Jim McLean’s Dundee United & The Roma Scandal

by | Dec 27, 2020

The passing of Jim McLean is more than the death of a former football manager. For one half of the city of Dundee, McLean was the man who built Dundee United to the extent that there are few others in the United Kingdom who could be considered so closely associated with one individual. Dundee Hibernians had been founded in 1910, changing their name in 1923 after being rescued from a life-threatening financial crisis, but their existence prior to McLean’s arrival in 1971 was somewhat modest. They spent almost the whole of the thirty years between 1930 and 1960 in the second tier of the Scottish League, and by 1959 were a part-time club who’d just finished third from bottom of the Scottish Second Division, with only Queen’s Park and Montrose below them.

In 1959, however, the club appointed Jerry Kerr as their manager, their fifth in five years, a number which in itself hinted at the club’s underwhelming management. Kerr, however, had ideas. He insisted that the club turn professional, and the reward for this was almost immediate, with their first promotion to the First Division since 1932 coming at the end of his first season. With a team sprinkled with Scandinavian imports, the club established itself in the top flight over the following decade, even going into European football in 1968 with an appearance in the Inter Cities Fairs Cup which saw them beat Barcelona over two legs before losing to Juventus. In 1971, however, Kerr moved upstairs and Jim McLean was appointed in his place.

It was, in some respects, a curious choice. McLean had played almost 400 games as an inside forward, which had included almost a hundred for United’s very local rivals Dundee, and upon his retirement as a player in 1970 had been taken on as a coach at Dens Park. It had been widely expected that McLean would follow Jim Prentice as the manager of Dundee, but United got in first and in December 1971 he was appointed as the manager a few hundred yards from Dens Park at Tannadice Park, instead. In 1974 the club reached the Scottish Cup final for the first time before losing to Celtic and finished in a record high fourth place, but two years later, with the Scottish League having arranged itself into four divisions, McLean’s team same extremely close to relegation, with only a draw away to Rangers on the last day of the 1975/76 season keeping them in the top division. Dundee were relegated in their place.

By the end of the decade, though, the club’s fortunes were firmly in the ascendency. One of McLean’s very first actions, twelve years earlier, had been to introduce an organised and cohesive youth system, and the vindication of this policy could be seen in the flowering of such talented players as David Narey, Paul Sturrock and Maurice Malpas, all of whom had begun their senior careers at the club, and in December 1979 United won their first major trophy, beating Aberdeen after a replay to win the Scottish League Cup. The following year, they beat Dundee to retain the trophy and only lost the Scottish Cup final to Rangers after a replay. In 1983, though, McLean achieved something truly remarkable, lifting the Scottish League title after a three-way battle with Celtic and Aberdeen which went to the very last day of the season and saw the three clubs ultimately separated by just one point in the final league table, with the win that confirmed the club’s first league title on the final day of the season coming against… Dundee.

This meant that the new season brought a new challenge – the club’s first ever season in the European Cup. Dundee United were hardly callow in terms of European experience. They’d played in the UEFA Cup in seven of the previous eight seasons and had reached the quarter-finals in the previous two, losing to FK Radnički of Yugoslavia in 1982 and Bohemians of Czechoslovakia in 1983. The European Cup, however, was a step up, and following a comfortable first round win against Hamrun Spartans of Malta, they beat Standard Liege by four goals to nil at Tannadice Park after a goalless draw in Belgium in the first leg, and then Rapid Vienna of Austria on away goals, winning the second leg by a goal to nil after having lost the first leg in Vienna by two goals to one.

The semi-final, however, looking daunting from a distance. Roma had won the previous year’s Serie A title – the first, following Italy’s 1982 World Cup win – by four points from Juventus. Their run to the semi-finals had already seen them beat IFK Gothenberg, CSKA Sofia and Dynamo Berlin, and it had already been decided that the final that season would be held in the Stadio Olimpico, their home stadium. There could hardly be a greater incentive for the players to overcome a club playing in this competition for the first time in its history. The first leg at Tannadice Park, however, handed a definite advantage to McLean’s team. United had a slow start, with Francesco Graziani pulling a shot narrowly wide and hitting the crossbar with a header in a goalless first half. Three minutes into the second half, however, the Roma defence failed to clear a blocked shot and Davie Dodds shot through a crowd of legs to put United in front. Twelve minutes later, and with the early second half goal having apparently completely quashed their nerves, a slightly speculative looking long-range shot from Derek Stark seemed to catch the Roma goalkeeper Franco Tancredi out and the ball squeezed through to double their lead.

The return leg in Rome saw a crowd of almost 70,000 people turn out, despite the two-goal deficit that the home side would have to overturn, with the stakes being raised even higher when, after a reporter jokingly asked McLean after the first leg whether his team had been on drugs, McLean replied that if they were, he hoped that they would still be for the return match, which the Italian press reported back literally as an admission that his team had been on performance enhancing drugs for the first match. Roma led 2-0 by half-time thanks to two goals from Roberto Pruzzo, and a penalty kick thirteen minutes into the second half, converted by Agostino Di Bartolomei, won the tie for the home side. This, however, would turn out to be far from the end of this particular tie.

Whilst Dundee United accepted the result, though, others were more suspicious of what might have happened between the two legs. Ernie Walker, the secretary of the Scottish Football Association, lobbied UEFA to investigate the suggestion that the referee had been bribed ahead of the second match, but his appeals fell on deaf ears. Roma lost the final to Liverpool following a penalty shootout and the matter was largely considered closed. It took until 2011 for the truth of what happened to surface. In a 2011 interview with the Italian television company Mediaset Premium, Roma director Riccardo Viola – son of Dino Viola, who had been been a director of Roma in 1984 – confirmed that his club bribed French referee Michel Vautrot with a payment of £50,000 ahead of the second leg.

