The First Floating Football Special

At 1.30pm on Monday 9th May 1983 a total of 493 fans and 63 crew set sail from Aberdeen Harbour bound for the Swedish city of Gothenburg.  Two days later on the 11th May the Ullevi Stadium would host the 24th edition of the European Cup Winners Cup in a final being between Aberdeen and Real Madrid.

At the head of the passenger ship was captain called Mike Gray, a 45 year old proud Shetlander and an Aberdeen fan since teenage years.  Then more used to the weekly passenger journey between Aberdeen and the northerly Shetland Islands, Captain Gray took the 4,468 ton ferry out of Aberdeen harbour eastwards on that afternoon onwards to Sweden.

As the ship pulled away a crescendo of quayside horns and ship sirens rang out and the songs of the excited Dons fans on board could be heard.  Newly created red and white flags were unfurled beneath the lifeboats as fans cracked open cans of beer ready for the voyage ahead.

This, a once in a lifetime journey of then 18 year old ship the St.Clair, was British football’s first ever floating football special.

The Football Special was a chartered train operated by British Rail in the United Kingdom during the 1970s and 1980s.  During the days of football fashions and the harsh reality of hooliganism in the 1970s and 1980s, the Football Special trains were the choice of travel for many away days fans.  These trains usually consisted of old cramped dusty carriages and redundant rolling stock underused but fit for legions of fans more interested in banter and beer.

History shows that many British hooligan ‘firms’ attained an identity from the use of the these much criticised trains.  The Inter City Firm (ICF) that followed West Ham United were named after the British Rail InterCity 125 trains they would commonly travel on.  Likewise, those following Leeds United came to be known as the ‘Leeds Service Crew’ named after the regular train services that shuttled out regularly from Leeds train station.

On the seas as opposed to on rail lines, the St.Clair ferry was the first ever floating ship for the sole use of football fans.  Assisted by its seaside location and busy working harbour location the ferry was a common sight to most Aberdonians who spoke of her as if one of its own.  Alongside its sister ship the St.Magnus, the two boats were a lifeline for many people between the mainland of Scotland and its northern often isolated islands of Shetland and Orkney.

The football ship had been proposed and subsequently organised by P&O Ferries Orkney and Shetland Services.  At the time many called it a gamble – football fans, it was felt, simply should never travel on mass by sea.  But the business proposition waged by P&O general manager Eric Turner paid off handsomely in terms of profit and popularity.

This would be a return crossing aided by handsome bar takings that eventually gave the sea company a substantial five figure profit.  At the time this was a figure that the ship company would only have gained had it gone back and forth to Shetland every day for two weeks non stop.

Planning of the voyage began long before the Belgian Cup winners Waterschei were knocked out at the semi final stage.  Indeed, even after Breitner, Augenthaler and Bayern Munich were knocked out in the Quarter Finals prospective passengers had began writing to P&O with the idea for a floating football boat to Gothenburg.

On a cold Sunday in late April 1983 the spaces on the football ferry were allocated by P&O office staff until the boat was full.

Across in the north of the city the passenger airport had seldom saw so many people departing for the same destination in such a short space of time.  On the three weekdays leading up to the May final about 60 flights took almost 5,000 fans on chartered flights to Gothenburg.

In an age before Ryanair, Easyjet and numerous budget carriers an incredible 2,500 supporters left on 28 flights on the morning of the final itself.

That years UEFA European Cup Winners Cup competition had been one of the strongest for many years.  Recent winners had included Dinamo Tbilisi from the USSR and Anderlecht but the tournament had been dominated since the late 1970’s by Spanish sides.  Included amongst the clubs for the 1983-84 tournament were Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, PSG and FA cup winners Spurs.   But the star name were possibly Barcelona – winners of the previous seasons trophy.

Aberdeen negotiated the early rounds easily enough; disposing of Sion, Dinamo Tirana and Lech Poznan before Bayern Munich were dumped out of the tournament on a never to be forgotten night at Pittodrie Stadium.  By the time Alex Ferguson’s men faced Waterschei in the semi final, Real Madrid had knocked out sides from Romania and Hungary before Internazionale were defeated in the quarter final.

With Barcelona failing to reach a semi final against its rivals from the Spanish capital only Austria Vienna and the free-scoring Toni Polster stood between Real and a place in the Gothenburg final.  Likewise, where the side from Genk were swept aside 5-2 by Aberdeen so Austria Vienna fell to Real Madrid 3-5 on aggregate despite the Viennese taking the lead and drawing level in Madrid.

With the final against Real confirmed never before had so many shops in the main Aberdeen city thoroughfare ‘Union Street’ seen so many stores decked in team colours.  Shop window displays of red and white sprang up seemingly overnight everywhere.

In a city known for its grey granite buildings – goodwill, colour and enthusiasm suddenly were everywhere from schools to offices.

With the city excited a frenzy of anticipation met those boarding the football boat to Gothenburg on the Monday before the final.  Even Alex Ferguson insisted on wishing bon voyage to the supporters who departed for Gothenburg on the P&O ferry St.Clair.

