Tony Soprano once noted that “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation”, but he was only partially right. We are nothing if not our memories, so it makes little sense not to glory in them, all the more when circumstances take a turn for the worse. And for Dundee United – for Scottish football in general – that is irrevocably the case, so, T, with all the love and respect, “vaffanculo”.
Founded in 1909, Dundee United spent their first 62 years doing not very much: they won the second division title twice, but otherwise not even an international cap. Things improved when Jerry Kerr was appointed manager in 1959 – he established the club in the top flight and led them into Europe for the first time, but that was pretty much it. United did, though, achieve brief notoriety during the freezing winter of 1962-63, using a tar-burning truck to thaw the Tannadice pitch and removing all the grass in the process, before pouring on a load of sand and applying whitewash like a goth doing their eyebrows; thus did they earn their nickname “The Arabs”.
Kerr retired in 1971, and United’s board did not look far for his replacement. They had observed that the players across the way at Dundee were always incredibly fit; the man responsible, Jim McLean, had also played for the club. But despite that allegiance, and though the Dark Blues were by far the more illustrious of the neighbours, he fancied the job and was appointed aged just 34. The first request he put in was for a stopwatch, and during one of the first practice matches he oversaw, stopped the action within 10 minutes. “I thought we had 11 coaches on the park,” he said. “Naebody was prepared to do any running.” This terse tyranny bestrode Scottish football for a generation.
McLean’s maternal grandfather had played for Rangers and his father was a decent player too, but things changed when, after getting married, he joined the Plymouth Brethren. Bestowing upon his children all the fun of an ascetically religious upbringing, two of his sons – Jim and older brother Willie – nonetheless followed him into the local team, Larkhall Thistle, before Jim left school and took an apprenticeship as a joiner. Though he soon signed for Hamilton Academical, he maintained his trade, and after spells at Dundee and Clyde, joined Kilmarnock, where he played with his younger brother Tommy.
Arriving at United, McLean quickly realised that his grand ambitions could be satisfied only if he developed talent – the average attendance in his first season was just 9,743. So he restructured the club’s youth system, at the same time cementing himself as its sole source of power. And it worked! Though United remained in mid-table, in 1974 he led them to their first Scottish Cup final – they were walloped by Jock Stein’s Celtic, McLean later admitting to being in his thrall – and things continued improving thereafter. The lean years were over; now it was time for the McLean years.
That summer, an 18-year-old attacker from Ellon in Aberdeenshire arrived; Paul Whitehead Sturrock went on to play 385 times for the club. And in his first season he scored six goals in 12 league appearances, helping the team to a fourth-place finish – its highest ever. Though this came at a cost: Andy Gray, and his 46 goals in 62 appearances, left for Aston Villa. He was 19.
McLean was less than gruntled, having spent hours working with Gray on the training ground. “It was no use plying him with good balls for he scored too easily,” he said. “It was the bad balls that helped him. His right side was not nearly as strong as his left side. We helped him develop that.” Accordingly, he ensured that never again would he be so burned.
United’s surprise improvement had qualified them for the new Scottish Premier League – contrary to McLean’s expectations, who felt it a season too soon, and contrary to the wishes of those steering the restructure, who felt the club an irrelevance. In the event, they avoided relegation only by virtue of a point gained at Ibrox on the final day, sending Dundee down into the bargain. Things would have been less tense had Hamish McAlpine, their goalkeeper, not hit the post from the penalty spot, but potential calamity was averted thanks to McLean’s meticulousness: he had two players primed for precisely such circumstance, converging on the opposing keeper to prevent the launch of a counterattack.
Also cementing their status that afternoon were Aberdeen, making it a pivotal one in Scottish football history: both clubs retained their young players and consolidated, ending 1976-77 tucked in behind the Old Firm. This earned them entry into Europe – United remained there for a frankly ludicrous 14 consecutive seasons – while in April, a Lion Rampant was displayed over Tannadice to celebrate David Narey’s first Scottish cap. Subsequent improvement suggested that the players were ready to contest top spot, but despite an imperious pasting of Rangers in December 1978, they ended up third. “We just aren’t good enough, yet,” lamented McLean, his final word telling.
