Hamish McAlpine and Billy Thomson could barely have been more different.
One was the penalty-taking, diminutive (in goalkeeping terms) and — in his own words — “haphazard” icon of Jim McLean’s First Division title winners.
The other was a towering student of the game; a gentle giant waiting for his opportunity to become a Dundee United hero.
Friends, teammates and glove rivals.
But the one thing the duo DID share in common was an unfailing mutual respect.
And following the confirmation of Thomson’s tragic passing on Monday morning, aged 64, one goalkeeping great of Tannadice has paid tribute to another.
“It’s no surprise to me that everyone is speaking so warmly of Thommo,” McAlpine told Courier Sport. “He was such a nice, genuine big guy; quiet, but warm and funny.
“Working with him every day was great. Mind you, I didn’t do much goalkeeping in training. I did the running and liked to play outfield in games. Big Thommo was the man for the goalkeeping training!
“He was mad keen on all that. You can see that with the level he went on to coach at, working with some very decent players — clubs like Rangers, Kilmarnock, St Mirren. He was a proper student of the game.”
The Monifieth men
Although already established as a fine young goalkeeper following his time at St Mirren, his ascension to the United No.1 spot was a gradual one.
The evergreen McAlpine would not be shifted during the 1984/85 campaign, even winning Scottish Football Writers’ Association footballer of the year, aged 37.
However, Thomson was making his mark on the training ground, as well as crafting camaraderie with his new teammates.
“It was a slow process for Thommo,” recalled McAlpine. “But wee Jim (McLean) always said the person in possession of the goalkeeper’s jersey really had to cock up to lose it!
“Outfield players were lucky to get one bad game, but the keepers got two or three.
“But Thommo was always professional and we pushed each other. There was never any bad feeling. We all got on really well. People might expect players to go, “I dinnae like him because he wants my place” — there was never anything like that.
“We all had good fun, stuck together and that’s what made it such a decent squad. Billy was a big part of that, living over in Monifieth where boys like Heggy (Paul Hegarty), Maurice (Malpas), Kirky (Billy Kirkwood) and Eamonn (Bannon) stayed.
“You can’t underestimate that. In total, there were five or six boys over in Monifieth and they would travel in together and have a good wee social life. That camaraderie was always important for our United teams.”
Ascension to No.1
As such, Thomson was familiar in his surroundings and had the complete faith of his teammates when he did succeed McAlpine; big gloves to fill.
He would remain as United No.1 for four seasons, making 234 appearances. He reached two Scottish Cup finals and, famously, the 1987 Uefa Cup final — albeit enduring galling defeats in them all.
“It was never strange or unfamiliar for Thommo to step in,” continued McAlpine. “He was ready. When he got that jersey, he took the opportunity.
“I’ll always think back to the Uefa Cup final, and Thommo playing such a big part in getting there with the wins over Barcelona.
“It’s a shame they couldn’t get over the line — but it still takes a right good side to get that far.”
With 688 appearances for United — only three men have more: David Narey, Maurice Malpas and Paul Hegarty — McAlpine is The Goalie.
However, Thomson comes closest in the list of keepers to have represented the Tangerines.
“People might make comparisons,” smiled McAlpine. “That’s not for me. We were totally different goalkeepers. I was a bit haphazard, I don’t mind saying.
“Thommo was studious and thoughtful about the game. Our styles were very different. Plus, I was 5ft 11in on a good day, whereas Thommo was a right big good looking laddie! There’s no comparison to be had.
“But Thommo was a top class goalkeeper. No debate about that. You don’t play in the Uefa Cup final and Scottish Cup finals if you aren’t top class.”
And McAlpine fully expects Tannadice to give Thomson a fitting send-off when Kilmarnock — where he served as goalkeeping coach and is fondly remembered — visit on Scottish Cup duty on Saturday.
He added: “It’s such sad news. I’m sure everyone is thinking of his family and friends, and I’m sure he’ll rightly be remembered this weekend.”