'˜Roma thought Dundee United were on drugs but they always ran about daft'

European football has its own language, now sadly slipping out of common use. The opposition were always 'the continentals'. If they were good they were 'crack continentals'. And if your team wanted to study their style beforehand '“ always advisable when dealing with the crack variety '“ then the manager's assistant would hop on a BEA flight to watch one of their matches and 'compile a dossier'.

Dundee United fans may be cheering on old boy Andy Robertson when he faces Roma on Tuesday. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty
Dundee United fans may be cheering on old boy Andy Robertson when he faces Roma on Tuesday. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty

The phrase made basic research sound exciting and redolent of the books of Len Deighton, my favourite espionage chronicler with his bullet-riddled dust jackets. It also, when first heard, brought back memories of the Secret Sam plastic attache case I owned aged eight at the height of the Cold War which had a pop-up periscope for peering round corners and confirming once and for all whether the school jannie was indeed a Russian spy.

Right now, though, the phrase is making me think of flying oranges, the gauntlet run by a great girning genius of Scottish football and the middle finger of Sebastiano Nela. I’m thinking of one of the most astonishing images of our game and how it could have been avoided if only Roma had compiled a dossier on Jim McLean’s Dundee United.

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In the famous photograph Nela of those crack continentals Roma is delivering the crude farewell to McLean after Dundee United had been vanquished in the Eternal City, a 3-2 aggregate defeat in 1984 in the semi-finals of the European Cup. It’s the reason all Arabs will be cheering for Liverpool against Roma in the Champions League semis, beginning on Tuesday. They might have rooted for the British team anyway. They have a huge vested interest in a Liverpool victory with one of their own, Andy Robertson, currently haring down Anfield’s left flank to thrilling effect. But the events of ’84 absolutely confirm they will want to see the Giallorossi thumped.

As I say, that tie could have worked out differently. United could have progressed to the final – against Liverpool – and their fans wouldn’t have this steaming sense of injustice. If Roma hadn’t suspected that the Scots were on drugs – if they had compiled a dossier based on how they scurried about Tannadice normally – then all the trouble could have been avoided. Rev up YouTube and re-watch the highlights of the Tayside first leg. Paul Sturrock chases everything down. Eamonn Bannon is perpetual motion. Even the languid David Narey runs like a maddo. At the time none of us was remotely surprised; this was standard-issue United. But Roma, who “didn’t like our shitty wee stadium”, according to Billy Kirkwood, were stunned. And after Derek Stark’s goal – cue Arthur Montford: “A 35-yard piledriver, right in the corner, goalkeeper nowhere, what a thumper!” – the Italians were two-nil down.

Then the fun began. McLean made a joke and Roma didn’t get it. He said he didn’t know what kind of drugs his men had been using but he’d make sure they had plentiful supplies for the rematch. He was kidding, but there was no way the sporting representatives of such a toweringly unfunny country as Italy – where if you surf the channels on a weekend city break it seems no one ever grew tired of It’s a Knockout! with Benny Hill likely to rise from the grave at any moment – could possibly “get” McLean’s humour.

Maybe the Tangerines were into LSD. “Tangerine trees and marmalade skies” and all that. And McLean was accused of calling Roma winger Bruno Conti an “Italian bastard” during a tousy moment on the touchline, which was vehemently denied, but no matter: Roma had their grudge and two weeks later they had their banners.

“God curse Dundee United” and “McLean F*** Off” were strung across the Curva Sud of the Olympic Stadium by Roma’s ultras who earlier had banged drums outside the United hotel in an attempt to wreck the players’ sleep, then pelted the team bus from their Vespas. Kick-off was timed for mid-afternoon in the hope Scotland’s peely-wally champions would wilt in the sun. Roma were desperate to win because their ground had already been selected as the venue for the final. Lose, and the ultras would most likely have gone after them.

The Italians seemed to win fairly and squarely. The heat or the oranges flung from the terraces seemed to get to United who were not their usual dynamic selves. If a drug was involved this time, it must have been Mogadon. The decisive goal came from the penalty spot but there was no disputing the award. “We must thank Signor McLean for having given us such a charge,” said the scorer, Agostino di Bartolomei. “In every one of us there was a thirst for revenge and we showed it to him.”

Roma did more than that. “I’m sorry you can’t see this,” said commentator Archie Macpherson as Roma men ganged up on McLean at the final whistle. “They were swearing, spitting and punching him… it was horrible to see,” said reserve goalkeeper John Gardiner. It emerged later that things hadn’t been entirely fair. At a dinner laid on by Roma pre-match, the waiter announced: “Telephone call for M Vautrot.” This was the signal for a gift of £50,000 to the French referee – a bribe. Though the game didn’t feature a key decision scandalously awarded to Roma, United believed their opponents would have got one if required.

In the build-up to the final Liverpool manager Joe Fagan heeded the unfortunate experiences of McLean and took a diplomatic line, being careful not to antagonise Roma, and he certainly didn’t attempt any jokes, though aping the inimitable Wee Jum would of course have been impossible. Captain Graeme Souness led his men on a pre-final bonding trip to Israel. Italian journalists spying on them – it’s not known if they used Secret Sam technology – were amazed and appalled at the players’ drinking games and sing-songs, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax being the fave choon. There could have been as many as 15 Scots in the final if the Tangerines had survived the oranges but sadly it wasn’t to be.

One is better than none, though, so come on Liverpool, come on Andy. Just don’t tell them the secret of your high-press.