What if…Alex Smith had played 4-3-3 at Ibrox?

It was almost the most remarkable title chase in decades, and it could have changed the course of Scottish football. 1990/91: Aberdeen’s ‘what-if’ season.

By Thom Watt

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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Alex Smith had steadily built a very fine squad, inheriting both the backbone of Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering side, and the fruits of his labour in youth development.
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Whether through desperation or design, Smith fielded a 4-3-3 formation for the visit of Hearts, and it yielded instant results. Bobby Connor put Aberdeen up within a matter of seconds, and they were 3-0 up with just 18 minutes played.

History is unkind to the losers, and never more so than in league football. The Aberdeen squad of 1988-1993 were undoubtedly one of the finest sides never to have won the Scottish top flight, and could have altered the very fibre of Scottish football.

Why didn’t they? Bad luck, tactical changes, injuries, fate or perhaps a combination of all of the above contributed, but rarely can two distinct paths be plotted as a direct result of one league match.

Defensively the Aberdeen side of the late 1980s and early 90s were imperious, conceding just 110 goals in four seasons, due in large part to the likes of Willie Miller, Alex McLeish, Stewart McKimmie and Brian Irvine, a quartet with 191 Scotland caps between them.

In 1987/88 they missed out to Rangers by a single point, setting an unwanted league record for the most draws in a single season (17 in a 44-match campaign, a record they would break in 1993/94). A year later they drew 14 of 36 and missed out to Rangers again. In 1989/90 they won the cup double, but were again thwarted by Graeme Souness’ Rangers in the league. In 1990/91 it was nearly so different, and it could have changed the entire complexion of the game as we know it in Scotland.

Alex Smith had steadily built a very fine squad, inheriting both the backbone of Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering side, and the fruits of his labour in youth development. The experience of McLeish, Irvine, McKimmie, Jim Bett and Brian Grant supported the raw emerging talents of Scott Booth, Stephen Wright, David Robertson, Michael Watt and
Eoin Jess.

Every bit as important was Smith’s work in the transfer market, and while the war chest may not have been the same size as the one afforded to Souness at Ibrox, it was almost as well decorated. Three signings in particular still stand out.

Paul Mason was recruited from the relative obscurity of the Dutch top-flight. Injury had forced the Liverpool-born midfielder to follow his brother to the Netherlands for work as a labourer, only for him to fall back into professional football with Groningen. Signed in the summer of 1988, Mason would average a goal every five matches during his career at Pittodrie.

Theo Snelders was also recruited from the Dutch league, finally providing Aberdeen with a goalkeeper to replace Jim Leighton, who had departed two years earlier. Physically imposing and capable of incredible reflex saves, Snelders was a full Dutch international, and became the first foreign player to win the Scottish PFA Players’ Player of the Year award in 1989.

But it is Hans Gillhaus who deserves the most detailed re-evaluation, not just for his ability, but for the context of his arrival in Scotland. Signed in 1989 for £650,000, not only was the 25-year-old at the peak of his powers, but he was a full Dutch international for the reigning European champions. He’d started for PSV in their triumphant 1988 European Cup victory over Benfica, and was only begrudgingly available for transfer because they’d already signed his replacement – Romario. It’s easy to understate it, but the Gillhaus deal was one of the great transfer coups of the 1980s.

Aberdeen had started the 1990/91 season relatively slowly, and at the turn of the year they were off the pace, sitting on 26 points from 20 matches. Rangers, by contrast, were looking to secure their third consecutive title, and were five points ahead in the days of two points for a win. By the end of January that gap had extended to seven points, with just 13 matches remaining of the season. Title number three was surely in the bag for Rangers.

Two events followed which called into question that certainty. First, Graeme Souness’ volatility saw Rangers wobble. He had a public spat with St Johnstone tea lady Aggie Moffat following a 1-1 draw at McDiarmid Park, and suffered two defeats in a week to Celtic. First came a 2-0 defeat in a tempestuous Scottish Cup match that saw Mark Walters, Mark Hateley and Terry Hurlock sent off, and then a 3-0 loss in the league seven days later, when Scott Nisbet was ordered off. Tellingly, Souness both condemned his players and said they were “frustrated for whatever reason”. A month later he left for Liverpool.

Five points dropped in four matches wouldn’t have usually worried Rangers, but for the other variable.

While Smith could call on a stable defensive unit, he had struggled to get the right balance in his forward players. Against Celtic at Parkhead in January 1991, Smith was overly cautious, packed the midfield, left Gillhaus isolated, and ultimately lost to an 89th minute Tommy Coyne goal.

Whether through desperation or design, Smith fielded a 4-3-3 formation for the visit of Hearts, and it yielded instant results. Bobby Connor put Aberdeen up within a matter of seconds, and they were 3-0 up with just 18 minutes played. The 5-0 victory set the tone for a dramatic run-in.

Scott Booth scored an 87th-minute winner at St Johnstone, Gillhaus scored an 89th minute winner against Rangers at Pittodrie, and a virtuoso display from Theo Snelders kept Aberdeen’s title ambitions alive at Tannadice before Gillhaus scored an 83rd minute winner. The Dutch striker hit a hat-trick in a 4-2 win over Hibs, Eoin Jess scored the only goal of the game against Celtic and Jim Bett scored late at Love Street to beat St Mirren.

Between the start of February and May 11, Aberdeen played 12 matches, scored 26, conceded five and dropped only a single point, to Dunfermline. From seven points back with ten matches to play, they went to Ibrox on the final day of the season level on points and goal difference, but ahead on goals scored, knowing that a draw would give them the title. It would have been the most remarkable title chase in decades.

As it happened, it wasn’t. Knowing a point would be enough, Smith was cautious and ditched his adventurous 4-3-3 system. Michael Watt – in for the injured Snelders – was bullied by Hateley to the very edges of the law, and Rangers pulled themselves together to win 2-0.

It could have been very different. Had Snelders been fit, he would have given as good as he got. Had Brian Irvine not been injured, the goalkeeper would have had more protection and Hateley would have been better marshalled. Gillhaus and Peter van de Ven both had great opportunities to score before Rangers did.

Smith plays 4-3-3, Gillhaus puts his chance away, Watt saves from Hateley and holds Mo Johnson’s cross, before Jess doubles Aberdeen’s lead.

How different Scottish football could have been, for not only would Aberdeen have completed one of the great title pursuits, they would have stopped Rangers’ nine-in-a-row in its infancy, established Smith as one of the greats, qualified for the first European Cup to feature English teams since 1985 and offered Aberdeen the opportunity to build on their success and establish themselves as regulars in the soon-to-be established Champions League.

It came down to a single match.

This article first appeared on
www.thetwopointone.com

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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