WHILE the thoughts of the Dundee United family have mostly been elsewhere this week, it is remarkable to think that today marks the 30th anniversary of when the club stood just 90 minutes from a European Cup final.
“Once I got your message, it got me thinking about it,” said Walter Smith on Wednesday. He was the assistant manager to Jim McLean at the time and features, along with McLean, in one of the most striking Scottish football photographs of all time, taken on an early Rome evening 30 years ago today.
Smith was speaking on his way home from Kirriemuir after attending the funeral of Frank Kopel, the Dundee United stalwart who died earlier this month at the age of 65. Smith travelled to Angus in the company of Billy Kirkwood, the former United midfielder who played in the tie. “We were talking away about that semi-final,” he said. “They were really quite an amazing couple of games, I must say.”
The first leg at Tannadice was memorable enough. Scottish clubs do not often build two-goal advantages in European Cup semi-finals against Serie A opposition. United’s job when they landed in Rome on Easter Monday, two days after a 1-1 derby draw with Dundee, was to defend this lead. They had not counted on the need to also protect themselves.
On their arrival at Ciampino airport, it was reported that the United party, augmented by the presence of Scotland manager Jock Stein as well as Scottish Football Association president David Will and secretary Ernie Walker, were “besieged” by Italian journalists and television crews.
The addition of administrators such as Will and Walker perhaps reflected the controversy sparked by the first leg.
United’s high-octane performance was put down to doping by their opponents, who were not placated by McLean’s surprisingly jocular response: “If I find out what the players were on, I will make sure they take it before every game!”
According to Smith, however, the seeds for this hostility were planted during the match itself at Tannadice, which United won thanks to goals from Davie Dodds and Derek Stark, Dundonian and Fifer respectively.
The stars of Roma had already endured the discomfort of the away dressing room at Tannadice, described by Eamonn Bannon as being “like a triangular shaped corner of a local pub”. Nils Liedholm identified Bannon as being the man who made the Tannadice team tick. In the first leg, every United player was on fire, and their opponents were rattled.
“At one point the ball arrived at our dugout, and Jim threw it back to Bruno Conti,” Smith explained. “He patted the ball back and it hit Jim. He claimed that Jim had said something to him: ‘You Italian whatever’. I certainly never heard anything in the dugout.”
Conti, who had won the World Cup with Italy two years earlier, claimed McLean had called him an “Italian bastard”, something the manager later vehemently denied. “But the Italians used this apparent slur to wind themselves up,” recalled Smith.
If the plan was to create an especially partisan atmosphere for the return leg, it worked. Rather than being cowed, Smith described the atmosphere as “tremendous”. However, he accepts the mood did darken at the end, despite a strangely muted United having fallen to a decisive 3-0 defeat. It meant they missed out on the chance to contest the final of Europe’s greatest club competition against a Liverpool side including Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen and Steve Nicol. As many as 15 Scots could have taken the field in Rome, where the final was scheduled to take place.
Indeed, the knowledge that this was the prize on offer is one reason why Roma seemed so desperate to prevail, to the extent that it later transpired they made moves to bribe the French referee, Michel Vautrot. Failure to reach a final held in their own Stadio Olimpico was not an option.
Those United players who were out on the pitch might now reflect that it was the safest place to be. As the name of the stadium would indicate, an athletics track ringed the park. The fans, more than 90,000 of them, were positioned a fair distance away, behind a high fence. Some were still able to hurl fruit at the opposition players. If you watch television pictures now, the referee can still be seen picking up oranges from the pitch mid-way through the second half, by which time the Scottish visitors were trailing 3-0.
With the clock on the large scoreboard reading 17.21 (unusually the match kicked-off at 3.30pm in the afternoon), United were out. But the battle wasn’t over. With the Italian television cameras focused elsewhere, commentator Archie Macpherson attempted to describe what was happening: “You can’t see this, but some of the Roma players ran across and it looked as if they were taunting Jim McLean, the manager. In fact, it looks as if they have followed him down the tunnel. A rather ugly scene was developing as they went down the tunnel.”
It is before they disappeared from view that the photograph illustrating this article was taken. Defender Sebastiano Nela, who was involved in a spat with Paul Hegarty in injury time, is the one dominating the image as he gives McLean the one-finger salute. Smith’s reaction was one of puzzlement, then amazement, and later, down in the tunnel, he quickly became concerned for McLean’s welfare.
“I could not quite understand why their players were not celebrating. Instead, they were wasting their time trying to antagonise Jim McLean and myself,” he said.
“We had to go up that tunnel. There was a bit of a fracas in the tunnel. You had to go through a single door after going up this big tunnel – it was just an ordinary door at the end of it. So there was a complete bottle-neck. We were last there – Jim, myself and John Gardiner, who was the reserve team goalie. And there was a bit of a brawl, in which we were probably on the receiving end!”
In Jousting with Giants, an autobiography published three years later, McLean notes their police protection, previously ever present on the trip, had mysteriously disappeared. “Behind me I could hear scuffles as people tried to attack me,” he recalled. “I now know that Walter Smith and our reserve goalkeeper John Gardiner kept them away from me. They saved me from what might have been serious injury.”
Smith reflects on the episode with a certain wry amusement, referring to himself as “the bouncer”. In truth, they were all too consumed by annoyance to be drawn into a full-scale punch-up. “That was the disappointing thing for Jim and myself, having got there,” he recalled. “How many opportunities do Dundee United get, one, to win the league championship and then, two, to reach that stage of the European Cup? It was a massive disappointment for everyone.
“If we had gone there at 0-0 you might have said, if we had lost the second leg, ‘Ach well, it was a good job getting there’. Because United had a reasonable record away from home – Jim set up his team very well to make them very difficult to beat – we were as confident away from home as we were at home. So there is a regret there.”
Smith is tickled by Paul Sturrock’s admirable efforts to engage Uefa president Michel Platini in meaningful discourse about organising ‘runners-up’ medals for the United players, some of whom have been irked afresh by recent confirmation from Riccardo Viola, the son of the then AS Roma chairman Dino Viola, that the referee consented to a deal on the eve of the game. “You become a wee bit philosophical about it now,” said Smith, who experienced further frustration at an equivalent stage of the same competition in 1993, when his Rangers team were knocked out of the Champions League by an Olympique de Marseille side who were later embroiled in bribery controversies.
“At the end of the day, the regret was, after going 2-0 up, we had a good chance of getting to the final,” said Smith. “That is how I look back on it over the years.”
However much we like to think Scottish football was conned out of a third European Cup final, it is important to listen to the testimony of those who were there. During commentary, Macpherson notes that Roma have scored three goals “by playing good football”. He also detects “a lack of conviction” about United, although there is one moment on which the tie hinged. When presented with an opportunity to give United a three-goal aggregate lead early on, Ralph Milne scooped his effort from a Bannon cross over the bar. “They were the better side,” accepted Smith. “We did not play as well as we normally did.”
As for the famous picture, captured by an unknown photographer in the midst of the melee, Smith reveals that he has a copy, although it is not hanging where one might expect it to be. “I have got it in the house,” he said. “It is in my loft somewhere, rather than the toilet. Someone sent it to me. I have seen it occasionally over the period of time. It is a great image. Two minutes later I was sporting a thick ear!”