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From riots to travel chaos and car crashes – Barry Nicholson reflects on Aberdeen’s calamitous pre-season trip to Egypt

Nicholson revisited the outrageous build-up to the Dons' last involvement in the group stages of European football.

Aberdeen midfielder Barry Nicholson takes a break in the heat of Alexandria in 2007. Image: Newsline
Aberdeen midfielder Barry Nicholson takes a break in the heat of Alexandria in 2007. Image: Newsline

Aberdeen will compete in the group stages of European football for only the second time in their history this season. The first was 2007/08 – a campaign preceded by a disastrous pre-season trip to Egypt.

Barry Robson’s Dons side are guaranteed involved in either the Europa League or Conference League thanks to their third-place finish in the Premiership in 2022/23.

Having returned from a pre-season trip to Portugal, the Dons play the final warm-up game at Charlton Athletic this weekend before getting the new season under way at Livingston on August 5.

It has been relatively smooth sailing for Robson and his players so far – a far cry from the preparation the class of 2007-08 faced.

From searing heat to red cards and even a car crash thrown in for good measure, Aberdeen’s pre-season training camp in Egypt in the summer of 2007 has become an infamous one.

‘I don’t know why we went there’ says Nicholson – as he labels Egyptian heat ‘ridiculous’ and reveals boss Calderwood apologised over trip

Former Don Barry Nicholson is still bemused as to why his former manager Jimmy Calderwood took the squad there to prepare.

He said: “I don’t know why we actually went there for pre-season.

“I know Jimmy liked to go on his travels and liked the sun. Certainly when I was with him at Dunfermline, we went to places like New Zealand, and with Aberdeen, we went to South Africa, too.

Jimmy Calderwood, right, with director of football Willie Miller, took Aberdeen to Egypt for pre-season in 2007.

“Egypt was a really tough pre-season training camp.

“We trained in double sessions. Even at 9.30am, the heat was ridiculous and our second session didn’t start until near 7pm as it was just too hot to train. It was really difficult.

“At most training camps today you walk on to the training ground as you sleep on site – we stayed in a hotel in Alexandria and it was a bus journey twice a day.

“We’d come back soaking wet from sweat on the bus and then do it all over again every night.

“If I remember rightly, the hotel was really nice, but the food was poor.

“I’m sure at one point there was a big group of us trying to cross traffic to get to the big shopping arcade across the road just so we could get something else or even a cup of coffee.

“It wasn’t that well planned and Jimmy apologised to us when we were over there, but to be fair the lads managed to get on with it.”

Reds squad were warned over potential for friendly flashpoints before tournament started

The problems started as soon as the Dons touched down in Alexandria with Jamie Smith forced to train in borrowed gear after his luggage had failed to arrive.

Dons boss Calderwood warned his players to keep their cool in the heat of Egypt after arranging for his side to play in an eight-team tournament in Alexandria.

The manager knew conditions and officiating may be different to what his players were used to back home in Scotland, but warned ill-discipline from his side would not be tolerated.

Calderwood’s warning came after El-Ittihad, the host club of the tournament, had walked off the pitch after just 23 minutes of a friendly against Canal Club in Egypt the week before the tournament was due to start.

But an optimistic Calderwood said: “I doubt if anything as bad as that will happen when we are there but the players need to be aware there could be a few testing experiences ahead.”

In hindsight, it was quite the understatement.

Local media ridicule: ‘Are you really the third-best team in Scotland?’

A poor display in the opening game of the tournament 24 hours into the trip resulted in Aberdeen suffering a 2-0 loss at the hands of Arab Contractors.

But it was the post-match press conference which provided the fireworks.

With questions such as “are you really the third-best team in Scotland?” and “We are shocked at how bad Aberdeen were” coming his way Calderwood struggled to maintain his composure.

The Aberdeen manager’s mood was not helped by the poor training facilities his side used.

Having made a pre-tournament visit to Alexandria earlier in the year, Calderwood was promised his team would be able to use the training facilities at the 81,000-capacity Borg El Arab stadium, which is 31 miles west of the city.

But, with the stadium not officially opened, permission was not given to the Dons to use the pitch, leaving them to train on surfaces throughout the city which were not up to scratch.

