Paul Sturrock recalls Dundee United’s title triumph

BIG achievements require big celebrations. After Dundee United’s title triumph 30 years ago, it all started in the club’s boardroom, where the players were treated to a champagne reception.

Dundee Utd celebrate winning the league title in 1983. Picture: Contributed

Then it was on to the city’s pubs and clubs, followed by a party at Frank Kopel’s, where it was so busy that you could hardly get through the front door. Paul Sturrock thinks they ended up at Jim McLean’s house, where the manager, in his pyjamas, kicked them out at 7am, although the former striker might be getting his celebrations mixed up. “I know this much,” says Sturrock. “We partied big time. For about four days solid, we were never home.”

At an anniversary dinner in Dundee this week, it will all come flooding back. United clinched the championship with a 2-1 win at Dens Park on 14 May, 1983, wandered back across Tannadice Street to be congratulated by their directors and set off on a bender that would take an unlikely twist the following day. Within 24 hours of becoming legends at the packed home of their biggest rivals, United’s players found themselves at Station Park, Forfar, playing in a sparsely-attended benefit match for Billy Bennett and John Clark, two stalwarts of the Angus club.

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Sturrock couldn’t play, as he had been injured at Dens, but he still had a job to do for his hungover team-mates, who were desperate for food to soak up the alcohol. “I was sent to find a man who had a shop that sold bridies. This boy told me where the guy lived so I knocked on his door. I don’t know if he was the baker, but he had a key, and he went round to heat them up. That was my job for the day, bringing back pies and bridies for all the players. The subs were even eating them in the dugout.

“We lost the game 2-1, and Jim wasn’t too happy. If I remember rightly, he picked near enough every player that had played the day before. It was quite incredible. Half the players couldn’t stand up. They had been drinking all night. We were pished out of our minds.”

Had they been sober, it would still have been a struggle. United’s momentous success had been achieved with a wafer-thin squad. Some say they used only 15 players that season, others 14. In an interview with Grampian Television’s Alan Saunders after the Dundee match, McLean trimmed the number to 12.

In truth, 20 were called upon, although most of the burden was shouldered by a core of 13, with no room for injury, never mind rotation. “For the last seven games of the season, I couldn’t even train,” says Sturrock. “I would come in for a warm-up on a Friday and play with a pulled hamstring on the Saturday. It was only in the final game, against Dundee, that I ruptured it.”

United, famously described by their manager as the corner shop of Scottish football, made a little go a long, long way that year. With a locally-based team that cost £192,000, all of which was spent on just two players – Eamonn Bannon and Paul Hegarty – they somehow pulled off a feat that is unlikely ever to be repeated by one of the country’s provincial clubs.

In its 38-year history, only four other clubs have won the Premier League. Rangers have done it 19 times, Celtic 15 and Aberdeen three. McLean had spent 12 years building a team who could add their name to that list, and would spend ten more trying to emulate them, but in that one glorious season, it all fell into place.

“That United team... it was an exceptional side,” says Sturrock. “People forget that the following season we got to the European Cup semi-final and then found out that the referee had taken a bribe. So we could have been in the final against Liverpool. I mean, Dundee United? It’s incredible really.

“When you think about it, only two teams outside the Old Firm have won the Premier League since it started in 1975. Two teams. In 38 years. It was a special time in Scottish football history. If you speak to anybody of my ilk, they remember two teams – Aberdeen and Dundee United. Everybody remembers the New Firm. Everybody.”

Remarkably, for a club with such a tiny, tiring squad, it was a late surge that won United the title. In January, they seemed to be going off the rails but a 3-2 win at Celtic Park in April, despite Richard Gough’s sending-off, proved to be the turning point. A week later, Aberdeen beat Celtic, United beat Kilmarnock, and McLean’s men were top of the league for the first time.

Morton were thrashed 4-0 – when Hegarty had to replace red-carded goalkeeper Hamish McAlpine – as were Motherwell, which left United needing “only” a win over Dundee on the final day. United liked Dens, where they had won the League Cup in 1980 and 1981, but this time there was tension in the air.

