Take Dundee United's gruelling 1986/87 season. A nine month campaign comprising of 67 matches in four different competitions (70 in five if you include the Forfarshire Cup), the season saw the Tayside club bring joy to their supporters and provide Scottish football with a boost when it was needed. Yet during five days in May the dream turned into a nightmare, two final defeats leaving Jim McLean's side without a pot to show for their efforts. Sport hurts.
We really should not have been surprised with Dundee United's exploits during 1986/87. Managed by Jim McLean since 1971, the club had enjoyed a decade and a half of success, consisting of two League Cup wins, a first Premier League title in 1982/83, and five further Cup final defeats, confirming United's progression from the smaller club in Dundee to their part in the "New Firm" in Scotland. But it was in Europe that the club really punched above their weight, reaching two UEFA Cup quarter finals, and losing a controversial 1984 European Cup semi final second leg in Rome, a match that was still being investigated in relation to bribery allegations as the 1986/87 season approached.
The club may have been a model of consistency since their Premier League title - three third place finishes in the League and two semis and two finals in the domestic cups - yet the departure of two key players in 1986 looked set to destabilise the 1986/87 bid for silverware. Striker Davie Dodds left for Neuchatel Xamax of Switzerland, although just four months later he would be back in Scotland with Aberdeen, and just a few weeks into the start of the new season, defender Richard Gough moved to Tottenham for £700,000, bucking the trend at the time that had seen English-based players moving up north due to being deprived of European football.
The squad still contained a good number of the championship winning members. Goalkeeper Hamish McAlpine had been replaced by Billy Thomson, but Maurice Malpas, David Narey, John Holt and Paul Hegarty remained from the title winning defence, along with with John Clark who had not featured heavily in 1982/83, but was about to enjoy a fine season. In midfield, Eamonn Bannon and Ralph Milne were still present, with forward Paul Sturrock continuing his association with the club he had signed for as a 16-year-old in 1974.
McLean had boosted the squad with midfield reinforcements during 1985 and 1986, Dave Bowman, Jim McInally and Ian Redford key additions, and with a 20-year-old Kevin Gallacher up front in support of Sturrock and Tommy Coyne, McLean had almost all the pieces in place for the season ahead.
McLean moved to fill the Dodds shaped gap by purchasing Iain Ferguson from Rangers for £145,000, a shrewd bit of business that paid dividends throughout the season, the new signing hitting the ground running as the club enjoyed a fantastic start to their marathon campaign. Unbeaten in their first 11 League matches - including a 3-2 win at Ibrox when they had been 2-0 down at half time (Gallacher scoring twice) - Dundee United sat at the top of the Premier Division, with Celtic and Rangers tucked in behind. Ferguson scored 11 goals in his first 9 appearances for his new club, and although the unbeaten run ended at Aberdeen on October 11 (shortly before Alex Ferguson's departure to Manchester United), Dundee United were still well placed for a championship challenge.
During this period, the club had also progressed into the Skol Cup semi finals, winning away at Queen of the South, Ayr and Hibernian to set up a clash with Graeme Souness' revamped Rangers. Alas United would come up short, Souness inspiring his side to a 2-1 victory on the way to his first trophy for the club. In a season that was to prove ultimately disappointing, it was a sign of things to come, as the fixtures started to come thick and fast.
A week prior to the Rangers defeat, United's involvement in the UEFA Cup had begun. Without the ineligible Ferguson, who had been signed too late for the opening three rounds, McLean's side lost 1-0 in Lens, and were in very real danger of not making it through to the second round of a European competition for the first time since 1978/79.
"We are capable of doing it if we play to our form," stated a determined McLean before the second leg at Tannadice Park, and fortunately this proved the case. Goals from Tommy Coyne and Milne, gave United a 2-0 win on the night and started the European tour, yet by January both goal scorers were no longer at the club, with Coyne joining Dundee and Milne moving to Charlton.
United's reward for the win over Lens was a tricky tie against the Romanian side Universitatea Craiova, who had beaten Galatasary in the previous round. The Eastern Bloc side were something of an unknown quantity, but turned up at Tannadice and gave an impressive display. Within 90 seconds Adrian Popescu had struck the crossbar and the visitors enjoyed a good first half. But in the ultimate game of two halves, Redford scored twice - bringing his European tally to 6 in 5 games for the club - and Clark netted in between with a header.
Clark was in fact deputising for Hegarty who missed out on his 52nd consecutive European match for Dundee United, the Romanians also stripped of the services of their experienced international keeper Silviu Lung through suspension. Again the away leg would be lost 1-0, but United were always comfortable, even without the reassuring presence of Hegarty and Narey at the back.
