North Sea wind, fog, gulls and the glorious intimacy of Aberdeen
PITTODRIE. The first thing to love was its name. Not an English word but one hewn from a more local lexicon. Pittodrie – Pit-auh-drrey: actually it’s not Doric, the Aberdeenshire Scots dialect, but Gaelic; still, no matter.
We prized language in our house, as happens, I guess, when two parents are teachers and the sounds and textures of words were important. Pittodrie: a local name for a local temple. Pit-auh-drrey: a word not from or of the outside, but a word of us.
Her presence was the second thing; her present-ness. In Aberdeen, Pittodrie is right there. Right among the bones of the city, down near the seafront, say by the links, 500 yards from the icy, salty North Sea. There are probably helplines dissuading parents now but when I was young parents still took kids to Aberdeen’s long beach and coaxed them to play in water so cold that little feet felt less like they were paddling than being amputated.
The Beach Boulevard, Codona’s funfair, the cafés, ice cream shops and “museys” – amusement arcade – these were part of a local childhood. Later came the golf course, putting green and cricket pitches on the links. All the time, always sitting there, was the old stadium, never out of sight or mind.
At Premier League stadiums now I see the wide-eyed tourists with club shop bags, who have crossed countries and continents for the rare visit to their favourite team, and nothing makes me appreciate more old flaking Pittodrie. Modest, but never far and so often glimpsed and so much part of
Little pokes the imagination of a football-daft boy more than a sight of their team’s stadium and Newcastle kids must have the same pleasure as Aberdeen ones, of their stadium being bang in the centre of their town, their lives, their minds.
Pittodrie: I always loved the arrival too. We lived in a village south of Aberdeen and drove in along the banks of the Dee, then through the harbour and finally into the links. We’d park just off Beach Boulevard and walk over Broad Hill, a long, fat 90 feet knoll of sand and machair grass that sweeps down to a corner of the Beach End and South Stand.
What a walk for a child. Begin at the car, traipse up on to the top, race along until finally Pittodrie is in view; maybe a European night, gazing down at the floodlights, and possibilities, twinkling and awaiting.
The ground’s architecture? Maybe not so lovable these days. With the chairman Stewart Milne having spent a decade planning a new out-of-town stadium, Pittodrie does not look cared for as she should, flaking and fading in many places, and with several aspects like turnstiles, toilets and catering outlets in need of upgrading.
Yet back in the 1970s and 1980s, she was ahead of her time – Britain’s first all-covered, all-seated football ground.
I remember the cricket-style scoreboard on which went up the half-times from around Scotland and then the full-time results. The white benches being replaced by bucket seats. The simple symmetry of the design – before the giant, vainglorious Richard Donald Stand was erected to spoil it and almost bankrupt us.
The conditions? Sea wind, haar (one of my first matches there was abandoned, with Aberdeen 3-0 up on Hibs but fog preventing players seeing more than 20 yards) and seagulls are hazards. Take your coat.
The atmosphere? Not as quiet as rival fans pretend but it is true that you can, as they scoff, hear the rustle of sweetie papers during lulls in certain games. Getting the support to be noisier was a constant campaign of Alex Ferguson’s in his hugely successful spell with the club in the early eighties, but his pleas – and sometimes tantrums about it – in the press changed little. Pittodrie’s default is low-decibel. I happen to love both the conditions and the atmosphere – they are local, they are also us – but I do realise this is a matter of taste.
But… Pittodrie… its greatest gift is intimacy. Eschew the Richard Donald and sit in the Main Stand or, as we used to, when I went with my dad, before I left for university and then work, the South Stand. Great sightlines, but you’re also near to the players and here the quietness helps because you can hear as well as see them closely.
My ridiculous good fortune was being between eight and 17 years old during Fergie’s glory reign. Pittodrie gave me close ups you can’t forget. Of the technical craft employed by Gordon Strachan or John McMaster when striking a ball. Of the sheer broad-chested muscle of Doug Rougvie. Of how physically dominant but also mentally alert Alex McLeish was. Of the confusion in the eyes of the right-backs who tried marking Peter Weir.
Of the boisterous athleticism of Neale Cooper and Neil Simpson, of Eric Black hanging in the air. And best of all, of Willie Miller’s peerless game intelligence: you could see his flashing eyes, the grimace under his moustache, the alertness in every aspect of body language as he read the play.
He had a little trick that many refs couldn’t spot, but any Pittodrie regular could, of nudging the striker off balance in the box at the vital moment. His arm would just start reaching out and you knew what would happen. My father called it ‘the Paddle’. Celtic attack, through ball to Charlie Nicholas, Willie across to cover, dad: “here comes the Paddle again.”
You don’t get that sitting high at the Nou Camp or Old Trafford, the Bernabéu or San Siro. You don’t hear, as we did, Theo Snelders boom “Hooome!” when he wanted Brian Irvine to turn and hit a pass back to him. At the Allianz Arena or Anfield or the San Paolo, the Stadio Olimpico or the Vicente Calderón, the noise is nearly always there – so you don’t get the great contrasts that happen when Pittodrie comes alive. When Rangers are in town, goading with their sheer presence. Or on those European nights – when we came back twice to beat Bayern Munich 3-2 and strangers were hugging each other and South Standers sung “Here We Go” until they almost blistered their throats, you briefly felt in a different country, part of a suddenly different and giddy tribe.
34 years later the memory is still super-vivid, partly because everything was so different to Pittodrie’s norm. The sweetie wrappers stayed in our pockets that night. Here We Go. Walking back over the Broad Hill to the car, picturing the stadium waking by the beach the following day… the view of John Hewitt’s exact body shape as he improvised to pop the winning goal through Manfred Müller’s legs… aw min (bit of Doric for you).
If Aberdonians cried I actually might.
Pittodrie: not actually a Doric word but a Gaelic one and it means ‘place of manure’. In 1899 a former police dung hill was cleared for the stadium to be built. Place of manure? That’s fine by me. Because she shits on the Nou Camp, the Allianz, the Bernabéu, the San Siro.