The following season, United won their first major honour, the Scottish League Cup. Meeting Aberdeen in the final, they played badly in a 0-0 draw, so McLean made some attacking tweaks for the replay while Alex Ferguson left his team alone; the upshot was a 3-0 gubbing, disbursed at Dundee’s Dens Park for extra resonance.
United made a strong defence of their trophy too, dispatching Celtic in the last four to set up a local derby. “You just could not lose to Dundee, the pressure was so great,” said Sturrock. “There was just no way to be able to live in the town and face your supporters should you lose.” They did not, winning 3-0, though they did have their melts battered in by Rangers in a Cup final replay, and finished a disappointing fifth in the league.
By this time, the youngsters nurtured by McLean more or less comprised the team. Along with Sturrock and Narey, there was Richard Gough, Ralph Milne, Billy Kirkwood, John Holt, Derek Stark, Davie Dodds and Maurice Malpas – who McLean threw into the reserves at 15. “I couldn’t handle it physically,” he said, “but it made you mentally strong.” Meanwhile, McAlpine had been at the club since 1966, while in front of him was Paul Hegarty, a striker signed from Hamilton and converted into a centre-back. A relaxed, homely bunch, they and McLean’s “Cornershop” styling of them reflected the city of Dundee very nicely indeed.
McLean, though, defined his club not just in his own image but in opposition to the Old Firm, railing at the reverence accorded them by the media. As such, journalists who offended him were invited not to come again, and after an obscene message was graffitied on his suitcase during a trip abroad, the reporter he believed to be the culprit was banned from Tannadice. And even when it transpired the actual culprit was a mate of his, McLean still refused to relent.
In reality, McLean was over-compensating. “Everybody felt I was a supremely confident man,” he said. “I wasn’t. Of course, I’ve expressed strong views from time to time when I was asked for my opinion, but in fact I was very insecure. I know that sounds strange given my reputation.” Not especially; football is simple, but people are complicated.
In September 1981, United were drawn against Monaco in the first round of the Uefa Cup, winning 5-2 in France – “the turning point”, said McLean, years later. Then, in the next round, they faced Borussia Mönchengladbach, losing 2-0 in Germany; no club in Europe could overcome that deficit, reckoned their manager. But back at Tannadice, four goals from four different homegrown players, along with a belter from Eamonn Bannon, delivered one of the most brilliant results of the era.
In the quarter-finals, United met Radnicki Nis. After winning the home leg 2-0, they were surprised when, the night before the return, they saw a man sitting with the opposing directors, guzzling food and drink which they had been told was unavailable; a man who turned out to be the referee. In an absolutely incredible turnaround, the Serbians secured the 3-0 win they needed to progress!
But United now knew they were good enough to reach semi-finals and finals, and were finally making money from their adventures – previously, travel costs meant that they were effectively fined for their success. And McLean’s personal stock was on the rise too; he travelled to the 1982 World Cup as Jock Stein’s assistant.
The 1982-83 season was the last in which United would sport their epochally beautiful kit of tangerine shirt with black floppy collar, black Adidas stripes and black, diagonal DUFC on the heart. They would, of course, replace it with something almost as delectable, but in the meantime set about glorying its swansong: a brilliant team goal at the erse-end of a game against Celtic showcased their cohesion , and Richard Gough’s finish against Rangers their individual class.
“We didn’t play 4-4-2 or 4-2-4, we played a wee bit in between – more a 4-3½-2½” McLean told Champions Magazine in 2009. “Ralph Milne definitely was a forward working back a bit, Bannon was a midfielder player working forward an awful lot and still giving as many crosses. They gave us a lot of width, and without width you’ll never create goals.”