At the time, Calderwood said: “The hotel is great, but I am disappointed with the pitches.

“It is not an excuse, but the pitch I had picked out at the new stadium would have been perfect.

“I was not told it would be a problem on my first visit.”

Improved display in second friendly – but another defeat leads to early exit as Calderwood admits ‘I’ve made a mug of it’

Craig Brewster and Richard Foster were on the scoresheet in the second game against Al Aluminium, but it was not enough to prevent Aberdeen from losing 3-2.

It was a much-improved showing from Calderwood’s side, however, the loss ensured an early exit from the tournament for the visitors.

The Dons had only been in Egypt a matter of days and the manager was already expressing regret at bringing his squad to North Africa.

Calderwood said: “I’ve made a mug of it.

“I thought coming to Egypt was a great idea, but now see it was the wrong choice.

“I apologised to the boys, because the trip hasn’t been the greatest for them.

“I’m not just saying that because we’ve lost two games – I’m glad they were tough against decent opposition.

“But the conditions have been difficult to train in and the heat means there has been little for the lads to do afterwards.”

A riotous final game of Alexandria tournament for Aberdeen

The final game of the tournament, and Aberdeen’s third game of their four-match tour, was a riotous affair, with Chris Clark and Nicholson both red carded.

The Dons ran out 2-1 winners over Al Ittihad – who also had two men sent off – thanks to goals from Jeffrey de Visscher and Steve Lovell.

Evening Express editor Charlie Allan, who was with Aberdeen in Egypt, summed up the extraordinary game, and its aftermath, in his match report.

He wrote: “I have never witnessed anything as shameful as this in almost 19 years of reporting on the Dons.

“But it wasn’t worth possible bans for Chris Clark and Barry Nicholson from their opening SPL match with Dundee United for being sent off.

Barry Nicholson was sent-off in the final minute against Al Ittihad.

“And it certainly wasn’t worth the disgraceful scenes afterwards as riot police moved in to protect the Ittihad coach from his own fans attempting to attack him.

“I’m told he is likely to have been sacked by the time you read this.

“The Ittihad players were jostled by the chanting hordes gathered at the gates as they attempted to leave the stadium.

“Egyptian journalists joined in by throwing punches at each other in the press room – one tried to hit another over the head with a chair.

“If Aberdeen need a reason to reject any future invites to Egypt, this is it.”

Dons boss left furious by ill-tempered friendly

Calderwood was furious at what had transpired and branded the Egyptian side cowardly.

The Dons squad was forced to rush from the stadium to avoid being caught in the disgraceful scenes at the end of the game.

All of the drama came after teenage Dons attacker Chris Maguire was decked by a punch from an opponent, a spark which eventually saw the four players red carded by Egyptian referee Achmed Abuela – who was also slated by the Reds manager.

Calderwood said: “The punch on wee Chris was cowardly and summed up the way the Egyptians played the whole night.

“It was a shame for young Chris because he had come on as a substitute and was playing very well.”

Calderwood blamed the referee for destroying the match and sparking the trouble afterwards.

He said: “A lot of what went on was down to the referee. He spoiled the game by getting so many decisions wrong.

“He let it get out of hand, not the players.

“The only one of the four red cards he got right was the one for the punch on Chris.”

Nicholson: I was sent off for shoving match

It may be 16 years later, but Nicholson’s recollection of the chaos of the friendly is crystal clear.

He said: “In the past when you have watched Egyptian club teams and their national team they are very fiery and like to put the boot in, so we had to look after ourselves in the games out there.

“Clarky and I were sent off in the game against Al-Ittihad.

“I was sent off for sticking off for Chris Maguire after he had been hit in the back of the head. I ended up involved in a shoving match and was shown the red card for it.

Barry Nicholson was left in disbelief at being red carded.

“There were decent crowds at these games and there was a ruckus in the tunnel after the four red cards.

“I think there was so much going on between the teams that we didn’t know the fans had kicked off outside and riot police were involved.

“After the game Jimmy and the coaching staff told us, because it was a recognised tournament, there was the possibility we’d be suspended for the start of the season and it wasn’t until we got back home that we discovered we’d be available for the first game.”

