Ralph Milne silenced his biggest critic and produced a European Cup masterclass when Dundee United destroyed Standard Liege 40 years ago.
Milne had a point to prove to Jim McLean and responded with what many United supporters believe was the best individual performance in the club’s history.
“Bring on Liverpool” was one of the headlines after McLean’s men made the whole of Europe sit up and take notice with a four-goal blitz against the Belgian champions.
Milne’s two goals raised the 22-year-old’s total in Europe to 11 — a club record.
He wasn’t the only history-maker on show at Tannadice — watching from the away bench was the Belgian midfielder who would change football forever in 1995.
Jean-Marc Bosman’s EU court victory would allow out-of-contract footballers to move clubs without a transfer fee and ushered in the era of multi-million-pound salaries.
All that was in the future.
This was the here and now, where United’s policy of signing players on overly and famously long contracts with option periods was still going strong in 1983.
A 6-0 aggregate win over Maltese champions Hamrun set up the second-round match against a side that knocked United out of the first round of the Uefa Cup in 1978.
The first leg, in Belgium on October 19, finished 0-0.
Standard Liege arrived at Tannadice with the weight of tradition on their side but without West German international striker Horst Hrubesch, who was injured.
The Belgian champions enjoyed a 100% record against Scottish clubs in Europe, having previously got through two-legged ties against Hearts, Rangers and Aberdeen.
Manager Raymond Goethals was nicknamed “Columbo” by the Belgian media and some good detective work suggested he knew all about the dangers United could pose.
“United are a very attack-minded team and play in a similar style to Aberdeen, who I also rate very highly,” he said.
“They will obviously have a great advantage playing at home and we shall have to do very well to get a result.
“I don’t fear one player in particular, as United are a team who play for each other.”
He was pinning his hopes on Dutch international winger Simon Tahamata, who impressed the crowd at Hampden when he played against Scotland in 1982.
United were without Paul Sturrock through injury and recent signings Derek Johnstone and Tommy Coyne were ineligible so Ralph Milne was brought back in from the cold.
“We will start with the same 11 who began the first leg in Liege,” said Jim McLean.
“People can accuse us of being defensive but the players involved are capable of several roles and our approach will be very different from what it was in the first game.
“We will not necessarily play as we usually do.”
A virtuoso display from Ralph Milne
McLean said United’s progress on November 2 1983 would depend on the ability of Milne and winger Eammon Bannon to take the play to the Belgians.
Milne looked sharp from the first whistle as United started strongly under the Tannadice floodlights on what was the club’s 50th tie in European competition.
John Holt survived a few tackles on 11 minutes to quickly release Davie Dodds but the striker pulled his shot wide of the post with only keeper Michel Preud’Homme to beat.
Derek Stark was replaced by John Reilly on 22 minutes, after suffering a knee injury, and the substitute made his presence felt when he immediately forced a United corner.
Milne’s cross was headed back into the goalmouth by Bannon to Richard Gough, who shot over the top as United continued to turn the screw in the opening exchanges.
Milne brilliantly put United in front with his 10th United European goal on 26 minutes with a flying header from Bannon’s cross that he directed past Preud’Homme.
In 38 minutes another Milne header from a Bannon cross went only inches past.
Milne was turning in a stunning performance.
With a minute to go before half-time, he grabbed a second.
Milne showed his genius as he broke from his marker and beat the offside trap to bring down a Holt pass before a stunning chip over the outrushing Preud’Homme.
Hamish McAlpine pulled off a great save from Tahamata before the whistle, preventing a goal which would have made for the very different team talk from McLean at the break.
United were in rampant form and, in 51 minutes, went further ahead from a Milne corner when Hegarty outjumped the Belgian defence to score with a header.
The Terrors went four up in 69 minutes after a good move involving Kirkwood, Milne and Gough, with Dodds on the line to prod home Gough’s cross from close range.
Jim McLean’s players could feel 10 feet tall
Courier writer Tommy Gallacher watched the Milne masterclass at Tannadice.
The legendary scribe followed every game during Dundee’s fairytale run to the European Cup semi-final in 1963 and was now covering United’s glory years.
Gallacher said Milne “simply ran amok”.
He wrote: “The United fans were in jubilant mood as Ralph Milne took it on his shoulders personally to roast the Belgian defence.
“It was simple for him to beat two, three and sometimes four opponents at a time and his powerful shooting had the Belgian defence on tenterhooks all the time.
“Milne tore the defence to shreds with his exhilarating runs, and had a hand in the two goals he didn’t score himself.
“It was all too easy for the Tannadice men with the home crowd lapping it up and cheering their every move.
“The final whistle could only have brought relief to Standard Liege and United fully deserved the standing ovation from their fans at the end to celebrate yet another outstanding European performance.”
McLean said he was delighted with the response from Milne, after being so dissatisfied with his form that he had dropped him for the previous game, against Motherwell.
“I took Ralph aside before the game and told him it was now or never.
“If he wanted a future with this club, he had to turn it on.
“Just look at his response — that was the best he had ever played, and on that form he is capable of generating real excitement in the crowd.”
The quarter-final draw would take place on December 9 and United supporters wanted a crack at Liverpool, who got through 1-0 on aggregate against Athletic Bilbao.
Was that 4-0 win United’s greatest-ever performance in Europe?
“You can’t really compare one with another,” was McLean’s reply.
“Mind you, at this moment I would be tempted to say that was the one which has given me most satisfaction because it has just happened!
“The players can walk out of here feeling 10 feet tall.”