But equally important was the deployment of players within that framework. “The two strikers were Davie Dodds and Paul Sturrock, but I reckon when you play a tall centre-forward against two big centre-halves, the centre-halves are happy. We played Sturrock through the middle, and Dodds played in the inside of the right-back … he wasn’t good with his back to goal, so I decided I could get him half-turned. When Davie was half-turned on the inside-left and coming in a lot he was magnificent – and scoring more goals because he was coming free rather than man-marked.”
“He was a tactical genius,” said Sturrock. “He could tinker with positions during a game, switch us or make substitutions which altered the course of a match. He had always done his homework, of course, but it was the improvisations he came up with which we came to utterly trust and respect, and which made all the difference.” And still there was more to it. Like Ferguson and Brian Clough, McLean extracted the maximum from less than stellar talents, players who excelled under his tutelage, but not necessarily otherwise.
Up to and including the New Year’s Day derby, United lost just once, 5-1 at Aberdeen, only to fall off the pace immediately afterwards when successive defeats left them third. Six points behind Celtic with only two awarded for a win, they looked set for another decent but unspectacular finish, then went unbeaten until April – only for defeat at Parkhead to leave the players and McLean supposing they’d blown it.
But a fortnight later the teams met again, at Parkhead again, on a midweek night again, and with the score locked at 1-1, Gough was sent off. Naturally, Billy McNeil urged Celtic to get after it, only for Milne, Bannon and Sturrock to pick them off on the break, giving United a 3-2 win. Then, that weekend, they beat Kilmarnock 4-0, Celtic lost again, and suddenly the title was theirs to lose.
Excitement in the city was intense, with United laying on buses to take their supporters to Morton, who were also beaten 4-0. So too Motherwell; they were a game away. Win and they’d be champions; a draw would be enough if Celtic beat Rangers by one goal and Aberdeen failed to beat Hibs; and in the event of a goalless draw coupled with a 2-0 win for Celtic, the teams would play-off at Hampden. So off they went to Dundee!
Though only yards away, Dens was very different to Tannadice, a box rather than a sprawl; the official attendance that day was 29,106, but a fair few more than that found a way in. And they were soon reminded why, Milne taking a pass from Sturrock close to the edge of the centre-circle, riding a challenge, advancing, and then, from 25 yards, languidly driving a chip for the goal of his life – the goal of anyone’s life – in the match of his life – the match of anyone’s life. “On the 14th of May 1983, six minutes into the half,” went the soon-to-be-composed song, “the ball soared over Kelly’s head and it was happy birthday Ralph”.
Bannon quickly increased United’s lead, and though Iain Ferguson soon pulled one back, United hung on to win the league for the first time. Presented with the trophy live on Grandstand and enjoying every second of it despite himself, McLean advised his mother to close her eyes, before pursing his lips to take his first-ever sip of champagne.
The party then cut down the road to Tannadice before, McLean being McLean, confiscated part of the joy, claiming to the local paper that the deed had been done with just 14 players. Milne felt the number was closer to 20, and in a way, both were right: 14 regulars, 20 total. But that did not assuage the outrage, Milne later writing that this dismissal of fringe contributions left a “bad taste in the mouth for many of us”.
A week later, Aberdeen – champions in 1979-80, the first from outside the Old Firm since Kilmarnock in 1964-65 – beat Rangers to win the Cup. As such, Ferguson was left with no choice but to chastise their performance by way of incandescent post-match interview; he and McLean were less New Firm, more New Terrifyingly Firm.
But they were not entirely similar; where Ferguson was canny, convivial and charming, McLean was blinkered, teetotal and one-paced. Crucially, he did not tailor his behaviour to suit different characters, the trade wind to Fergie’s hairdryer, and for that reason never experienced love to match his adulation.
In some ways, though, his intransigence was laudable. Later that year, he was approached to take over at Rangers, and en route to interview, met Stein in the Hampden car park who asked if United would win the league; McLean thought not. “Then you’re a failure,” he was told, by a legend who, despite his allegiance, was desperate for his pal to make the best of himself.
