Remembered: When Dundee United beat Barça in 1987… twice

Almost 30 years on, Richard Edwards recalls the magical month when Jim McLean’s side saw off El Tel’s Spanish giants home and away en route to the UEFA Cup final. Celtic: take heart...

These are tough times for Dundee United, but almost 30 years ago they were completing one of football’s most famous doubles – beating Barcelona in both legs of a UEFA Cup tie that has gone down in Scottish football folklore.

Equally remarkable was the fact it was the second time they had completed the feat, 20 years after a first aggregate triumph against them in the Fairs Cup.

“I was in Brazil doing some work and I was talking to Freddy Rincon about everything he had achieved in his career with Colombia and Corinthians,” former Dundee United striker Kevin Gallacher tells FFT.

“He sort of knew who I was but a friend and commentator, Tony Jones, got the goal from the first leg up on YouTube and showed it to him. From then it was like, ‘wow, you scored against Barcelona’.”

Dundee United gaffer Jim McLean described the tie as “a cornershop against a supermarket” but Gallacher’s goal in a 1-0 first-leg win at Tannadice represented rich pickings for a side that, against all odds, spent almost an entire decade dining at Europe’s top table.

El Tel’s hell

It seems strange but Dundee United were used to playing in Europe. It was only a couple of seasons before that they had been playing against Roma in a European Cup semi-final

- Kevin Gallacher

Certainly a Barça side managed by Terry Venables, and featuring the likes of Mark Hughes and Gary Lineker, were used to far more salubrious surroundings than those on offer on the banks of the Tay.

Not that the Terrors were bothered, with McLean’s side more intent on dishing out bloody noses than rolling out red carpets.

Venables had just been on the receiving end of the worst defeat of his managerial career, a 4-0 loss to Sporting Gijon at the Camp Nou, but surely saw this European tie as an ideal opportunity to get back on a winning road after a run of 20 unbeaten matches had been so abruptly halted.

Gary Lineker, Dundee United

Gary Lineker battles for the ball with Jim McInally

As it was, he was out-thought by McLean from the outset.

“They (Barça) had planned to drape a blanket of security around (Andoni) Zubizarreta and look for the rapid strike from their British spearhead (Mark Hughes),” wrote Stuart Jones in The Times.

“The design was almost instantly in ruins as a throw-in was tapped by [Paul] Sturrock to Gallacher. Standing on the right edge of the area, he leaned back to volley. The idea took Barcelona's goalkeeper by surprise and, by the time he had sensed danger, the ball had dropped in over his head.”

RECOMMENDED When Jim McLean punched a journo in the nads, and 10 other manager-reporter exchanges

Different times

The goal from the then-21-year-old Gallacher in the first leg at Tannadice sent Dundee United to Barcelona in good spirits. They were still long-odds to complete the job, though.   

“It’s seems strange to say it now but Dundee United were used to playing in Europe,” says Gallacher. “It was only a couple of seasons before that they had been playing against Roma in a European Cup semi-final.

When we scored the white handkerchiefs came out. Then we scored again and all the fans went crazy

- Kevin Gallacher

“We were probably still underdogs for the second leg but we certainly didn’t go there with any real sense of foreboding.”  

With English clubs banned from Europe following the Heysel disaster of 1985, the cross-border interest in the match was huge, not least because of the British contingent playing in the famous red and blue.

The main interest was centred on who would partner Lineker in the Barcelona attack, with Hughes’s lack of confidence and goals causing Venables a major headache.

“He is just through the kind of spell that everybody suffers,” said Venables. “That is not a problem, though, we can work it out.”

Venables and Hughes couldn't, of course – the now-Stoke boss endured a difficult campaign in Catalonia and managed only five goals in 36 appearances before fleeing to Bayern Munich on loan and then back to Manchester United permanently in summer 1988. 

Mark Hughes, Dundee United

Barça's Hughes tussles for the ball with John Clark at Tannadice

McLean, meanwhile – who had been in charge at the club since 1971 – was relishing the opportunity to get one over on the man who would exit the Camp Nou just six months later.

“If we can’t perform here, then we don’t deserve to be here,” he said. “Anyway, we are about to become the envy of every club in Britain. I know they would all love to be walking out into this.”

So what did McLean’s pre-match team talk involve?

“I don’t think he said that much at all,” says Gallacher. “We would never really worry about the opposition, we would concentrate far more on our own game than Barcelona’s. I think that’s why we were so successful under him.”

Jim McLean

McLean oversaw top-flight glory in 1982/83

Dreamland

When Barcelona hauled themselves back into the tie through Ramon Caldere on 40 minutes, it looked as though Dundee were going to be thwarted by their more illustrious opponents. But then, with extra-time looming, John Clark headed home a Sturrock free-kick.

With the clock having ticked beyond 11pm local time, United’s fans – “clinging like orange butterflies to the top tier of the expansive arena” according to The Times’s Jones – were in dreamland.

Life, though, was about to get a whole lot better.

“It was surreal,” says Gallacher. “When we scored the white handkerchiefs came out. Then we scored again and all the fans went crazy. Our fans were jumping around celebrating and theirs were doing just the opposite, booing and whistling for all they were worth.”

A side-footed goal from Iain Ferguson with only one minute remaining sealed the tie, and as the huge concrete bowl emptied, only those orange butterflies and their 11 on-pitch heroes remained.

Pauls Sturrock and Hegarty, John Clark and Eamonn Bannon at Glasgow Airport

So did a night on the Barcelona tiles follow?

“No way, we were back in the air and back in Dundee as soon as possible,” Gallacher grins. “After all, we had a UEFA Cup semi-final to prepare for.”

That they did – eventually won 2-0 on aggregate against German side Borussia Monchengladbach, with both goals scored in the away leg. Lifting the trophy proved a bridge too far, however – following a 1-0 defeat in the first leg against Gothenburg, McLean’s side could only muster a 1-1 draw at Tannadice.

United never got close to scaling the same heights again, but theirs remains an achievement that lives long in the memory.

New features every day on FourFourTwo.comMore Champions League