Paul Sturrock still chasing Uefa for medal after Roma ‘cheating’

Paul Sturrock in action for Dundee United in their European Cup semi-final with Roma. Picture: SNS
Paul Sturrock in action for Dundee United in their European Cup semi-final with Roma. Picture: SNS
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Sitting with a shandy in the sun outside St Andrews, it is easy to imagine the frustrations of more than 30 years ago having long since melted away.

Don’t bet on it.

Paul Sturrock is not for giving up. The Parkinson’s disease he has lived with for nearly 20 years is not beating him – in fact, briefcase by his side, he is busier than ever – so it’s sure as hell Uefa won’t. He is not satisfied with platitudes from Michel Platini. Nor, indeed, from the Frenchman’s secretary, since he suspects the former Uefa president did not even take the time to consider his complaints. These wounds have been re-opened amid comprehensive coverage of the Champions League semi-final between AS Roma and Liverpool.

We are of course talking about events of 34 years ago – indeed, we are meeting 34 years and a day after AS Roma overturned a two-goal European Cup semi-final deficit against Sturrock’s Dundee United in the Olympic Stadium in Rome. The Italian side will have to come up with something even more eye-opening against Liverpool in Wednesday’s second leg to reach this year’s final. It was the Anfield side against whom Dundee United feel they were robbed of a chance to challenge for the greatest trophy in club football.

There’s a general acceptance something untoward went on. Riccardo Viola, the son of the late Roma president Dino Viola, later disclosed a middleman was handed a bribe intended for Michel Vautrot, who refereed the contentious second leg. It is still not known whether Vautrot, who is 72 and living in France, ever received the money. He was certainly never sanctioned and went on to referee many other high-profile games, including the opening match of the 1990 World Cup between Argentina and Cameroon.

It still sticks in Luggy’s craw. Roma’s mini-comeback at Anfield last week from 5-0 down has only served to aggravate him.

“I am going to push for it again,” he says. “I am fighting for an answer. I got an answer from his [Platini’s] secretary saying we had run over the time to put in a complaint.

“I do not want a winner’s medal and I do not want a runners-up medal. It just would be nice if Uefa or even Fifa acknowledged something had gone on there and maybe cut another kind of medal for us. Just some recognition we were the second best team in Europe – at least. We did not choose to have that problem. It was not a level playing field.

“I would like to hear it from the top man instead of his secretary. I thought Platini might be more sympathetic because he was an ex-player. But I don’t think he even read it. It was cut off at the pass.”

Platini himself fell from grace amid dubious goings on two years ago. A new man is in place. Aleksander Ceferin, the Slovenian president of Uefa, can expect to find a missive from a Mr Sturrock, c/o Tannadice Park in his mailbag in the very near future.

Honest to a fault, Sturrock reserves some of the greatest scorn for himself. He didn’t play well that afternoon when Dundee United fell 3-0 amid harassment on and off the field. It was a rare off day on a stage he so often graced. “I relished the freshness, people not knowing me and me not knowing them. It spurred me on. Man United was a great night at their place. Barcelona at their place. I relished the ball. I wanted to eat the ball.

“I knew I had the Barcelona full- back on toast after ten minutes of the first leg. I knew he did not fancy it.” But suffering a niggling injury, he, and several others, were below par in Rome. “Ralph [Milne] should have scored early on – if that went in the game might have changed,” he says. “At the end of the day we were well beaten on the day itself. There are just certain things that happened in the game and knowing now what we know… wee breaks they got that should have been fouls against them and yet the referee played on.”

Obviously Sturrock hopes AS Roma fail to mount another miracle comeback, legitimate or otherwise, in four days’ time. He is slightly anxious, however: “They scored two goals. I wished they got humped. It leaves it still a bit open.

“They are capable. This game should suit Liverpool more. Roma have to go in one direction. Every time I see them [Roma] win a European tie it has stuck in my throat.”

