El Tel, Dundee United & The 86/87 Uefa CupWritten by Johnny Proctor
It was not just the Barca socios and cules who were left with skepticism over the appointment of the unknown English manager by the unpredictable, belligerent and ruthless President, Josep Nunez. The Spanish media, understandably had major doubts over the new coach who would have the weight of the regions public heaped upon his shoulders, but also, both in private and public, la blaugrana players themselves. Barca’s talented but often outspoken German midfielder Bernd Schuster had his say where he asked the Spanish press where Nunez had "got this guy from," musing if Venables had been plucked from one of the Majorcan beaches that were full of drunken Englishmen?
Back in these days and before the time of homegrown coaches such as Pep Guardiola and current gaffer, Luis Enrique. It wasn’t just an expectation that someone taking charge of one of the worlds truly great clubs would come correct with a CV that boasted of not only coaching the biggest and best international and domestic sides but having also coached them to success. It wasn’t an expectation, it was a demand, it was, they felt, their right. Menotti had coached Argentina to World Cup success before taking over at Barcelona. In what is as polar opposite as it can get. Venables came from, Queens Park Rangers.
Since taking over as president in 1978, Nunez had not seen the club win La Liga, the sides previous league title coming as far back as 10 years earlier. This was the task handed to the Englishman upon taking the reins at a club riddled with in fighting. No pressure! The natives, already underwhelmed by the announcement of Venables were left positively restless by this coinciding with Diego Maradona leaving the club for Napoli. It would be an understatement to suggest that the clubs fans weren’t too happy with losing who was widely regarded as one of the best players in the world and a player who was on his way to joining the elite of footballs folklore beside such superstars such as Pele and Cruyff. When a beaming Nunez presented to the press, Maradona’s replacement, one Stevie Archibald. It was seen as nothing more than a cost cutting exercise, especially when it had initially appeared that the club would be signing the very capable and La Liga savvy Mexican, Hugo Sanchez. A player who would eventually move across town to the Bernabeu the next season and become a Real Madrid great with more than 160 goals scored for the club.
“Este es el hombre.” This is the man, Nunez proudly announced to the world, to rid Barca of the unholy spectre of Maradona. Standing there beside the non plussed looking Scottish striker who would later admit that he hadn’t actually wanted to sign for Barcelona but had been pushed into the deal by Tottenham Hotspur because they needed the money from the transfer.
Against this backdrop it almost looked like the cockney coach had been set up to fail. Venables hadn’t, it seemed, read the same script as everyone else however. In what could’ve been a scenario that almost certainly had his position as Barca coach on a “shoogly peg” before it had even begun, his first league match of the 84/85 season saw the team start the campaign with a small trip to Madrid to play their most bitter of rivals, Los Blancos. Later that night la Blaugrana flew back to El Prat airport with a 3-0 win inside their duty free bags. To a man, every player made a point of walking up the aisle of the plane to where Venables was sat to shake his hand with the general consensus being that the new tactics he was trying to drill into the side “might be on to something,"
And they were. Barcelona won their first league title for a decade. Finishing 10 points ahead of nearest rivals Atletico Madrid and a whopping 17 points ahead of Atleti's cross town rivals, Real. Hugo Sanchez finishing the season winning the award for top scorer, the “Pichici” on 19 goals with Archibald bagging a very respectable 15 goals coming third behind the Mexican and Real Madrid’s Argentinian striker Jorge Valdano. Venables was no longer, Terry Who and as the season had progressed and the Catalonian public starting to see that this coach wasn’t just a patsy for President Nunez. The Englishman was soon affectionately christened “Meester Venables.”
Much like a band who completely take the world by storm with their debut album only to then have to face up to writing the often referenced “difficult second album.” Meester Venables faced the difficult second season and it was as difficult as it could get and soon the success of his first season in La Liga was almost forgotten about as Barca conceded their title to Real Madrid. Los Blancos finishing 11 points ahead of second placed Barca. The knife of that season being twisted by the loss of the European Cup Final in the less than neutral venue of Seville where Barcelona faced Romanian champions Steaua Bucharest in what is widely recognised as the worst European Cup Final ever seen, closely followed by Marseille against Red Star Belgrade. Both finals being decided on penalty kicks. Spanish football is not an environment to accept things based on reputation alone and it had been thought that regardless of his title win the season before. Venables would be gone before the start of the 86/87 season began. Instead, Nunez backed his coach by sanctioning the signings of the Atletico Bilbao goalkeeper Andoni Zubizaretta in addition to two strikers from the English first division, Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes from Tottenham and Manchester United respectively.