So off toddled McLean to meet the board. “They started talking about ma wages,” he recalled, “and I says ‘hold a minute’, I says ‘there’s one or two things I want to see where we’re going and where your intentions are.’ I says ‘I’ve got a really good team at Dundee United at the moment,’ I says, ‘but there’s some of them Catholics and some of them Protestants and I don’t care,’ I says. ‘But if we’re unable to sign Catholic players,’ I says ‘we just finish the interview now,’ I says, ‘because it would be hypocritical of me coming here knowing that I couldnae sign a Catholic’.” The board agreed with his sentiment, they said, but McLean stayed put.
With good reason: United were in the European Cup and had the defence to properly go after it, Hegarty bringing in bite what he lacked in teeth, with Narey covering behind and controlling the line. “We believed in defending 10 yards inside their half, rather than in your own box,” said McLean. “We could defend early in Europe in particular because of the back four staying up the park, making sure that it was too condensed for the opposition to find space.”
In the first round, they saw off Hamrun Spartans, before turning 0-0 into 4-0 against Standard Liège and 1-2 into 2-2 against Rapid Vienna. Then, in the semi-final, United met Roma, running them off the pitch at Tannadice to secure a 2-0 lead. So impressive was the performance that the Italian press assumed they were on drugs; so preposterous was the suggestion that McLean assumed they were joking. “I hope we’re still on them for next game,” he replied, the line subsequently mistranslated to ratchet up hype and paranoia already at quite some pitch; the final was to be played at Roma’s Olympic Stadium, so the pressure on them to reach it was intense. Pressure they looked to divest by targeting their opponents, also accusing McLean of shouting “Italian bastards” at them through the first leg.
Eventually, Giuseppe Viola, the Roma president, retracted the doping allegations – by which time they had served their purpose. En route to the ground, United’s bus was pelted with missiles, and once inside, McLean encountered “the worst atmosphere of any football match I have ever attended, and that includes any Rangers and Celtic game”. Among the banners included ones reading “GOD CURSE DUNDEE UNITED”, “McLEAN FUCK OFF” and “ROMA HATES McLEAN HE’S A CUNT”.
Kick-off was cunningly scheduled for the afternoon, the scorching heat uncommon in Dundee at that time of year, and United weren’t at it: by half-time, the deficit had been wiped out before, on 58 minutes, Agostino Di Bartolomei scored the penalty which sent Roma through. Then, at full time, McLean was attacked by Roma players and officials, though the majority of punches were absorbed by John Gardiner, his reserve goalie, and Walter Smith, his famously tidy assistant.
Francesco Grazziani celebrates Roma’s win. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images
Years later, it transpired that Roma had tried to bribe Michel Vautrot, the referee, only for their intermediaries to deem him incorruptible. So instead they did the decent thing, taking the money and taking off around the city’s finest hotels; magnificent.
Also in 1984, United’s board appointed McLean director, though given he was already a dictator it barely mattered. Two more third places followed, along with odd-goal defeats in the cups.
By this time, Thatcherism was seriously biting in Dundee. Traditionally famed for jute, jam and journalism – most particularly the Beano and the Dandy – severe unemployment had begun the long process of turning the “City of Discovery” into “Yes City”. So people sought solace in their football, and happily found plenty of it.
In the summer of 1986, Richard Gough left for Tottenham – the first such departure since Gray – with Jim McInally, Iain Ferguson, Ian Redford and Dave Bowman arriving. Meanwhile, more prominent roles were taken by John Clark, a converted defender who had joined the club aged 12,and Kevin Gallacher, a young winger. By January, he had replaced Milne, who was suffering with alcoholism.
But this was not his only problem; success had in no way mellowed Crocodile Dundee United, and the pair’s relationship had been on the wane for some time. As early as 1983, Milne had been coated for taking things too easy, and in the summer of 1984, was seen talking to Brian Clough after a friendly against Nottingham Forest; of course, the only feasible explanation was that he was trying to engineer a transfer. There followed a succession of fines for minor infractions, such that he took labouring work to satisfy his mortgage repayments and which, added to his addiction issues, led to his eventual departure.