Aberdeen pair survived motorway crash after taxi driver crashed into mini-bus

Of course, another storyline from Aberdeen’s summer sojourn to Egypt, which has gone unmentioned to this point, is the most frightening one.

Dons players Michael Hart and Jamie Smith had been lucky to walk away from a motorway crash prior to a match against Al Aluminum earlier in the trip.

The duo were in a taxi when it was involved in a collision with a mini-bus.

Jamie Smith and Michael Hart were involved in a car crash in Alexandria. Image: Newsline.

Their car was sent spinning across motorway lanes at high speed and they were left locked inside the car in the middle of the massive traffic jam which followed.

The oppressive heat left the players with no alternative but to climb out through the window.

At the time, Hart said: “The driver was on his mobile phone and suddenly decided to cut across five lanes of traffic without looking.

“He paid absolutely no attention to the traffic and a mini-bus clipped the back of the car.

“It sent us spinning on to the other carriageway in front of oncoming traffic, which was terrifying.

“Thankfully, cars coming towards us had enough time to slow down and stop.

“It could have been so much worse.”

Smith ‘was pretty shook up after accident’ which left Dons duo in ‘dodgy’ situation

The pair were returning to the Dons’ Lagoon Hotel base when the crash happened, having visited the seafront in Alexandria.

Smith was treated for mild concussion by Aberdeen team doctor Derek Gray following the incident.

Hart said: “After the crash there was a fair pile-up of cars on the motorway as we had spun on to the other lane.

“The driver had us locked in the car with the child locks on for half-an-hour.

“We were stuck, wondering when we were going to get out.

“Meanwhile, all these cars are coming towards us and traffic was piling up.

“It was scary and Jamie was pretty shook up after the accident.

“Straight after the crash, the driver was on the phone again and, within a few minutes, there were five or six of his mates there. It was all very dodgy.

“They were trying to turn it around to make out that it was the driver of the mini-bus’ fault for the crash.

“Eventually, we decided to climb out of the car and get a taxi back to the hotel.”

‘It was like Dastardley and Muttley’

While Smith was relieved to escape relatively unscathed from the road smash, the experience was a terrifying one.

He said in the aftermath: “The gaffer told us we were not going to play so Michael and I were allocated a driver to take us about.

“We weren’t playing that night, so we thought we’d go and see what Alexandria was like.

“The traffic in Egypt is an absolute free-for-all. Our guy pulled in front of someone, hit the back of a car and we went in a spin.

“I cracked my head against the window and we ended up facing the opposite way of this absolute mayhem.

“It was like Dastardly and Muttley. It was complete madness.

“I don’t think I was knocked out, but it definitely had an effect on me.”

No happy ending to Egyptian tour

Aberdeen Egyptian tour concluded with a 5-1 win against Al-Etesalat, Lee Miller netting a hat-trick, while Smith and Clark were also on the scoresheet.

But even with an impressive finish, the Dons’ misery was not over.

Their planned flight from Alexandria to Heathrow was cancelled after the plane suffered a cracked windscreen en route from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the previous evening.

That meant the team travelled to Frankfurt, Germany, but a shortage of flights from London airports meant the Reds travelling party did not complete their return as a group.

Even after finally returning to Scotland, the effects of their Egyptian trip continued with the manager and several players complaining of being under the weather.

Nicholson said: “A few of the boys had stomach bugs, which they brought back on the flight back, and it was a really difficult trip all round – but clearly it did help us prepare for Europe.”

Barry Nicholson pictured at the Great Sphinx of Giza near Cairo during the trip to Egypt in 2007. Image: Newsline.

Euro success of season in contrast to pre-season nightmare which came before

A sluggish start in the league resulted in Aberdeen having to wait until September 1 – their fifth game of the campaign – before they could celebrate their first win of the season.

But the mood soon turned as the Dons found their rhythm by qualifying for the group stages of the Uefa Cup thanks to Darren Mackie’s goal which secured a 1-1 draw in Dnipro – with the Dons progressing on the away goal rule.

Nicholson said: “The Dnipro game was the biggest one for us. When the draw was made we knew very little about them.

“We started going through the analysis with Jimmy and we very quickly realised it was going to be so tough.

