Dundee United's class of '96 should be play-off inspiration

The desire to delve into bygone days has been irresistible with Dundee United this week.
Dundee United winger Andy McLaren hugs manager Billy Kirkwood after the 1996 play-off  Picture: SNS.Dundee United winger Andy McLaren hugs manager Billy Kirkwood after the 1996 play-off  Picture: SNS.
Dundee United winger Andy McLaren hugs manager Billy Kirkwood after the 1996 play-off Picture: SNS.

The Tannadice time machine
alighted on May 1987 as a result of a new documentary charting the club’s Uefa Cup final appearance. Yet, with the Tayside ground tonight hosting the second leg of a Premiership play-off quarter-final, May 1996 also provides a parallel.

The events of 16 May that year are imprinted on the mind of Andy McLaren. Little
wonder, since the winger was the architect of a United renaissance of the sort that current boss Ray McKinnon – then McLaren’s team-mate – and his side will be attempting in the next few weeks.

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With four more games to negotiate should United capitalise on their 2-1 lead in the second leg of their Premiership play-off quarter-final against Morton, this evening won’t produce anything like the tingle and tension of Tannadice 21 years ago.

McLaren, now 43 and devoting his life to coaching youngsters from deprived backgrounds after coming through difficult times in his personal life, McLaren recalled the old-style top-flight play-off that United came through in 1996 to reclaim the Premier status they had lost the previous year.

A 2-1 second-leg victory over Partick Thistle at Tannadice was achieved in the most dramatic circumstances.

Down 2-1 on aggregate and 1-0 on the night going into the final seconds, it was a dribble and cross by McLaren which allowed Brian Welsh to head an equaliser, before more exquisite play on the touchline allowed the winger to provide the cutback for Owen Coyle to settle the tie in the final minute of extra time.

McLaren said: “That is probably one of my best experiences at Dundee United, beating Partick Thistle that night.

“We scored with virtually the last kick to take it to extra time. I think there was about 30 seconds to go when I crossed it in and big Welshy headered it. And then I set up the other one for Coyley. So they are good memories for me.

“They are great games to play in – if you win. With all the emotion and huge crowds. That is one of my best memories of Tannadice. The place was absolutely bouncing that night, just with the emotion of it all. We spent a few quid that year and if we hadn’t got up who knows what might have happened.”

At the time, McLaren certainly didn’t envisage team-mate McKinnon becoming a thoughtful coach.

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McLaren added: “I was up the other week for a testimonial game and we had a good laugh, me, Ray and Dave Bowman. I think if you had seen myself, Ray and Dave at 20-21 we would be long odds to be doing the jobs we are doing right now. We were daft young kids at that age. But Ray has done it the hard way. He has had to work his way through.

“Juniors, Brechin, then Raith Rovers, he has served his apprenticeship and he is highly spoken of.”

McKinnon himself said he expects Morton to come to Tannadice with a “cup-tie” attitude. He said: “Morton have nothing to lose and will come and have a real go, so we have to be very wary of them and make sure we are very disciplined and organised.

“We want to control the ball throughout the middle of the park.

“It’s not about going out desperately seeking a goal, it’s about playing the game and when the chances arise hopefully taking them.

“There are no fitness issues with this squad, I think they proved that on Tuesday night.”