Injuries were soon becoming a concern in what was already promising to be a testing season. After defeating Hadjuk Split 2-0 at home in the third round with goals from McInally and Clark, the team travelled to Yugoslavia without Hegarty, Malpas and Sturrock, in a match that saw Narey captain the side whilst playing with a heavily bandaged knee.
In truth United rode their luck, The Times commenting on the "astonishing incompetence of Hadjuk Split in front of goal", during a live match on Scottish television that saw the home team strike the woodwork twice, and Gary McGinnis clear another effort off the line.
"We have had the luck so far to meet sides like us. Full of industry, rather than full of class," said McLean prior to the quarter final draw, the 4th time in the last six years that the club had reached the last eight of a European competition. If McLean was hoping for a similar piece of fortune then he was to be disappointed. When the draw was made on Saturday January 24, Dundee United were paired with Barcelona.
During the first three rounds of the UEFA Cup, United's League form had understandably dipped slightly from the opening couple of months. A 3-0 defeat at home against rivals Dundee was one of four defeats between the trip to Romania and prior to the New Year, as the team slipped 5 points behind leaders Celtic (in the days of 2 points for a win) and also dropped below Rangers into third.
McLean's teams were always made of stern stuff, however. As 1987 began, the team reeled off six straight League wins, including a memorable 3-2 triumph over Celtic, to put the club firmly back into the championship race. By this stage, midfielder Billy Kirkwood had been brought in to add a much needed body to the squad, a necessity seeing as the club were seemingly in pursuit of three trophies.
The Scottish Cup run had not kicked off in the ideal fashion. A 1-1 draw at home to First Division Airdrie led to another match that the players realistically could have done without, and when they fell behind in the replay, United were struggling. But goals from Ferguson and Gallacher calmed nerves, and when Brechin were narrowly beaten in the fourth round, Dundee United entered March in the last eight of two cup competitions and just two points off the summit of the Premier Division.
Inevitably something had to give though, and it would be the League form that suffered due to the cup exertions. Five draws in the next seven matches killed off any title aspirations, as a fixture pile-up began to have an impact on the players' ability to find the resources necessary to fight on three fronts. From March 4 to the season end on May 20, the team would be involved in 22 matches in 78 days (an average of one every 3.54 days or so), with Malpas, Narey, McInally and Sturrock also featuring in Scotland's abysmal 4-1 defeat in Belgium during their equally disastrous European Championship qualifying campaign.
Dundee United would have less problems against Continental opposition though. As 21,322 people crammed into Tannadice to welcome an under pressure Terry Venables and his under performing Barcelona side, few could have wished for a better start. Gallacher's strike after just 108 seconds gave United something to hold on to, yet the controlled performance for the remainder of the match was hardly a case of parking the bus.
Sturrock went close, Gary Lineker missed a glorious chance for the visitors, and both teams had claims for penalties waved away. The 1-0 win and a fourth consecutive European clean sheet at home saw hopes very much alive when the team travelled to Catalonia.
"I'm not sure we can do it in the second leg," admitted McLean. "We tired in the second half but I was proud of the way the boys kept going". To keep going was becoming tougher and tougher though. Just four days before the return leg, United scraped a 2-2 draw against Division One side Forfar in the Scottish Cup quarter final, Iain Ferguson's last minute penalty giving McLean's men another bite of the cherry, but a further match to squeeze into their schedule. But before they could think about a trip to Station Park, they had the small matter of a date at the Nou Camp.
Oh what a night. Even without the injured Bannon, United looked solid, until a lucky deflected shot from Caldere gave the Spanish giants a 1-0 lead at the break. Instead of wilting, the visitors seemed to grow in belief, the brilliant Sturrock, Gallacher and Ferguson all going close, as the home fans grew more and more restless. With just five minutes to go the match looked destined for extra time, until Sturrock won a free kick and McLean waved John Clark forwards.
Beating Mark Hughes to Redford's cross, Clark's header went in via the underside of the crossbar to effectively kill off Barcelona's hopes. "The thing I always remember was that Paul Hegarty had predicted to me seconds beforehand that I was going to score,” Clark stated in this Sunday Post article. "I said I didn’t know about that because Hughes was always very strong in the air. On this occasion, though, I managed to bully him a little — to be fair I think my size had something to do with that!"
