My girlfriend scoffs when I tell her my Dad watches more football than I do.
If he has to go out when Luton are taking on Middlesbrough, he’ll record it.
Family dinnertime will be shifted if it coincides with Levante kicking off against Mallorca.
When he moved to Dundee from Annecy in France (the best place you’ve probably never heard of, look it up) in the mid-70s, his football fix was one you’d never get away with these days – heading along to Tannadice one weekend and Dens the next.
On the final day of the 1975-76 season, either one of the two Dundee clubs, or Aberdeen would join the hapless St Johnstone in being relegated from the Scottish Premier Division. United and the Dons survived on goal difference and my Dad decided that following a second-tier club was beneath him (ironic at the time of writing, I know).
I’d never call my Dad a hardcore Arab. In fact, he’s possibly the most pessimistic fan I know despite witnessing first-hand, the Tangerines’ only league championship triumph in 1983, 14 consecutive seasons in Europe, 10 cup finals (eight of which were lost, admittedly) and near misses in the European and UEFA Cups, as well as home and away victories against Barcelona (has anyone ever told you we have a 100% winning record in four games against them?).
All that, came before eight-year-old me suddenly decided that I’d prefer to go to the football with him on a Saturday rather than shopping at M&S with my Mum, right at the end of the Jim McLean managerial era. In fact, ‘Wee Jum’s’ last game in the dugout was one of my first in the stands. Could I have picked a worse moment to start following the Terrors? Probably not, but, with time travel out of the equation, there wasn’t much I could’ve done about it. And but for a goal or two either way, in the spring of 1976, I might have been a Dee. A narrow escape.
Busting the Hampden Hoodoo
Although I missed the ‘glory days’ and would instead go on to watch us make ninth place in the league our own during my teenage years (how I’ve missed that period recently), I was on board just in time for the aftershock that was the 1994 Scottish Cup win, at the seventh attempt, which I had the pleasure of rewatching a few days ago. When you’re locked in in the midst of a global health pandemic, what else are you going to do?
It’s probably fair to say that, seven months short of my 10th birthday, I didn’t quite realise the enormity of the occasion. Had my Dad even told me about the Hampden Hoodoo? Don’t think so. United had won in the Camp Nou (did you know that?) and played in a European final only a few years earlier… nope, no idea.
I’m fairly sure that until this week I hadn’t watched the full game again since that very night. After almost 26 years, the experience was more than just a magical trip down memory lane; it also brought to my attention lots of details, many completely incidental, but which really stood out nevertheless, that I either hadn’t realised at the time, had forgotten or misremembered.
What I can vividly recollect is having pre-match lunch in the same pub as then-Scotsport presenter Jim White, before he became a parody of himself on Sky Sports News. I also recall the tangerine and black scarves sticking out the car window on the journey to Glasgow and back, as well as my normally placid Dad making 1-0 finger gestures to overtaking Rangers fans as they made their way home to Dundee, Aberdeen and beyond.
But it turns out that my memory of the game itself was rather hazy, other than the obvious standout moments – the Alex Clelland ‘penalty’ which wasn’t given after a ‘super’ Craig Brewster through-ball, Guido van de Kamp’s save, David Hannah’s brilliant performance as Billy McKinlay’s understudy.
Had I been aware that this all-conquering Rangers team, odds-on favourites, and just a win away from a second consecutive treble, were going into the final on the back of five matches without a victory – their worst run of form in years?
What about the revelation from Jock Brown – just how did a commentator become Celtic General Manager, by the way? – that Christian Dailly, part of the speedy United attack alongside goalscorer Brewster and Andy McLaren that terrorised the Rangers defence, had already been used as a central defender by this point? I went to Tannadice every fortnight and have no recollection of this whatsoever.
And just how the hell did I manage to forget that Duncan Ferguson, the most expensive footballer in Britain – until we sold Jerren Nixon for £20 million – and who single-handedly built us a stand, had appealed his infamous suspension/assault charge and came on as a substitute (and bizarrely spent most of his time on the pitch hugging the left touchline. Er, Watty…?)?
Questioning my entire childhood
Of course, when you’re young, you make fairly basic generalisations about the type of player certain footballers are. Big Dunc – target man. Stuart McCall – water carrier. Dave Bowman – tough-tackling hard man. Gordan Petric – ball-playing libero.
