It’s a classic footballing ‘remember when?’ But Dundee United knocking FC Barcelona out of Europe is only half the story. A Premier Division title, domestic cup final wins, and several memorable European runs all form part of what can be considered the glory years for one half of Tayside’s footballing duo. This is the story of how during the 1980s Dundee United in their famous tangerine shirts became one of Scottish football’s dominant forces both at home and on the continent as alongside Aberdeen they challenged the duopoly that was the Old Firm to see for a short while the big two suddenly become the big four.
Building For Success
The Dundee United that Jim McLean took charge of in 1971 were a small-time club and as such, they existed on small crowds. Like many, they struggled to compete with the might of the two Old Firm clubs of Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers who had dominated Scottish football for longer than anyone cared to remember. Whilst the Old Firm could regularly draw average crowds of up to 30,000 each to their home games, sometimes even much higher, United would usually see about 8,000 spectators through the turnstiles on a good day.
McLean had been coaching at Dundee FC for 18 months but wanting to further his career into management put himself forward to replace a retiring Jerry Kerr as manager of rivals Dundee United. United gave him the job and he moved down the street to join them. Dundee’s Dens Park and Dundee United’s Tannadice are famous for being on the same street and little did anyone know just how big an impact McLean would have at United when he headed down Tannadice Street to join them from their arch-rivals.
McLean joined a Dundee United side that had never won a major trophy before. The only footballing success in the city had come at their rivals up the street. Dundee’s greatest success came in the sixties. They entered the decade with one Scottish Cup triumph and a couple of League Cup titles to their name but ended it having won the First Division title in 1961-62, reached the semi finals of the European Cup a year later, and made it to the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup semi finals some five years after that. The season Dundee won the title United were actually relegated from the top flight but for the Tangerines the times they were a-changing. Whilst in 1975-76 Dundee would be relegated from Premier Division as it was by then known Dundee United were going from strength to strength. By the time Dundee returned to the top flight for the 1979-80 season United under McLean already had four top-four finishes in the division under their belt.
United were a team that grew up together. Many of the players signed by McLean in his earlier years had been brought in as youth players and nurtured from a young age, indeed most of these players did not cost a penny with Eamon Bannon and Paul Hegarty, who had cost £192,000 between them the two main notable exceptions. Most of this squad would make many hundreds of appearances for the club, David Narey: 872, Maurice Malpas: 830, Paul Hegarty: 707, Hamish McAlpine: 688, Paul Sturrock: 575, Eamonn Bannon: 440, Billy Kirkwood: 399, Davie Dodds: 369, Ralph Milne: 287, and Richard Gough: 256 just to name a few. There would be a few additions as the eighties wore on and some of those new names would come to prominence in the 1986-87 UEFA Cup run but otherwise the club’s success was based around this group of well established players who had spent years together working towards their ultimate glory.
Several of those aftermentioned stars also went on to become noted Scottish internationals. Right-back Gough, and left-back Malpas, for example, played 61 and 55 times for their country respectively although many of Gough’s caps would come after he’d left in 1986 for Tottenham and then Rangers. Others would also play for the national team including Narey, another central defender, and Sturrock, a centre forward who would go on to score 171 goals for United. Meanwhile, club captain Hegarty who for many years played alongside Narey in the centre of defence, was widely regarded as one of the best centre-backs to have never been a regular for Scotland. Hegarty had been signed from Hamilton where he’d played up front but McLean cleverly turned him into the successful defender that he became.
Another star of the side was goalkeeper Hamish McAlpine. McAlpine eventually lost his place in the first team due to injury towards the end of the 1984-85 campaign and having been an ever present for many years he would fail to permanently regain his place making only eight league appearances the following season before moving elsewhere. Signer/songwriter Michael Marra, known as the Bard of Dundee, actually wrote a song about McAlpine entitled ‘Hamish the Goalie’ even though Marra was himself a Dundee FC supporter. Billy Thomson would replace him as first choice ‘keeper and go on to play a big role himself.