Lineker was an instant success including his headline grabbing hat trick in El Clasico at the Nou Camp, Hughes? Yeah not so much. The man from Leicester finished the season with 20 league goals which was a more than decent return for a player abroad although the irony would not have been lost on Venables that Hugo Sanchez (him again) would score a ridiculous, for La Liga at the time, 34 goals for Real Madrid in a season where Real would snatch the title back from Barca by, one single point. If Barca missing out on the league title was a major blow to president Nunez and down throughout the club it was their failure in European competition that would, at the end of the season, be looked upon as the defining moment on whether El Tel would stay on for a fourth season or not. With these being the days where Europe’s elite competition, The European Cup, only had each respective nations league winners representing. This saw Barca taking their place in Uefa’s second knockout competition. The Uefa Cup. La Blaugrana had negotiated their way through to the quarter finals of the competition and by that point found themselves outright favourites to reach the final and bring the trophy back to Catalonia. A small provincial side from Scotland had other ideas on this however.
Dundee United should not have been an unknown quantity to Barca. They’d already made their bones in the arena of European competition over consecutive years leading up to the quarter final tie against Barcelona. This in fact being the 4th time inside 6 seasons that they had reached the last eight of a European tournament and this specific quarter final only coming 3 years after the heartbreak of losing out on an historic place in the European Cup Final after crashing out against AS Roma amidst suspicious circumstances and missing out on the chance to play Liverpool in the final in a battle of Britain. A team who had proved to be one who under the colossus of a manager in Jim McLean had not been one to stand back and respect the reputations of their opponents. Previous seasons in the same competition had seen so called superior opposition in the mould of AS Monaco, Borussia Monchengladbach, PSV Eindhoven and Werder Bremen all dispensed of. The ties involving Borussia and the team from the French Principality both having 5 goals taken off them in the one match by the team from Tannadice St in consecutive rounds, the match in Monaco making headlines across Europe with United winning there 5-2. There was also the small detail that had to be factored in on this intriguing tie. Barcelona and Dundee United already had previous with each other. Back in 1966 the sides met in what was Dundee United’s first ever dip into the waters of European football with United winning both legs and knocking the Spaniards out only for the Scots to be trolled by the UEFA gods by then landing the European behemoth Juventus in the next round in a tie that saw “The Old Lady” of Italian football go through 3-1 on aggregate.
Regardless of all of this. The reality of it all was that this was very much a case of household names such as Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes who were used to plying their trade in front of crowds of 100,000 up against players such as John Holt who, as the story goes, almost left Dundee for lowly Forfar because “They were offering him a car to go with his salary” and because of this, only the staunchest of Arabs would have ever predicted United coming out on top over the two legs and them reaching only their second European semi final prior to both sides doing battle in the first leg at a capacity 21,322 crowd at Tannadice Park on March 4th.
It had been and would only go onto get even more, a punishing season for United where their small squad would find themselves fighting on three fronts for the Scottish Premier League, the Scottish Cup and the UEFA Cup. Before the UEFA Cup run had began in earnest they had started domestic duties in impressive fashion going the first 11 matches in the league unbeaten with a memorable 3-2 win against Rangers at Ibrox after being 2-0 down only to come back including 2 goals from a 20 year old Kevin Gallacher being the highlight of this run. The side was still largely the same team who had won the league in the 82/83 season with only striker Davie Dodds and defender Richard Gough being the notable departures from the backbone of the side. United replacing Dodds with the £175,000 signing from Rangers, Iain Ferguson who with 11 goals in his first 9 matches was appearing to be a more than adequate replacement.
Ironically, despite Ferguson’s impressive start to his career in Tangerine he would be missing for the first three rounds of the European competition due to his signing coming after the Uefa deadline. So, sans their new striker, the Terrors faced French side Lens in their first round of the Uefa Cup. United going down 1-0 in France and with the absence of an away goal. It was left hanging on a knife edge with the very real possibility that they might go out of Europe at the first attempt for the first time since the 78/79 season. After a tense first half and the teams going in at half time 0-0, second half goals from Ralph Milne and Tommy Coyne were enough to take them through 2-1 on aggregate.
The next round of the tournament paired the Scottish team with Romanians Universitatae Craiova. A side who had knocked Galatasaray out in the previous round and had shown they were indeed no mugs when they rattled the United crossbar after 90 seconds of the first leg in Dundee from an Adrian Popescu strike. It would take United 3 second half goals, two from Redford and one from John Clark who was deputising for Scottish international Paul Hegarty who was missing out on an incredible 52nd consecutive European appearance in a United shirt. The second leg was a mere formality after the 3-0 win and a 1-0 defeat out in Romania did nothing to dampen the spirits of the Scottish side.
Part Two Here
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