Amid the haze of time and of booze that has obscured their recollections, the one thing they all remember is the clock. Even 30 years on, Paul Hegarty swears it stopped at 4.30pm, while the Dundee derby veteran Hamish McAlpine confesses it was only that afternoon that he first noticed it hanging above the tunnel at Dens Park. It is no longer there, having apparently been removed for safety reasons, but it retains a special place in the memories of the players who earned Dundee United their solitary top tier title.
It was on 14 May 1983 that Jim McLean’s side won the league at Dens, beating their city rivals 2-1 to hold off the challenges of Celtic and Aberdeen. An Aberdeen side, lest we forget, who had hoisted the Cup Winners’ Cup three days earlier against Real Madrid in Gothenburg and would go on to secure the Scottish Cup under the command of Alex Ferguson the following weekend.
It made for a remarkable climax to the campaign, the top three being separated by just one point having scored 256 goals between them and with the prospect of a play-off to decide the champions remaining alive until the final few seconds of the season. As it was, United’s victory ensured that they were the ones flying the flag, Aberdeen’s 5-0 skelping of Hibernian and Celtic’s 4-2 triumph over Rangers at Ibrox being rendered moot by the Tannadice side’s 24th league win of the campaign.
While the venue of their coronation made it more special, their succession only came after a fraught finale in front of 29,106 fans wedged inside a heaving Dens Park. “It was very tense and nervy and was a game I didn’t enjoy,” says the winger Eamonn Bannon. “And I remember just being physically and mentally drained. You see players go mental after they win leagues but I was very subdued. We didn’t play well and it was a real anticlimax for me. I just felt shattered.”
Such emotions are understandable in the circumstances but the game had started better than the league leaders could have hoped. Ralph Milne marked the weekend of his 22nd birthday with a goal so breathtaking that it has since become immortalised in song.
On the 14th of May, 1983,
Six minutes into the half,
The ball soared over Kelly’s head,
And it was Happy Birthday, Ralph.
The lyrics do not do justice to the moment. Davie Narey won the ball in the United half and guided it into the centre circle for Paul Sturrock, who pivoted and shunted a pass into the path of Milne. The winger almost reluctantly assumed possession near the halfway line and casually shuffled past Stewart McKimmie before ambling forward, his strides lengthening as he advanced. Eventually, he seemed to tire of such exertions, glanced up and nonchalantly chipped the ball over the goalkeeper Colin Kelly from 25 yards.
The bloated and broken figure of Milne bore scant resemblance to the lithe, if somewhat scruffy, talisman upon whom the United players converged that day in 1983. Usually deployed on the right – although equally adept at playing off a central striker – the Dundonian was a key tactical pawn in McLean’s innovative formation, something Sturrock describes as an early 4-5-1 in which many of the components were adaptable. “Jim McLean was a genius as far as I was concerned,” Sturrock once said.
“His training was revolutionary and his coaching transformed me. When I joined the club, I was a running-type striker, all left foot. He said I had to do extra work on crossing and shooting with both feet and getting the ball fed into me. I worked so hard on it, three afternoons a week for three or four years, that I could run you into the channel, I could come short or I could turn you. I was probably three strikers rolled into one. A lot of players will be very thankful for the work wee Jim did with them. As for his man-management skills? Well, that’s another debate.”
McLean, after all, withheld his side’s £50 entertainment bonus after a 7-0 win over Kilmarnock in the December of that season, reasoning that, having scored five times before the interval, they did not do enough in the second half to keep the crowd engaged. “We weren’t best pleased but that’s just the way he was,” says McAlpine, chuckling. “We’d all played together for a few years and our success was built on that spirit. We were all on the same wages, which I think was the lowest in the league, but the bonuses were great so you had to win to get some decent dosh.”
It was not the first time, and neither would it be the last, that the manager employed such a tactic. However, such methods helped foster a togetherness among his young squad, who banded together against a manager whom they all respected but very few actually liked. Take Bannon, for example, a favourite target for McLean’s ire. He was too clever for his own good, the manager thought, and too willing to defend himself when criticised; so much so that former team-mates recall jostling for seats to the winger’s right because of the manager’s habit of working round the dressing-room in an anti-clockwise direction when berating his players.