“I think everybody wrote us off after the draw at home. Even us as players felt we had to score out there to have a chance.

“We’d played okay in the first game and had a few good chances to score but we knew the game over there would be really tough.

“We had to defend for our lives for 75 minutes and it was one of the toughest games I was ever involved in as a player.

“The scenes after the game were unbelievable.”

Darren Mackie scores the £1 million goal in the 1-1 draw with Dnipro in Ukraine in 2007.

‘Uefa Cup group stage was incredibly tough’

Aberdeen’s reward for beating Dnipro was qualification for a Uefa Cup group which included Panathinaikos, Lokomotiv Moscow, Atletico Madrid and Copenhagen.

Unlike the current home and away four-team format of European club competition, (the final edition of) the Uefa Cup saw teams play each other once.

For the Dons fans, the trips to Greece and Spain were memorable – for the players, the challenge was massive.

Nicholson said: “With Aberdeen getting back into the group stages, there’s been a lot of chat about when we did it.

“We enjoyed being in Europe and playing in new stadiums, but the games were super tough. The two away games at Panathinaikos and Atletico Madrid were really tough.

“We played okay in Greece but didn’t take our chances and lost 3-0, and it was the same story at Pittodrie against Lokomotiv.

“We played well, but didn’t take our chances and it finished 1-1.

“I didn’t play against Atletico Madrid when we lost 2-0 – I was ill on the flight going over and ended up watching the game from the bench.

“It was like Dnipro all over again where we were in a low block and defending for our lives.

“The atmosphere in the stadium was incredible. I’ve never heard anything like it in all my career.”

Despite having one point from their three matches, Calderwood’s Dons still had a chance at qualifying for the last-32 – provided they could beat Danish Superliga champions Copenhagen.

On a famous night at Pittodrie, the Dons rose to the occasion in style as they won 4-0.

Nicholson said: “We had one point on the board going into the last game yet had a chance to qualify for the knockouts if we beat Copenhagen. It was ridiculous really.

“We put in an unbelievable performance at Pittodrie that night and the atmosphere that night was amazing. Jamie Smith’s two goals were fabulous.

Calderwood’s Aberdeen hammered Copenhagen 4-0 in the Granite City.

“That was probably the best performance that Aberdeen group of players ever had.”

Meeting the mighty Bayern Munich again

There was something poetic about the Dons’ draw for the last 32 as they were pitted against old foes Bayern Munich.

A rematch against the club Sir Alex Ferguson’s European Cup Winners’ Cup-winning side of 1983 beat (in a ECWC quarter-final tie), with the second leg widely-considered Pittodrie’s greatest night.

Aberdeen’s remarkable Euro run of 2007-08 was ended by the European giants as they ran out 7-3 winners on aggregate – but not before Calderwood’s side had given them an almighty scare in a 2-2 thriller at Pittodrie in the first leg.

Nicholson said: “Bayern had some of the best players in the world. All we focused on was the first game at home and trying to stay in the tie.

“The game at Pittodrie was amazing again and I don’t think we deserved to draw the game.

“The penalty decision (to level the first leg at 2-2) was disappointing, and for Jamie Langfield to save the spot-kick, only for the rebound to be converted made it feel worse.

“We knew going to the Allianz would be really tough, but like the group stages I can remember us missing a good chance early when Darren Mackie was clean through and he put it over the bar.

“It was a brilliant experience, but really tough against top-class opposition.

“Seeing the fans follow us all over Europe was brilliant.”

Dons players need to adjust quickly to strain of European commitments

The 2007-08 season will always remain a special one for Nicholson and seeing Barry Robson take the current squad back to the group stages of Europe has brought the memories flooding back.

The 44 year-old knows just how excited captain Graeme Shinnie and his team-mates will be ahead of the new campaign.

He said: “I’m hoping Barry gets the players in he wants, gets everyone settled into a rhythm and into the Europa League.

“The big thing for them will be what we had to do, which was try to recover really quickly after the games.

“My advice is try to get used to playing on a Sunday as the games will be on Thursdays.

“It’s a change from the norm of playing on a Saturday. You are flying back in the early hours on Fridays then having one day to recover and prepare for a league game.

“It is a big challenge and one which takes a bit of getting used to.”