Written by Colin Byiers
Ebbe Skovdahl was appointed Aberdeen manager back in 1999 and will be fondly remembered by many Dons fans for his 3 and a half years at the club and a man who was a big part of Skovdahl’s Aberdeen was Darren Young. Darren would be appointed captain by the Dane at the age of 22, and he spoke to me about his time under Ebbe.
I started by asking him about his debut for Aberdeen in 1996.
Darren, you made your debut for Aberdeen as a 17-year-old under Roy Aitken in 1996. What was your memories of that game?
I came on as a sub against Queens Park in the cup and then made my league debut against Hearts on the Saturday, where I started. Roy would name the team about 1:30, and that was the first time I knew I would be starting! It was some day. We beat Hearts 4-0. I hit a shot which hit Doddsie’s arse and went out for a goal kick! I wasn’t nervous prior to kick off, I seen it as a natural progression from playing for boys clubs, to training with Aberdeen, then braking into the youth squad. That season with the youth side I scored 12 goals in 26 games and by the end I was playing for the reserve team too, so my progression was pretty quick.
You scored your first goal shortly before your 18th birthday.
One year earlier, I’m finishing off school, now here’s this skinny wee 17-year-old scoring for Aberdeen in Europe doing a silly celebration, part Kilinsman, part Ravanelli! I just lost it! Even though it was against Barry Town, for me it was the best feeling in the world scoring at Pittodrie.
That period for Aberdeen between 1996 & 1999 saw Roy Aitken leave, Alex Miller got 1 year as manager and Paul Hegarty got 6 months. Was it a tough period for the club?
I remember in my first season we played Celtic on Boxing day and Paolo Di Canio scored a late winner. Had we won that game, we would have gone top on the table, but after that it was a steady decline and we ended 6th. The next season wasn’t as good, and Alex Miller came in. For me, it was still about getting enough games and if I was getting a new contract.
Once Paul Hegarty left, at what point did you know Ebbe Skovdahl was coming in and what did you know of him?
We didn’t know too much. Obviously, we knew he was the manager of Brondby at the time and they were doing really well with all the young guys coming through and at the same time, we were getting the young guys coming through too. So, for us young guys we knew he wasn’tgoing to try and get rid of us.
When I first met him, I thought he was quite stubborn! He had ways of doing things and that was they way he wanted it to be. Little things like changing our day off and bring us in on a Sunday which was new for the boys. We didn’t really understand why because we were literally just coming in for a loosener, so it was 45 minutes at the most then you’re on your way home again. Nowadays, with Sports Science and things, everything is explained and because most of us were between 21 and 24 we didn’t take on board what he was doing, but he never changed it.
In terms of his training and philosophies, what were they like?
Some of his training was good, some was a bit eccentric, which I would describe as disguised running! There was a certain game we played on a full-sizedpitch, 11v11 and he’d have both goals on the 18 yardbox but facing the opposite way. Between 18 and 18 it was one touch then when the ball went into the 18-yardbox it was everyone in! You can imagine 11v11 once the ball went into that area it was a riot! It was good for counter-attacking because if you had a shot and it went by the goal, the ball would head toward the other area and suddenly you were defending. I could understand what he was trying to do, but I felt like we could have had more touches but being a coach now I understand why we only got one touch. It was certainly different! He used to tell us in Denmark that on a Sunday all the boys would go for a run for 45 minutes. We were like, “that doesn’t happen here!”
He had certain ideas and he’d talk about this 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 formations everyone plays these days, and he was doing that back then, to which we didn’t buy into it or understand really. It was alien to us him trying these things, and I think it could have been put across better. Players nowadays understand these things better, but we just wanted to play 4-4-2. He had a lot of good ideas but maybe just needed to be explained better.
In his first season, Aberdeen went on a run of 7 loses and no goals, was that a hard time to be around the team?
It was and most of the time you were wondering when it would turn round. We chopped and changed a few things in training too. He was trying to make us a bit more professional and because we were Scottish, we maybe didn’t do what we should have.
Why do you think the club didn’t sack him during that early run?
I think they were just trying to give him time. He deserved it based on what he had done in the past and he had a great bunch of young boys like Kevin McNaughton, Michael Hart, Russell Anderson, Phil McGuire, myself, Derek (Young), Chris Clark, Baldur Bett was coming through, Darren Mackie up top with Robbie Winters and Derek Whyte too, so there was a great bunch of guys, a good Scottish core and I think we ended up doing well. (Roberto) Bisconti came into and made a difference too.
We got to two cup finals that season and you think you’ve got a wee chance against Celtic in the first one then Rangers in the Scottish Cup final. It was disappointing the way the season ended but we stayed in the league and got to two cup finals but frustrating we didn’t win any of them.
