30 years on from defeating Barcelona 3-1 on aggregate, Dundee United have entered troubled times

This month marks the 30th anniversary of Dundee United repeating their famous 1966 Barcelona victory over two legs in March 1987.

They remain the only British side to have claimed four consecutive wins against the Spanish giants. After the second 2-1 victory in 1987, Jim McLean’s side secured a standing ovation from opposition fans inside the Nou Camp.

Special attention was drawn to Paul Sturrock by McLean, who suggested that the lad from Pitlochry who had left a particularly chaotic family home at 15, had “tore the opposition apart”.

The anniversary arrives at a troubled time for the club who at the start of this month reported annual losses of £1.55m after being relegated from the Scottish Premiership in the 2015/16 season. A fall in attendances, two sacked managers, losses in broadcast revenue and questions over promotion all point to an institution under increasing pressure. 

The worst kind of negative headlines have dogged the Tayside club in recent weeks – former teammates David Robertson and David Goodwillie were found guilty of rape after a civil action. A third former player, Garry Kenneth, found himself on a threatening behaviour charge.

Dundee United were perhaps the most provincial and unfashionable of all the British clubs that dominated against some of Europe’s finest sides during the 1980s. After the victory against Barca they soon became the first Scottish side to reach a UEFA Cup final against IFK Gothenburg and the fourth from Scotland to reach a European final, following in the footsteps of Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen. 

Brian Clough described United’s 86/87 season as “incredible” and added that wins against Barcelona and Borussia Mönchengladbach were “possibly the best (British) results we’ve seen in Europe in the last ten years.”

McLean had won the respect of European masters such as Clough and Jock Stein (he was assistant to the latter while managing Scotland). The win against a Barcelona side which featured Mark Hughes and Gary Lineker wasn’t a shock result to those who had been following the club’s progress.

Discussing the games last year, Lineker said: “Dundee United played really well and above themselves and embarrassed us.” The loss also signalled the end for manager Terry Venables, who was dismissed a few months later.

It had taken years of experience and toil. Jim McLean once suggested to me that it was two matches against Monaco and a brush with Hollywood royalty that set United on a new course. He admitted “we became more confident and comfortable in Europe, before that we were only making up the numbers.” 

It was on the Côte d’Azur that his side first asserted itself with a stunning 5-2 victory against the pending French champions in September 1981. Watching the display that night were Hollywood legends David Niven and Grace Kelly, the latter was joined by her husband, Prince Rainier whose castle overlooked the Stade Louis II ground. 

Princess Grace and her Prince travelled to Scotland for the return leg at Tannadice. Despite losing at home The Tangerines delivered a steady enough display, winning 6-4 on aggregate. The late Ralf Milne quelled any fears of a French comeback with the first of his 16 European goals. He remains their top European marksman despite a taste for heavy drinking and regular bust ups with McLean. Although that wouldn’t have been difficult.

Known as “Wee Jim” the former joiner from Larkhall had a reputation for flying off the handle. He pleaded guilty to assaulting a camera man in 1988 and punched BBC reporter John Barnes in 2000.

Perhaps one reason McLean isn’t remembered in the same glowing terms as other British managers of his generation is his tragic flaw of letting his temper get the better of him. It could also have a negative effect on his side – it wasn’t unusual for a player to retreat to the showers after a rollicking to then turn round and find Jim in there with him, his finger in the player’s face demanding to know why standards had slipped.

McLean is the only United manager to have secured a Scottish Premier Division title which was achieved in a hotly contested competition with Celtic in 1983. He won the League Cup consecutively in the 1979-80 and 1981-80 seasons, but a Scottish Cup eluded him during his 22 year tenure in charge of The Terrors.

Many believe there would have been more silverware had it not been for his uptight and intense nature adding unnecessary pressure. The club would secure a Scottish Cup after McLean’s departure in the 1993-94 season and more recently in 2010.

Celtic’s Frank McAvennie faced McLean’s side in a memorable 1988 final, his team came out as 2-1 winners after the striker scored a late double. “They would get to finals and couldn’t handle it,” he said. “The day of the Scottish Cup final in 1988 they were on fire and were still 1-0 up with 14 minutes to go. They had some real quality with players like Kevin Gallagher who put them ahead in the 49th minute.”

Gallagher also put United in front against Barcelona in a much disputed wonder goal exactly 30 years ago at Tannadice. Was it a lucky pelt or a well-executed volley? Perhaps we’ll never know.

In the early 1980s McLean was interviewed for the Rangers job. One reason he declined was the Ibrox club’s policy of not signing Catholics, he had no time for sectarianism. Before the Barca game at the Nou Camp he even ordered “the Tims” to go to the chapel in the ground. The other reason he never managed elsewhere was his love of United, his players developed the same municipal pride despite getting tied up with long contracts. 

There was a significant footnote to his European run with The Tangerines. A 1984 away European Cup semi-final tie with Roma had been mired in controversy. In 2011, Roma’s director admitted that £50,000 had been paid to match referee Michel Vautrot to secure an advantage towards the Italian club after they suffered a 2-0 defeat during the first leg at Tannadice.

Circumstances which shame the European game led to a 3-0 result for Roma, it was undoubtedly what Jock Stein (who was there that night) would’ve called “a sickener”. Had it been a fair competition we are left with the thought of what might have been. 

On hearing the news McLean suggested they could’ve halted Liverpool’s fourth European Cup. As a master tactician, “Wee Jim” was often years ahead of the competition, he brought in sports psychologists, weight trainers, dieticians and introduced formations that wouldn’t become fashionable for decades. 

Jim McLean was undoubtedly an innovator and one of the best coaches these islands could claim in the 1980s. I’ll leave the last words to Paul Sturrock. “To play for a club like Dundee United against Liverpool in a European Cup final would have been a career highlight but not many people beat Barcelona in their own back yard, every game was big but that was a high point.”