Jim McLean's side were at the business end of an epic, gruelling, historic 70-game season. More pertinently, they were between Uefa Cup quarter-final appointments against Barcelona – both of which were won.
So the fact they needed a penalty scored deep into injury time to earn a Scottish Cup quarter-final replay against Forfar registered far outwith Angus. Indeed, it was probably noted at the Nou Camp itself and strengthened the Catalan club’s belief that a 1-0 loss in the first leg at Tannadice had been a mere hiccup. Gary Lineker, Mark Hughes and co couldn’t fail to turn the tie round against a bunch of jokers who, five days earlier, could only scrape a draw against Forfar, surely?
That would be to underestimate the Station Park team as much as Dundee United The Loons had reached the semi-final of the Scottish Cup five years earlier against Rangers, who they took to a replay. The Ibrox side needed penalties to get by Forfar after being 2-0 down in a League Cup third round tie at Dens Park in 1985.
On the eve of the first United tie with Forfar, McLean stressed to his players that they were playing to secure their place for the trip to Barcelona. Providing some idea of how keenly contested the clash with First Division Forfar duly proved, Eamonn Bannon, one of United’s key players at the time, succeeded only in ruling himself out of the return leg after sustaining cracked ribs in a challenge with former Scotland goalkeeper Stewart Kennedy. “It was the most painful injury I ever had,” he recalled yesterday.
Although he did travel to Barcelona and was put through a fitness test on the eve of the game, he knew he was never going to make it and ended up being Archie Macpherson’s co-commentator in the Nou Camp press gantry.
“I always use that Forfar game to illustrate the vagaries of football,” said Bannon. “We had beaten and were about to beat again one of the best teams in the world and yet were so nearly beaten by Forfar.”
Iain Ferguson spared United’s blushes when he converted a penalty deep into injury time to make it 2-2, after goals from John Clark (the Forfar version) and Kenny MacDonald threatened a shock. Maurice Malpas had opened the scoring for the hosts.
Micky Mellon, the current manager of Dundee United, is therefore well warned before tomorrow night’s Scottish Cup fourth round clash with Forfar at Station Park, where 34 years ago United won the replay 2-0 to book a semi-final clash with Dundee at Tynecastle.
Remarkably, while there have been several friendlies staged between them, the sides have not met competitively since. Former United midfielder Dave Bowman is still on the United coaching staff and has briefed Mellon, who was 15-years-old at the time and an apprentice at Hearts, about the events of 1987. “Unfortunately – or fortunately – we don’t have Barcelona during the week,” the manager quipped as he previewed tomorrow night’s tie.
While promotions became Mellon’s stock in trade in England he was not averse to pulling off a cup shock every now and again.
His last club, Tranmere Rovers, booked an FA Cup fourth round clash with Manchester United last year by coming back from three goals down to draw 3-3 with Watford at Vicarage Road, before beating them in the replay. His time at Shrewsbury was also defined by cup upsets and he fondly recalls that his first-ever match as manager was in the FA Cup with Fleetwood Town against Wakefield Trinity.
“I had some fantastic moments against Manchester United and Manchester City, Tottenham, all the big clubs, which was great to go and compete against," he said. "I had a recent one against a Premier League team [Watford] with Tranmere and we managed to knock them out.
“That was a great day for the club, with Sky and all that kind stuff. We’ve had some really good moments in the FA Cup and now I’m really looking forward to continuing taking part in the Scottish Cup.”
He was so nearly a victim of a surprise result earlier this month when third tier Partick Thistle led until late on in their third-round tie at Tannadice.
Mellon is aware that with one of Rangers or Celtic sure to be eliminated this weekend, hopes are rising among fans of other top-flight clubs left in the competition. United have won five of their last eight games and are safe from relegation. They are in form and permitted to entertain thoughts of cup glory as they play for the right to face either Aberdeen or Livingston in the last eight. Mellon doesn’t need Bowman, Bannon or anyone else to tell him to be wary of looking too far ahead.
“If you take your eye off the ball and expect anything and don’t take care of your own business, you are going to be in trouble,” he said. “That does not even come into my thinking.
“I have a game at Forfar on Friday night which my players have to perform in and then if we do get through that we know what the pathway would be for the next games. But we have to take care of Friday first and try and get a result at a difficult place like Forfar in a local derby, and then see what happens next."