November 28th 2009
A word of commendation about the publication today of ‘the official history of Dundee United FC’ – ‘Dundee United: the Official Centenary History’ – written by Peter Rundo and Mike Watson (1).
Rundo is United’s official match programme editor and Watson, is a former MP and MSP, who has written two previous books on United, ‘From Rags to Riches’ and ‘The Tannadice Encyclopaedia’.
This is a beautifully cared for, put together and loved book, which the authors have painstaking spent time on in research and choosing the illustrations. And it is superbly produced and published. At a time when publishers are facing all sorts of constraints – and the Scottish market increasingly tight – it is uplifting to see Birlinn, an imaginative Scottish publisher create such a high quality book on an aspect of Scotland.
Then there is the wonder and romance of the Dundee United story. Football has that, doesn’t it? Practically every human emotion under the sun. Hope, disappointment, anxiety, fear, love, hate, loyalty and attachment. And the United story is special, in a way completely unique in this small land.
The late Bob Crampsey, one of the most gentle men I ever met and the greatest authority on the game in recent decades once said, ‘In 1959 Dundee United were second bottom of the Second Division. Some people might have said then that they should go, that Dundee cant support two clubs, etc, etc. I think you’ve always got to allow for clubs ‘recovering’ themselves.’
Leaving aside that United finished third bottom that season, this was the famine before the feast, for the following year United won promotion to the top flight and so began the beginning of the glory years for United. The 1960s witnessed the introduction of Scandinavian players (a complete novelty which Morton also promoted), the famous two leg beating of Barcelona home and away in the then Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1966-67 and then the adoption of the famous tangerine colours.
I was introduced by my dad to the joys of United in I think season 1971-72 when the great Hibs team of that period came a calling and played United off the park, winning 4-1. I was bored rigid. We sat in the windy stand, high above the pitch, with little leg room. And I remember feeling uncomfortable about this ritual thing of the young boys not paying to get in, but being pushed under the turnstile by their dad.
Then came the Premier League and for most of the first season Dundee United and St Johnstone were marooned at the bottom of the league facing relegation. I can even remember for some reason I had written out the entire league placings at the twenty-two game mark: Celtic and Rangers on 30 points, Hibs on 27 and Motherwell on 26; United had 14 and St Johnstone a mere 6.
This was also a time when I was getting immersed in Subbuteo, creating my own leagues with a 52 game league (!) and engaging in mini-leagues with friends. Do you know until now I had never even made the connection between my love of Subbuteo and my discovery of the real game?
Anyway, the first SPL was a cliffhanger of epic proportions, and as the season drew to a close United found their form and started winning games and closed the gap on the teams above them. I found myself going to a Dundee v Dundee United derby which Dundee won 2-1. The gap slowly disappeared and United were left needing a point from their last game to avoid relegation which they did (a scoreless draw at Ibrox against Rangers) and Dundee went down. Until this moment they had been the dominant force in the city and United the upstarts. Now all that changed.
This was the beginning of an era and I was hooked. I went to every home game, and reading the defeatist press about the state of the Scottish game, I expected kick and rush football. Instead, I found a United team who played silky, intelligent, patient football which often got results. The team was packed with characters and talent: Hamish the goalie, Paul Sturrock, Dave Narey (of toe-poke fame), Paul Hegarty to name a few. It was fabulous. Often we beat Celtic and Rangers and we were clearly no one’s mugs and feared by everyone.
Dundee fans would chastise us by reminding us we had never won a real trophy whereas they had won the league in 1963 and even the League Cup as late as 1973. Then on a cold December day in 1979 at the outset of Thatcherism my dad took me for the first time to Hampden for a United v Aberdeen League Cup Final. He had prepared me for Hampden being a dump, but not for the National Front supporter trying to sell me the ‘Bulldog News’ outside the ground. Nor had he prepared me for one of the most boring games of footie I have ever seen. Nil nil at full time, we were practically praying for Aberdeen to score in normal time to prevent extra time. After 120 minutes there was still no score and it was on to a replay.
Then something amazing happened. The SFA allowed the replay to be played at Dens Park which was unheard of for a final. On a rainy Dundee night, a packed ground saw a renaissance United tear Aberdeen apart, and win with three beautiful goals and a potent sense of movement and things to come. I remember one of my childhood heroes, Willie Pettigrew, scoring a spectacular header, while Paul Sturrock weaved his magic on the wings. We had won our first trophy.
From there on it was action packed. We won the League Cup the following year, and just missed out on winning it a third time, with a dodgy goal disallowed against Rangers when we were already one up. The European nights began. We then won the League in 1983 at Dens (where we had won both League Cups) in a nervous last day derby against Dundee, which we won 2-1. I remember that day so well, standing with my dad. There was a palpable sense of disbelief. I also remember thinking these buggers are trying to defeat us and let one of the ‘Old Firm’ win the title!
All of this was against the most unlikely backdrop of Thatcher and mass unemployment in Dundee. The next year we got to the European Cup semi-finals and lost narrowly to the glamour boys Roma. Then we reached the UEFA Cup Final, beating Barcelona again both home and away, and Borussia Moenchengladbach, before succumbing to IFK Gothenburg in the final.
This was a major moment in my life. Then the UEFA Cup was played over two legs, home and away, and after the first leg at Gothenburg which United lost one-nil, the second leg at Tannadice was a roller coaster night. We drew one-all and lost two-one on aggregate, but the occasion of having a European final at a packed, tight Tannadice, which lots of people called ‘Tannadump’ was spectacular. At the end of the game, the United fans applauded to a man and woman our team and the winners and earned plaudits across Europe.
For me it was a huge moment, as my fragile father who had never been the same since my mum left him seven years previous, had tears running down his face at the end. It was the only time I ever saw my dad cry despite of everything he went through. I used to think there was a sadness here and there undoubtedly is, but over time I have more recognised the privilege that our love of Dundee United allowed me to see that other side of my dad and for him to show it to me.
Okay, things haven’t been as magical since. We got relegated from the SPL one year and just bounced back the year after. We won the Scottish Cup the year before we got relegated, but I could not go to that because of our Hampden jinx – giving up on going to the Glasgow finals when we lost to an awful St Mirren team in 1987.
And you know what United still retain something special and unique. I feel and maybe all football fans feel this about their club, that I have been blessed by having as the club I support, a team that have been through this journey in my years growing up. A unique experience in recent years in Scotland, perhaps in the entire history of the Scottish game.
Whatever happens with Craig Levein I have some strange sense that good times are going to come again to United. And I haven’t even mentioned the strange persona and magic of Jim McLean and what he managed to achieving putting United and the city of Dundee on the map.
1. Peter Rundo and Mike Watson, Dundee United: the Official Centenary History, Birlinn £25.