“There is no doubt at all I was ruthless about keeping players,” McLean said. “The club paid me to bring them success, and that’s what I was after in retaining and developing young players. That was my first and only task in life – to get them, if I could, to the top.”
Perhaps so, but those out of the team were stuck; when Alex Taylor found himself idling, his father dropped by the ground for a full and frank rammy. And McLean employed other tactics too, such as keeping approaches for players secret, renegotiating terms when he knew they were happy, and administering a deeply incentivised salary-structure.
Everyone was paid a small basic wage – liveable and no more – which, as Archie Macpherson notes in Flower Of Scotland? “was just as beneficial to the health of the squad as a Mediterranean diet or daily press-ups”. Where, at Rangers, it was £750 a week with £28 for a win, at United it was £125 a week, with £600 for a win. On the one hand, players had to fight for their money; on the other, a bad run left them struggling to pay the bills.
Perhaps McLean was parsimonious because of his own loyalty to the club – “15 times I was offered better wages,” he said – but mainly, he was just that kind of radge. Similarly, he would often hector his players the night before a game, demanding they come to the phone to prove that they weren’t out. “Whatever you’ve heard,” said Ferguson, “if you multiply it by 10, you’re no’ even close.”
Because he got results, the players respected him – but that was where it ended. “Everyone was treated the same,” said Malpas. “Everyone was battered with the same brush.” And Bowman concurred: “You could never say ‘oh, he’s one o’ Wee Jim’s favourites, or ‘he’s a favourite of Wee Jim’, because everyone was treated the same. He was an absolute fucking bampot.”
McLean’s half-time and full-time paddies were legion; “He would totally lose it and there was nothing to be gained from listening to him,” said Malpas. When McLean employed a psychologist – a groundbreaking move, likewise his use of a dietician well before they were popular – it transpired that the team’s biggest problem was his reaction to things going wrong. So, to the players’ delight, he agreed to stay out of the dressing room post-match, and because he was a man of his word, kept to it; “You’re getting the finger in the face in the shower when you’re trying to wash yourself,” recalled Bowman.
There was, though, an upside to all of this. “We linked up against him in a way,” said Malpas. “We wanted to protect each other, and the only way we would be shielded from his anger was to go out and play for each other and win. He might even have known that that was a good psychological ploy for him. It certainly worked.” This also helped engender a fierce accountability. “We had experienced players who would literally punch you if you weren’t doing the right things,” said Malpas. “There was none of this molly-coddling. You got a whack.”
On McLean’s instruction, the squad all “stayed” in the city, giving them a sense of ownership and kinship, and they were also inspired by his love for the club. “He’d be cutting the grass, he’d be fixing the door hinges, he’d be making the tea, he’d be picking the team,” said Bannon; “He treated it like his house, going around turning lights off,” said McInally.
And he was similarly pathological when it came to the actual game – “a football pervert”, reckoned Malpas. While all players received personal attention, training sessions tended to focus on attacking the opposition penalty box, which also worked well for defenders. “They became really intelligent,” said McLean. “For instance they made sure the forwards didn’t just get in front of them when crosses were coming in.”
At the start of 1986-87, McLean was especially keen to do well in the Uefa Cup. With English clubs banned and few outstanding teams elsewhere, he sensed an opportunity – though United might have gone out in the first round. Drawn against Lens, they escaped the first leg with a 1-0 deficit thanks only to some atrocious finishing; a 2-0 win at Tannadice remedied the situation.
Next came a home game with Romania’s Universitatea Craiova, who were beaten 3-0. Prior to the return, the players were appalled by the poverty that they encountered, so distributed crisps and “juice” in true Scottish style, before a 1-0 defeat sent them into round three.