First Successes and forays into Europe
This group of players would, of course, turn United into a hugely successful side but their first real success came in the Scottish League Cup when they won the competition in 1979-80 and 180-81. The first of those two finals ended in a stalemate with United eventually defeating Aberdeen 3-0 in a replay at Dens Park to lift their first ever major trophy whilst the second of those finals pitted United against their same street neighbours Dundee FC after United had thrashed Celtic in the semis. A 1-1 draw in the first leg saw Celtic overwhelming favourites for the second leg at Parkhead but United had a shock instore running out 3-0 winners. In the final over 24,000 were present for a match played at Dens Park with interest at fever pitch. United defeated 3-0 a Dundee side had been relegated again the previous season to win the League Cup for the second year running. Sturrock who was making his 250th competitive appearance for the club helped set up United’s first and scored their second and third. Sturrock’s two strikes took his goals tally in that season’s competition to nine making him the competitions top scorer again having led the charts the previous season with six.
The following season United reached the final again only to lose to Rangers and were runners up again in 1984-85, in fact in the six years immediately after those two triumphs they never once failed to reach at least the semi-finals. In 1980-81 United were also runners up in the Scottish Cup, defeating Celtic in the semi finals via a replay but losing a replay against Rangers in the final. United would be runners up in the Scottish Cup a further three times in the eighties and again in 1991 with winners medals in the competition seemingly alluding them.
If United were a very much a cup team at home then what about in Europe? League success wouldn’t be too far off as the eighties began and the club’s fortunes continued to rise but first would be two successive UEFA Cup quarter final appearances the first of which took place in the 1981-82 campaign. Prior to that season, Dundee United had never progressed past the second round in European competition, that is discounting the 1966-67 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup where they reached round three but had not entered until round two. Either way, their European record was poor.
Bearing the above in mind, when United were drawn against a strong AS Monaco side in the first round of the 1981-82 UEFA Cup they probably did not hold out too much hope of progressing. A brilliant 5-2 first leg victory away at the Stade Louis II with Dodds and Bannon both scoring twice helped them progress to round two, however, where Borussia Mönchengladbach would be the opposition and United progressed after a rather memorable night on Tayside.
Mönchengladbach were one of Germany’s top clubs and just two seasons earlier had been runners up in that very competition having won the whole thing the year prior to that. They’d also been five times Bundesliga champions during the 1970s and also European Cup runners up in 1977. After a 2-0 first leg defeat in Germany United had a mammoth task on their hands but did not disappoint. United had clawed back their two goal deficit by half-time in what was close to a perfect 45 minutes. Goals from Milne and Kirkwood were both set up by Sturrock and it was game on. The great Jupp Heynckes at the time manager of Mönchengladbach had in the build-up to the game played up his team’s chances and stated there was no chance of United winning the tie after that first-leg defeat. Now Heynckes must have been wondering if would have been better keeping his mouth shut! United were in the ascendancy and when Sturrock put them 3-0 up after the break they never looked back running out 5-0 winners with Hegarty and Bannon completing the rout in what was a dream evening on Tayside for the hosts. It was a result even the most optimistic of Arabs, as the United supporters were known, could scarcely have imagined.
The next round saw another 5-0 display. This time the opposition was Belgian side FC Winterslag who would later become the current K.R.C. Genk after a merger. Their Belgian visitors were comfortably defeated at Tannadice after a 0-0 first leg scoreline in Flanders. Defeating Winterslag in the third round saw United reach the quarter finals and a tie with Radnički Niš of Yugoslavia who had impressively defeated Feyenoord Rotterdam in the previous round and S.S.C. Napoli in round one. Despite a 2-0 home win in the first leg, United would lose the tie 3-2. United’s most impressive European run to date sadly coming to an end at the quarter final stage.
