When in Rome – Dundee United in Europe

Written by Johnny Proctor
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As the Scottish champions Dundee United, emerged from the Tannadice Park tunnel on a balmy April night,
the players in tangerine could’ve been forgiven for questioning if this was all just some dream. The like that can only be achieved by eating a Red Leicester, Edam & Mature Cheddar triple cheese omelette before bed time. Outlandish isn’t even the word for the fact that they were walking onto the pitch alongside Serie A champions AS Roma. A side that boasted players of stature such as Brazilians, Falcao and Toninho Cerezo as well as homegrown talents in Italian world cup winners Bruno Conte and Francesco Graziani and a team that was rumoured at the time to have swaggered up to the United stadium the day before and question if this was in fact the training ground that they had arrived at.

Having won the Scottish Premier League for the first time in their history the season before, this was the Dundee club’s debut in UEFA’s leading club competition. Having made their bones across a number of seasons in both the Fairs Cup & the updated UEFA cup competitons they had already taken a few notable scalps to at least register themselves on the European football radar. Two seasons before, both AS Monaco and Borussia Monchengladbach had been turfed out of the Uefa cup during United’s march to the quarter finals. The following season it would be PSV Eindhoven and a Werder Bremen side, including Rudi Voeller who would be swept aside with the Scots reaching the quarter finals once more.

Both those long runs the previous two seasons had stood Dundee United in good stead for what would be their greatest and toughest challenge yet on the European stage. Even then, when they started out in their first round tie against Maltese team Hamrun Spartans who they dispensed 6-0 on aggregate, they couldn’t have dared to dream that it would be a journey that would take them to the brink of the final with the champions of Italy standing between them and a place in the final. Next up came a match up against tricky Belgians, Standard Liege. After a 0-0 draw in Liege, the second leg saw Standard having their pants taken completely down 4-0 by a Ralph Milne (Rip) inspired United inside a packed Tannadice. With confidence growing in legendary Scots manager Jim McLean’s team. They saw off Austrians, Rapid Vienna in the quarter finals by a more narrower margin, going through 2-2 on the away goals rule.

Which now brought them to As Roma. This march to the semi final, and without question the biggest matches of the United players lives, had went ridiculously smooth, too smooth if anything and by being paired against the champions of the notoriously unforgiving Serie A, they were about to find out how tough and cruel European football could be. It wasn’t just a case of going into what would be undoubtedly an extremely difficult to negotiate two legged tie. Unbeknown to them at that moment when they kicked off on that evening of the 11th April was that they were walking right into a surreal tale of drug accusations, the worst kind of intimidation, violence and bribery. A story that was to rumble on for decades after the actual two matches.

In true Dundee United fashion during that era of swashbuckling attacking with safe as houses defending, the Dundee side not one for standing by and admiring reputations of their so called betters, beat Roma that night 2-0 in a win that could’ve and most certainly should have been a lot heavier for their visitors. three or four would not have flattered the champions of Scotland, however the two second half goals from Davie Dodds and Derek Stark was, it was considered something that would give United a fighting chance of progressing through to the Final. Ironically, in Rome at the same Stadio Olimpico where, the second leg of the European cup semi final against the Giallorossi would be played at.

After the final whistle however, things kind of went a bit mental after that. During the after match press conference. United Manager, McLean, a man who first up, hardly ever smiled or joked and on the occasions when joking didn’t possess the ability to smile WHILE cracking one. During the press conference, the United boss was asked if his team had been on drugs to have performed in such a way against supposed far superior opposition. McLean, flippantly replied that if his players WERE on drugs then he’d be making sure that they’d be taking them again for the second leg out in Rome. Possibly this comment was lost in translation, most likely it was a case of journalists hearing the words coming from McLean and thinking BINGO. A golden quote to base their story around their piece and, who back in Italy will really care, or know, that this wasn’t a case of an opposition coach admitting to rife drug use in the dressing room.