Dailly is one individual who anyone slightly younger than me would probably dub a no-frills defender and they’d find it hard to believe his performance in this match as a pacy, fleet-footed attacker. The type of player I wanted – and largely failed – to be. The season after, I got Dailly’s name on the back of my new United shirt, although I can’t imagine there were many nine-year olds following suit when he was at Blackburn or West Ham (feel free to prove me wrong).
So while I’d expected to see some silky footwork and risk-taking in defence from Petric, one player I didn’t anticipate showing similar characteristics was Dave McPherson. Now, his Wikipedia entry (always a reliable source) states that “he saw himself as a ball-playing defender”, “he was also quite an adept dribbler” and “his sporadic runs from the defence were renowned”, entirely in keeping with his performance in this game, if not at all the player I incorrectly remembered, apparently.
Did Neymar have Dave McPherson posters on his wall as a kid? A perfectly executed sombrero on Dailly – who could quite easily have passed for his little brother – left me questioning my entire childhood. But Brown’s warning that “United really have to cope with Dave McPherson” was completely justified as Rangers pushed for an equaliser in the second half, the defender continually sneaking into central spaces between the Terrors’ midfield and defence.
Still, sombreros are less valuable than goals. Sorry, Silm. And I won’t mention that backpass…(it was still Ally Maxwell’s fault though).
Down the other end of the field, Petric played in the middle of a back three, which had also completely escaped me. I could’ve sworn that Maurice Malpas had lined up at left-back, rather than as one of the two (what I can only describe as) ‘inverted outside centre-backs’, with the left-footed Brian Welsh positioned on the right of the three.
Unorthodox, but then, the unorthodox tended to be orthodox if your name was Ivan Golac, who had sent his players off to the races to ‘prepare’ the night before the game.
And it was a defensive game plan that worked a treat, with Welsh winning the battle of the heavyweights against Mark Hateley – it looked as if the turn of the decade had eluded him – and Malpas coming out on top in his duel of positioning and movement on the ground with Ally McCoist, to the extent that Rangers’ all-time record scorer was taken off with his team chasing an equaliser.
Welsh’s role in United’s cup triumph must be the most crucial of anyone in the squad. A winner in the fourth-round replay at Motherwell and a late leveller to force a semi-final replay against Aberdeen came in addition to his colossal performance in the final, which belied the fact that this was his first season as an undisputed starter and one of only two in his entire career in which he played more than 30 games, which I only discovered while doing a bit of research this week.
Another tactical element stood out midway through the opening period. With Rangers struggling to make inroads in attack and the Tangerines causing problems with their pace down the flanks, Walter Smith switched his wide midfielders, Neil Murray and Gordon Durie. Golac’s response? Have Jim McInally and Clelland immediately swap sides too. Obvious? Maybe so, yet I feel as if this might be the only time I’ve seen this happen. Nothing got past Ivan.
How has football changed?
With over a quarter of a century having passed – just how the hell did that happen? – it was also an interesting exercise to see how football has changed in that period.
Gary Bollan and the £20-million man cut lonely figures as the only two subs warming up on the touchline. Tackles from behind and leading with studs flew in with little fear of repercussion. A head injury? Get up and get on with it. Ferguson’s aerial challenge on van de Kamp would probably have resulted in a card these days but play continued. I counted just the one piece of unsportsmanlike play – a dive from David Robertson. And what a dive it was, by the way.
I should also comment on a superb piece of camerawork capturing a McPherson header drifting past van de Kamp and being cleared away just before it crossed the line by McInally’s knee (although he was trying to head it). A super slow-mo shot from a camera attached to the inside of the post, that for some reason, really grabbed my attention. I couldn’t help feeling that this was ahead of its time but I’m now wondering if we even still get this kind of view? Mind blank.
A different era and almost a different sport. Less tactical, less athletic and possibly less perfect, at least for some. I’d imagine pass completion rates were below what you’d get from players in the modern game, but this was about winning the ball, looking up and immediately trying to do something positive, rather than taking the safe option, which happens too often for my liking these days.
But is that actually the case or is it just a hunch? Did I just enjoy rewatching the game for nostalgic reasons? For someone who, having just moved to Madrid, didn’t go to United’s 2010 cup win in ’94, has added significance. And it’s true that I’ve not heard anyone describe us as showing “pace and adventure” or playing “total football”, as Brown did here, for a good little while…
Revisiting a match with a fresh pair of eyes and discovering things that I’d missed the first time around was an experience which was far more enriching and thought-provoking (how on Earth did this United team get relegated the following season?) than I had expected it to be.
And it’s now left me wondering what else I could learn from the thousands of games I’ve watched over the years. Maybe Maradona headed it in after all?