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Dundee United

Why did Jim McLean not want Dundee United to compete in Europe?

McLean said he'd rather enter the Anglo-Scottish Cup than qualify for Europe in a fascinating April 1978 interview.
Graeme Strachan
Jim McLean stands on the picth at Tannadice Park with an empty stand behind him
Jim McLean masterminded European success at Dundee United. Image: Alan Richardson.

Jim McLean led Dundee United to famous wins over Barcelona and Roma, after saying he was not interested in competing in Europe.

The Terrors’ boss masterminded stunning triumphs over famous clubs like Standard Liege, Monaco, PSV Eindhoven and Werder Bremen.

These ’80s glory nights are among the jewels in United’s crown when it comes to the club’s storied past.

They sit, gleaming, alongside United’s 1983 Scottish title and their Scottish Cup and League Cup wins as their greatest achievement.

Yet McLean had no interest in Europe – it was expensive and United would not win these tournaments, anyway, he said.

He’d rather enter the Anglo-Scottish Cup, he admitted in a fascinating April 1978 interview that makes those European nights all the more remarkable.

“There are two reasons why we do not want to play in European competition next season,” he said.

“Firstly, we have lost an awful lot of money in that kind of competition and if we take part this year then the same thing is going to happen.

“Dundee United cannot afford that.

“Secondly, we are not good enough to win the tournament and I do not want us to enter competitions we have no chance of winning.

“From that point of view, I would much rather we played in the Anglo-Scottish Cup next season where I feel we could make a bit of money and also have a chance of winning the cup.”

McLean preferred Oldham to Olympiakos

McLean was speaking before back-to-back Premier Division games against Rangers.

United played the Light Blues three times in April 1978, having lost the Scottish Cup semi-final 2-0 at Hampden Park to Jock Wallace’s treble-chasers.

Goalmouth action with a packed stand in the background as Dundee United play Rangers at Tannadice in April 1978.
Dundee United playing Rangers at Tannadice in April 1978. Image: DC Thomson.

“When we played Rangers in the cup I wanted us to win, even though it would probably have guaranteed us a place in Europe,” said McLean.

“We feel the same way about these two games, even though it will push us higher in the league and a place nearer Europe.

“I want United to finish as high as possible, simply because I want us to do well in domestic competition.

“I have been the manager here for six years and we have come a long way in that time, but as far as I am concerned we still have plenty of room for improvement.”

The Anglo-Scottish Cup ran from 1975 and comprised of 16 English teams competing in four mini-leagues with the four winners progressing to the quarter-finals.

The eight Scottish clubs played a two-leg knockout round with the aggregate winners of each tie progressing to the quarter-finals against their English counterparts.

The English participants were largely from the lower leagues.

Narrow escape in an old Romanian bus…

Mind you, maybe McLean’s preference for a trip to Chesterfield was understandable when we consider his first European venture included a near-fatal coach crash.

United were back in Europe in September 1974 after a four year absence.

Jiul Petrosani from Romania were the opponents in the European Cup Winners’ Cup first round and McLean’s men won the first leg at Tannadice 3-0.

Petrosani is in the Carpathian mountains, more than 200 miles from Bucharest.

The Dundee United squad that started the 1974/75 season and would play in Europe under Jim McLean
The Dundee United squad that started the 1974/75 season. Image: DC Thomson.

United flew from Edinburgh to London; London to Amsterdam; and Amsterdam to Bucharest and were staying overnight in the capital on the Monday.

There was a big question about the following day’s travel especially when the official guide attached to the party confessed he had no idea what lay ahead.

The region was unknown to him.

Journey into unknown was real cliffhanger for United

The target for that Tuesday was the town of Targu Jiu and the elderly Romanian bus looked more suited to short journeys to tattie fields.

Courier football writer Bob Wilson, writing under the Don John byline, described the bus journey which ended like the cliffhanger scene from The Italian Job.

“But we trundled away, mile after mile, hour after hour,” he said.

“The sunny plains gave way to torrential rains, as the big climb started.

“The bus broke down.

“An hour later the driver solved the problem and off we went again.”

Then disaster.

Going down a steep hill, the bus went into a vicious skid.

A head and shoulders shot of a young Andy Gray, part of the squad which survived the coach journey.
Andy Gray was part of the squad which survived the coach journey. Image: DC Thomson.

John said: “The front wheels slid away, with the driver helpless.

“The bus hit the side of the road, swung completely round, and ended in a ditch facing uphill — it was like being on the waltzer at a fairground.

“The United party stumbled out, shaken but unhurt, and congratulated themselves on a fortunate escape.

“For ‘fortunate’ read ‘miracle’.

“Moments later we discovered there was no ditch at the other side of the road, just a fall into the valley below.

“Now if that skid had taken place at the other side…”

Drama on and off the park in Transylvania

The bus was eventually pulled clear by a heavy lorry and the United party limped into Targu Jiu hours late.

The Courier writer discovered the reason for the skid.

He said the tyres on the bus were as bald as a snooker ball.

But United had made it.

They spent the night in Targu Jiu before the journey to Petrosani where 25,000 fans packed the ground for the team’s first-ever home tie in Europe.

The United players were still stiff and out of sorts after their journey and Jiul Petrosani wiped off two of the three goal lead before the half-time whistle.

The match officials and the Dundee United and Petrosani players walk out on to the pitch before the second leg in Romania.
The United and Petrosani players before the second leg in Romania. Image: Supplied.

McLean stopped the rot by changing tactics at the break and going to five at the back.

There was more drama off the pitch.

A fire broke out in the stand at the interval and the press box was filled with choking smoke where phoning copy was already a challenge.

There was only one phone with a crackly line between five journalists.

The matchday programme from a game which brought high drama. Image: Supplied.

United held on and won the tie 3-2 on aggregate.

After the match it was all aboard the bus journey to Bucharest and they reached the capital late that night with no further drama.

Jim McLean masterminded glory in Europe for United

United ended the 1977/78 season by qualifying for the Uefa Cup despite McLean’s protests where they went out to Standard Liege in the first round.

Mighty oaks grow from little acorns.

Dundee United fans pictured before boarding their Barcelona-bound bus in 1987.
Dundee United fans pictured before boarding their Barcelona-bound bus in 1987. Image: DC Thomson.

The Tangerines, of course, established a European pedigree in the 1980s.

The results spoke for themselves.

United reached the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1984, and, in 1987, advanced to the Uefa Cup final after beating the mighty Barcelona on the way.

The rocky road to victory in Romania led on to stunning successes in Europe, as McLean and his men built a fearsome reputation.

It could easily be argued that Jim McLean did not make too many mistakes during his illustrious reign at Tannadice Park.

But perhaps he was, at first, wrong about Europe.

After all, why go to Rochdale when you can conquer Rome?