Miller and McLeish's partnership was gloriously iconic

The Miller-McLeish partnership yielded four Scottish Cups, three league titles, a European Cup-Winners' Cup and a Super Cup
The Miller-McLeish partnership yielded four Scottish Cups, three league titles, a European Cup-Winners' Cup and a Super Cup

The story of the Willie Miller and Alex McLeish partnership began with a moment of indiscipline. It was the first day of 1978 when Billy McNeill pulled McLeish aside and told him that he would be making his Aberdeen debut, alongside Miller.

"I said, 'happy new year boss,' and he said, 'happy new year big man, you're playing the 'morra'," McLeish recalls.

"Two of the players had misbehaved over the festive season [and] Billy thought he would punish them by leaving them out.

"It was a fantastic debut for me, mainly due to the great experience I had beside me. Also, Willie's leadership was sublime, guiding me through."

Aberdeen won that game, on January 2, against Dundee United at Pittodrie. It was the start of an iconic partnership, one that was the bedrock of Aberdeen's success under Alex Ferguson, but also at international level.

McLeish was 19 days short of his 19th birthday when he made that first appearance, while Miller was already the team's captain, at 22, and a figure of authority at the club.

The younger player had watched the latter, on television and then in training after he moved to Aberdeen, so Miller's consistency and resolve were setting standards at the outset.

"He came into the team initially as primarily a centre-half, going to win the ball in the air and doing all the defensive work, but by the end of his career he was a player who could start moves from the back as well," Miller says.

Miller and McLeish were the bedrock of Ferguson's all-conquering Aberdeen side
Miller and McLeish were the bedrock of Ferguson's all-conquering Aberdeen side

"It was a wonderful partnership. It takes a little bit of time to get that understanding. In the early stages there were one or two mishaps, but once we got that understanding going…"

Their attributes were complimentary: Miller was a squat, powerful but quick and shrewd defender who essentially played as a sweeper, snuffing out and clearing up the danger; McLeish was tall, agile, imposing, and he attacked high balls with relish.

Training and playing together, as well as sharing rooms on away trips, was integral to the development of their partnership. So, too, though was socialising, even if much of that time was spent discussing football, often straight after matches in the pub - Cousins - that Miller owned.

"Normally we would do a couple of pints after a game," McLeish says. "We were already thinking about how we had played and how we were going to play in the next one.

"Then it was on to the families and out with our wives at night, going for dinner. We socialised a lot without being out every night."

They were different personalities: Miller was more insular, usually preferring his own company on trips and catching up on his sleep, while McLeish was more of an extrovert, always at the heart of pranks and wind-ups with his teammates. Miller was never the victim, though.

"We wouldn't have gone that far…" McLeish says, laughing.

Aberdeen's finest hour came in 1983 when they beat Real Madrid to win the European Cup Winners' Cup
Aberdeen's finest hour came in 1983 when they beat Real Madrid to win the European Cup Winners' Cup

Miller started out as the senior member of the duo, but over time it became a true partnership, in terms of ability and authority.

"Later in Alex's career, he grew to demand greater respect and more leeway from me in particular to allow him to go and express himself," Miller says.

"In the early stages it was, 'this is what we're going to do big man, you're going to go and win the ball and I'm going to just swanny up behind you'."

They joke about the fact that McLeish broke his nose in the combat of defending, while Miller's appearance remains pristine. There remains a comfortable, easy companionship between the two, which is evident when they meet and share a heartfelt embrace.

Ferguson understood the worth of the partnership, both as the founding stone of his team but also as a means to keep the two players at Pittodrie. When McLeish went to tell the Aberdeen manager that he wanted to leave, Ferguson told him that he was part of the best partnership in Britain.

That seed of doubt, and Ferguson's gruff authority, was enough.

"I remember telling my wife that I was going in to say I'm going," McLeish says. "I came out in a trance and said to her, 'we're here for another three years'."

Miller and McLeish played over 50 Scotland internationals together
Miller and McLeish played over 50 Scotland internationals together

Miller spent 20 years at Aberdeen, and McLeish 17. There were numerous highlights, although it was a 1-0 win with Scotland at Wembley that Miller considers to be their best defensive display.

"Trevor Francis was hot at the time, and Willie coped with him very well and I took care of big Peter [Withe]," McLeish says. "We kind of had a man each in that game, and they swapped over and we dealt with them."

Their last game together was also an international, against Norway, when Miller left the field injured before the end. By then, though, they had achieved their glories.

"The partnership was everything. What did we do? Four Scottish Cups, three league titles, European Cup-Winners' Cup winners, Super Cup winners, big Al's got [77] caps, I've got 65 caps, together we played over 50 times at international level, World Cups together," says Miller.

"It's a massive part of our lives," adds McLeish.

Top Stories