Roma President, Dino Viola, feeling the heat from the Roma ultras, was only too happy to deflect attention away from himself and his team by speaking out in the press that it was also his belief that the Scottish side had been using performance enhancing drugs to beat his team. This was only an entry into the low levels that Viola would stoop to during this semi final between the teams. Then came accusations from some of the Roma players that Jim McLean had called them “Italian Bastards” after the final whistle back in Dundee as the teams left the pitch. Now McLean was not a mild mannered kind of man by any means, so these claims from the Roma players could not have been quickly ruled out, however, due to this orchestrated campaign in the Italian sports papers. the prime motive appearing to be to whip the capital fans into a frenzy before the impending arrival of the drug cheats from Scotland. It seemed to be a convenient claim at the time.

The “racist and drug abusing” Scottish Champions flew into Rome for what would prove to be the most difficult and intimidating game of football they had or ever would experience in their careers. The United players were subject to every trick in the book of the dark arts as far as gaining advantages wherever they were to be found. As is generally accepted when it comes to major football tournaments. It’s in the organisers and sponsors of the competition’s interest for the biggest sides to progress to the final stages of the tournament to maintain maximum interest from the general public. With that, it was no surprise to find UEFA allow the second leg to kick off at the obscenely early time of 3.30 in the afternoon, “coincidentally” the hottest part of the day in the Italian capital. In the build up to the game in Rome, there was an incident where the players food had been tampered with where just as the players were ready to tuck into the bowls of soup that had been laid down for them. The same bowls were frantically removed from the players before they even got the chance to wish each other boun appetito. Unable to leave their hotel due to safety issues and protected by armed guards who’s dogs would bark at all hours, in addition to the cacophony of orchestrated noise from the Roma ultras outside the hotel. The United players started to become a little fearful of their surroundings, especially due to the fact that someone had attempted to poison them.

It would be a valid point to suggest that the Scottish side lost the tie right there in the confines of their hotel rooms. Whatever they were facing pre match would be a light year away from what would greet them at the Stadio Olimpico on the afternoon of the second leg. Due to the campaign waged by the Italian press, the Roma support were to give a Nuremberg Rally’esque firecracker atmosphered welcome to their visitors that day. Not only was this the biggest match in the history of Dundee United. With a place in their first European Cup Final inside their own stadium of all places at stake, it was also Roma’s biggest match in theirs. And with record receipts for a Roma match there was a 68,060 capacity crowd crammed into the stadium whipping itself up into a tinderbox of noise long before kick off. United walked out for their warm up to a wall of noise. With banners displayed by the Commando Ultra Curva Sud group, such as - God Curse Dundee , McLean Fuck Off, Rome Hates McLean and McLean Is A Poof it was clearly apparent that this little side from Scotland had gotten well and truly under the Roman’s skins. During the warm up, the Scottish players had to constantly dodge oranges being thrown from up high in the stands as was told by Paul Sturrock years later, ‘ You can joke about it, but there were hundreds of them, thousands, and they were coming from a fair height, Doddsy (Davie) and I tried to break the ice by playing keepie uppie with them, but it just incensed them further.’

It wasn’t that much of a surprise when United froze in the paradoxically red hot hostile atmosphere that afternoon. This was a club who had already shown many times over that they knew how to either protect a lead on the road or snatch one when required. This was a different, prop completely and nothing like this group of players had experienced. Despite the two goal cushion they never stood a chance, thrown in to this impossible environment. At that point during the game, they simply didn’t realise how “impossible” this job would turn out to be. United themselves as a group, as a team, to be blunt, never turned up on the day. A shadow of themselves, uncharacteristically they went down to a 3-0 defeat that was enough to see the Serie A side take their place in the final. Even through their underperformance, team from Dundee missed a golden chance through talisman Ralph Milne that on any other day he’d have put away in his sleep that would’ve almost certainly taken the Terrors into the final at Roma’s expense. Two first half goals from Roberto Pruzzo and a decisive third by Agostino di Bartolomei was the exact scoreline that was required to send Dundee United out and burst the most outrageous and unthinkable of bubbles. If United thought their ordeal in the baking hot Rome sun was over when the final whistle sounded, the were sadly mistaken.

