Ebbe Skovdahl, the late Danish manager, arrived into Aberdeen with a strong managerial pedigree in 1999 and the aim of restoring some pride and glory saddly missing in the Granite City since the halcyon days of the 1980’s, notwithstanding admirable 2nd place finishes in the early 90’s and a Coca Cola Cup win late in 1995.
A frankly woeful start to the season and ultimate last place finish was only saved face by a pair Cup Final appearances (both of which were lost, albeit with European Qualification secured) – oh and league reconstruction which meant that the club avoided relegation for the first time in their history.
While this season will not be remembered too fondly for performances on the pitch, Skovdahl’s irrepressible charm and eye for a tasty foreign signing off the pitch do evoke fond and happy memories. Here we look at some of the key signings made by the great Dane in those early months at Pittodrie.
Hicham Zerouali – Even today, Aberdeen signing a Moroccan international for a reported £450,000 would seem remarkable. But back in the late 90’s, with the club strapped for cash, bottom of the league and basically struggling on all fronts, attracting such a signing is pretty astonishing. A skillful attacker, who sadly passed in 2004, “Zero” as he became known for obvious reasons – and the fact that he became the first player in a Scottish league to wear the shirt number “0”, is fondly remembered in the north east. A skillful player, not averse to a lollipop, a few tricks and flicks and of course the odd thunderbastard of a free kick meant that despite Aberdeen’s sketchy form, there was a bit of pzazz and flair around Pittodrie to bring some smiles to faces on those cold winter nights. With a few memorable goals, free kicks and a hat-trick at Dens Park – celebrated by jumping in a puddle – this Moroccan magician will remain a firm and exotic favourite of the Aberdeen faithful and surely one of Skovdahl’s most memorable legacies at Aberdeen.
Arild Stavrum – Based on numbers, this Norwegian striker with his 26 goals in 54 appearances in a couple of seasons at Aberdeen makes big Arild a surefire inclusion on this list. The beard and long hair which he arrived at Pittodrie with was soon cut off and posted to a Journalist as a bit of a “get it up ye” after some negative publicity despite some decent performances and goals – such creative thinking illustrating exactly why Stavrum is now a published author and media writer. Finishing top scorer in his second season, the big Norwegian certainly left an impact on the north east. Perhaps more acclimatised to the weather than his teammate Zerouali, his goals, creativity and intelligence fired Aberdeen to a more respectable 7th place finish in his second season. A controversial transfer to Besiktas, where the club and supporters were to find out via a press image of Stavrum and his new shirt in the Turkish Media served to sour things a little – but his goals and character ensure that Stavrum retains the love of many a Dandy.
Cato Guntveit – Another to hop over the north sea from Norway, this talented and tidy midfielder arrived on a free transfer from Brann. A hard worker and tidy passer of the ball, he fitted well into Skovdahl’s system and assisted in keeping Aberdeen ticking over. One such understated performance was in a defeat of Champions Celtic in a Christmas time match in Aberdeen (https://youtu.be/I2XkRV8WWwg) where Guntveit calmly controls the midfield battle for Aberdeen – no headlines but a strong performance. Perhaps not as exotic a signing as Zerouali or Stavrum above, but an important cog in the Skovdahl machine nonetheless.
Tommy Solberg – An experienced Norwegian defender, brought in by Skovdahl for the obvious reason that Aberdeen at that time shipped goals like they were going out of fashion. A fairly steady 60-odd appearances and few goals thrown in may appear on the face of things unremarkable before a return to Norway – but the on field coaching of and eventual succession by a young Russel Anderson ensures that Solberg must surely benefit from some warm and fond memories from the Aberdeen faithful for the part he played – no matter how small – in the development of one of Aberdeen’s best players in modern times.
Peter Kjaer – This Danish keeper was another character brought in by Skovdahl. In his first season Skovdahl had the timeless Jim Leighton between the sticks – and keeping up the theme of “experienced” keepers, the young and sprightly 35 year old Kjaer was persuaded to join the Dons. As with Solberg above, adding experience to a fairly leaky defence was likely the main justification to this signing. Kjaer was a character however, commenting after his first match that such was his limited knowledge of his team mates that he spent the match instructing via numbers on shirts rather than by names – while totally understandable in a Sunday league ringer type context, not something you expect from the top level in Scotland. Added to this, Kjaer was also colour blind, which presumably made things all the more tricky when picking out his own team mates on the field. Notwithsdtanding all of the above, the ageing Kjaer did make it into the Danish Squad for the 2002 World Cup. Another absolute gem brought in by big Ebbe.
The above is just a little taster into the proper characters and diamonds in the rough that graced Aberdeen, and Scottish football, in the past. The modern day moans and gripes of managers struggling in the transfer market seem rather absurd in this day and age of YouTube videos, super agents and top of the range scouting technologies. Managers should revert back to taking a punt on a random Moroccan with a Peppa Pig style love for jumping in puddles; a hairy Norwegian novelist; or an ancient colourblind ‘keeper. How I long for the return of such characters in our game.