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Review: On Fire With Fergie, by Stuart Donald

This review appeared in The Herald

There are bits of this book that make me want to seek out the author and smack him about the face in the time-honoured tradition of the football casual. It is 1984 and Stuart Donald is “depressed” because his team, my team, Aberdeen, are having to make do with winning the Scottish Premier Division and the Scottish Cup after being knocked out of the European Cup Winners’ Cup at the semi-final stage. Two years later and a 16-year-old Donald is on the verge of giving up on attending matches altogether – this time the Dons have only won the two domestic Cup competitions.

The message I’m getting is that I was born too late, that my life as a fan has been a futile peregrination from nadir to nadir. I was three years old in 1983 when the impossible came to pass and Aberdeen – little Aberdeen, a “provincial” Scottish club – were confirmed as one of Europe’s top sides. I dimly remember them winning the league, for the second year running, in 1985, and that even after Alex Ferguson left to manage Manchester United in 1986 people said you could never write them off. But you can now: the trajectory over the decades has been one of steady decline.

Regrets? No, not really. Donald writes about being a football supporter almost as though it were an illness; even he, I sense, would acknowledge that winning is not the cure. No supporter of Aberdeen will ever tire of reading about the Ferguson years, 1978-86, but there is much more than a raking over of old memories about this very personal memoir.

First, Donald’s narrator, his younger self, is wide-eyed, expectant, irrational; the authentic football fan, in short. But the Aberdeen players he adores are hardly of interest at all, at least not as mortal beings – Willie Miller, lifting the Scottish Cup, “rose over Hampden, arms outstretched and solemn faced, like he was Jesus and Glasgow was Rio de Janeiro” – which means we’re spared the cod psychology of so much sports-writing. Events are filtered instead through our super-fan’s imagination in what turns out to be a coming-of-age tale in which nobody actually comes of age; Donald senior, Gordon, is almost as juvenile in his passion for football as his son. In the chapter on Ferguson’s departure, we’re told: “Little did I know it at the time but Dad was in the first few hours of a strop with Fergie that would run for the rest of his life.”

But Gordon, rather than Fergie, is the real hero of this book and the relationship between father and son, lovingly rendered, is one that will resonate with any male reader lucky enough to have had a dad cut from remotely similar cloth. Fiercely proud, he can be a comic figure at times, but there’s awe, respect and not a little fear mingled in the portrait too. The enduring image is of him refusing to be intimidated by Rangers supporters intent on running riot in Aberdeen, “defending his martyr city by refusing to hide his enormous scarf, like he thought he was a sort of Charles de Gaulle character”.

It is Gordon, indeed, who gives meaning to Aberdeen’s long struggle and sudden rise as a force to be reckoned with. Where the younger Donald sees no reason why Aberdeen can’t win everything, his dad and others of his generation have learned to be pessimistic about their team’s chances of sustained success in light of the historic might of Celtic and Rangers, who are seen as a blight on the rest of Scottish football and Scottish society. “All that matters is the intensity, the bitterness, the hatred, of their own rivalry,” says Gordon’s friend, Harry.

The perception of injustice in the way the Old Firm clubs always “steal” the best players and the best managers in Scotland has no antidote in their supporters’ conduct. Celtic supporters riot outside Pittodrie after their team is beaten, Rangers fans are observed in “an organised siege on the town and its dignity”, openly urinating on Union Street in broad daylight and frightening pensioners on buses with their sectarian songs. The young Donald quickly comes to dread all things Glaswegian and to understand his elders’ bitterness towards the Old Firm, so that he shares something “demonic” in their joy at beating the Glasgow teams and – when the Aberdeen casuals started putting the visitors forcefully in their place – admits “I was secretly proud of them”.

That was emphatically not the view of the club at the time, but fortunately they did do their bit in other ways to make supporters proud. Donald’s book brings those achievements more sharply into focus. If this review got off on an envious note, I’d also like to register my gratitude, unequivocally, for a magnificent read.