(A rudimentary degree in Italian will be advantageous as far as this second video goes)

Rather than celebrate the remarkable and amazing comeback that they had just pulled off and celebrate the achievement of reaching the European Cup Final with their thousands of by now, rabid fans, the majority of the AS Roma team made right towards the United bench, specifically for Jim McLean. Intimidating and goading the United Manager as he attempted to make his way from the pitch and to the safety of the dressing room. By the time he got there he was covered in spit from the Roma players and his Assistant Manager, Walter Smith and sub goalkeeper, Gardiner had both been assaulted by players and officials of Roma while they protected McLean on the way back down the tunnel. “It was the first time I’d ever seen the manager upset” said Gardiner “They had obviously identified him as the target and things got out of hand. They were swearing, spitting at him, punching him. It was horrible to see. He was just covered in spit. I’d never seen anything like that towards a manager before and I’ve never seen it since. It was degrading. It was chaos at that point in the tunnel with punches being thrown in all directions. “I wasn’t going to just stand there and let somebody whack me” said the substitute keeper “We threw our own back. It gave the manager a chance to get to the dressing room and clean himself up because it was disgusting that they had done to him, it really was. I don’t know if they would have hurt him, but the pressure they were putting him under was enormous. And, for the life of me I don’t know why they picked him out.” Local broadcaster and journalist, Dick Donnelly, who had covered United matches home and away, years after the tie said ‘ Nobody liked the treatment Jim got that day. The Roma players were intimidating and trying to assault him, some say that they were spitting at him. Things happened that day should not have been allowed to take place on a football field. More than a few “Arabs” celebrated Liverpool’s win in the final’ Donnelly fondly remembered. ‘ No one wanted Roma to win, every Dundee United fan in the city must’ve been wearing a red scarf that evening of the final.’

To dispel the natural assumption that this was nothing more than a natural partizan knee jerk reaction from a set of football fans who simply wanted the team who beat them to also suffer the sting of failure at the high end of the sport. This was the same group of Scottish supporters who only three years later would inspire UEFA to create their “Fair Play Award” due to the sporting behaviour that they had shown inside Tannadice Park towards the players of IFK Goteborg who had beaten United over two legs in the UEFA Cup Final after a 1-1 draw to win the cup 2-1 on aggregate. Rather than celebrate with their small pocket of traveling Swedes, Goteborg performed a lap of honor with the trophy around the Tannadice pitch whilst to a man, every United supporter stood there applauding them. Not an orange in sight.

It was a sickening end to the fairy tale in Rome and one that had threatened to gatecrash its way into the realms of reality for the Scottish representatives in the tournament. United returned back to Dundee both angry at themselves for their evident non appearance in that second leg and a high degree of bitterness over how they had been treated that day in the Stadio Olimpico by their so called hosts. Even after Liverpool had defeated Roma during a penalty shoot out in the final in the Olimpico. There was still more fallout to come from the semi final. Although United themselves never publicly spoke out on the events in Rome. Ernie Walker, Chairman of the Scottish Football Association was ready to speak up for the club at UEFA. Walker expressed his concerns over how scandalously United had been treated whilst taking part in a UEFA tournament. Questions needed asked. Such as why was the game allowed to kick off at the 3.30pm time of the day whilst the first leg had taken place at the much more regular evening time, why did the security inside the Stadio Olimpico who guarded McLean from the moment he arrived at the ground that day go mysteriously missing when the final whistle sounded and 3/4 of the Roma players and officials were hunting him down like an angry mob with torches and pitchforks? Considering this appeal came on behalf of a Scottish side with accusations being cast upon the Italian champions. The request for an investigation unsurprisingly came to nothing. McLean would later say ‘ Walker was convinced an attempt had at least been made to bribe the referee but UEFA brushed his suspicions under the carpet.

