Ian Porterfield had had his six months' grace. Now he was on his own. Defeats could no longer be dismissed as the embers of Alex Ferguson's tired regime.
Billy Stark departed to Celtic in the summer. His style did not please everyone, but his goals would be missed. Hewitt had been quickly disenchanted with the new set up and was open to offers. This season his contribution would be just one goal from 26 games.
Having lost Black and McDougall's goals, Aberdeen now needed to replenish those of Stark and Hewitt. With Davie Dodds missing half the season through injury it required no great insight to see where Aberdeen's deficiencies lay. Porterfield's summer signings - Welsh international Peter Nicholas from Luton and winger Gary Hackett from Shrewsbury - would not beef up the attack, though Nicholas took to his new surroundings like a duck to water and was one of the few plusses in an otherwise mediocre season.
It began well enough. By early October Aberdeen were top of the league, into Round 2 of the UEFA Cup and through to the Skol Cup Final, having disposed of Celtic's challenge along the way. Sixteen games, all told, and not a defeat among them. The signing of Hull's Keith Edwards - whom Porterfield knew at Sheffield United - was hoped to be worth a few goals.
October was Ian Porterfield's nemesis, the month everything turned sour. Defeat by Hearts was followed by tepid goalless draws against both Dundee clubs and a home loss to Celtic. Feyenoord extinguished Aberdeen's European dreams and Rangers snatched the Skol Cup after an epic final. Come November, the Dons were down to fourth with just the Scottish Cup to keep the season alive.
The Dons launched another unbeaten run that carried them into 1988 on the trail of leaders Celtic. The air was heavy with transfer talk. Peter Weir had already gone to Leicester and Joe Miller to Celtic. Miller cost £650,000, the richest deal yet between Scottish clubs. Hackett and Edwards would soon return to England, emasculating what remained of Aberdeen's strike force. One minute it seemed Alex McLeish was bound for Old Trafford to link up with Ferguson. The next, Aberdeen were linked with Kevin Drinkell, a journeyman striker at Norwich who would shortly end up at Ibrox.
The signing Porterfield did make surpassed anything supporters dreamed of. Charlie Nicholas was a Scottish gem. He had been lured away from Celtic by the bright lights of Highbury, where he spent five largely unfulfilled years. He was no longer sure of his place with club or country. Arsenal were so happy to see the back of him that he was available for a song. It says much that a flock of big clubs did not rush for his signature. Celtic were noticeably silent, and for want of any better offers Nicholas signed for Aberdeen for the paltry sum of £400,000.
None of this dampened enthusiasm for his arrival. Nicholas was still only 26: if he knuckled down he could do much to rejuvenate Aberdeen's prospects and his own. Talk of his coming was enough to sell out Pittodrie against Dundee United, the goalless draw extending the Dons' unbeaten run to thirteen games.
Nicholas made his debut at Easter Road on 9 January, taking the place of Davie Dodds, whose cartilage had an appointment with a surgeon's knife. Nicholas had seen no first-team football since August, but despite his rustiness he struck the woodwork twice in a 0-0 draw. Better times looked to be on their way.
They did not arrive. Nicholas himself did not greatly disappoint, but the team could not fashion the chances upon which he thrived. He conjured flashes of magic, but in the hard currency of goals, his was a poor return, just five in 22 games and none at Pittodrie.
Worse, his arrival coincided with a downturn in results. The team that couldn't lose without him became beatable. Aberdeen stumbled against Dundee United in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup, after two replays, and in the league slithered further behind, finishing a disappointing fourth. Seventeen league draws, ten of them goalless, had taken their toll.
Porterfield had played his last hand. Problems in his private life were already the talk of the town, and once the tabloids aired them he was on borrowed time. Aberdeen FC's proud claim never to have sacked a manager was put under strain, but a formula was reached that enabled Porterfield to leave with dignity and the club to continue its boast. His assistant, Jimmy Mullen, left too. Porterfield teamed up with Peter Nicholas at Chelsea, becoming assistant manager, before taking charge of Reading and then the Zambian national side.
MATCH OF THE SEASON
UEFA Cup, 2nd Round, 1st Leg, 21 October 1987
Aberdeen 2 (Falconer 34, Miller J 68)
Feyenoord 1 (Elstrup 21p)
ABERDEEN: Leighton, McKimmie, Falconer, Connor, McLeish, Miller W, Hewitt, Bett, Miller J, Nicholas P, Weir
FEYENOORD: Hiele, Proost (Monkou), Van Herpen, Wijnstekers, Molenaar, Hofman, Elstrup, Mitchell (Barendse), Been, Hoekstra, Blinker
Like Scotland, Holland is a small country whose football is dominated by a handful of clubs. One of them, Feyenoord, had beaten Celtic in the final of the 1970 European Cup. The Rotterdam club's most recent Dutch honours were the league and cup double in 1984. In 1986-87 Feyenoord had finished a distant third behind PSV Eindhoven and Ajax.
Feyenoord had a virtual season-ticket for Europe, and their team at any given time contained its share of Dutch internationals. This particular side also accommodated Dave Mitchell, once of Rangers, who had led the Australian attack against Scotland in two recent World Cup play-offs.
Porterfield's introduction to European football had produced a stuttering victory over the Irish part-timers Bohemians. Rinus Israel, Feyenoord's coach, saw the Dons surrender their unbeaten start at Tynecastle. Porterfield now faced some hard choices. Hewitt was out of touch, Dodds injured, Edwards ineligible. Willie Falconer was big and strong but not a heavy scorer. Porterfield gambled, playing Falconer at No 3 and bringing in Peter Weir for his first game of the season.
Conceding silly goals at home once again cost Aberdeen dear. Dave Mitchell found himself in the clear, 'collided' with Leighton, and the Dane, Lars Elstrup, scored from the penalty spot.
Deficits are best erased quickly, and it was not long before Weir flighted the free-kick from which Falconer headed Aberdeen level. Early in the second half Feyenoord skipper Wijnstekers treated Weir uncivilly and was ushered from the pitch. Ideally, the Dons needed two more goals to travel in confidence, but they managed just one, when Joe Miller netted at the second attempt.
Aberdeen required a 0-0 or 1-1 draw in Rotterdam, where they adopted one of the most negative formations ever practised by the Dons abroad. Irvine played at right back in place of McKimmie and was partially at fault with the goal that cost Aberdeen the match. The Dons never threatened to pull it back and went out tamely. In Round 3 Feyenoord lost to Bayer Leverkusen, the eventual winners.
Research by CaddyCarhandle
Edited by StandFreeEd