There was barely time for the home fans to wave the white flags and boo their team before the crowning moment of glory. Ferguson's 89th minute goal gave Dundee United their fourth win over Barcelona in European competition - they had beaten them home and away in the 1966/67 Fairs Cup - and heaped even more pressure on Venables, a man who had led his side to the European Cup final the year before. "HELL TEL!" blared the Daily Mirror headline, as the Dundee United fairy story had another chapter added to it.
"One of the great European nights in Scottish football," proclaimed McLean after the match, and even if Barcelona were not quite the force they once were, you would struggle to argue with his assertion. Borussia Monchengladbach, IFK Gothenburg and Swarovski Tirol joined Dundee United in the semi finals, with the Austrians definitely the draw the other three wanted. In the end it was the Swedish side who had the luck, easily hammering the Austrians 5-1 on aggregate. Dundee United drew Jupp Heynckes' side, and would not have things quite so easy.
Another clean sheet at home was very welcome, yet the 0-0 scoreline gave the Germans the distinct advantage in the tie. Redford hit a post and Ferguson saw an effort ruled out for offside, with McLean assessing that his side gave their opponents too much respect at first.
"They are in the driving seat, but there is no reason for us to think we are out," said McLean, but the task ahead of his side was plain to see. The Germans were undefeated in 55 European home ties since 1970, and were rightfully confident of progressing. "The Germans will be confident, complacent and maybe arrogant," McLean declared before the second leg. "That will suit us if they underestimate us".
Whether the Germans did think the job was already done or not is open to debate, but on another memorable night, Dundee United toppled a European giant to become the first Scottish club to reach the UEFA Cup final. Withstanding some early pressure, the away team grew in confidence, and scored a crucial goal on the stroke of half time. Ferguson's diving header stunned both the players and crowd, and although the Borowska would hit a post late on, Redford clinched the famous win, his last minute goal meaning that two ex-Rangers men had helped knock out a team that had beaten their former employers in a bruising third round match.
"I always thought we could do it," said McLean, adding that "it was a great performance made even better because we had to do it away once again". The only black cloud on the horizon was the booking picked up by Ferguson which meant that he would miss the first leg of the final - UEFA Cup finals were played home and away at the time - leaving the striker with mixed emotions: "I'm really sick that I will miss the first leg of the final, but at least I have done enough to get us there. I don't think it has really sunk in yet just what we've achieved".
Their accomplishments were made even greater due to the fact that just after the first leg the team had won an energy sapping and unsurprisingly feisty Scottish Cup semi final against Dundee at Tynecastle. Ferguson gave United the lead after 29 minutes, but again the team would have to come from behind in the Cup, former player Coyne equalising before Keith Wright edged Dundee in front before the break.
McLean's half-time team talk must have worked though, as McInally and Bowman combined for Ferguson to hit back immediately, and Hegarty's header sent United through to a Hampden Park meeting with St Mirren. Throughout the day United were thankful for Thomson's fantastic display in goal, the keeper pulling off numerous saves. The first leg of the UEFA Cup final would see also see Thomson play a significant role.
Wednesday May 6: after just five minutes of the first leg of the UEFA Cup final, Thomson bravely dives at the feet of Lennart Nilsson and comes off a lot worse. The blow behind his ear left Thomson requiring five stitches - some reports state that he almost lost his ear completely in the incident - and with a splitting headache for the rest of the match. Luckily for United, it didn't hinder his performance.
Thomson repelled wave after wave of attacks, denying Stefan Pettersson and Nilsson on a number of occasions, as he tried his best to keep United in the final. The keeper was finally beaten by Pettersson on 38 minutes, the pace of the ball off the surface surprising Thomson, although McLean attached no blame to the hero of the night.
"He was magnificent," McLean said post match, with the manager confident that his team could still win the trophy. "This was a great result and gives us a tremendous chance at Tannadice. Naturally I'm disappointed that we didn't score a goal, but I'm still very optimistic that we can pull it off".
Saturday May 16: with their League season completed just five days before, United made their way to Hampden Park for the Scottish Cup final against St Mirren. The clubs may have been separated by 24 points in the League - United finishing 3rd and St Mirren 7th - but tiredness and a perceived Hampden hoodoo were weighing down heavily on McLean's men. In their 14 appearances at the national stadium since 1974, the club had only won twice, but McLean was keen to play down this fact. "If we play as we can play neither St Mirren nor any alleged Hampden jinx will beat us".
