Every football fan’s deepest fear is coming to grief at the hands of their rivals. It is why those Dundee United fans who have determined to attend tonight’s Dundee derby, despite everything, must be applauded.
While possibly disinclined to extend sympathy, those sitting in the home stands will know how they feel. Some will be able to date their own club’s struggles to a game when both Dundee and Dundee United’s survival hopes hinged on a single match played on 4 May, 1976.
This particular climax to a campaign was to have serious ramifications for Dundee in the way Albert Kidd’s memorable intervention, 30 years ago tomorrow, cast a long and enduring shadow over Hearts.
Recalling Dundee’s plight at the end of the 1975-76 season is relevant because tonight something described as the doomsday prospect for Dundee United has become all too real: there is the grim possibility of being relegated by their rivals at a stadium where three of their greatest successes occurred.
This potential scenario has unfolded nearly 40 years to the day since United saved themselves from relegation. By doing so they condemned Dundee to the drop, helping change the face of football in the city for a generation.
Bearing in mind how they have suffered in the intervening years, many Dundee fans are treating the opportunity to inflict pain on United as a delicious twist in this Tayside tale of footballing fortunes. United could find it is a short walk to Dens Park this evening but a long journey back.
There will be an undeniable sense of history in the air. If Mixu Paatelainen’s side fail to secure at least a point it confirms Dundee will be operating in a higher league than their rivals next season for the first time since 1959-60.
Dundee’s greatest era was then still to come but their status as city top dogs was already under threat by the time the Premier Division was established.
Dundee scored the first goal of this new era when Bobby Ford put his side 1-0 up after two minutes on the opening day in a 3-2 win over Aberdeen. But it proved a false dawn.
Dundee United’s 0-0 draw with Rangers, four days after the end of the regulation season, sent the Dens Park side down to the second tier on goal difference (Aberdeen, also on the same points tally, survived along with United).
Dundee picked the wrong time to finish in ninth position – 20 per cent of the teams in the newly formed ten-club league were relegated – after five consecutive fifth-place finishes.
It is generally regarded as being the start of their troubles. United’s escape, meanwhile, meant the progress being implemented by Jim McLean, the manager they recruited from Dundee, was maintained, leading all the way to a Scottish league title win seven seasons later.
The following season, Paul Sturrock, David Narey and Paul Hegarty continued to establish themselves, while Billy Kirkwood and Davie Dodds also broke into the team. They would all play a significant part in not just their Scottish championship win, but also two League Cup wins – both secured at Dens Park, as was the league title.
Dundee, by contrast, were forced to sell their outstanding talent, Gordon Strachan, pictured below. But it might all have been so very different had things panned out differently towards the end of the 1975-76 season.
Dundee were even unbeaten in their last five games, including a 2-1 win over United at Dens Park. But they were helpless when a combination of their results meant their neighbours could save themselves by taking a point against Rangers, which they duly did.
The game was played on the Tuesday following the Ibrox side’s treble-securing Scottish Cup win over Hearts, after all other teams’ seasons had finished.
It was only natural that there was a celebratory atmosphere, in front of more than 40,000. “I am not saying Rangers did not take the game seriously,” says Rangers historian Robert McElroy. “But the competitive edge was missing.” The game was preceded by an exhibition match between the treble-winning Rangers teams of 1948-49 and 1963-64.
Nevertheless, the game was far from a gimme – United still had to earn a point against the best side in the land.
“For us it was really competitive, we were sweating blood,” says goalkeeper Hamish McAlpine. “We survived but I do not think anyone thought what might happen otherwise. It was the first year of the Premier Division and that was a game we had to get something from to stay up.”
McAlpine scored a penalty in the vital win over Hibernian the previous midweek. But the goalkeeper missed one at Ibrox in the 84th minute, which meant the last few minutes were more fraught than necessary.
“No one else wanted to take them,” explains McAlpine. “I missed a few, one there, one at Celtic Park, and a couple at Ayr United. I was still happy enough to take them but it got to the point where someone else had to have a go!”
“We had confidence issues,” he adds. “I was quite happy but I think I was trying to be too clever to make sure the keeper didn’t save them, which meant a mad dash back to my box for me. I would try to get too close to the bar or post.”
McAlpine’s penalty, at the Broomloan Stand end of the ground, hit the woodwork but McLean’s anger was assuaged somewhat by his goalkeeper excelling when it came to his main job: stopping goals. According to The Scotsman match report, United were served “brilliantly and proudly” by their skipper, who “did everything right on his goal line and more”.
Seven years later, McAlpine was one of the survivors from this match when United won the league. At Dens Park. “I have a funny feeling your contract might have been null and void if you got relegated, so yes, it might have had a huge impact had we, not Dundee, gone down,” says McAlpine.
After suffering their first relegation since 1938, Dundee became something of a yo-yo club. Promotion in 1979 was followed by relegation the following year. Promoted again in 1981, they were relegated once more in 1990, and again in 1994.
But it is more recently when their very existence came under threat, with two periods in administration combined with an unbroken spell of seven years in the second tier.
No one knew to what extent, but so much lay at stake at Ibrox Park 40 years ago on Wednesday, in a gala atmosphere. Naturally, a tremulous party from Dundee FC travelled to Ibrox to watch two teams decide another’s fate.
One account tells of Ian Gellatly, the Dundee chairman, sitting in the Ibrox directors’ box with his head in his hands at the final whistle.
However, he got up and congratulated Dundee United directors Ernest Robertson and Jimmy Littlejohn, who were sitting nearby, before exiting the stadium in the knowledge that his club now faced an uncertain future.
Just how uncertain not even he could have believed.