A notorious game with a truth finally exposed, here's Blair Grant to explain a little more
‘God curse Dundee United’; ‘McLean Fuck Off’, ‘Rome hates McLean’. The message from A.S Roma’s, Commando Ultrà Curva Sud (CUCS), was clear for all to see, as the United players walked out onto the Stadio Olimpico turf, just 90 minutes away from a place in the European Cup final.
In the stifling heat of the afternoon, April 25, 1984, the Tannadice-based side, which had surpassed all expectations in the earlier rounds of the competition, took a two goal lead into the match, having outclassed, i Giallorossi, in the first-leg. The squad, who had arrived 90 minutes prior to kick-off were greeted with the obligatory jeers and pelted with a variety of fruit from sections of what was an already vociferous crowd, showing a vitriol and a degree of animosity which the players simply hadn’t experienced before.
It was in the aftermath of United’s memorable victory in Scotland that acted as the spark which would ignite the rematch and United, like rabbits caught in the proverbial headlights, would be swept aside before Roma went on to lose the final against Liverpool. After the first-leg Jim McLean - Dundee United’s manager - made what can only be described as extremely misguided comments to journalists in the wake of the victory, claiming that he hoped his players kept taking whatever pills they had been on. Although flippant, and with the Lanarkshire veteran’s tongue firmly pressed to cheek, the Italian media were quick to pounce. The Roma president, Dino Viola, aggrandized what was an already overwhelming feeling of anger by circulating the belief that the United players had been on drugs, adding further fuel to a fire which was already burning out of control.
In the wake of his comments which had been covered in great detail in the Italian press, the belief grew that the United players were cheats. Several Roma players then jumped on the mud-slinging bandwagon by publicly stating that McLean had referred to them as “Italian bastards”, at the end of the game in Dundee.
So it was to this furore that Roma kicked-off the game and simply demolished United, aided some felt by the circumspect decisions of top-class French referee, Michel Vautrot, who was quick to stop play, for any perceived misdemeanour by the United players.However, to blame Mr Vautrot for the defeat would be disingenuous; it would be taking the easy option as the team simply ‘bottled-it’ when it mattered, a huge part of this generated by the ferociously, smothering atmosphere. In the build-up to the game, Archie McPherson, as much a part of Scottish football as Motson is to England, said that the United players would need to show raw nerve and courage. They failed to do so.
A double from Roberto Pruzzo, followed by a second half penalty by the disquieted, Agostino di Bartolomei - who would later go on to commit suicide ten years to the day after Roma had lost the European Cup final to Liverpool - knocked United out of the competition. The ref’ did not have a major influence on the game, indeed he even disallowed a Roma goal when the game remained tied, for what was a questionable offside decision. Ralph Milne, United’s mercurial and talismanic striker also missed a fantastic chance which would have in all reality, put the match beyond Roma. He didn't take it.
When the final whistle blew the post-match scenes were nothing short of disgraceful, with Roma players cutting-short their celebrations with the home support to surround McLean and assistant manager, Walter Smith, goading the pair as they trudged abjectly off the pitch. United players were spat on while McLean would later claim that Smith and John Gardiner, the reserve team goalkeeper, were punched by Roma players and officials alike.
And that was that, a dispirited United were out, having been demolished by a Roma side full of continental stars, namely the Brazilian, Paulo Roberto Falcão.
Yet despite this, something didn’t sit right and suspicions soon began to grow in Tayside. Ernie Walker, then chief executive of the Scottish Football Association, approached UEFA with concerns over the match, hoping that the organisation would look into his grievances. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t. Although nothing official came from United, Jim McLean would later say of Walker:
"He was convinced an attempt at least had been made to bribe the referee but UEFA brushed his suspicions under the carpet."
And that was it, life went on, United went on and although the strong feelings of anger towards Roma remained and still do – read the comments made on various United messageboards when Roma play in European competition – things carried on as normal, with United fans proud that their team, small, provincial, Dundee United had come so far in what now seems like an impossible feat. Indeed years later, Roma, perhaps keen to offer the proverbial olive branch to United approached the side with the offer to attend a lucrative, pre-season tour, to which United eagerly accepted, making a considerable amount of the money in the process.
Then last week, Roma director, Riccardo Viola, son of Roma's late president, Dino, confirmed during an interview with Italian television company, Mediaset Premium, that the side did indeed bribe the referee with a bung of £50,000. Viola, son of Roma's late president, Dino, said:
"Spartaco Landini, the director of football at Genoa, came to see my father. He told him Vautrot was a friend of his and that we could get at him via another friend but the referee would have to be given 100million lire.”
A dinner was organised during which the bribe was accepted by the Frenchman, and Viola’s admission once again threw the controversial match into the media spotlight. Roma were under great pressure at the time and failure to reach the European final, which was of course to be held at the Stadio Olimpico, would have had serious repercussions for the side, leading to a financial offering for the referee to offset the unthinkable – spiralling out of European competition.
Yet with the truth finally out, further questions have come to the forefront, both from United supporters and Scottish football commentators. This debate about what to be done could spiral out of control, because the truth is nothing will be done.
Further recrimination will not take place against Roma, a European footballing powerhouse - to expect anything of the sort would not only be misjudged, it would be extremely naive. Calls for Roma to be banned from European competition for an indefinite period, ranging to United being named as rightful runners-up – there remains a strong belief that United had a squad which was more than capable of beating Liverpool – have all been prevalent this week, yet most know they will not come to fruition.
Dundee United fans would not speak highly of Roma – this is perhaps putting it mildly – yet that said, many accept that the time is now right to move on, a point which is understandably easier said than done. Yes, Roma directors cheated and the players disgraced themselves with their antics after the final whistle, but ultimately it was the performance of the United team, or indeed the lack of a performance, which was the major downfall.
That said, the adage: ‘Roma is not to be questioned, it is to be loved’, wouldn't hold true in the tangerine half of Dundee, nor will it. Ever.
To read more from Blair, visit his excellent blog or follow him on Twitter @blairgrant86