The following season PSV Eindhoven drew 1-1 on Tayside in a first round first leg match but could not finish off United in the second as the Eredivisie leaders were left stunned with United 2-0 up at the break. The visitors held on for the win and would face Viking Stavanger in round two with Viking knocked out when a 3-1 away win for United was followed by a goalless draw at home. Next up were German side Werder Bremen who came to Tannadice for the first leg and lost 2-1. United then got off to the perfect start in the second leg by taking the lead after 3 minutes and although Rudi Völler, a future West German international star, equalised for the hosts in the second-half United held on for the draw that would send them through. As with the previous season, United’s 1982-83 European dream came to an end at the quarter final stage. A 1-0 defeat away against Bohemians Praha 1905 was followed by a 0-0 draw at home in the second leg.
Winning the League Championship
Those two matches against Bohemians came at what was a busy period for United at the business end of the 1982-83 season. Having finished fourth in the league the previous season United were looking to finish even higher this time around and come March when those two big quarter final legs took place the club were right in the thick of it, the title race that is! By the time the new year had come around United had lost only one league game, a 5-1 defeat away at Aberdeen. Aberdeen had been in excellent form themselves as had Celtic and it looked certain either one of those two or United would clinch the title that season.
On 19 March two goals from Milne helped United defeat Aberdeen 2-1 and move United within one point of the Dons who were at that point top the league. Celtic were level on points with United and United would face Glaswegians twice away from home in April. By the time the pair met in the first match Celtic now themselves lead the table by a point. United suffered a 2-0 loss but when the pair met again two games later it was a different story as United won a five goal thriller 3-2. Celtic twice came from behind but United who saw Gough sent off on 57 minutes with the score at 2-1 found a winner six minutes from time. Milne controlled the ball on his chest before lobbing it over three Celtic defenders and beyond goalkeeper Pat Bonner to score what was a brilliant goal to put his side within one point of the league leaders.
Celtic then lost 1-0 at Aberdeen before Aberdeen themselves dropped points at Hibernian a few weeks later. United, however, did not drop any. Including that Celtic victory, United won five on the bounce, including three 4-0 victories in a row, to head into the final round of fixtures a point ahead of their two challengers. The title race really would go down to the wire! A 4-2 Old Firm victory secured Celtic all the points in their final day match whilst fresh from beating Real Madrid in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final just three days earlier Aberdeen won 5-0 to also secure themselves maximum points. United could not afford to slip up. That day United, like Celtic, had a derby of their own and one they would need to win to secure the title. United headed across to their next door neighbours Dundee for what was the biggest game in the club’s history.
29,106 packed into Dundee’s Dens Park, the venue for United’s previous two major triumphs in the League Cup, with the ground full over 30 minutes before kick-off. Those supporters would see three goals within the first 28 minutes. Milne and Bannon put United 2-0 up, with Milne’s goal a delightful chip over the ‘keeper from 25-yards out, whilst Dundee pulled one back. 2-1 at half-time but a nervy second-half saw little goalmouth action. What didn’t help with those nerves was news that Celtic had come from 2-0 down to lead in their game and would snatch the title from United’s grasp if United could not hold onto their slender advantage.
Hold on United did though and they had achieved their greatest success of all-time. “I would like to think that Scotland is happy for us and don’t begrudge my players this success. It is incredible,” said jubilant manager Mclean. Dundee United, a small time outfit, had won their first ever Scottish Premier Division title and done it at the home of their bitterest rivals. United had lost only 4 of their 36 league games and scored on average 2.5 goals a game, the Tannadice faithful had never had it so good! The celebrations lasted long into the night and beyond but eventually, things died down and United looked forward to their next challenge. Next on the horizon was the European Cup. As league champions the club got to enter the continents premier competition and what an exciting run they would have!