Hajduk Split were then seen away, facilitating a quarter-final against the Barcelona of Terry Venables, Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes. The night before the first leg, to be played at Tannadice, STV screened a programme aboutUnited,during which McLean was filmed sitting in a glass-fronted box, ranting into a telephone. “Tell Gordon he’s having an absolute nightmare, he must get him stirred up!”; “Get Bannon stirred up!”; and, most famously, “Get Bannon aff! Get Bannon aff!” This led to Bannon – ill, and only on the pitch as a favour – having the refrain shouted at him in the street for weeks afterwards. “It was the only time he came to me and apologised about anything,” he recalled.
Most revealing was McLean in a quieter moment. “We’ve all got our faults,” he said, “and make no mistake, I’d love to have more personality than I have. But I enjoy myself when we win now and again and play well. I don’t enjoy myself when we win and not have played well. But I wish … that’s one of the changes I would like to make in my make-up but at the end of the day we are what we are and we’ve just gottae get on with it.”
And get on with it United did, a goal up within two minutes after Gallacher side-footed a volley into the left side-netting from just outside the box, down the right. “To this day no one knows if I meant it or not and I think it’s gonna carry on that way,” he said, years later, while on the very same TV show his mates laughed at the mere suggestion that it was intentional.
At home, United played what Sturrock termed a “typical Scottish style”; “European teams could not handle it,” he said. “They expected a nice, nicey game, where everybody passed the ball to each other and they crossed the halfway line and it got a wee bit quicker. We were in their face, we let them throw it out and then we were pounding down on them … they wanted games to be over.”
The first leg finished 1-0, though before the return, United’s domestic form suffered. They went from two points to six points off the top of the league, and needed a late penalty to scrounge a home Cup draw with Forfar. But they travelled to Spain in good heart, training in the reserve stadium next door to Camp Nou whose 25,000 capacity was significantly more than Tannadice’s.
Just before kick-off, United’s players were amused by the unusual sight of opponents going to pray – “I think one or two went in,” recalled Hegarty with glee, “but the majority didnae!” And then came an intervention: “I must confess I went,” said McInally. “Jim McLean ordered us. It was one of these ones, ‘all the Tims, get yourself into the chapel.’”
Devotions declared or undeclared, the underground tunnel created a Coliseum feel even though there were only 42,000 spectators present. Up in the gods, though, United’s travelling support were determined to enjoy the moment, proudly noting that “There’s only one team in Europe”.
United were set-up in a 4-5-1 enabling them to break quickly through midfield. But they didn’t start especially well, eventually conceding a goal when Ramón Calderé’s shot hit Gallacher and flew over the line. But at half-time, McLean reassured his men that if they scored Barcelona would panic, and they duly improved while their hosts simply waited for the decisive goal. Except it did not come, and on 86 minutes, the superb Sturrock won a free-kick down the left. Then, as Redford’s cross came in, his run to the front post distracted defenders from Clark’s presence at the back, and Hughes was left standing as a header was clunked home.
There followed much teapotting and double-teapotting, with one defender trying to drill himself through the ground, before the recriminations began. “They all seemed to be shouting at each other, arguing amongst theirself,” said Malpas, “and Gary Lineker was talking to somebody, one of our players, saying ‘this mob’ll just chuck it,’ and really, that’s more or less what they did.”
So United scored again and went through 3-1 on aggregate; in the stand, the entire club board stood dumbstruck. The mood in the changing room, meanwhile, was typically Plymouth Brethren, with John Holt, the man of the match, telling McInally that he was thinking about joining Forfar. “Are you mad?” came back the response. “Get a grip.”
In the last four came Mönchengladbach. Again, the first leg was at Tannadice, but a poor first half allowed the visitors into the tie and at full time they were punching the air – “going about the park as if they’d if already won”, said Ferguson – while Sturrock’s marker drew a finger across his neck.
United, though, had no time to dwell on the result, moving on to a Cup semi against Dundee in the barry kits derby. Ferguson’s excellent goal gave them the lead just before the half-hour, yet 12 minutes later they were behind, only for Ferguson and Hegartyto send them into the final.