Several players from that time, with many still based locally, have plans to take advantage of Sturrock, now based in Cornwall, being in town to watch the second leg together on Wednesday over a meal and a few drinks. There will be few more ardent Liverpool supporters in Dundee – as were these same players on the night the Anfield side triumphed on penalties in the final in 1984.

Dave Narey, Hamish McAlpine, John Holt and Maurice Malpas will gather with Sturrock, who, lest anyone think he is spending his life living in the past, is now back in harness with the current United regime. He is intent on helping shape the club’s future. It’s his very determination not to give in, this refusal to stand idly by while what he perceives as injustice is visited upon his club, that should offer current fans optimism ahead of another crucial period in Dundee United’s history.

Their aspirations are slightly lower-rent this time. Rather than reaching a European Cup final, it is simply about finding a way out of Scotland’s second tier. This mission must be completed in three stages and via six legs.

The first of these comes on Tuesday. Sturrock has an open return ticket for the train back to Cornwall. He is up here for as long as it takes. Eighteen years after making the difficult decision to walk out as manager, he is back in what seems a fairly awkward accommodation with manager Csaba Laszlo.

Originally re-hired by new chairman Mike Martin at the start of March as a chief scout for English players, Sturrock was quickly promoted to the coaching staff when United’s season threatened to go completely off the rails. He has also been asked to revamp the youth development programme at the club and has signed an 18-month contract. He has been given four transfer windows to source the quality United have been missing.

Sturrock intends to spend part of each week based in London attending nearby games while proudly wearing the Dundee United jacket and tie he has been given.

“It took a lot of guts for Csaba to agree for me to help him,” he says. “We met in Edinburgh and hit it off quite well. He knows the game. Like any foreign manager there are problems with language – when he gets excited at times it is difficult to understand. But at the end of the day the principles of what he is looking for are fundamentally sound. He felt it was appropriate to have someone to batter ideas off. It has worked quite well.”

Sturrock stands behind the dugout in the doorway of one of the sponsors’ boxes at home games. “I will go down at half-time. Csaba will come over and say: ‘What do you think?’ I will give my opinion. He will either agree and do something or he won’t. It’s his prerogative.”

Sturrock’s contribution at the club is already bearing fruit. Anthony Ralston’s loan from Celtic was helped along due to his contacts at Celtic: Long-time head of youth Chris McCart and Brendan Rodgers, who he got to know when Plymouth Argyle jousted with Swansea in the Championship.

Former Rangers centre-half Bilel Mohsni, meanwhile, has been something of a revelation. This signing provoked much wailing and gnashing of teeth among Arabs, who found it hard to reconcile their love for Luggy with this development.

“I will go back and enjoy my life but will still have this job,” he says. “People say how can you do it from Cornwall? It is easy. At the end of the day I pick up the phone about a player and the manager says yes or no. If he says yes the deal is done.”

Sturrock is “chuffed” with how things have gone so far. Mohsni, for one, has silenced the doubters. But it must cause him some dismay to return to Tannadice, now almost deserted apart from match days with the players based in 
St Andrews during the week, and remember the way it once was.

“I never look at the pictures on the wall,” he says, pointedly. “Sometimes, when I have had a few drinks, I put the computer on and I use Youtube and reminisce, just like many people. It is amazing. I can close my eyes and know the next move. The amount of times the ball got played in to me and I stopped it and Ralph would run past me.

“He was there every minute. [Richard] Gough would play it into me, I would kid on I was going this way, come back and then roll Ralph in. Ralph would run down and roll it across the six-yard line and Doddsie [Davie Dodds] would come in and bundle it into the net. If we scored one like that we scored 100. You knew it was going to happen.

“He was some boy, Ralph,” he adds. “He would phone me on a Sunday after he’d had a few drinks. His first comment would be: ‘I was better than you.’ I’d say: ‘Ralph, there were some days you were better than me’. He was like: ‘No, no I was better than you all the time’.”

Sturrock dearly wishes Milne, who died three years ago, was by his shoulder now. But he can count on the goodwill and support of an army of Arabs willing to march with him all the way to Rome and back.