United in the European Cup
Dundee United’s 1983-84 European Cup campaign started with a 6-0 aggregate hammering of Maltese minnows Ħamrun Spartans as United won both matches 3-0 to set up a second round tie with Belgian side Standard Liège. The first leg in Liège ended in a 0-0 stalemate so it was all to play for when Standard came to United’s Tannadice home for the second leg. At Tannadice, it was Milne who was the star of the first-half scoring twice to give United a 2-0 half-time lead. Over 19,000 spectators were in attendance as United ended up winning the match 4-0 with Milne chipping the ball over the Standard ‘keeper Michel Preud’homme for his second which was the pick of the four. United had reached the quarter finals in Europe again, but this time in the continents premier competition.
SK Rapid Wien of Austria were the opposition for the quarter finals and whilst Stark gave United the lead in the first leg away in Vienna it was a match they would ultimately lose 2-1. Still, an important away goal to take back to Tannadice. In the second leg, the tie was resolved in 21st minute when Dodds smashed the ball home in off the bar to give United a 1-0 lead. The match was never a classic but the hosts held on for the win and due to the away goals rule Dundee United had made it through to the semi finals of the European Cup. United were no longer strangers to European competition, after all, they had twice reached the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup in recent years but this was the European cup, this was the big one, and they were one two legged tie away from reaching the final. Heady days indeed.
When United were paired against Roma in the European Cup semi finals of 1983-84 a potential all British final with Liverpool awaited them. Over 21,000 spectators turned up at Tannadice with their side on the verge a triumph arguably far greater than even winning the Premier Division the previous season. Roma were tough opposition and United were happy to go in at the break with a 0-0 scoreline but they would be even happier come what full-time as two goals gave them a very useful lead going into the second leg. Dodds and Derek Stark found themselves on the scoresheet. That same night Liverpool beat Dinamo Bucureşti 1-0 at home and prospect of an all-British final was alive and well. Exciting times – one half of Dundee were absolutely jubilant and dreaming dreams that at the start the campaign would have been unthinkable.
The second leg in front of over 69,000 at the Stadio Olympico saw United 2-0 down at half-time and struggling to cope with an intimidating atmosphere. The same venue was to be used for the final and Roma were desperate to reach a final taking place on their home turf. This was perhaps one step too far for United as the match finished 3-0 and United were out of the European Cup having been just 90 minutes from the final. In that final Roma lost to Liverpool on penalties. For United that semi final defeat came as their title hopes back home were faltering.
A Little off the Pace in the League
United’s title defence did not end with another championship. The club finished ten points off the pace as Aberdeen were crowned champions. Despite winning all of their first five matches they’d lost four times before Christmas and when Aberdeen beat them 5-1 in April they found themselves eight points adrift from their title rivals. The following season Aberdeen were champions again and this time 12 points ahead of United. The pair had become known as the ‘New Firm’ due to them challenging the status quo ie the dominance of the Old Firm who prior to United’s 82-83 success had between them won 16 out of the last 17 titles with Aberdeen’s victory in 1979-80 the only blemish.
After Aberdeen’s two successes in 1983-84 and 1984-85 normal service was resumed, however, as Celtic were crowned champions again. The Bhoys finished ahead of Heart of Midlothian on goal difference after Hearts who had been two points ahead before kick-off lost 2-0 at Dundee. United finished three points further back in third with Aberdeen back in fourth some six points behind the champions. Between 26 October and 26 February, United had gone on a 16 match unbeaten run in the league but that run had included too many draws and followed a disappointing start to the season in which United had already lost four times by 19 October. This left them slightly off the pace come the business end of the campaign but still saw their best finish since the title win three seasons earlier.
In 1986-87 United finished in third again, nine points behind champions Rangers and were also in European action again where they would again give their supporters an exciting ride. The previous two seasons United had been knocked out the UEFA Cup at the third round stage which included a 5-4 aggregate defeat to Manchester United in 1984-85, but this time around they would progress even further in what would turn out be their most memorable European run to date, eclipsing even that famous European Cup campaign of three years earlier!