McAlpine recalls that during the interval that day at Dens, Bannon was upbraided for missing a 17th-minute penalty kick, even though he reacted quickest to lash the rebound past the prone Kelly. “I was never nervous taking penalties,” the winger says. “But I remember having to wait three or four minutes to take it and there was all sorts going on around me. I made the mistake of changing my mind and the keeper saved it but I was lucky it came back to me and I whacked it in.”
Regardless of such fortune, the two-goal advantage appeared to confirm that the title was heading to Tannadice. But there was still time for a twist. Iain Ferguson – who would score the winner for United when they came from behind to beat Barcelona at Camp Nou four years later – rifled past McAlpine before the break to haul Dundee back into the game and set United nerves jangling. “It really rattled us,” says Bannon. “We got anxious and starting booting the ball rather than passing it.”
The game remained delicately poised. “Your deadliest enemies could stop you winning the league; can you imagine the pressure? You had to live in the town; if they had been able to do that, it would have become folklore,” said Sturrock, speaking before Dundee added their own chapter to the tale by officially confirming United’s relegation from the Premiership with a 2-1 win at Dens in May this year.
Sturrock had been unable to train during the previous couple of months because of a pulled hamstring, but played every game during the run-in until the muscle finally ruptured that day. “It felt like another 90 minutes,” he recalls of the half hour he spent watching from the bench. “Every time the ball went in the box you were cringing. I couldn’t watch the last couple of minutes, it was so nervy.”
So much so that, even United’s phlegmatic goalkeeper was panicking. “I kept shouting to the dugout ‘how long to go?’ because we were hanging on,” says McAlpine, a penalty-taking, crossbar-swinging, cult hero. “The final few minutes seemed like an eternity.”
That it took until the last few moments of the campaign for such doubts to creep in were a consequence of United thinking their title hopes were over after losing 2-0 at Celtic Park in April. That defeat left them three points off the pace with another trip to Parkhead pending. “At that point, I honestly believed the league was beyond us,” McLean later admitted. “In fact, it’s a miracle that we’ve won this title. At the start of the season, I certainly didn’t believe we’d be champions, simply because we have no depth of pool. Twelve players – the 12 who played against Dundee at Dens – have achieved this tremendous success.”
The manager was being a little disingenuous with his claim, given 20 different players made league appearances for United that season, but the statistics were remarkable enough to need no exaggeration. Only 14 men played more than five times over the course of the campaign; six were native to the city; 10 had come through the youth ranks; and transfer fees were paid for just two, a sum of £192,000 being lavished on Hegarty and Bannon.
McLean had spent 12 years building a team to win the championship and spent a further decade attempting to emulate them, but in that one glorious season it all fell into place. “That United team, it was an exceptional side,” says Sturrock. “People forget that the following season we got to the European Cup semi-final against Roma. We beat them 2-0 at Tannadice and lost 3-0 in Italy, then found out that the referee had taken a bribe. So we could have been in the final against Liverpool. I mean, Dundee United? It’s incredible really.”
The same could be said of the conclusion to their campaign. United’s shallow squad roused themselves to win their final six matches and overhaul both Celtic and Aberdeen. Each of those games, including three consecutive 4-0 wins ahead of the decider, were vital but one in particular stands out: having lost at Parkhead in April, United returned to Glasgow and secured a surprise 3-2 victory, despite the dismissal of Richard Gough. “That was the turning point, a real game-changer because it put us a point ahead having been written off,” insists Bannon. “All of a sudden we had our noses in front and we kept winning from there on in.”
For all that he recognises its importance, Bannon’s recall of the game is sketchy. “I remember the pitch being like a beach, big Goughie getting sent off and Ralph scoring a great goal but beyond that… did we get a penalty?” They did. And Bannon scored it, adding to Hegarty’s opener before another virtuoso effort by Milne, who took a cross on his chest and lashed a 25-yard volley past Packie Bonner. The winger had also scored twice before being sent off in the win at Pittodrie a few weeks earlier. “Ralph, that season, was fantastic,” says Hegarty. “There were games that either he or Paul Sturrock won almost by themselves.”
