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Dundee United legend Paul Hegarty remembers day Tangerines terrified aristocrats from Rome in European Cup semi-final first leg 36 years on

Hegarty and his Dundee United team-mates celebrate
Hegarty and his Dundee United team-mates celebrate

It was, without a doubt, one of the greatest performances from a Scottish club in any European competition in any era.

Some of the shine came off the remarkable result because of what came after it but that shouldn’t detract from its magnitude.

Rome was not built in a day and neither was Jim McLean’s Dundee United team. Rather, years of winning on the pitch, working hard in training and brilliant coaching from McLean had made them this good.

So good, in fact, that a mere provincial club from little Scotland could terrify the mighty Italian champions in front of a packed Tannadice.

The game was the European Cup semi-final first leg between Dundee United and Serie A superstars Roma.

Jim McLean's side stunned Roma at Tannadice
Jim McLean’s side stunned Roma at Tannadice

The return leg would turn into the most infamous match the club have ever played in. They lost 3-0 at the Olympic Stadium but that was only half the story.

McLean, in particular, was outrageously intimidated by hate-filled Roma players on the touchline and the stench of corruption hangs over the whole episode to this day. There were even ludicrous accusations that the United players must have been on drugs, claims that were first laughed off then taken as a compliment inside Tannadice.

Despite what occurred later, it would be criminal if the display given by the Tangerines in that first game was not given the recognition it deserves.

The date was April 11, 1984 – all of 36 years ago this very day but memories are still fresh.

Indeed, when asked to take a trip down memory lane by Courier Sport, United legendary captain Paul Hegarty relived the classic game as if it had taken place last week.

Dundee Utd's Davie Dodds celebrates his goal with Eamonn Bannon
Dundee Utd’s Davie Dodds (left) celebrates his goal with Eamonn Bannon

That is largely because the frustration at not reaching the final is still very real for Hegarty and the rest of that United side.

Despite playing so well and scoring twice, first through Davie Dodds three minutes after half-time and then a 30-yard wonder strike from Derek Stark on the hour, they faced ultimate disappointment two weeks later.

Stark’s shot was memorably described by TV commentator Arthur Montford as “a thumper!” It was hard to disagree with the doyen of Scotsport.

A lot of the build-up to the match had been taken up by speculation over whether or not Roma’s injured Brazilian superstar Falcao would make it.

He didn’t but the visitors still had two reigning world champions on each wing: Italy internationals Bruno Conti and Francesco Graziani. There was class and quality everywhere in the opposition ranks and that was enough for Hegarty and Co to be getting on with.

The fabulous thing, though, was that the real superstars that spring evening were wearing tangerine.

Hegarty said: “At the time as a player, you couldn’t shake off the disappointment of the second leg.

“We not only wanted to win the semi-final and we were confident that we would do so.

“I couldn’t see the bigger picture when we got knocked out.

“It was only after a few years, looking back with things in perspective, that I realised just what a magnificent achievement it was to reach that stage.

Paul Hegarty.

“For a club of United’s size to be anywhere near a European Cup semi-final is pretty special and it doesn’t really happen now (in the Champions League), does it?

“I clearly remember the first leg, even now, and I would say that until Doddsie scored just after half-time it was pretty even-steven.

“I have always thought we could have scored more than the two goals that night but Roma had chances as well.

“The second goal gave us that wee bit of breathing space and it was a beauty from Starkie.

“Their keeper had no chance with it and I think it stunned them.

“I remember that Tannadice was absolutely packed and it was an incredible occasion to be involved in.

“We left the pitch happy, satisfied and looking forward to the second leg because on our day we could match anybody.”

The Tangerines, of course, went to the Italian capital a fortnight later and lost 3-0.

It was an ugly end to a beautiful run that had seen the champions of Malta (Hamrun Spartans), Belgium (Standard Liege) and Austria (Rapid Vienna) vanquished by some superb football. The Italians had beaten Gothenburg of Sweden, CSKA Sofia from Bulgaria then East German champions Dynamo Berlin.

Jim McLean is taunted after second leg
Jim McLean is taunted after second leg

Just like losing contestants on TV quiz show Bullseye, United were then able to look and see what they could have won when Roma welcomed Liverpool back to the Stadio Olimpico for the final on May 30.

Every United fan swapped tangerine for red for the day as they cheered on the Anfield side to a penalty shootout victory.

Hegarty rued missing out on what would have been a Battle of Britain contest to relish.

It would have been a particularly proud occasion for the Scotland national side, with United’s international contingent – Hegarty, Dave Narey, Richard Gough, Eamonn Bannon and Paul Sturrock (Maurice Malpas was a few weeks away from his first cap) – coming up against compatriots Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Steve Nicol and Alan Hansen.

Hegarty said: “Looking back, I think that aspect of it made the boys even more upset.

“We could have been playing against people like Dalglish, Hansen and Souness but we would have had a chance because we were a great side.

“I think people appreciated what we did in Europe, even fellow pros at other clubs.

Davie Dodds challenges for the ball with Odoacre Chierico
Davie Dodds challenges for the ball with Odoacre Chierico

“In fact, over the years I have had a few ex-players tell me that they used to travel up for our games from Glasgow and Edinburgh.

“They paid at the gate like everyone else and stood and cheered us on. Now that’s something of which all the players from our team should be proud.”

There is also a popular sports quiz question, which sees teams asked to name the UK cities that have had two clubs reach the European Cup/Champions League semi-finals.

Usually, people get Glasgow, London and Manchester quickly but Dundee sometimes proves a more elusive answer. The Dark Blues, of course, made it in 1963, also losing to an Italian club, AC Milan, in controversial circumstances,

Sadly, no supporter of either city side is watching from the terracing or stand nowadays.

The coronavirus crisis has shut the game down and Hegarty feels for United manager Robbie Neilson and his players as they sit looking at four walls.

Hegarty, who is doing his best to endure the lockdown at home, said: “It is tough enough for the rest of us but when you are still playing you are desperate to train and keep fit.

“Nobody knows when we are going to beat this virus but I just hope everyone stays healthy.”


United: McAlpine, Stark, Malpas, Gough, Hegarty, Narey, Bannon, Milne, Kirkwood, Sturrock (Coyne 82), Dodds. Subs not used: Gardiner, Holt, Reilly, Taylor.

Roma: Tancredi, Oddi, Righetti, Nela, Di Bartolemi, Maldera, Conti, Cezero, Pruzzo, Cherico, Graziani. Subs not used: Malgigglio, Nappi, Strunkelj, Giannini, Vincenzi.

Referee: Siegfried Kirschen (West Germany).

Attendance: 20,543.