On This Day: Dundee United reach Uefa Cup final in 1987

Dundee United graphic

Some blame Bruce Springsteen. Others point to goalkeeper Billy Thomson almost losing an ear in Sweden, or fatigue at the end of a 70-game season. But speak to those involved in Dundee United's 1987 Uefa Cup final defeat, and they all return to the same thing as being decisive.

An epic campaign - one that included home and away wins over Barcelona, a historic victory at Borussia Moenchengladbach, and a fortuitous cup draw at Forfar - came down to five days in May. Five days, two games, two trophies. Neither of which Jim McLean's side would win.

Looking back, the United players struggle to emotionally untwine the two contests. The first was supposed to be a first Scottish Cup triumph for the club at the fourth attempt, an entirely winnable game against St Mirren in which the favourites had an extra-time effort disallowed before the Paisley side snatched an unlikely winner.

The expected celebrations were cancelled, but a horrendous hangover was still clouding United minds a few days later when they welcomed Gothenburg to Dundee with a 1-0 first-leg deficit to overturn.

"Losing in Sweden wasn't a disaster, but the St Mirren game was," says defender Maurice Malpas.

Iain Ferguson, denied a Hampden goal by a debatable offside decision, said it just left them "utterly deflated".

"Aye, that was the killer," agrees fellow forward Paul Sturrock.

So the mood was low, but hopes were still high of European redemption in front of 21,000 at Tannadice. United's plan was to score first and seize control, but Lennart Nilsson bounded a drive past Thomson midway through the first half to give the Swedes an away goal.

Ferguson would hit the bar before John Clark scored a splendid leveller on the hour, but it was not enough as Gothenburg held on. "We gave it every solitary ounce, but we had nothing left when we needed it most," bemoaned McLean, with uncommon understanding.

Similarly charitable was the standing ovation the United fans gave to the victorious Swedes, with plenty of locals still loitering inside Tannadice a couple of hours after the game. "I was late getting out because I got done for the drugs test and couldn't muster a pee," recalls Malpas. "It was a couple of hours before I left and they were still singing and dancing."

A chasing in France & Trivial Pursuit

Malpas would join the rest of the team at Hamish McAlpine's pub, with Ferguson sharing a hazy recollection of "seven or eight players and Richard Gough" wedging themselves into a car to get there. And it was only during the lock-in at 'The Goalie' that the United players were able to reflect upon the magnitude of what they had achieved that season.

Unbeaten in the league until mid-October, they would eventually finish third after faltering in the spring, and reached the last four of the League Cup as well as those two May finals.

But, at one stage, their Uefa Cup run looked in danger of lasting just one round. "We got an absolute chasing by Lens in France," says Malpas. "They were lightning and technically brilliant, but could only score once."

A 2-0 win at Tannadice overturned that defeat and was followed by a 3-0 win over Universitatea Craiova, before an eye-opening trip to communist Romania, which was still three years away from revolting. "We took our own food and chef," Malpas explains. "He had to bribe the staff to get a bit of meat and when he put wee packets of cornflakes on the tables for breakfast, they were swiped because it was such an impoverished place."

A depleted United escaped with a 1-0 defeat before easing past Hadjuk Split 2-0 on aggregate after a goalless draw in Yugoslavia. "We'd got to a stage in Europe where we really enjoyed it," Malpas says. "We'd train hard at Tannadice on a Monday morning, fly out, train again in the stadium on the Monday night and pass the time playing Trivial Pursuit and cards."

'Wee Jim sacked the psychologist in the dressing room'

That sense of fun was jolted when the draw for the quarter-finals paired United with Barcelona, who had been just a penalty shootout away from winning the previous season's European Cup. It was the fourth time in the six years that McLean's side had reached the last eight of a continental competition, but expectations both inside and outside the camp were low.

This was a Barcelona managed by Terry Venables, with Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes in attack, and a smattering of Spaniards who had gone deep in the previous summer's World Cup. And yet they left a heaving Tannadice beaten after Kevin Gallacher's astonishing early goal. "The wee man said he'd practised it in training, but I must have been off that day," says Ferguson, who had been ineligible until that stage.