In the 2001/02 season you were appointed captain, was that something Ebbe had discussed with you beforehand?
He took me into his office, and him and Gardiner (Spiers) spoke to me about it. Derek Whyte was leaving at the time and he was injured for the last part of the previous season, so I was captain for those games at the end of that season. It was a great honour, and I was delighted to get it, but again, it was another natural progression having been captain at my boys club, at school, all the way through. Looking back on it now, I think “Wow, what an achievement!”, especially at 21/22 years old and to be thought of that highly. There werethings I didn’t really know, looking back, like checking the boys were ok because I was still a young man myself, so I was still trying to look after myself never mind checking on the other boys. I wasn’t really a shouter; I was more a “lead by example” kind of guy and I encouraged guys that way. Later on, in my career and being captain at other clubs, I could see if someone wasn’t right and now, I would go over and ask “how’s things?” etc, but back then I could see someone wasn’t right but I never went over and asked.
You led the team of 9 home wins in a row that season too.
The Celtic game was the final one and I remember everyone talking about it, equalling Alex Ferguson’s record, so having Celtic in the 9th one couldn’t have been any harder. We were 1-0 up and Derek Whyte got sent off, then Rab Douglas has the one with Darren Mackie to make it 2-0. Big Eugene Dadi did that train thing and to be fair, we all just jumped in behind him. It was live on Sky Sports, and as we were all coming off, he started doing this wee train thing and before you know it, there was 7 or 8 boys behind him! That record showed how far we had come in two seasons, and we all had experiences playing Rangers and Celtic on a regular basis and that core of boys who had come through the youth team was still there, helped by experienced boys like Robbie Winters and Derek Whyte.
In 2002, however, after one win in 10, Ebbe was sacked. How did you feel when he left?
You feel a bit of responsibility when a manager leaves, and you think to yourself, “could have I done any more?”, even though I always thought I gave my all, I still look back and think maybe I still could have done more. When you take into consideration losing 3 or 4 experienced guys and not replacing them there is maybe more that could have been done to prevent Ebbe leaving.
Another man, sadly no longer with us, is Hicham Zerouali, what was he like as a player?
He was great. A really nice wee guy, really quiet to start with. Rachid (Belabed) came in as well, and Rachid was a bit mental! (laughs). He used to blow up in training and there was a couple of times where he walked off, because Rachid was the kind of guy who liked to be the hard man and get stuck into people, but when you got stuck back into him, he’d spit the dummy out. Everyone loved Hicham, and he learned all the swear words very quickly, and even though he was a Muslim, didn’tsmoke, didn’t drink, on nights out he was doing everything by the end of it! One day he was telling the physio that he didn’t feel well, and the physio was like “what’s wrong with you?”, and Hicham went, “it’s not me, it’s the Jack D”! Turns out he was out the night before and it was the first time he ever had a hangover! Brilliant wee player, just very sad to hear what happened to him.
Now that you are a manager yourself, do you take anything from your time with Ebbe Skovdahl in your current role?
There are parts of every manager I’ve worked with that I take, whether it’s coaching, managing, treating the players etc, the same way there is things I wouldn’t do. Having been a player, I think it makes things a wee bit easier as you know how they are feeling. If you are explaining things and telling them why you are doing certain things, they will buy into it more, whereas before, it was a case of turning up at training, then leaving and having players think it wasn’t great. If you tell players,why they’ll enjoy it more I feel. Treat guys with respect and you’ll get that resect back.
Finally, how are you enjoying life at East Fife and how do you sum up the season so far?
I’ve loved the 3 and a bit year I’ve been there. I feel we’ve improved and progressed every year. League position we’ve been pretty similar, but we’ve gained more points each season. This season, we started slowly, but we look to gain 13/14 points per quarter and that should get us into the play-offs so if we know we get that number of points we’ll be there or there abouts. In the cups we’ve done well too. We managed to get out of the BetFred group stage. We lost to Cowdenbeath in the first game and the chairman, who wasn’t happy, basically told me that there wasn’t much point in playing the other games because what chance have, we got of beating Dundee United and Hearts. We beat Stenhousemuir on the Saturday, beat Dundee United away on the Tuesday, then beat Hearts on the Saturday on penalties which was enough for us to qualify then got Rangers in the knock-out stage. We’ve managed to break wee barriers for ourselves and improve each season. This season has been a bit stop/start with Covid, but we are mid table with 2 games in hand and if we win those, we’ll go second. Obviously, we’re a bit frustrated that the season came to a halt, but hopefully it’s only for another week or two.