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Aberdeen FC

Ebbe Skovdahl: The man ahead of his time at Aberdeen

On the 25th anniversary of the arrival of the first continental manager in the Dons' history, former players recall the impact made by the enigmatic Dane at Pittodrie.
Aberdeen manger Ebbe Skovdahl at his unveiling at Pittodrie in 1999. Image: DC Thomson
Aberdeen manger Ebbe Skovdahl at his unveiling at Pittodrie in 1999. Image: DC Thomson

It is 25 years since Ebbe Skovdahl took on the challenge of restoring Aberdeen to their former glories after becoming the first continental manager in the club’s history.

He arrived at Pittodrie with an excellent CV, having guided Brondby to four league championships a three cups.

An iconic figure at the Danish club, Skovdahl’s managerial record stood up to scrutiny.

But in hindsight former Dons midfielder Chris Clark believes transferring his managerial skills to Scottish football proved to be a formidable task for the Dane.

Clark said: “Everyone says what a character he was but people often forget he came with a big reputation and had been a huge success at Brondby.

“He brought a lot of new methods which hadn’t been seen before.

“His methods in pre-season were different. He brought in heavier weight gym equipment and took us to Denmark for pre-season training.

“He wanted us to see what had been installed at Brondby.

“He famously had mattresses brought in for the players which drew a lot of attention but as players we could understand why he was doing it.

“In pre-season it was double sessions and long days so the option was there for players to rest between sessions but I don’t think it was really utilised.

“I remember the pre-season training sessions being really tough but looking back it was different and quite refreshing at the time.

“He was ahead of his time. He introduced 4-3-3 but not the formation you see today where it’s one striker up top.

“He genuinely wanted three up top and a big emphasis on counter-attacking football.”

Skovdahl had the toughest of starts

To say his first season in charge was a mixed bag is putting it mildly.

Aberdeen lost all six of their opening SPL games, failing to score a goal. They broke their scoring duck in defeat number seven, a 2-1 loss to Dundee United.

It took until the 10th attempt in the league before his Aberdeen team won a game.

In keeping with the chaotic nature of it all, the victory was anything but straightforward as the Dons edged Motherwell 6-5 at Fir Park in an outrageous encounter.

By the time his debut season had come to an end Skovdahl’s Aberdeen finished bottom of the league with nine wins from 36 games. They had a goal difference of minus 39.

Despite the atrocious league placing the Dons were spared the added stress of a relegation play-off as Falkirk’s Brockville Stadium did not meet the SPL criteria.

Aberdeen held a Danish day at Pittodrie to celebrate their manager in 2001.

Despite a wretched campaign the Aberdeen support sang his name everywhere he went.

The league performance only tells half of the story as, despite finishing bottom, Aberdeen reached both domestic cup finals and secured European qualification.

That is why the Dons fans were ready and willing to stand by their manager.

‘Uncle Ebbe’ was a cult hero among the Red Army, much to the bemusement of the media.

The club even tried to tap into his popularity by having a Danish day in his honour in his second season in charge.

Clark’s gratitude to Skovdahl

For Clark, Skovdahl’s debut season in Scotland will always be special.

Clark said: “He gave me my debut in the Scottish Cup up at Caley Thistle. That was when there were only three subs on the bench.”

The fans were prepared to give Skovdahl the time needed to get his ideas across.

For the players, it is clear the Dons boss was unlike anyone they had worked with before.

Former Dons boss Ebbe Skovdahl. Image: SNS

Perhaps it was a case of some things being lost in translation but without a doubt Skovdahl’s way with words left a lasting impression.

Clark said: “The one he said often was during his pre-match team talks. He used to say ‘today we are going to put sand in their machinery.’

“There was always something behind it.

“We would come out of meetings and someone would go and add another one of his quotes to the table.

“The funny part was he stood by the table and used to read the quotes but I don’t think he realised they were all things he had said.”

Clark was a first team player – and the manager’s valet

Chris Clark, right, with captain Darren Young and goalkeeper David Preece at the club’s kit launch in 2001. Image: DC Thomson

Clark has the late Skovdahl to thank for giving him his first team debut and he was soon joined by several of his team-mates from the youth team.

But there was a trade-off which came with being part of the youth team squad promoted to the first team and Clark had one specific role for his manager.

He said: “Being in the youth team I had to take his car to the car wash.

“He would chuck me his car keys and I had to take it to be valeted and washed then drive it back.

“I had not long passed my driving test so I think he trusted me to take it.

“I spent an hour at Riverside every week. The youth team were all given jobs to do and that was mine.”

While Skovdahl was something of an enigmatic figure for the younger players at the club at the time he will always be remembered as a man prepared to give them a chance.

Clark said: “He backed the young players all the time. There was myself, Darren Mackie and Kevin McNaughton all pitched in at the same time.

“It’s difficult making the step up to the first team but playing with guys you have played with and shared a changing room with helped.

“Ebbe wanted more pace in the side and I think he looked at the youth team players as a way to do that.

“There was Darren and myself on either side and the idea was to be part of his counter-attacking time.

“He was a nice guy and I don’t know of anyone who had issues with him. He had good intentions with everyone and was a nice guy.”

‘Ebbe was one in a million’

Eoin Jess and Arild Stavrum celebrate a goal agaisnt Dundee United at Tannadice in the quarter final of the Scottish Cup. Image: DC Thomson

Skovdahl has the honour of being the final Aberdeen manager former Don Eoin Jess played for.

Jess, who had returned to the club for his second spell from Coventry City in 1997, worked with the Dane for 18 months before leaving the Dons to return to England to sign for Bradford City in January 2001.

Their time together was brief, but eventful, and certainly memorable.

Jess said: “Ebbe was one in a million.

“The way he wanted to play was totally different to what I expected.

“Ebbe came with a different style and managing the club. The way he did things was completely different.

“We managed to get to two cup finals but were also in a relegation battle so it was a strange, strange time.”