The triumph in Glasgow moved McLean’s men within a point of Celtic and they went top for the first time that weekend, towsing Kilmarnock while Celtic were losing to Aberdeen, who were four behind with two games in hand. The failure of Alex Ferguson’s side to win at Easter Road seven days later, coupled with another thumping United win at Morton, ensured it was in their own hands. “It clicked for me that we had a right good chance with about five games to go,” says McAlpine. “But that game at Cappielow is the one that stands out for me because I remember the club organising buses for the fans.”
“Aye, that was a nice move by Wee Jim,” adds Bannon. “It was like rent-a-crowd and it made a massive difference because our lack of away support meant we were at a disadvantage compared to Rangers, Celtic and Aberdeen and really had to win games off our own back. That makes it even more remarkable.”
So, too, does the fact United played a chunk of that match without a recognised goalkeeper after McAlpine went off injured. “I got a stud above my hip, which left a hole above the bone and seized me up a bit,” McAlpine recalls. “But I hung on until we were 3-0 up before I went off and we always knew Heggy was more than capable anyway…”
“It didn’t feel that way at the time,” says Hegarty, who pulled on the gloves and maintained United’s clean sheet. “I was almost as nervous as the day at Dens, worrying about what Wee Jim would say if I let one in…”
By then, the superstitious McLean was already riven with anxiety, the tension having built to such an extent that he steadfastly refused to arrange any official celebrations before the title was won. Hegarty recalls the players leaving Dens and wandering the 100 yards or so down Tannadice Street for a drink in the United boardroom, before being obliged to attend a supporters’ function in Coupar Angus, then retiring to Frank Kopel’s house, the defender and his wife having decided to host an impromptu party that continued until the early hours.
Bannon was there, too, but still nurses a sense of regret that “Wee Jim was too miserable to rent a place” for a proper party. “It was very subdued afterwards and everything was off the cuff and a bit low key,” he recalls. “I wish there had been an organised event as a club. Years later, when I was a coach at Hibs, we lost the League Cup final to Rangers but still went back to a hotel in Edinburgh and had a great night. I wish we had done something like that.”
Not everyone had such a restrained evening, though. Sturrock has a hazy memory of the manager, dressed in his pyjamas, kicking him out of his house at 7am; something that McAlpine also remembers. “Ken this, I couldn’t tell you most of what happened because we had a right few bevvies,” he says. “God knows where we went but I know we were in Wee Jim’s house for a while and Luggy reckons he was given a swearing.”
“I know this much,” Sturrock adds, grinning. “We partied big time. For about four days solid, we were never home.”
The party continued at Station Park the following afternoon, McLean having committed to taking a strong team to play a benefit match for Billy Bennett and John Clark. Almost every member of the league-winning side played some part despite many of them being barely able to stand, never mind run, with the injured Sturrock despatched by his hungover team-mates to find food to soak up the alcohol. “I was sent to find a man who had a shop that sold bridies,” Sturrock said. “Some boy told me where the guy lived so I knocked on his door. I don’t know if he was the baker, but he had a key, and he went round to heat them up. That was my job for the day, bringing back pies and bridies for all the players. The subs were even eating them in the dugout.
“We lost the game 2-1 and Wee Jim wasn’t too happy. If I remember rightly, he picked near enough every player that had played the day before. It was quite incredible. Half the players couldn’t stand up. They had been drinking all night. We were pished out of our minds.”
“I don’t think I played…” says McAlpine, hesitantly. “But I was so bevvied that I’ve no idea. I do remember Wee Jim asking at half time if anyone wanted to come off and everyone put their hand up.”
Bannon was one of the few absentees, nursing his own hangover while being kicked up and down Easter Road by John Brownlee in a testimonial for Jim McArthur. “I was hungover and it was unbelievably wet; the roads were flooded. John was on trial for Hibs that day after breaking his leg at Newcastle and was right up for it. Two minutes in, he clattered me, which was the last thing I needed because I was just trying to get through it.”
Meanwhile, in Forfar, his colleagues were suffering just as much. “There were one or two thick heads and bleary eyes but I don’t think anyone would begrudge us,” says Hegarty, who remembers
surviving the 90 minutes. “I dunno how we got on, to be honest… but I don’t think we did particularly well. Just like the game the previous day, it seemed to go on for ever.”
This article first appeared in The Blizzard