“This is it,” thought Paul Sturrock before stepping out at the Nou Camp 30 years ago. If he didn’t play well on this particular night, in that iconic arena, then he never would.
He did play well as it happens, as did his team-mates.
One of the most striking parts of a new documentary chronicling Dundee United’s run to the Uefa Cup final in 1987 is an interview with manager Jim McLean, pictured, in which he conveys his absolute belief in his players.
“If we play to the best of our ability, we’ll win,” he stressed in an archive interview shot during training on the eve of the second leg of their quarter-final with Barcelona.
Not wanting to prove their stern manager wrong, United did win – 2-1.
Sturrock crowned a brilliant personal performance with a trademark, socks-round-the-ankles, left-wing run on the way to setting up Iain Ferguson’s decisive goal. Gary Lineker, who played up front alongside Mark Hughes for Barcelona, collared him afterwards.
“Lineker said he couldn’t believe I was playing out on the left wing,” recalled Sturrock. “He had never seen me playing out on the left wing. He thought it was unbelievable. He was a centre-forward and he said he didn’t understand you could play in two different positions. That’s what we chatted about. I think Hughes was going through such a bad spell at the time he just jumped in his car and was off!”
With injuries beginning to niggle, Sturrock was starting to feel the strain by this epic season, when United played 70 league and cup games. He retired at the end of the 1988-89 season aged just 32.
Still too early, he now admits. However, Sturrock suspects he, and several others, could scent “the end of the empire”. United’s truly great era was fading though they did win the Scottish Cup for the first time in 1994.
“I took two six-inch nails after we got beat 1-0 by Hamilton out here (in 1989) and hammered my boots into the boot-room,” he recalled.
“I probably retired two years too early but there was a wee sniff of us all coming to the end of our tether. About three or four months into coaching, I had a hankering to play. It came back there and then for a couple of seasons until you knew you could not get back into physical condition to do it.
“I knew I would be a manager some day. I was picking up so many injuries. I think between 1987 and 1989 I played a handful of games. So it was really the injuries that put me off.”
Illustrating the cruel ravages of time between a display of bravura in the Nou Camp and the present day is Sturrock’s admission he recently pulled a hamstring while making a comeback.
Fair enough. He is 60 after all.
But this was walking football he points out (although he did go on to score a hat-trick).
“I stay in Liskeard in Cornwall now,” he explains. “My pub is the White Hart in Menheniot, I am the walking football manager – I was that annoyed with them the other week there I brought myself on and scored a hat-trick.
“I pulled a hamstring with my first shot on goal – this is walking football I may add!
“I am the quizmaster once a month and my old cricket club in Plymouth is called TACC– the Total Abuse Cricket Club. You have to be over 55 and I’m now building my own cricket club called the Menheniot Marauders, and we will now be challenging other cricket teams. So that’s it… I’m basically enjoying myself.”
Sturrock will never, it seems, return to Angus to manage one of the local clubs, as he once said he would.
He is enjoying a new life in south-east Cornwall, where his partner, Andrea, has four horses, two Chihuahuas and a cockatiel. “They keep me busy,” he said.
l Paul Sturrock was speaking to promote purpleTV’s new film, Tannadice 87. It will air on Saturday 20 May at 9pm on BBC ALBA, marking the 30th anniversary of United’s run to the Uefa Cup final.