It was supposed to be Dundee United’s greatest night, but it turned into a nightmare and has left a dark cloud over their opponents AS Roma.
The 1980s was arguably the heyday of Scottish football. The likes of Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness were among the best in Europe. Alex Ferguson and Jock Stein had revolutionised the art of management.
Italian clubs like AC Milan sent officials to watch Scottish teams train, hoping to gain an insight into how these provincial clubs could perform so well on the European stage. Perhaps the greatest success story of all was Dundee United.
United had miraculously won the Scottish Premier League in 1983. The last game of that campaign was at Dens Park where United had to beat local rivals Dundee to claim the title. A full-house saw United take an early two goal lead and the Tangerines hung on to win 2-1. While Dundee fans slipped away, unable to deny their great rivals, United fans painted the town Orange, dreaming of a European adventure. They were not to be disappointed.
That a provincial club, with a 14-strong first-team squad, had won the league in 1983 was incredible, but the subsequent European run was even more of a fairy-tale. Aggregate wins against Hamrun Spartans, Standard Liege and Rapid Vienna propelled the Scottish minnows into the semi-finals of the European Cup. Italian champions Roma and their team of world class stars stood in United’s way of a historic final appearance. What happened next remains one of the greatest hard-luck tales in Scottish football history.
The first leg took placed on a cold night up at Tannadice on 11 April. It was a culture shock for much of the Italian side. Stars like Bruno Conti and Falcao had starred at the recent World Cup in Spain, but were not used to the playing surface. As United midfielder Billy Kirkwood recalled “They didn’t like our shitty wee stadium.”
After a drab first half, United turned in one of their greatest European performances after the break. Davide Dodds scored the opening goal just minutes after the restart before Derek Stark fired home an unstoppable effort past Franco Tancredi. United won 2-0 and Tannadice was rocking.
As soon as the post-match press conferences began, Roma took offence. United’s legendary manager Jim McLean, who served as Stein’s assistant for Scotland, joked that his players were on steroids after their high-action performance. The Italians did not get the joke. Shocked at the energy levels of the Scottish side, many from Roma believed something suspicious had occured.
When Roma’s coach Nils Liedholm spoke to the media, further allegations were made. Liedholm claimed McClean had abused Conti, something the Scots vehemently denied. It setup a fiery return leg in Rome. Yet no-one expected what was to come.
Roma were under huge pressure. Not only were they on the brink of an embarrassing semi-final exit, but with the final being played at the Stadio Olimpico, it was unacceptable for the Giallorossi not to be at their own party. Now the Italian side would do anything to be there. Things were made hard for United as soon as they got off the plane. The kick-off was scheduled for 15:30 in the afternoon, when Rome was at its hottest, to expose the Scots and their pale skins to the blistering sun. United’s hotel was full of security men, with dogs barking 24 hours a day. The night before the match, Roma’s ultras turned out in force, making noise until the early hours to ensure no United player got a good night’s sleep.
Assistant manager Walter Smith explains “The animosity towards us was clear. They did everything to make us feel uncomfortable, even the waiters in the hotel weren’t friendly.” As they travelled to the stadium, United’s bus was followed by groups of Roma fans. From their motorbikes, the ultras launched objects at the bus. Arriving at the Olimpico 90 minutes before kick-off, the Scots were greeted by 70,000 fans baying for blood. It was the modern-day Colosseum.
The players were pelted with apples and oranges as they warmed up. John Holt, who was due to start at full-back, was hit by an object thrown from the crowd and as a result began on the bench. Banners, in English, were littered around the stadium with phrases such as “GOD CURSE DUNDEE UNITED” and “McLEAN FUCK OFF”.
When the match kicked-off, United started well. Ralph Milne had a great chance to score early on, but he blazed over from close range. If that had gone in, it would have been game over. Instead, the class of Roma came to the fore. The Giallorossi turned the tie on its head thanks to a Roberto Pruzzo double. Going into half-time United were still in the tie but on the back foot. Then, 13 minutes after half time, Roma earned a clear penalty. Agostino di Bartolomei, Roma’s captain and one of the best Italian players never to play for the Azzurri, converted to give Roma the lead in the tie for the first time. United pressed in the latter stages but to no avail.
Celebrations followed straight after the final whistle but quickly they turned nasty. Suddenly the security guards that had been with United were nowhere to be seen. McLean found himself surrounded by a mob of Roma players, including Tancredi and Di Bartolomei. Things got out of hand as reserve goalkeeper John Gardiner details:
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.
United left Rome battered and bruised. For those watching back in Scotland, the only consolation was a technical hitch had interrupted the live feed. Two years later, the revelation that Roma had tried to bribe the referee, Michel Vautrot, compounded United’s sense of injustice and disgust. Roma were suspended from European football for a season (later overturned in favour of a fine) and their president, Dino Viola, was banned from official UEFA activities for four years (but acquitted by the FIGC) and he remained in the role until his death in 1991. His son Riccardo Viola spoke with Italian television company Mediaset Premium in 2011 and confirmed that his dad had given a middle man 100 million lire (£50,000) to ensure the referee was on their side.
At the time, no-one from United suspected anything. Vautrot performed well on the night and even disallowed an early Roma goal. There was no decision that turned the game. People forget how talented this Roma side were. But it is now known, however well United had played that night, they were probably never going to progress to the final. It was not the first time a British side had been dealt a cruel hand in Italy.
Liverpool still talk darkly about their controversial defeat to Inter in 1965, whilst after a suspicious performance by the referee during Derby County’s defeat to Juventus in Turin in 1973, Brian Clough refused to talk to the media claiming they were all “cheating bastards.”
Since Riccardo Viola’s revelation, most of Dundee United’s class of ’84 have spoken out. Paul Sturrock in particular has been vocal, writing to former UEFA president Michel Platini and demanding the Scottish side receive Roma’s runner up medals. But it seems this stain on UEFA is not high on their priority list.
Far from marking the end of a glorious era at Tannadice, the semi-final appearance served as a spring board for United. The following campaign, they reached both the Scottish League and Cup finals but failed to win either. In 1987, the club progressed to the Domestic Cup and UEFA Cup finals. Both finals had to be played within a fortnight. The first leg of the UEFA Cup final against Gothenburg resulted in a narrow defeat and United then lost the Scottish Cup final against St Mirren days later. The following week, the second leg against Gothenburg ended 1-1 with the Swedish club lifting the trophy at Tannadice. It was once again a story of so near and yet so far for McLean’s side.
However, the saddest part of this story was yet to come. Ten years after Roma’s defeat against Liverpool in the 1984 final, Di Bartolomei killed himself on the balcony of his villa. In his suicide note, he referred to financial problems, but the date of his death was no coincidence. It was the date of Roma’s European Cup final defeat. Against Liverpool he had played the game of his life and was rightly awarded man of the match. Yet it had all been too much for the Roman born player, who was desperate to lift the European Cup in front of his adoring fans.
As Di Bartolomei and his teammates cried on the pitch at the Olimpico, the scene was different in Dundee. The city celebrated as Bruce Grobbelaar denied Roma a first European Cup. McLean articulated the feelings of his United side and fans, “I’m pleased Liverpool won the Final. I’m glad a bunch of cheaters didn’t win.”
Words by Richard Hinman: @RichardHinman
Richard has been an avid follower of Italian football since the turn of the century and in particular Roma’s dramatic final day Scudetto triumph. A Yorkshire man with Calabrian roots, he is passionate about writing on all things calcio, from its historic players to current issues.