“Awaken its powers, and it will respect itself”
Two years ago I visited Dens Park and argued that across their whole history Dundee might possibly be able to claim the status of ‘Top Dogs on Tayside’. When I was laddie however, today’s hosts Dundee United weren’t just the dominant side in the City of Discovery they were one of the greatest in the land, regularly defeating the best a whole continent had to offer. The Arabs might have been largely a second tier side from their formation as Dundee Hibernian in 1909 until the beginning of the sixties, but from the late seventies until the mid-nineties United were an almighty force to be reckoned with.
Spurred on by defeat to Celtic in their inaugural Scottish Cup Final of 1974, The Terrors’ first ever taste of national silverware came in the form of twin League Cup wins in 1979 and 1980. The latter triumph came as a result of a 3-0 victory over their dark blue city rivals in what must have marked United’s official emergence from beneath Dundee’s shadow. Three years later the Scottish Premier League flag arrived at Tannadice for the first and only time, it was a magnificent achievement in a tight and competitive division where the champions finished one point clear of both Celtic and Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen. While United never won the league again they continued to be contenders, finishing third in the next four campaigns and never dropping below fifth place for the remainder of the decade. The last part of the domestic treble, the Scottish Cup, proved hardest to come by. After that loss to The Hoops in ’74 The Arabs tasted defeat in a further five finals before victory came in the 1994 Hampden showpiece with a 1-0 win over Rangers. Sadly for the tangerine faithful lifting the cup heralded the end of their club’s golden era.
If United impressed domestically during that time then they simply amazed on the continent over their fourteen consecutive seasons of European football. In 1984 they made it to a European Cup semi-final only to exit the tournament in controversial fashion against Roma. Then over two nights in May of 1987 they contested a UEFA Cup Final, with IFK Goteburg the opponents. Alas they were defeated, fairly and squarely this time, 2-1 on aggregate. Throughout their decade and a half long European odyssey United handed out skelpings to big sides on a regular basis, with clubs like AS Monaco, Borussia Monchengladbach, PSV Eindhoven and Anderlecht falling to the tangerine team from Tannadice. The biggest scalp however came during the ’87 UEFA Cup run in the form of Catalan giants Barcelona. Having already been defeated home and away by The Arabs in the 1966/67 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, Barca returned to Tannadice on the 4th of March 1987 seeking revenge they would never get. United won 1-0 at home with future Blackburn Rovers man Kevin Gallacher the scorer. A fortnight later at Camp Nou John Clark and Iain Ferguson stunned the Spanish as United ran out 2-1 winners. History shows that against Barcelona Dundee United have played four and won four; a 100% record.
The reason for Dundee United’s success in this era is well know, coming in the form of a seemingly normal man with virtually supernatural managerial powers; Jim McLean. Born on the second of August 1937 in Larkhall and raised in nearby Ashgill, McLean was the product of a maternal grandfather who played for Rangers, prior to The Great War, and a father who converted to the stringent Brethren faith. Football and strict Christian values were therefore a large part of his childhood and continued to be during his entire life thus far. Leaving school to become an apprentice joiner he also became the third member of his family to play for Larkhall Thistle in the Junior grade before Hamilton Academical came in with an offer of full time football. After spending the sixties at Clyde and Dundee he finished his playing career alongside brother Tommy down at Kilmarnock. With the on pitch period of his career over he became a coach at Dundee before being offered the reigns at Tannadice in December of 1971. McLean was just 34 years old.
At this point you may be interested to read that this very writer’s family became part of the Dundee United story at McLean’s arrival due to the new manager starting a large scale, co-ordinated youth policy at the club. I’ve said before, my maternal grandfather was a Lochee man who ‘promoted’ himself to the status of Clackmannanshire resident. The rest of his family remained and in Lyndhurst Terrace his nephew Jim Clark and wife Mary opened their home to a succession of young United players that McLean brought to the club. The likes of Paul Sturrock and John Clark resided with my second cousins who were responsible for keeping the young stars off the drink, on curfew, well fed and looked after. Mum says that essentially “they treated them just like their ain” and as a result it created bonds for life; Jim and Mary attended Sturrock’s wedding while Mum recalls my Dad being inappropriately starstruck seeing ‘Luggy’ at Mary’s funeral. During the time they were connected to the club Jim McLean was a regular visitor, often popping in for a cuppa, yet despite any developing friendship between them his insistence on being addressed as ‘Mr McLean’ always firmly remained.
I arrived in Dundee on Friday night and enjoyed a few beers in some favourite old haunts like Dukes Corner and BrewDog Dundee before some excellent lamb chops in Rishi’s on Hawkhill. The next morning I was ready to try some new pubs on the way to the game and had an old Arab friend with me as a guide. However before venturing to pastures new we had one more old favourite to visit.
The Phoenix in the city centre’s Nethergate is a real Dundonian institution, its deep red façade with golden mythical bird above the door a well known sight to locals and visitors alike. Inside it is simply unique, a room where taxidermied stag and bull heads are displayed next to old metal signs and framed prints of famous Scottish Colourist paintings (one portrait has a cracking set of tits on it). At the front of the building light comes from the outside via a stunning stained glass window adorned with twin phoenixes.
There are a grand selection of drinks with bottles galore on the shelf behind the bar, but the selection of cask ales catch my eye. I go for a pint of ‘Eighty Bob’ from a brewery I’m unfamiliar with, Strathbraan from Dunkeld, and it is very good drinking. At places like this is the temptation to say ‘sod the football’ and stay there all day is massive. While I bet many have fallen into that trap I manage to get myself out and into a taxi to my next destination.
