Out with the old: When Aberdeen and Dundee United challenged the Rangers-Celtic duopoly - (2021)
The year was 1985. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, the Live Aid movement was in full swing and, unthinkably, the Scottish championship had been won by a club outside the Old Firm for the third year running.
For a team other than Celtic or Rangers to mount a prolonged title tilt may seem scarcely believable nowadays, but for a time in the mid-80s it was becoming the norm.
The Glaswegian clubs had taken top spot in 17 of the past 18 years before Dundee United upset the form books to become champions for the first – and only – time in their history in 1982-83. And when Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen took the Tangerines’ mantle to claim the next two trophies, the largest break in Old Firm dominance that Scotland had ever seen was on.
Only twice previously had there been consecutive seasons in which the trophy didn’t remain in Scotland’s second city – when Hibernian and Third Lanark took the 1903 and 1904 titles respectively, and when Hibs claimed back-to-back crowns in the early ‘50s.
It was a time when Scottish football was flourishing. The national team were regulars at the World Cup, qualifying for every tournament between 1974 and 1990, and some of the best players and managers in Britain hailed from north of the border.
However, as the first day of 1983 came to a close, there was a familiar sense of deja vu, as Celtic sat pretty at the top with a comfortable six-point cushion ahead of their nearest title rivals. Yet the expected procession never materialised and while the Hoops maintained a favourable advantage as February began, a sequence of only four wins in 11 games up to the beginning of April let their challengers in.
And despite it looking as though Aberdeen would be the ones to profit from Celtic’s uncharacteristic demise, Dundee United surged through to drop just four points from their final 12 matches to steal top spot. Rangers, on the other hand, were a further 15 points back in fourth.
The Tangerines’ ‘80s vintage are probably best known for what they did next. With the title won, they carried St Andrew’s cross with pride to reach the European Cup semi-finals the following season, only succumbing to a highly suspicious three-goal defeat away at Roma which gave the Italians a 3-2 aggregate win.
While cynicism ran deep at the time about whether Roma’s president Dino Viola had bribed referee Michel Vartout ahead of the second leg, it was only two years later that Viola was banned by UEFA for attempting to influence the man in black. In 2011, Vartout’s son alleged the approach, which is said to have been to the tune of £50,000, was made at dinner prior to the match.
Dundee United would eventually reach a European final in 1987, losing to Gothenburg in the UEFA Cup showpiece after embarking on a run that saw them beat Barcelona home and away in the quarter-finals.
While McLean’s men were wowing supporters on the continent, they struggled to stay the pace in the Scottish league and finished 10 points behind the winners in 1983-84.
Juggling commitments wasn’t so much of a concern for Ferguson’s Aberdeen. They’d been winning a trophy a season since 1980 and challenging on multiple fronts, including in Europe by winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in ’83 and the Super Cup in ’84. And so a team starring Gordon Strachan, Mark McGhee and Jim Leighton cantered to the league title by seven points ahead of Celtic, despite failing to win any of their final four matches of the season.
Rangers were well off the pace once again, finishing fourth for a second successive year, a huge 15 points off the lead and picking themselves up from several managerial changes. That wouldn’t change until Graeme Souness took over the helm in 1986.
While the trend over the past two decades has seen a floundering member of the Old Firm leave the door ajar for their hated neighbour to march unchallenged to the title, Celtic failed to take advantage for a record third consecutive season in 1984-85.
Aberdeen started the defence of their crown in scintillating form, chalking up 15 wins from their opening 17 league matches – only losing to Celtic at Parkhead in October – while the Hoops didn’t string back-to-back wins together until mid-September. Dundee United, who eventually finished third, were nowhere near challenging, as they lost six of their opening 11 fixtures.
It meant that, despite a little wobble around Christmas, the Dons again topped the table by seven points at the end of the season and consigned the Glasgow giants to their longest barren spell in Scottish football history.
While the success might have promised a new era of dominance, the mid-80s was nothing but a false dawn. The year after, Celtic topped the table again – albeit only by finishing three goals ahead of surprise contenders Hearts – and triggered a run of Old Firm rule that shows very little sign of ending.
And what of Rangers? After hiring Souness, their former midfielder was the catalyst for the beginning of a run that saw the Gers take 12 of the next 14 league titles. Since then, nobody other than Celtic has come remotely close.
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