Iain Ferguson
Iain Ferguson wheels away after Kevin Gallacher scores against Barcelona at Tannadice

Between then and the second leg at the Nou Camp, United were held at home by Clydebank, drew the derby at Dens, then needed a stoppage-time Ferguson penalty to earn a Scottish Cup quarter-final replay with Forfar. "Wee Jim sacked the psychologist in the dressing room after that game..." recalls Sturrock.

But they were revived for the trip to Barcelona. "I remember the long corridor from the dressing rooms - it would cost £3 in an Uber," recalls Ferguson. "Then you walked past the wee chapel and went up the stairs to the pitch like you were going into the Colosseum. I remember making out I was chewing gum so I looked relaxed, but I had nothing in my mouth."

Malpas remembers a "strange atmosphere" in the half-empty stadium as the locals whistled their team and being told by McLean not to panic if they conceded - which they did just before the break. But two goals in the last four minutes by Clark and Ferguson earned United an incredible victory.

"I did the Camp Nou tour a few years back," says the latter. "But I didn't mention it to anyone. Mind you, I'm still the last Scot to score there..."

'My mum had a heart attack'

United's title challenge faltered in the aftermath of their triumph, taking one point from three matches, and their next European assignment proved just as daunting. Borussia Moenchengladbach had gone out on away goals to Real Madrid the previous year, but only after thrashing the Spaniards 5-1 in Germany.

However, United had hammered them 5-0 six years earlier and fused the lingering memories of that with diligent defending to earn a goalless draw at Tannadice.

The visitors celebrated on the pitch afterwards, thinking they had done enough, but Malpas was distracted by the sight of McLean barrelling towards him. "He had come on to the pitch and I was thinking 'here we go...' but he told me to get shifted because my mum had had a heart attack."

Mercifully, Mrs Malpas recovered - "she was fine but Billy Thomson got stopped for speeding after picking me up" - and her boy was able to travel for the second leg.

Jupp Heynckes' Borussia had not lost a European game at home in 54 games, spanning 17 years, and had done for Rangers earlier in the competition, but United again defended stoutly and this time scored through Ferguson and Ian Redford to earn a place in the final.

"I don't think these teams always took us seriously," says Ferguson. And Malpas can see why. "As individuals, we were bang average. But together, we were a right good team," he says.

Springsteen, regrets & the Forfarshire Cup

Paul Sturrock
Dundee United's Paul Sturrock in action during the Tannadice leg of the final

The same could be said for Gothenburg, who lay in wait in the final. The Swedes' recent European pedigree was even more impressive than United's, having won the Uefa Cup in 1982 and reached the last four of the European Cup the previous term after overcoming Aberdeen.

Ferguson was suspended - "I was booked for dissent in Germany but I didn't know I was out until later" - and was part of BBC Scotland's commentary team.

However, it was clear even from his vantage point that the pitch was not in good shape - the legacy of a Springsteen concert a couple of years earlier that almost caused the collapse of the Ullevi Stadium because of the weight bearing down on the soft soil. "It was the worst we'd played on all season," recalls Sturrock. "They played for set pieces and it paid off."

Just before the break, Thomson - who needed five stitches in an ear injury after just five minutes and played on with double vision - could only watch in horror as a Stefan Pettersson downward header from a corner reared up freakishly off the bobbly surface and away from his grasp.

Regardless, McLean was adamant the outcome still gave United "a tremendous chance" at Tannadice. But that was before St Mirren at Hampden deflated an already weary squad. "We had a big meeting on the Monday morning and knew we had to lift ourselves," says Malpas.

"I actually watched the game the other night and we didn't play badly," adds Sturrock of the second leg of the final. "But losing a goal so early knocked the stuffing out of us and we were knackered. I still feel a bit aggrieved that we didn't get the chance to move some of those games."

Malpas refuses to blame fatigue - "we couldnae even spell it" - but still wonders what might have been. "We had two hits at winning a cup and we missed both of them," he says ruefully.

The Uefa Cup, Scottish Cup, League Cup and championship all eluded United, leaving the Forfarshire Cup as the only bit of silverware to show for their efforts that season. "It just leaves a sour taste," says Ferguson. "We did so much that season, but came away with nothing."

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