THESE have been sad times at Dundee United of late. Ralph Milne’s death is the latest of those taken too early who have worn the tangerine shirt with distinction.
Ian Redford passed away in the first weeks of 2014 at the age of only 53, while Frank Kopel, another former teammate of Milne’s, succumbed to vascular dementia after years of suffering, also last year.
Milne’s death at 54 brings an extra poignancy to the tale of a player who scored what perhaps stands as United’s most significant ever goal. It might not have been the winner that he so lushly chipped over Colin Kelly’s head against Dundee in the final game of the 1982-83 season. But it set United on their way to a first and so far only Scottish league championship win.
So much the better that the 2-1 victory – Eamonn Bannon scored the other, from a rebounded penalty – came at the home of their fiercest rivals. So much the better that the star player that day was a Dundonian brought up in the housing scheme of Douglas, who was signed by the club at the age of 16 and was brought through the Tannadice ranks.
While the Boys’ Own quality of Milne’s tale didn’t quite end there – he went on to play for Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, having also featured in a European Cup semi-final for Dundee United – it had certainly veered towards tragedy by the time his death was confirmed on Sunday, from a liver condition brought on by chronic alcoholism.
A year younger than former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, who passed away earlier this year at 55, Milne’s death is another reminder of the destructive potential of alcohol. But so much the better to remember someone in the prime of his life, as so many did on social media over the weekend, as news emerged of the seriousness of Milne’s condition.
Particularly effective was the image of Milne celebrating that goal against Dundee, a figure with arms aloft picked out in tangerine in an otherwise black and photograph. There is no joy like his, a local boy made not simply good, but great.
Of course, it was not always like this at United, where success on the park came at a cost off it – hard work in training was a given, as was some alarmingly brusque man management at the hands of Jim McLean. Milne and McLean seemed forever to rub each other up the wrong way, to the extent that McLean, in his autobiography Jousting with Giants, scolds rather than salutes the man who remains United’s record goalscorer in Europe with 15 goals.
He describes Milne as his “outstanding failure”, one “who should have been playing in World Cups”, who “should have had a bundle of Scottish caps”. He claimed United fans were not saddened when he left after one fall-out too many with McLean. But this, even fully three decades later, seems hard to credit.
Certainly men like Paul Sturrock mourned his departure. It was the former winger, now manager of Yeovil, who a few days ago posted a poignant message on a United fans’ forum – “A genius when top of his game,” he wrote of Milne.
Eamonn Bannon, who was Milne’s training partner at United, is another who wished to concentrate on the player’s qualities yesterday, recalling one European goal flicked in from an impossible angle. “I thought he was an absolutely fabulous player,” he said. “He had fantastic pace, two great feet – and he was a fantastic goalscorer. This is what people don’t realise, he scored goals for fun.
“I don’t know what he would be worth in today’s market, but it would be a significant amount of money. People will always remember various goals. There was one goal when I came down the left wing and sclaffed this cross and he came in from the right – he was the mirror opposite of me – and flicked it with the outside of his right foot into the top corner. It was not even a quarter of a chance. That was what he was capable of.”
Milne, then in his mid-20s, left for England in what should have been the prime of his career. But the feeling he’d left his best days behind at Dundee United is strengthened by Milne’s annoyance at learning the Tannadice side had drawn Barcelona in the last eight of the Uefa Cup just weeks after joining Charlton.
“To say I was gutted would be a massive understatement,” he wrote, in his 2009 autobiography, What’s It All About Ralphie? “It really did leave me with a sick feeling inside.”
Remarkably, he hadn’t left the big time behind, not by a long stretch, even if it did seem like his career was in terminal decline after moving from Charlton to the third tier in English football, with Bristol City. But from this relatively obscure outpost he made it back to the top with Manchester United thanks to a Ferguson hunch that the player who caused him so many problems when Aberdeen manager could still do it.
And he didn’t do badly in that he scored three goals in 23 appearances – hardly a ruinous total and undeserving of Ferguson’s uncharacteristically flippant comment at a League Managers Association dinner six years ago that Milne, who cost only £170,000, had been his “worst buy”. Ferguson, who once paid £7.4 million for someone called Bebe who made only seven appearances for Manchester United, surely regrets the comment.
But it is McLean rather than Ferguson who looms largest in the Milne story. McLean once described it as a “tragedy” that the player was not a Scotland regular. To be fair, McLean pins some of the blame on himself, perhaps for not taking into account the self-destructive bent in Milne. But the fact he never played for Scotland isn’t the tragedy.
Rather, the tragedy is Milne’s premature passing in a hospital bed in Dundee, just 32 years after he stood on that spot at Dens Park with arms outstretched, the lord of all he surveyed.