“You can imagine the build-up,” says Sturrock. “Your deadliest enemies could stop you winning the league. The pressure would have been immense if we had been playing any of the other teams but it was doubly so when your opponents were Dundee. You had to live in the town. If they had been able to do that, it would have become folklore.”

Some 29,106 turned up to see it. Sturrock remembers a slick, greasy surface that suited United. He recalls Ralph Milne’s sumptuous chip that opened the scoring after only four minutes, Bannon’s second, when he followed up on his missed penalty, and Iain Ferguson pulling one back for Dundee.

Sturrock went off injured in the second half and watched the last half hour from the bench. “It felt like an hour and a half,” he says. “Every time the ball went in the box you were cringeing. I couldn’t watch the last couple of minutes, I was so nervous. The crowd was incredible. The noise was unbelievable. And the euphoria after the game...”

That was when McLean was hoisted on the players’ shoulders. For all they’d had to suffer at the hands of their disciplinarian manager, it would not have been possible without him. Gough, Narey, Hegarty and Malpas at the back, Holt, Kirkwood and Bannon in midfield, with Milne and Dodds wide of Sturrock. It was a talented team alright, but the way it fitted together was the key. Sturrock describes it as an early 4-5-1 in which many of the components were adaptable.

“Jim McLean was a genius as far as I was concerned. He had an eye for a player and an eye tactically. His training was revolutionary. He brought the right players into the right positions and moulded others to suit.

“His coaching transformed me. When I joined the club, I was a running-type striker, all left foot. He said I had to do extra work on crossing and shooting with both feet and getting the ball fed into me. I worked so hard on it, three afternoons a week for three or four years, that I could run you into the channel, I could come short or I could turn you. I was probably three strikers rolled into one. A lot of players will be very thankful for the work he did with them. As for his man-management skills? Well, that’s another debate.”

Sturrock says he could write a book about McLean’s notorious temper, the loyalty he demanded, as well as his obsession with the game. In later years, as a manager himself, Sturrock found that his mentor was still watching over him.

“Now and then I’ve had these strange phone calls. If one of my games has been on Sky, he’ll have been sitting at home dissecting it. Maybe on a Sunday or the day after a night game, I know it’s coming, a phone call to tell me what I should be doing or which players aren’t good enough.”

Sturrock, who has managed in England for the last 13 years, doesn’t get back to Dundee much but, when he does, he drops in to see his old boss. They have a bond with each other and, more importantly, with United, to whom Sturrock devoted his entire playing career. In 576 games for the club, he scored 171 goals. “Sixteen years as a player, five years as a coach and then, stupidly, two years as a manager. That’s 23 years of your life tied up with one football club.”

Stupidly? Sturrock recognises that returning to Tannadice in 1998 after cutting his managerial teeth with St Johnstone was not one of his better decisions. “There was just too much needing done. We were dismantling the team, reorganising the team and, at times like that, you take the bad results very, very hard if you’re a supporter. I just felt it was overbearing. I was a young manager. The timing was all wrong.”

Sturrock is 56 now. He has kept in check the Parkinson’s Disease with which he was diagnosed 13 years ago, but the work is more difficult to control. After spells with Plymouth Argyle (twice), Southampton, Sheffield Wednesday and Swindon Town, he was sacked as the manager of Southend United in March. He still lives in the Essex town, far from the Plymouth home – with a saltire in the garden and “Luggy’s Lounge” in the attic – to which he once said he would retire.

“It’s still there, but the sooner I get that house sold the better. It was going to be my pride and joy, but not now. I’ve still got a house in Sheffield, a house in Dundee... cannae get rid of them. I’m going through a divorce as well, so that doesn’t help matters but, ach, that’s life. I’m going to try and get another job in England, but it will probably be October before it happens. Everyone seems to get the sack in October.”

Sturrock still has ambitions. He would like to work abroad, he quite fancies the challenge of a part-time Scottish side and, if Dundee United were to make him another offer, they might be better for each other than they were 15 years ago.

“The way things are going, it’s probably a good time to have them,” he says. “There has been a levelling off in Scotland. Celtic won the league, but it’s easier to get competitive with them now. There’s cups to be won up there.”

Not titles, though. Not anymore.