Awe-struck Dundee United players sneaked into the Tannadice directors’ boxes to watch Barcelona train before their Uefa Cup tie 35 years ago.
Barcelona rolled up for the quarter-final first leg on March 4 1987 with a team of stars including Gary Lineker, Mark Hughes and Andoni Zubizarreta.
Terry Venables was manager and cross-border interest in the match was huge with English clubs banned from Europe following the Heysel disaster.
Jim McLean described the tie as “a corner shop against a supermarket” but what United had was a European pedigree that was the envy of all but the very top sides.
Any United fan will tell you that they had already beaten Barcelona in 1966 over two legs, had been European Cup semi-finalists in 1984, and, at various points, pulled off big victories against teams like Monaco and Borussia Mönchengladbach.
McLean had no reason to lack self-belief and United won the first leg 1-0 when Kevin Gallacher’s first time effort sailed over Zubizarreta after 108 seconds.
Gallacher is among the 1987 heroes returning to share a stage at the Whitehall Theatre on May 13 to mark the 35th anniversary of the Uefa Cup campaign.
“We were completely written off when the quarter-final draw was made,” he said.
“It was the end of ‘little’ Dundee United because we had drawn the ‘mighty’ Barcelona, even though half our team had reached the European Cup semi-final in 1984.
“We all managed to sneak into the directors’ boxes to watch them training at Tannadice.
“This was a team packed full of superstars whose names were known around the world.
“If we were in any doubt about how big they were, you just had to look at the media scrum which followed their every move – it was phenomenal and just about every country was represented.
“The big attraction for me was they also had British players in Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes and there was the Terry Venables factor.
“For us we were just taking it as another game and the older players took it on their shoulders to keep us focused on the task in hand because they had been here before and that really helped younger players like myself.”
Gallacher said the tactics were no different from any other European tie and the main aim was to cope with Lineker and Hughes and keep a clean sheet.
“We managed to match them although we did ride our luck at times because Barcelona had some great chances to score enough goals to win the game,” he said.
“But that win at Tannadice gave us the belief that we could go on and win the tie and really do something in this competition.”
Paul Sturrock after the match described Gallacher’s shot-cum-cross which dipped past a bemused Zubizarreta as “one of the most bizarre goals I have ever seen”.
So did he really mean it?
“When I look back now I am still not sure if I meant it!” said Gallacher.
“I realise the reason I hit it was because Sturrock’s touch was absolutely shocking!
“He was meant to control it and he fired it straight back at me but instinct took over and I hit it first-time and it went straight over Zubizarreta’s head and into the net.”
The odds were still stacked against United to complete the job.
McLean’s side flew out to Barcelona in mid-March for the second leg with a 1-0 lead and Gallacher found himself the centre of attention from the media.
“I was super-excited in the build-up to the second leg because suddenly I was the poster boy after scoring the winning goal at Tannadice,” he said.
“I wasn’t used to having so many microphones stuck under my nose and you either take it in your stride or let it overwhelm you but I never let it affect me.
“We knew we could play better than we did in the first leg and felt that being set up to counter-attack at the Nou Camp would suit our style.”
To add to United’s confidence they could finish the job, John Toshack, then manager of Real Sociedad, gave the players a run-down on Barcelona before the match.
He was sure United would dispose of them.
The Nou Camp held some 120,000 but only 42,000 fans watched the tie and Barcelona levelled the match on aggregate with a goal five minutes from the break.
Gallacher said: “I remember, when they scored, thinking that the floodgates could open but it actually galvanised us and I think Barcelona perhaps got complacent after that goal and thought they’d simply go on to score two or three more.
“They played a very open game and that suited us and our fitness told because we scored two late goals to win the tie and the respect of the Barcelona fans.”
Goals from John Clark and Iain Ferguson handed the underdogs a famous victory to maintain United’s 100% record in four meetings with Barcelona.
McLean’s side conquered Borussia Mönchengladbach in the semi-final before going on to lose the final 2-1 over two legs against IFK Gothenburg.
They lost the first leg 1-0 in Sweden, a result that left all possible outcomes open.
But when Gothenburg’s Lennart Nilsson scored first in the return at Tannadice, their hopes were crushed, with John Clark’s equaliser mere consolation.
It was a particularly painful reverse, as it came just four days after United’s surprise loss to St Mirren in the Scottish Cup Final, which was a rather disjointed, mediocre occasion that was settled in extra-time by 20-year-old Ian Ferguson.
United, in total, played a marathon 67-game season but won nothing.
Gallacher said: “We were getting closer to Rangers and Celtic every season but unfortunately we just couldn’t get over the line and bring home a trophy.
“It was a wonderful season but we just came up short in the end in both the Scottish Cup and the Uefa Cup, which was a massive disappointment.
“I’m convinced that if we’d beaten St Mirren on the Saturday at Hampden we would have won the Uefa Cup on the Wednesday night at Tannadice.
“As it was, we were trying to overcome a 1-0 first leg defeat and the disappointment of having lost the Scottish Cup final after extra-time.”
Gallacher left United in 1990, having been there from the age of 13, and would go on to win the Premier League with Blackburn and play for Scotland in the 1998 World Cup.
“It was such a special time in my life, at Tannadice, and I’m looking forward to reminiscing about the Uefa Cup run with my former team-mates,” he said.
Ticket details for the reunion are available by accessing the Events 105 Facebook page.
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