Reaching a European Final
Racing Club de Lens were defeated 2-1 in round one whilst Universitatea Craiova of Romania were the opposition in the next and United progressed 3-1 with a 3-0 home win in the first leg. That 3-0 win saw goals from two new names, two for Ian Redford and one for John Clark. 23-year-old defender Clark had been at the club since the age of 12 but this would be his first season as a real first team regular whilst Redford, a midfielder, had signed for the club from Rangers in 1985. Clark would score three further goals in the competition that season. Hajduk Split of Yugoslavia were defeated 2-0 at home in round three with goals from Jim McInally, signed that summer from, Coventry City, and Clark again before a goalless draw away from home to set up a mouthwatering quarter final tie with Catalan giants FC Barcelona.
United had actually defeated Barcelona 20 years earlier in the second round of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in what was an incredible feat for a small time club against one of Europe’s elite. But how about now, could they do it again? After all, this was a much stronger United who were nowadays challenging the Old Firm and had already in recent seasons also made a name for themselves in Europe by beating several big names. Jim McLean, however, described the tie as “a cornershop against a supermarket” and you can see why! This was a very strong Barcelona side and managed by Terry Venables they included amongst their ranks the likes of Mark Hughes, Gary Lineker, and Bernd Schuster, and would finish their league campaign just three points behind champions Real Madrid in second. On paper a much stronger side than United.
The first leg took place in front of 21,322 spectators at Tannadice and United got off to a cracking start scoring after just 1 minute and 48 seconds. A first time effort from Kevin Gallagher sailed over goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta and into the net in what was a stunningly spectacular goal. Goalscorer Gallagher had made his first team debut in aged 19 roughly a year and a half earlier and soon became a star. He would win 53 caps for Scotland and playing in England after he’d left United he won the Premier League title with Blackburn Rovers in 1995. United dominated large parts of that first leg against Barcelona. McInally and Redford put in commanding performances in midfield and Sturrock was unlucky not to put the hosts 2-0 up early in the second half. 1-0 was the final score and a positive result to take to the Camp Nou for the second leg.
In the Camp Nou two weeks later there were about 1200 United supporters stuck up in the gods and for them, it would be a nervy night. Goalmouth action was fairly limited in the first-half but there was one goal and it came for the Catalans which was not what United had wanted. From the outset, United looked more dangerous in the second period, however. United created chances but could not score, they defended well though and Barcelona were restricted to long-range efforts that mostly went wide. All the time the game remained at 1-0 the result of the tie could go either way but only one team could win though and that team would be Dundee United. A Clark header found the net off the inside of the bar to seemingly to settle the tie and when United found time for a third the fat lady was well and truly singing. A Sturrock chip found Ian Ferguson’s head on 89 minutes and the rest was history as the man signed for £145,000 from Rangers found the net and saw the white hankies being waved by the Camp Nou faithful. Little Dundee United, as they had done 21 years earlier, had knocked the mighty FC Barcelona out of Europe. The city of Dundee may be home to two well-known children’s comics in The Beano and The Dandy, but this was yet more Roy of the Rovers stuff from United!
As with the European Cup three years earlier, United had reached another European semi-final and as Sturrock who set up the second goal in the Camp Nou would later put it the club were “on the crest of a wave”. This time the opposition would be Borussia Mönchengladbach the same side they’d beaten five years earlier in the same competition. Dundee United were just two legs away from the UEFA Cup final.
Mönchengladbach came to Tannadice for the first leg to face a United side buoyant after their exploits in Catalunya but that match itself would turn out to be a damp squib. United were poor in the first half and lucky to go in at half-time with the score still goalless. They improved in the second but couldn’t the net and had to settle for a 0-0 draw to take to Germany with them. For the second leg in Germany, the home side were if anything overconfident. Painful memories of five years earlier would be comfortably erased or so they thought… The Germans came up against a strong and resolute United defence who’s a performance in the first-half was complemented by a useful attack who scored just two minutes before the break thanks to a diving header from Ferguson which came about after the ‘keeper failed to clear the ball properly. The Germans now needed two without reply to progress but it was the Scots who had the better of the chances in the second half and with the game heading to a close found a second just minutes from time. Gallagher found Redford who rounded the ‘keeper and slotted the ball into the net to send Dundee United into the UEFA Cup final.