Unfortunately the final was a turgid affair, "bereft of style, fluency and excitement" to use the words of The Times' Hugh Taylor. Drifting inevitably into extra time - a very unwelcome half and hour for United - there was just one last slice of bad luck to be dished out by the footballing Gods. In a season that would end in an agonising fashion, the cruel blow inflicted upon McLean's men proved to be fatal.
Ferguson's disallowed goal during the second period of extra time must still hurt any Arab old enough to remember the incident, perhaps proving troublesome to those who weren't even born at the time. After Redford had broken free on the left, Campbell Money deflected his cross into the path of an onrushing Ferguson, the striker gleefully knocking the ball into the net. Ferguson wheeled away in delight, initially unaware that Gallacher had been adjudged to be in an offside position on the goal line. A similar decision had gone against United in the 1981/82 League Cup final against Rangers involving Sturrock and Holt. Maybe there was a jinx after all?
To add insult to injury, a few minutes later Ian Ferguson broke into United's penalty area and smashed a left footed drive past Thomson and with just nine minutes remaining St Mirren had one hand on the cup. Try as they might, there was simply nothing left in the tank for McLean's team, and as the final whistle blew many sunk to their knees. The realisation that Dundee United may not have any silverware to show for their marvellous season was becoming a painful possibility.
McLean bemoaned the offside decision but was also frank regarding the performance of his team on the day. "At no time did we give ourselves a chance of winning the match, but I don't think we deserved to lose either. Too many of our players fell well below the standards they have set themselves and really, there are only about three or four of them I can rely on".
Maybe McLean was trying to get a reaction from his players, after all he openly admitted that the mood was understandably low in the few days after the final. But with just four days to the second leg of the UEFA Cup final, McLean needed one last effort from his men. "What I'm looking for on Wednesday is eleven angry men who are prepared to repay those fans by winning the UEFA Cup".
The sad reality was that Dundee United's players were exhausted physically after such a mammoth effort during the season, with mental tiredness also entering the equation after the events of Hampden Park. McLean tried to freshen things up, bringing in Kirkwood and Gallacher for Bannon and Bowman, but the task ahead against the 1982 UEFA Cup winners and a team that had scored away in every round of the competition would require the players to dig deep like never before.
The final mountain to climb proved just too difficult, however. The Swedes, who had only just started their domestic season, were fresh and dangerous on the counter attack, whereas United's players were "playing from memory" in the words of McLean. An away goal was always likely to be decisive, and when it arrived on 22 minutes through Nilsson - after United felt they should have been awarded a free kick for a foul on Sturrock - the balloon had been pricked. The first goal conceded at Tannadice during the UEFA Cup run was pretty much the final nail in the coffin.
In fairness United never gave in; Ferguson hit the bar with a header; Clark, pushed further up and scored a goal any striker would have been proud of after an hour; and Gallacher also went close. The spirit was unquestionable, yet a combination of a very good Gothenburg side and United's long season was just too much to overcome.
"Dundee United last night dropped to their knees," wrote The Times' Stuart Jones, "dazed by their own cruel misfortune and exhausted by their efforts. Some of them even openly shed tears of disappointment at the numbing realisation that, for the second time in five days, they had finished a final with nothing more than a loser's medal". McLean was magnanimous in defeat, declaring Gothenburg worthy winners and complimenting his players on the magnificent effort they had put in during 1986/87. Sadly it ended up more like Arsenal 1980 than Ipswich 1981.
The vast majority of the 20,911 crowd stayed behind though, applauding both the winners and losers, an act so admired by FIFA that they set up their Fair Play Award in honour of Dundee United and handed the club the inaugural prize. The smallest crumb of comfort perhaps, yet even in defeat Dundee United could be rightly proud of both their players and supporters.
"It is for them (the fans) I feel most sorry," said McLean as the dust settled. "To be honest the performance tonight was not what we would have expected but the players gave every solitary ounce they had. We just had nothing left when we needed it most".
"This has been the hardest season I've ever had in every way". The words of Jim McLean after the UEFA Cup final were so very true. A season of so many highs but a couple of distinct lows, played out in seven different countries from early August to late May, 1986/87 will forever be remembered with both fondness and sadness. A time when the might of Barcelona were defeated home and away, Borussia Monchengladbach were sent packing, and another domestic final was reached, should always be celebrated.
Yes, there were the two cruel defeats come the finale, an undeserved ending for all that had gone before, but unlike Dundee United's final two games, I don't want to finish this blog on a downer. Jim McLean and his players have rightfully taken their place in the history of Dundee United, and can hold their heads high at what they achieved during a 1986/87 season that brought cheers and tears aplenty.