On my trips to Dens Park and Dundee North End I’ve been to several boozers that cater to both Dees and Arabs so it is interesting that the next stop I’m guided to is a proper, partisan United place: The Snug Bar on Church Street. If you were unaware beforehand you’d know it was pro-Tannadice in seconds thanks to its tangerine walls, framed shirts and historic posters coming at you from all directions. Most impressive of all however is the bar front which has had old newspaper reports about United glory days printed large upon the wood. It is really cool and something I ain’t seen on my travels before.
Behind the bar two black clad young ladies are eager to serve us drinks and with a drooth from last night a dark fruits cider is needed for me. I sup while looking at the memorabilia on the walls as well as observing an auld couple argue on a bit of waste ground across the street. Behind them Dens makes a pretty stunning backdrop, how many supporters pubs in the land have another teams ground as the vista from its windows I wondered.
After The Snug we head towards the ground to a very unusually named pub with very possibly a unique theme; The Troll Inn. With only allotments between it and the towering exterior of the Eddie Thompson Stand this is a fine establishment to have a final pint in, it is also perfect if you are a fan of trolls. Yes this wee bar in the shadow of Tannadice is, for some ridiculous reason, fully troll themed and they ain’t the colourful plastic ones my sister collected as a bairn. This pub is covered in grotesque brown mythical beings from the giant one behind the bar to smaller assortments on various shelves, there are even some friendlier looking groups in framed pictures adorning every wall. It is utterly, utterly bizarre and completely insane. Without a word of a lie Davie Dodds & Stevie Fulton could hide in here easily and probably feel quite at home.
I seem to be the only one weirded out by the surroundings as this busy pub is doing a roaring pre-match trade. Given that two pints of Tennents are just a fiver I can see why. There ain’t much room to move but I am able to see the telly where former Arab Duncan Ferguson is leading Everton to victory over Chelsea in his first game as interim manager. For all the weirdness this is a nice place, drawing in punters of all ages. I need to come back when it is quiet however, just to ask the owner what the hell is going on with the bloody trolls.
Tannadice ain’t much to look at from the outside, built more for practicality than asthetics, but inside it is one of the more impressive Scottish stadiums I have seen. The Thompson Stand behind one goal and the George Fox on the touchline across from me are matching and imposing two tier affairs. They remind me strongly of the stands you could buy for your Subutteo pitch, but we’re a bit expensive for Santa to bring me back in the day. The Carling Stand is almost a carbon copy of Pittodrie’s Merkland End; an ancient terracing with seats glued on and a pitched, corrugated roof stuck over the top of it.
Courtesy of striker Nicky Clark I’ve scored a free ticket today, saving a massive twenty four quid on entry, and this puts me in the sparsely populated Jerry Kerr Stand. It is highly unusual, a single tier raised some twenty feet above pitch level with great views but a roof hanging over you like a claw. Overall it is a fine ground, a great mix of modern stadium and old memories. If the Carling end was replaced to the standard of its counterpart behind the other goal we’d be looking at one of the greatest stadiums in the land. Importantly its location right in the heart of this great city helps make it so special.
The UEFA Cup against Barcelona this was not, The Arabs are in their fourth consecutive season down in the Championship but are running away with it this season, part-timers Alloa Athletic not expected to mount much of a challenge this particular afternoon. United started on all cylinders, McMullan, Louis Appere and Clark linking up well to be denied several early chances. However in an ironic twist The Wasps, dressed all in white like a Pendle clad Real Madrid, took the lead on eleven minutes. Former Don Mark Reynolds heading a Scott Taggart cross into his own net as the handful of away support went wild.
Dundee United battled harder for a goal but struggled for the rest of the half. Alloa were great at making a final tackle or block while a couple of Arabs were guilty of taking too many touches before getting a shot away. Clark looked dangerous on the six yard line but strangely took the many corners instead of being in amongst it to nod home. It was Clark who saved his side from a half time roasting however, as he drew United level at forty five minutes plus two.
The second half was largely a repeat of the first with Alloa solid at the back. That was until Appere was left alone at the rear post to stick away an Ian Harkes cross, the winning goal. The Wasps kept it entertaining to the end and there were chances for both sides in the closing minutes, United fans roared for the referee to blow the final whistle and the sense of relief was clear when he did.
Usually the journey home gives me time to contemplate the day that has just unfolded, this trip home however was very much different. Due to train cancellations and rail replacement buses I blagged myself on to a mini bus full of Alloa supporters heading back to my native Clackmannanshire. For an hour and ten minutes men of all ages belted out a medley of seventies funk classics as the formidable wummin behind the wheel navigated in the pitch black through heavy winds and rain. Thanks to them I got home two hours ahead of what ScotRail could manage with nerves only slightly shredded.
Back home I let my nerves calm down and let my mind wander back to the day. Dundee is drinkers heaven, both at its centre and out towards the football grounds. What were the chances of visiting two different pubs themed after mythical creatures in the same day? I’ve been to Phoenix Bars, Taverns or Inns before of course but today was my first troll boozer, a place that I never will forget.
As for the game my only gripe is that United and Scotland star Lawrence Shankland was on the bench. The Arabs current superstar, it was a bit like arriving at an 80s NWA wrestling show to discover Ric Flair had been removed from the card. However I was impressed with United who showed fighting character in a game they probably didn’t expect to be so tight. Robbie Neilson might be no Jim McLean but he has them well organised and playing some lovely stuff with quality passing on the deck. Dundee United will go up this season, that’s a certainty, but more importantly there are a core of players at Tannadice who belong in the top division and who can keep the club up there. The top table of Scottish football awaits United once more and once they reach it they might have some more good times again.