IFK Göteborg of Sweden would be United’s opposition in the final. The UEFA Cup as it was in those days was a two-legged affair even in the final and United would have to travel to Gothenburg for the first leg. The Swedes had a good reputation in this competition but they were hardly Barcelona or even Mönchengladbach so optimism was high. United still knew it would be tough though and were happy to come away from that first leg with a 1-0 defeat. The home side had played well but United had also had chances themselves, particularly in the second half, so it was still all to play for in the second leg at Tannadice. It was worth pointing out, however, that IFK had scored in every European away tie that season, yes United still had a real chance of winning but it wouldn’t be easy.
Losing to St Mirren in a Scottish Cup final was hardly the ideal preparation for the second leg but United had to dust themselves down and go again. 20,911 were in attendance for that second leg hoping for a United victory but things were made difficult for the hosts when IFK took the lead on 22 minutes. United had nearly taken the lead themselves after five minutes but were now behind. The score remained the same at the break but five minutes into the second-half United drew level. Clark picked up a Ferguson pass on the edge of the box and after he controlled it he fired the ball into the back of the net to make it 1-1. United were still 2-1 down on aggregate, however, and IFK had an away goal – There was still a lot of work to do. United did create further chances, Clark had a free-kick saved for example, but it wasn’t to be, IFK held on for the draw and it was they who were the new UEFA Cup champions. It had still been an incredible run for United, however, with some memorable nights along the way, none more so than that famous night in Barcelona. They may have lost at the final hurdle but they could certainly hold their heads up high! The supporters did exactly that and were magnanimous defeat applauding the Sweedish champions at full-time.
After the Glory Years
Since Aberdeen were crowned champions in 1985 the old Firm between them have won every single title since. Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson’s departure for Manchester United in 1985 seemingly heralding the end of the ‘New Firm’. Starting in 1989 Rangers won 9 titles in a row, equaling the feat Celtic managed between ’66 and ’74, whilst Celtic’s triumph last season was their eighth title in a row and the completion of a treble. Alongside the league title, winning both League the Cup and the Scottish Cup to complete a domestic treble and doing it three seasons running.
As for United, they continued to hang about in the top four/five league positions without ever actually coming close to another title challenge whilst in Europe they would never again progress beyond the second round of UEFA competition. Their only success since those heady days has been limited to two Scottish Cup triumphs in 1993-94 and 2009-10. Their longstanding squad all eventually moved on or retired, along with McLean who stepped down in 1993, and the club were relegated from the top flight in 1994-95. None other than Billy Kirkwood took charge and they did make a swift return to the top flight, however. They remained there until another relegation in 2016, confirmed thanks to defeat at Dens Park of all places, having never finished higher than third. They have yet to return to the top flight. As for Kirkwood, he was sacked after barely more than a season in charge, Paul Sturrock would himself spend two years in charge before a fairly successful managerial career in the English lower leagues and a brief rather difficult spell in charge of Southampton in the English Premier League. Paul Hegarty, another star from those glory days would also spend a season as manager of United.
It’s fair to say Dundee United since Jim McLean stepped down as manager have failed to match the success they had when he was in the dugout. Yet despite stepping down as manager some 27 years ago, however, he still remained at the club until 2000 as chairman, a role he’d taken on in 1988 four years after the board made him a director. McLean was for many years a majority shareholder but sold his 42% stake in 2002. Jim McLean still remains the only manager in the club’s history to have guided them to a Premier Division championship, a feat even he had never dreamed possible: “I didn’t think we had the strength in depth to win the league, although I knew we were good in the cups,” he recalled some years later. Luckily for McLean though he had been wrong. His team did win the championship and he himself would go down in history as the club’s most successful manager of all time.