It could hardly be said that Roma had been ingratiating hosts to Dundee United prior to the return match. Having wilfully misinterpreted McLean’s post-match comments in order to stir up the public back in Rome, kick-off for the match was scheduled for 3.30 in the afternoon, when Rome was at its hottest, in the belief that the the visiting players would be more negatively affected by playing in hot conditions. In addition to this, the team’s hotel was full of security men, with dogs barking 24 hours a day, while the night before the match Roma’s ultras turned up outside, making noise until the early hours of the morning.

Even all of this, however, didn’t seem to be considered enough to ensure swinging the tie back in Roma’s favour. According to Viola, his father was approached by Spartaco Landini, a former player who’d been part of Italy’s 1966 World Cup squad and who was by this time a director of Genoa, advising that Vautrot would be open to bribery. The deal was sealed with the a level of subterfuge worthy of a heist movie. The night before the match, Vautrot was invited to dinner with Viola at a restaurant in Rome, and during the dinner a waiter went up to the referee saying ‘Telephone call for Mr Vautrot’. The referee left the table and when he returned said, ‘My friend Paolo rang and he sends you his best wishes.’ This was, it was claimed, a pre-arranged signal that Vautrot had agreed the bribe and been paid accordingly. You can judge for yourselves whether the second half penalty kick was a dive or not – it’s worth pointing out that there were few complaints from the Dundee United players about the decision at the time – but when the allegations were confirmed as true, McLean commented that,  “Any individual or club that stoops so low as to go in for this tactic deserves to be nowhere near the game. It’s an utter disgrace because I’ve always tried to believe football is honest.”

Vautrot himself would certainly see no sanction as a result of all of this. He went on to referee the 1986 European Cup final between Barcelona and Steaua Bucharest and the 1988 European Championships final between the Netherlands and the USSR, and in 1990 refereed the World Cup semi-final between Italy and Argentina. After he added eight minutes of stoppage time at the end of the first period extra time in this match, he explained that he had forgotten to check his watch. He was a refereeing assessor for UEFA by the time of the 2011 allegations. Landini, meanwhile, claimed in a covertly recorded interview with former referee Paolo Bergamo (who himself wished to prove that he was not the middle man referred to in Riccardo Viola’s claims) in 2012 that the bribe rumours themselves were a scam, organised between him and another club director, designed to swindle money from Dino Viola.

The allegations made by Riccardo Viola weren’t even the first to be levelled at that year’s European competitions. In 1997, Belgian club Anderlecht admitted that their former president, Constant Vanden Stock, had used a local gangster to pay Spanish referee Emilio Guruceta Muro £18,000 to throw their UEFA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. Two late goals had won the first leg for Forest but Anderlecht, against a background of peculiar refereeing decisions, overturned this lead in the second leg and went on to play in that year’s final against Tottenham Hotspur. Anderlecht were banned from European competition for just one season, and in 2016 it emerged that UEFA had known about the bribe since 1993 but had taken no action until the information was made public.

Indeed, this seems to be a common theme between these two simultaneous stories of corruption. Roma were suspended from European football for a season (later overturned in favour of a fine) when the allegations first became public in 1986 and Dino Viola was banned from official UEFA activities for four years (but acquitted by the FIGC) and he remained in his role with the club until his death in 1991. And there has been a tragic element to its after events. Emilio Guruceta Muro died in a car crash in 1987 while Agostino Di Bartolomei, whose penalty kick in 1984 won the European Cup semi-final for Roma, took his own life on the tenth anniversary of their defeat to Liverpool in the final.

The 1983/84 season would turn out to be Dundee United’s only season in the European Cup. As the 1980s wore on Rangers and Celtic started to reassert their dominance over the Scottish domestic game, and Dundee United haven’t finished higher than third in the Scottish League since. McLean, who turned down an offer to manage Rangers during the 1983/84 season on account of their policy of not signing Catholic players, was made a director of Dundee United in 1984, and four years later he became chairman and managing director whilst remaining as the club’s manager. He remained a director of the club until 2000, and returned as a director briefly in 2002 before finally selling his shareholding in the club later that year.

And the 1984 European Cup wasn’t quite the end of Dundee United’s adventures in Europe, or at home. The following season, they reached both the Scottish League and Cup finals but failed to win either. The end of the 1986/87 season, however, brought the club to their first European final (in the UEFA Cup) and a Scottish Cup final, but the season would end in disappointment. The first leg of the UEFA Cup final against Gothenburg resulted in a narrow defeat and they then lost the Scottish Cup final against St Mirren days later. The following week, the second leg against Gothenburg ended in a 1-1 draw at Tannadice Park. United would be Scottish Cup runners-up five times from 1981 to 1991, but and they finally lifted this trophy for the first time in 1994 under McLean’s successor Ivan Golac, with a 1-0 win against Rangers at Hampden Park.

For smaller clubs, the chances to shoot for the stars don’t come along particularly often, and this is all the more accentuated in a country like Scotland, where there are two clubs that are just so much bigger than all others. Another club excelling itself under a managerial great at the time, Aberdeen, won the Scottish League title in 1984 and 1985, but no club other than Rangers or Celtic has been crowned as the Scottish champions since. Would Dundee United have beaten Liverpool in the 1984 European Cup final had they got there? Jim McLean certainly seemed to think so, though Liverpool supporters might have something to say about that, considering that their team not only held Roma to a draw and then won the resulting penalty shootout in the final. And these ‘what if’ stories form a broader part of the game’s folklore, creating infinite parallel universes in which we can all dream that our teams might have been the champions. Dundee United may never scale such heights again, but they did so once – a remarkable achievement gifted to the club by a manager whose like they’ll probably never see again.