Dundee United moved on, for a club like them, one thing would be sure and that was that they would go on to have a shedload more of painful semi final exits as well as a top heavy amount of agonising cup final defeats. Within two years though, the events of that tie against Roma were brought right back to them in the most sinister of ways. Rumours had began to surface that AS Roma President, Dino Viola had attempted to bribe the referee for the second leg, Michel Vautrot. The middle man in the conspiracy to secure a Roma place in the final had confessed to his role in approaching Vautrot. The Frenchman, claimed at the time that he hadn’t taken the bribe offered to him. There was another theory that the same middleman had failed to pass on the £50,000 to the referee and had actually pocketed it himself and told Viola that the deal was done, while praying for a Roma win against Dundee United! This resulted in a questionable 1 year European footballing ban for Viola’s side with the President himself being excluded from all UEFA activities for 4 seasons. Considering how high the stakes were for the right to reach the most vaunted of domestic cup finals, The European Cup. For Roma to be found guilty of attempted match fixing, this punishment was something that sat somewhere between a slap on the wrist and simply just looking at one.

Had this been the behaviour of a team in todays world of football, there’s no doubt that the semi final would have been deemed void and the Dundonians would’ve received the standard 3-0 victory scoreline to take them through to the final. The main flaw in this is that this WASN’T the UEFA way of doing things in those days. Well, that, and the fact that the “attempted” bribery was uncovered long after the final had been played. It was one last twist of the knife in the Dundee side’s back though. Just when they thought they couldn’t despise elements of the Italian side, I say elements as Jim Mclean had a great mutual respect for the Roma coach at the time, the respected Swede Nils Liedholm. When they thought they had found everything to erase AS Roma from their Christmas card list AND then managed to get over things and move on. They then have tales of bribery put in their heads. This Semi Final was just the painful gift that kept on giving. There was no advantage given to United whatsoever over the punishment feted out to the Italian club. No retrospective losers medals for the players in the final that they should have appeared in. No reimbursement of the thousands that the club would have earned for reaching the final. 

Like that dead body under the patio that the killer thought would never be discovered as the years passed. 27 years later, Riccardo Viola, son of the now dead ex president, Dino. Gave an explosive interview on Italian TV channel Mediaset Premium where he lifted the lid on the whole story of that semi final in 1984. During an interview he admitted that Roma had bribed Michel Vautrot with a payment of £50,000 to make sure that the second leg went the way of the Italians. Viola said ’Spartan Landini, Genoa Director of Football, came to see my father. He told him that we could get at Vautrot via another friend but that for such a high profile match he would have to be given 100 million lire. During the dinner a waiter went up to the referee saying “Telephone call for Mr Vautrot” This was the pre-arranged signal. Vautrot left the table and when he returned said “My friend, Paulo rang and he sends you his best wishes.” Then I got up, rang my father and told him “Message received.” Viola continued to fess up live on air.

‘All of this was done because we had a difficult game ahead of us against Dundee United, we were two goals down and for us, going out of the competition would have had very serious repercussions’

After how systematically they had been taken apart 1 week before in Dundee by the so called Scottish minnows, there were no guarantees of overturning the two goal deficit in the second leg and Roma knew it. With the final of the competition being in Rome and them being so close to getting there, it was deemed unthinkable that they would not be taking their place in it. The pressure of it all forced Roma down the most despicable of dark roads where rather than try to put their best 11 out on the pitch and see if they were good enough. Indulged in bribery to ensure that whatever happened, they would progress. Despite an AS Roma high ranking official admitting to this perversion of justice. As yet, no retrospective punishment has been handed down to the Roman club who cheated their way to UEFA’s showcase end of season final in front of billions across the world. And considering it was 2011 that Viola confessed on TV to the bribing of Vautrot, no further incriminations will be following.

