Obituary: Ralph Milne, footballer

Born: 13 May, 1961 in Dundee. Died 6 September, 2015 in Dundee

Ralph Milne pictured in 1980. Picture: Gareth Reid
Ralph Milne pictured in 1980. Picture: Gareth Reid

Ralph Milne who has died aged 54 was an outstanding Scottish footballer who was blessed with a rich array of talents. Unfortunately, like a number of Scottish players, he did not make the most of these and reach the true heights his abilities merited, mostly because of off-field issues, particularly alcohol and gambling. One of the country’s best uncapped players, his career is synonymous with Dundee United’s highly successful era in the 1980’s and especially their Premier League win in season 1982-3, their first and only top-tier success.

The title chase reached an unbelievably tense climax when in the final game on 14 May 1983 United lined up against neighbours Dundee at their Dens Park ground. Sitting one point ahead of Celtic and Aberdeen, the Tangerines required to win to secure the league. With 29,500 shoehorned into the ground, Milne,the day after his 22nd birthday, ensured his team made the best possible start by crafting a wonder goal in the fourth minute. Picking up the ball in the centre circle he eluded Stewart McKimmie’s tackle before advancing towards Dundee’s goal. Noticing keeper Colin Kelly off his line, he launched an audacious angled chip from 25 yards out that sailed over Kelly into the top corner of the net, sending United fans into raptures and causing commentator Archie McPherson to exclaim “What a great goal”! Milne struck an iconic pose, standing stock still, arms raised skywards and grinning widely as he bathed in the acclaim.He remarked later, “It was probably the best goal I ever scored, it was undoubtedly the most important.” His contribution that season was immense, playing 34 of the 36 games and scoring 16 goals.

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Other highlights of his Tannadice career included playing in two League Cup and two Scottish Cup finals, scoring United’s record number of goals in Europe, 15, in the course of excellent Uefa Cup performances and reaching the European Cup semi-final,and earning three Scottish u/21 caps.

A lot of United’s success was due to manager Jim McLean, a perfectionist and hard taskmaster. His strategy was to develop the club’s own youth, with ten of the 13 players on duty when the league was won having come through the ranks while six were Dundee born and bred. The scale of his achievement can be measured against the fact that 25 years previously United had finished 35th of the 37 clubs in the leagues.

He and Milne endured a fractious relationship, with the player often rebelling against the manager’s disciplinarian ways. As time passed, Milne’s fondness for a drink and a flutter became problematic. With his appearances decreasing, playing mainly only in European games, and confrontations with McLean increasing, Milne felt it was time to go and in early 1987, after 286 games and 75 goals, he was sold for £125,000 to Charlton Athletic in the old English first division. Having played in three Uefa Cup ties prior to departure, Milne was “gutted” to miss the remaining games that memorably led United to the final.

His time at Charlton was not a success and within the year he was transferred to Bristol City in the old third division where under legendary Joe Jordan he regained some form. This attracted the attention of Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, who was also mindful of Milne being a thorn in the side of his Aberdeen team, and he paid £170,000 for him. Although Milne was delighted with the move his spell at Old Trafford was not successful either despite a promising start. Ferguson played him on the left whereas he preferred the right but Gordon Strachan was favoured there. He also became embedded in the drinking culture then prominent at United with his piano-playing skills adding to the partying ambience and with fitness and form suffering, he only played 30 games altogether, scoring three goals. Aged 30 he was released and apart from a short spell playing for Sing Tao in Hong Kong, his career was over.

Brought up in the Douglas area of Dundee he attended the local primary school where he was a very bright pupil and accelerated a year before going to Craigie High School. His football talents were nurtured by Billy Donaldson at Dundee Celtic Boys’ Club where he scored over 500 goals in six years. Spotted by Doug Cowie, former Dundee and Scotland captain, he signed for United aged 15, making a debut for the first team in a friendly against Alloa in August 1977 and becoming a first team regular by 1979.

Despite his disappointments in English football he was very proud to have played for Manchester United. Although Ferguson made critical comments about him, Milne was always complimentary, saying,”I got on great with Fergie, we were both Scottish from council estates.”

Former Dundee United teammate and Scottish international Eamonn Bannon commented, “It’s very sad, Ralph has gone far too soon. He was an extremely good player who had lightning pace, was very two-footed and scored some amazing goals. Our team was a very tight group and he was a very popular member of it, he was a bit of a joker in the dressing room. And as a Dundee boy he was very proud to play in a successful United team.”

Referring to Milne’s qualities, McLean later wrote: “He should have been playing in World Cups and should have won bundles of Scottish caps. If I had one outstanding failure it was him.”