Ten days later, the squad travelled to West Germany, where Gladbach were unbeaten in European football since 1970; their players predicted a 6-0 win. Before the game, McLean explained Ferguson would play instead of Gallacher, conceding that the latter’s pace would be useful “if they push down”. But he expected to face a more patient approach, “hoping that we’re silly”, so also omitted Clark, whose long passing would be less useful without space in behind the opposing defence.
Attendance at a bouncing Bökelbergstadion was boosted by 850 United fans and 1,750 squaddies, who were given something to cheer on 43 minutes when United took the lead. A corner ricocheted across the box to Bannon and he cleverly nodded down, for Ferguson to power home a diving header.
If United had defended stoutly in the first half – “we maybe sat back a wee bit,” said McLean afterwards – in the second they were “absolutely magnificent”. But they could not take any of the chances until, in injury time, a punted clearance was beautifully controlled by Gallacher, ball sent inside and man up his arse skirted outside, putting him clear down the right while Redford nashed through the middle.
Unusually for a footballer, Redford came from a wealthy farming family, though this did not deliver him an easy life. Profoundly deaf in one ear, he played in the knowledge that a bang on the head could make him completely so, and also struggled with depression perhaps triggered in childhood by the death of his brother; in 2014, he tragically killed himself, aged just 53.
This, though, was his night. “I thought actually for a second he was gonna try and score himself,” he said, “and I remember thinking, if you do that and you miss I’m gonna kill you in the dressing room after the game. But fortunately he did the right thing and he squared it to me, and I remember, the goalkeeper committed himself very early, and I just sort of popped it round the side of him then basically just put it into an empty net.”
As Redford stood, arms thrown up, back arched, his team-mates arrived and mayhem ensued on the touchline. “We’ve beaten Barcelona in Barcelona and we’ve beaten Borussia in …. Germany,” said McLean afterwards. “So why should we fear anybody?”
Scotland’s first Uefa Cup finalists would meet IFK Gothenburg. Competition winners in 1982, they had reached the semis of the previous season’s European Cup, losing to Barcelona on penalties, and were unbeaten in 24 European games. In that period, they had won 8-0 away to Avenir Beggen yet were still possessed of the cruelty to do them 9-0 at home, which is to say that they were no joke.
And they were also just back from their mid-season break, while United were on to their 63rd game without one, a small squad meaning most of its members were involved most of the time. In the Uefa Cup they used just 21 players, 19 of whom were Scots; 20 if you include Tommy Coyne, born in Dundee but declared for Republic of Ireland.
The Ullevi Stadium, where the first leg was played, generally had a very decent pitch. But just this once, grass was sparse, following a concert given by – depending on who you ask – Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, Rod Stewart, “a Swedish rock band” or “a heavy rock band”. Any road up, United found it difficult to play their passing game, and were also thrown, in Redford’s opinion, by the comparative lack of atmosphere in the ground. The Goths, meanwhile, were not remotely thrown by the brilliant brightness of United’s tangerine, and with 38 minutes gone, Michael Andersson’s corner found Stefan Pettersson, who headed down, and an “extraordinary bounce” relocated the ball to the roof of the net.
That was the only goal of the game, meaning United returned home well in the match. They then quickly polished off their league programme with two matches in three days, and prepared for the Cup final a further three days on. In it they would play St Mirren, without a trophy since 1959 and 24 points worse than them over the season.
The players knew all about McLean’s “Hampden hoodoo” – under him, United had lost three Scottish Cup and three League Cup finals – but were confident nonetheless, even when the game was goalless after 90 minutes. In extra-time, though, Gallacher failed to connect with a cross when standing in front of goal, the effort taking him into an offside position while Ferguson was in the process of tapping home. The ref pointed to the centre-circle only for the linesman to intervene, and two minutes later, Ian Ferguson steered home the winner for the underdogs. As for Iain Ferguson, his revenge came in the 1991 final in which he scored the winner for Motherwell … against McLean’s United.
