my mates, Phil Goodbrand, collapsed and, although he was brilliantly treated by the Swedish paramedics, he did not recover.
“It was later identified that he had a brain haemorrhage. I remember when John Hewitt scored the winning goal, one mate said: ‘That was for Phil’.
“The bus journey back to the St Clair was a bit subdued for me as we didn’t actually know Phil’s condition until we got back to the ship. That night, we stayed in our cabins, although I did go outside to get some fresh air and try to make sense of both the fantastic achievement for the Dons and the tragic death.
“The next day, we did celebrate the victory and, I suppose, we commemorated Phil’s 22 years of life. It was great that lots of fans who I barely knew were passing on condolences for the tragic events.”
It was a long trek back to the Granite City, but Hamish Mackay painted vivid pictures of the exhilaration of many passengers as midnight came and went.
He said: “At 4am (on Friday morning), the dance floor in the ship’s lounge was a seething mass of dancing and singing supporters – with most of the males stripped to the waist. Finally, there were those who retired, tired and emotional, to have a quick nap on the deck as the dawn brought beautiful sunshine and the North Sea was almost as placid as the pond in Aberdeen’s Duthie Park.
“But they had a rude awakening because, two hours from port, a Bristow helicopter zoomed in on the ship with hundreds of copies of Thursday’s and Friday’s editions of the Press and Journal and Evening Express.
“As we re-lived those moments of magic in the Ullevi stadium, Aberdeen appeared on the horizon, crystal clear in a beautiful morning. And the ‘choir’ made sure we arrived back home in extremely good voice.”
And they had a couple of special guests waiting for them at the quayside.
Kevin recalled: “An early arrival into Aberdeen Harbour on the Friday morning led to St Clair triumphantly entering the harbour to a fantastic welcome from those who were gathered on the shore.
“We lined the decks of the ship and were delighted to be welcomed back on to dry land by Alex Ferguson, Mark McGhee and the European Cup Winners’ trophy. What a way to round off an unbelievable and unforgettable trip.”
Indeed, the Dons boss was keen to pay homage to the supporters and also mouth a silent prayer in the memory of the lost boy Phil.
As Mackay said: “Cheers erupted when the fans saw the gleaming trophy on the quayside and it absolutely hit home that this belonged to Aberdeen.
“Messrs Ferguson and McGhee showed their appreciation for fans, shaking hands with virtually every passenger and crew member as they stepped ashore. It was a splendid gesture which will be long remembered by all those who made that unforgettable voyage on the St Clair.
“The rapport between the passengers and crew was remarkable. And the passengers had conducted themselves in impeccable fashion.”
It was a voyage fuelled on expectation and effervescence. And an odyssey that shows how much the Dons meant to their ain folk.