For what was, not so much a golden generation of players and more, a once in a lifetime collection of footballers it must’ve stung a little to know that no matter how they had played that day in the stifling heat in Rome, it wouldn’t have mattered in the end. Their dreams of playing in what would be for them, and the rest of their careers, the biggest match of their life was a fraud. Had it come down to it that afternoon, it would not be decided on their talent alone as football players. In fact, it DID sting. After the Viola TV interview revelations, Dundee United and Scotland international, Paul Sturrock formally wrote to UEFA President Michel Platini asking him to launch an investigation into the now confirmed corruption that had soured that crucial second leg. I hope the irony wasn’t lost on “Luggy” when he saw the news of Platini being charged with accepting an unsolicited payment recently leading to the termination of his presidency at Nyon, Switzerland. For the record, Sturrock received a reply assuring him that the governing body would look further into these new revelations.

‘If I’m asked, I would like the medals’ said Sturrock after Riccardo Viola had come clean on the matter. ‘I think it would be appropriate if runners up medals were awarded to the players and Platini himself came over to present them’ It would be nice to think that Sturrock was talking tongue in cheek over Platini coming over to present the retrospective medals 30 years later but this was a man hurting over the ultimate chance missed. He continued ‘ I was lucky enough to finish up playing in a World Cup, which was probably the biggest thing in my career but to play in a European Cup Final, with Dundee United. That would have been incredible. I feel unjustly done by.’ If anything, it was in some kind of consolation, a form of closure for all connected with this sorry episode. Any suspicions that may have been harboured by the ex players and officials of Dundee United over what happened that day in the Italian capital at the very least had been realised. It’s easy to empathise with those United players. This was their careers after all and there is no telling how far some of those talented players would’ve went in the game had they qualified for the final, and potentially won what was without debating, Europe’s most sought after club trophy.

Even today, amongst the hardcore Dundee United support, and for those with long memories and who never forget, As Roma is and forever always will be a name synonymous with broken dreams and some rip your radiator right off the wall moments of heartache. The bad guy, the fucking boogie man who stopped you from getting what you most wanted in life when it comes for your football team. It’s why I have a friend who EVERY time Roma plays tweets a good luck message to whatever random team that they’re playing. It’s also why you will never see anyone wearing a replica Roma shirt inside Tannadice Park. Although it has to be noted that for a time, metres across the road inside Dens Park, home of Dundee’s smaller and less successful club, Dundee FC, their supporters have been known to show their respect to the Giallorossi by way of wearing the famous claret shirt in homage to the team that stopped their city rivals from rubbing their noses in things even further in terms of cross city dominance. Already sore from the embarrassment of their City rivals winning their first Premier League title on the last day of the season in their own stadium.

It was a regrettable chapter in the history of Dundee United, from the moment that the referee blew the final whistle at Tannadice Park to signal the end of the first leg, and then beyond. The intimidation, the violence, the dirty tricks at every turn and then as was to be revealed much later, the insurance policy just in case Dundee United proved to be mentally tougher than they were to turn out to be on the day. It was a piece of history that whilst hardly being something that would cast a cloud over the club in the years to come, was also something that would always be never forgotten while eternally looked back on in the most purest sense of “what if.” It would be, I feel, fitting to end with the pragmatic words of United midfielder, Billy Kirkwood who, amongst the hysteria and sense of injustice of what took place back on that afternoon in April 1984. Coming across as someone who truly “got” the gravity of what had taken place and, speaking as objectively as a man who had been cheated out of a life changing appearance in a major cup final could do, said. ©
“Rome? It was one of those games that, if we had been 3-0 or 4-0 up from the first leg, the Italians would still have won. Looking back now, you could say that there was no chance of us winning. They weren’t going to let us”
Read 13723 times Last modified on Tuesday, 15 March 2016 17:11
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Johnny Proctor

Johnny Proctor

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