“It was just complete mayhem after the game,” recalled Malpas. “It was like a league game. Jim McLean was going scatty because I think he thought as well this would be our big chance to win the Scottish Cup. He’d been disappointed so often.”
He was disappointed again. “This was without doubt the worst Scottish Cup final ever,” he said later. “We were awful … I knew we would be up against it on the Wednesday against the Swedes at Tannadice.”
More than a few observers felt McLean’s natural negativity inhibited his players. “When it went to extra time I watched Alex Smith and Jimmy Bone going round their players, clapping them on the back, encouraging, egging them on,” said Jackie Copland, who had played for United in the 70s. “Then I looked over at Jim and the United players – there he was, his veins bulging, his usual finger-pointing. That was Jim. He tended to bully players into doing what he wanted them to do, when quite often a different approach might have served him better.”
Similarly, his superstitious nature meant that he would take the team coach on a different route to each final, also stopping at a different hotel in order to exorcise the bad luck experienced during the previous visit. This cannot have been entirely helpful for his players: professional sport does not brook contemplation of failure.
McLean, though, is bullish on the point: “If you ask for any less than perfection you most certainly will get less. We’ve only won three trophies and obviously I’m supposed to have asked for perfection. I think if I’d have asked for less then most certainly we would have lost some of the trophies we won.”
Back at Tannadice on the Wednesday night, the ground was packed to the gunwales and the noise was severe – “There were only 20,000 in there, but it sounded like 100,000 said Gallacher, while a prescient banner read “NO USE CRYING”. United were playing their 67th match of the season, still a Scottish record, and they started with weariness and trepidation, all too aware that they were close to blowing everything. Ferguson did hit the bar with a header and Kirkwood also missed a good chance, before, on 22 minutes, a well-executed counter left them needing to score three.
Sturrock had played centre-forward in Sweden, but for the return McLean picked him on the left-wing – and it made no difference whatsoever. “They were just queuing up for me,” he said. “Two banks of four, you just couldn’t break them down.”
On the hour, Clark pulled one back, but otherwise United never worked up the necessary momentum, stymied without their usual away goal, then sucker-punched when Gothenburg scored one of their own. Such is the risk of a home second leg.
“Wee man, just wipe the tears away because hopefully there’ll be plenty more times for ye,” Glenn Hysén told Gallacher at full time – in fluent Scottish, apparently. But elsewhere in the team, feelings were not so hopeful. “Like a death in the family,” said Holt. “The older you get as a player you realise it’ll probably not happen again, and that was upsetting.”
So United went up to get their medals in plaintive mood. “You get that close to the cup and you can’t touch it,” said Bowman. “You can’t hold it or anything, you’ve just gotta walk by it.”
But Tannadice was nowhere near done, creating a memorable night nonetheless with both sides given a standing ovation as they performed a lap of honour. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crowd stand like this for a defeated side,” said Peter Jones on BBC Radio 2, and Fifa agreed, awarding United its first fair play award. With the £20,000 prize, they built the Fair Play Stand – now the Jim McLean Fair Play Stand.
In the years that followed, United tailed off. Alex Ferguson had already left Scotland and Graeme Souness had already arrived at Rangers; he used financial muscle and European football to lure players from south of the border.
“We were born too early,” said Sturrock. “That Dundee United team would be wiping the floor with teams at this minute in time, that’s how special they were. You can’t go from being a Scottish minnow to regularly playing European quarter-finals without having good players. We were regularly beating top-quality teams all over Europe on their own grounds.”
As for McLean, in later years he realised his success had come at a cost – if United had lost on a Saturday and sometimes even if they’d won, his wife would not be able to speak to him until Monday. “My life was just consumed,” said McLean. “Honestly, I was a disgrace as a father, a disgrace, just absolutely stupid.”
Nor did he feel he properly appreciated the good times: “I just wish I had let my hair down and enjoyed some of these victories with the players,” he said. On the other hand, perhaps no manager in the history of football has owned his triumphs and failures so completely, nor delivered as many unlikely, unbelievable memories. And in the end, that is what football, and life, are all about.