This year’s Scottish FA Cup final is between Dundee United and St.Johnstone. Not a hint of Celtic and Rangers. Just over 30 years ago, Dundee United won their only Scottish Premier title. It was in an era when, for the first time in years, the Glasgow duopoly was seriously challenged by what became known as “The New Firm” – Aberdeen and Dundee United. For many people, Scottish football had never been more interesting. But it didn’t last long and by the end of the 1980s, Rangers were changing the face of the Scottish game and even Celtic were struggling to keep up with them. But back in 1982-83, a minor miracle took place in a city renowned for being the home of comics like The Dandy and The Beano. Dundee United were Scottish champions.
Jim McLean became Dundee United manager in 1971. He had been a journeyman of a player, turning out for Hamilton Academicals, Clyde, Dundee and Kilmarnock, playing almost 400 games. He was just 34 years of age when he was put in charge of Dundee United.
McLean built a squad of players that would form the nucleus of the United team for many years. By the mid-1970s, young players who would play a pivotal part in the 1983 title success were being nurtured or signed from junior football. Just take a look at the appearance record of the team that won the championship: two played more than 800 games for the Tannadice club; two made 700-odd appearances; another one more than 500; one played over 400; two almost 400; and three played more than 250. It’s an astonishing record. What’s more, three of the team went on to become Dundee United managers. This team spirit was indomitable as Dundee United won the title.
Dundee United were a small club in comparison to the Glasgow pair. While Celtic and Rangers could pull in 40,000-50,000 to their home games, United attracted 9,000. This makes Dundee United’s success even more notable.
Things started to happen at the back end of the 1970s. Dundee United had been runners-up in the Scottish Cup in 1973-74, losing to Celtic. In their line-up, however, was future Scotland manager Walter Smith and a fledgling Andy Gray. By the end of the decade and into the 1980s, McLean’s men had won the Scottish League Cup in 1979-80 and 1980-81. The first of those saw them beat Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen 3-0 after a replay. The team, though, was taking shape: Hamish McAlpine, Derek Stark, Paul Hegarty, David Narey, Eamonn Bannon, Paul Sturrock and Billy Kirkwood were all in the line-up. The following season, with Davie Dodds added to the team, they beat neighbours Dundee 3-0 in the final.
In 1981-82, they finished fourth in the Premier, but it was clear that both Aberdeen and Dundee United were now challenging the establishment. Rangers, certainly struggled to keep pace with the new order, but Celtic won the title in 1982.
McLean went into the 1982-83 season with realistic ambitions for his side. “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.
But they got off to a good start in 1982-83, beating Aberdeen 2-0 at Tannadice. Pretty soon, United’s consistency and some key wins made people accept that perhaps this could be their year. They were unbeaten in the league until their 10th game, a crushing 1-5 defeat at Aberdeen after Richard Gough had given them the lead.
Aberdeen were the team to beat that year and Ferguson’s side inflicted a second defeat upon United on January 3. That was followed by a 1-2 defeat at Rangers and suddenly, questions were asked about their ability to last the pace.
By March, the title race had become very intense and when Dundee United went to Aberdeen on March 19, they could ill-afford to lose. They won 2-1 and with Celtic losing at Dundee, the initiative had started to swing United’s way again.
The game with Celtic on April 20 was another landmark event. Gough was sent off early on but three times United took the lead, running out 3-2 winners.
Then three successive 4-0 wins, against Kilmarnock, Morton and Motherwell, put them in the driving seat. The win against Kilmarnock was especially vital as Celtic slipped-up at Aberdeen that same day.
It was all stage-managed for a grand finale on May 14. United were top with 54 points, Celtic and Aberdeen one behind on 53. United had to go to, of all places, Dundee, while Celtic hosted Rangers and Aberdeen were at home to Hibernian.
Over 29,000 packed into Dens Park to see the most important Dundee derby of all time. The ground was full more than 30 minutes before kick-off. United raced into a 2-0 lead, thanks to a superb chip from Ralph Milne and Eamonn Bannon’s close range follow-up after his penalty had been parried. Dundee played well and pulled a goal back, but despite a tense finish, United held on. Celtic had won 4-2 after being 0-2 down and Aberdeen had no trouble in beating Hibs 5-0. It was enough for United to win the title by a single point.
McLean, not normally shy of speaking his mind, was speechless. But once he regained his voice, he admitted his team had not handled their nerves too well and the tension had got to them. “I would like to think that Scotland is happy for us and don’t begrudge my players this success. It is incredible,” he claimed.
Just £ 192,000
Only two players in the Dundee team cost money – Bannon and Hegarty. Most of the players had been around the club for some years, yet they were still very young. Goalkeeper McAlpine was 34, but the rest were under 30 and in their prime as players. Many would go on to have international careers and some tried their luck in English football.
Paul Sturrock became a Dundee United legend and scored 171 goals in 576 games for the club. He had been with the club since 1975 and was in Scotland’s World Cup squads in 1982 and 1986. Defender Paul Hegarty arrived from Hamilton and was converted by McLean from attack. Full back David Narey’s other claim to fame was a spectacular goal scored against Brazil in the 1982 World Cup. Derek Stark gave up an ambition to join the police force to go full-time with the club.
Bannon had joined from Chelsea and he played 440 games for the club before joining Hearts, his first club. He was capped by Scotland and featured in the 1986 World Cup. Ralph Milne, a winger capable of scoring excellent goals, was only 21 when the club won the league, a year older than Gough, who would play in England with Tottenham.
Midfielder Davie Dodds, sadly, had to quit at a young age through injury, but played more than 350 times for the club. Also in midfield, Billy Kirkwood went on to manage the club in 1995 after his playing days were over.
What happened next?
It was always going to be tough to retain the title and United finished third in 1984. But the European Cup brought great excitement to Tannadice. They beat Hamrun Spartans of Malta (6-0 on agg.), Belgium’s Standard Liege (4-0), Austrian side Rapid Vienna on away goals and then faced Italy’s Roma in the semi-finals. They won the first leg 2-0, but crashed out 0-3 in the second game. It had been a memorable run. In 1986-87, they reached the UEFA Cup final, beating Barcelona on the way, losing to Sweden’s IFK Goteborg.
It’s nigh on impossible to recapture that golden period, but Dundee United fans will be hoping they can pick-up some silverware when they face St.Johnstone on May 17.