After waving goodbye to the ship Ferguson made a dash to the airport for a Monday afternoon flight to Gothenburg.  Unlike the seafaring fans he and the club would be on a chartered aircraft.

By the time the official Aberdeen FC party were encamped in a delightful village called Kungalv about 12 miles outside Gothenburg the party onboard the football ship ‘St Clair’ was in full swing.

The ferry crossed the notoriously brisk North Sea at 19 knots with 124 passengers in reclining seats and the rest in private cabin accommodation.  Some 25,200 cans of beer were made available for sale on onboard with 14,000 sold in the course of the voyage.

The outward trip was a success both for the P&O company and the fans on board.  Travelling east there had been a bit of a sea motion on the way out at about 2am but the forecast of a south east gale 8 never fully materialised.  Despite the wind and choppy seas most fans partied or slept through it.

The midweek sailing to Gothenburg was one that suited P&O Ferries.   With the summer passenger season not yet at its height, weekend mini cruises were not disrupted.    To deal with the descheduling of the St. Clair service to Shetland, alternative arrangements were made to facilitate the weekly trips of passengers north.  As a means of replacement a 44 seat aircraft was chartered from British Airways at Inverness which flew passengers to Sumburgh.   Another P&O liner the ‘St Magnus’ doubled up on its usual cargo and took extra passengers north.

As a means of appeasing the Shetland Islanders 80 places were also set aside on the football boat for Shetland based football fans and 64 duly came.

After a night of song and beer Aberdeen’s very own ‘boat people’ arrived in Gothenburg harbour at 8.20pm on Tuesday 10th May, one day before the final.  And, if ever a city was the perfect location for a European final involving a Scottish side Gothenburg was the perfect choice.

A century and a half earlier in 1841 the Scotsman Alexander Keiller had founded the Götaverken shipbuilding company in the city.

While Madrid the glorious Spanish capital strutted arrogantly like the Swedish capital of Stockholm, Gothenburg like Aberdeen, was a hard working maritime city with its harbour being at its heart.

By the time the fans from the football boat ventured into the heart of Gothenburg, the streets around the central Nordstan and Drottningtorget were filled with visitors from Scotland.  The small loyal contingent of Real Madrid fans had been out shouted in Gothenburg city centre by fans already intent on a party.

Matchday arrived on 11th May 1983 and few could have realised that the drizzle that had started early morning in Gothenburg would steadily turn into a downpour come that evening. From being surrounded by water on the trip across the North Sea, the Aberdeen boat people were once again surrounded by water at the Ullevi Stadium.

The Ullevi itself broadly translates into the ‘temple of the Ull’.  With its shell like roof design it was amongst the most unusual in Europe with stands high in the centre but low at the ends.   Finely located and dramatic the Ullevi was no stranger to big time football having been a host of the 1958 World Cup where it served as the location for Brazil’s defeat of the USSR and Wales.

As the game kicked off over 17,000 were inside many drenched and soaked to the skin.  The afternoon had seen thunder and lightening and if anything the rain got heavier as the kick off approached.  But motorised rollers drew back the vast plastic sheeting which had borne the brunt of the downpour and ensured the game went ahead.

The final was and proved to be a long yet memorable night.

Within the first five minutes forward Eric Black cracked the crossbar with an acrobatic volley.  Then from a rehearsed set piece Alex McLeish headed Gordon Strachan’s corner towards goal only for the ball to be blocked by Jose Antonio Camacho and fall to the young striker Black who finished well.

Then came a slice of misfortune. Amidst the rain sodden pitch Alex McLeish’s bad pass back stuck in a puddle and allowed Carlos Santillana to go through on goalkeeper Leighton who brought him down.  In modern times Leighton would have been sent off but as it was he escaped punishment allowing Juanito to level from the spot.

The final went to extra time with the spectre of the dreaded penalty shootout never far away.  But in the 112th minute local boy John Hewitt scored a diving header from a McGhee cross.  One last drama came by way of a free kick from substitute Salguero which passed inches beyond the outside of the post but the game was won.

As Willie Miller stepped up and received the silver trophy from UEFA President Artemio Franchi the fans from the football boat amongst the 17,000 celebrated.  The long 18 hour journey back home on the St.Clair would be joyous if a tired one.

Despite many sleeping on decks and in rain sodden clothing the football boat to Gothenburg is fondly remembered by Aberdeen fans – in some ways even as much as the final itself.   Those on the boat either slept, chatted or sang and the return trip was extra special with a video replay of the final that played non stop all the way home.

In the after match interviews legendary Real Madrid manager Alfredo di Stefano was quoted as saying that Aberdeen ‘have what money can’t buy – a soul, a team spirit built in the family tradition.’

Few of those Aberdeen fans on the football boat would disagree with the claims of the then Madrid boss. Fathers, sons and  friends by the dozen travelled on that boat.  The win over the great Real had been achieved and even where the citywide after match celebrations were missed by those onboard, a visit of Ferguson on the quayside ensured the first floating football special would never be forgotten.