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‘I did what Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes couldn’t’: The story of how Forfar Athletic almost defeated Jim McLean’s Dundee United to get bragging rights over Barcelona

MacDonald wheels away in celebration - towards his dad, Robert
MacDonald wheels away in celebration - towards his dad, Robert

There is a pang of regret as Kenny MacDonald considers one of his lost cuttings, even if the words do remain seared into his memory.

It was a match report from the Sporting Life, lovingly extracted by his mother Patricia (‘Patsy’ to her friends) which included the line: “MacDonald does what Hughes and Lineker couldn’t.”

What followed was the story of the remarkable afternoon when Forfar almost defeated the conquerors of Barcelona. 

“It would be a good one to show the grandkids,” laughs MacDonald.    

For a period, MacDonald’s name looked destined to live long in Scottish Cup folklore. His sharp, close-range finish gave Forfar a 2-1 lead at Tannadice on March 14, 1987 and an almighty shock was in the offing.  

MacDonald fires Forfar into the lead

This was not the era of rest and rotation; Narey, Sturrock, Malpas, Hegarty and hero of the 1-0 victory over Barca 10 days earlier, Kevin Gallacher, all played. A Forfar victory would have been a staggering achievement.  

“I was quite pally with a lot of the United boys – we all stayed in Monifieth,” recalls MacDonald. “And when I scored to put us 2-1 up, Paul Hegarty sidles up to me and says: ‘Were you offside there, MacDonald?’ I said: ‘Aye, probably!’   

You had Archie McPherson saying ‘they beat Barcelona, but how will they deal with Forfar’. Well, we gave them a harder game. 

“But, going up against a team that would beat Barcelona over two games; looking back, you pinch yourself. 

“From the age of five, I was a United fan. My dad, Robert, got me tickets and we went everywhere to watch United. So, I was coming out the dressing room thinking: ‘I can’t believe I’m walking out at Tannadice’.

“Then to score a goal – with my dad in the Shed End – was amazing. When I scored, I could see him with his pals in the Shed and you feel like you’re dreaming.” 

The record should show that the Loons, managed by Henry Hall, had some fine players on show, not least a young forward named Craig Brewster with a precocious eye for a pass and a big future.

He would soon become very familiar to the United faithful.  

“Craig actually phoned me recently, totally out of the blue. We hadn’t spoke in 20 years and we were having a laugh and a blether about old times,” continued MacDonald. “What a player. Even before he moved on and had the career he had, Craig was the one.

“Then, a few days later he forwarded me on a video of that game from YouTube. You had Archie McPherson saying ‘they beat Barcelona, but how will they deal with Forfar’. Well, we gave them a harder game. 

Under Henry Hall, we were never in awe. He would send us out to get the ball at our feet, enjoy the game and see what happened. The worst thing is to get nervous and freeze. So, we played our game. 

Ex-Forfar boss Henry Hall

“Whether it’s Real Madrid or Berwick Rangers, you’ll get a chance. I was lucky enough to play at Ibrox, Celtic Park, Easter Road – the lot – and always had that philosophy. 

He adds: “I had friends who were Dundee fans and they were playing at Clydebank that day. They were sure they were getting Forfar in the semi-final. They were devastated when United equalised!” 

Indeed, there would be late heartbreak when John Clark blocked a goal-bound Gallacher effort on the line with his hand. Referee Jim Duncan pointed to the penalty spot.  

It is a decision that still prompts discussion, with current United boss Micky Mellon stating this week: “Dave Bowman told me about it on Wednesday morning and he said it was never a penalty.”

Iain Ferguson’s penalty was clinical

Nevertheless, Iain Ferguson converted to rescue a 2-2 draw and sent the tie back to Angus.  

A crying shame 

Talk of the replay at Station Park prompts an audible groan. “Dinnae talk to me about that game.” 

In front of more than 8,000 fans, MacDonald was afforded another wonderful opportunity to torment the Tangerines when Forfar were awarded a penalty midway through the first half. All he had to do was slot the ball beyond a young Alan Main, deputising for Billy Thomson. 

“I was the penalty-taker and was always clinical,” he recalled. “But Paul Hegarty – a wee bit of revenge – walks up to Alan Main in goals and whispers something. Suddenly, I’m thinking: ‘Christ, has Heggy seen my penalties?’ So, I changed my mind and the keeper saved it.  

Iain Ferguson strikes again, this time at a packed Station Park

Then Jim McInally gives away another penalty in the stramash after mine. John Clark absolutely threw me out the way and told me I wasn’t getting another chance. Then he misses his kick. What an absolute nightmare.  

“I remember my dad saying to me: ‘Your mum was greetin’ because you missed the penalty.’ Dear, oh dear.” 

Dundee United – six days after finishing the job against Barcelona with a 2-1 win in Catalonia – were finally able to see off their Angus foes thanks to goals from Iain Ferguson and John Holt.  

A sense of perspective 

His recollections of that unforgettable tie against his boyhood heroes serve as a jumping off point to a career worth of anecdotes.  

There was the year he played for Happy Valley in Hong Kong – befriending Gordon McQueen in the process – and was told by the club’s millionaire owner that if he did not find the net in the next game, he was being shipped home.

MacDonald scored four and ended the season as the country’s top scorer.  

A young Brewster at Forfar, middle row, second from the left

Or how he used to egg on a youthful Craig Brewster to put an extra digit in front of his expense claims when they travelled to Loons training together, prompting former manager Doug Houston to incredulously ask why he was paying for 27 litres of petrol for a journey from Monifieth.  

Or when he joined St Johnstone and, keen to make a positive impact, was thrown on as a substitute with the team 3-0 down to Rangers at McDiarmid Park. “Alex Totten says to me: ‘MacDonald, get on and change it’. Change it? I touched the ball once and even that was offside.”     

MacDonald is appreciative that he is still around to tell his tales, acknowledging that there will be ‘a wee tear in his eye’ when he settles down in his Broughty Ferry home – two minutes down the road from Patsy, now 90, to watch Forfar face Dundee United once more.  

He stepped down from his role as assistant to Tony Macauley at Dundee North End last year due to undisclosed health issues and, discussing those for the first time, MacDonald explains that he suffered from pleurisy and pneumonia. 

A routine check at Ninewells Hospital became a major operation at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and, in the aftermath of the procedure, he was told that if he had been a smoker, like plenty of his peers in the 1970s and 80s, he would not have pulled through.  

A work to commemorate the fixture, created by a friend of MacDonald’s

“I’m lucky to be here,” he continued. “They had to operate to get the fluid off my lungs and what was supposed to be 45 minutes keyhole surgery became a four-hour surgery.  

“It’s still sore now and I’m told it will be for the next couple of years. I wouldn’t say I lived a clean life – I liked a pint – but I’m glad I avoided the cigarettes! 

 “There’s a wee reminder that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed – so enjoy today.” 

Quiet progress: Why silence is golden for Dundee United boss Micky Mellon

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