Class of '83: When Dundee United wrapped up the title in a historic derby

Jim McLean's side became Premier Division champions on May 14, 1983.

There are different ways to win league title and all have their own appeal.

There’s the ‘race from the front leaving rivals trailing in your wake’ way, like Manchester City winning the English Premier League title by a massive 19 points in 2018.

There’s the ‘hard-to-beat, grind out wins and treat every point like a personal possession’ method, like the Milan side that scored 36 goals in 34 games but still lifted the Serie A trophy in 1994.

And there’s the ‘secure the only top flight league title in your history with a win over your city rivals in the final game of the season’ way. That’s the Dundee United way.

Forty years ago, on May 14, 1983, a 2-1 win over Dundee at Dens Park earned United their first Premier Division title on arguably the greatest day of the club’s history.

For iconic manager Jim McLean, the triumph was the culmination of years of work building, coaching and motivating his side until they claimed the title of Scotland’s best.

United, fourth the previous season, had enjoyed a strong campaign but were far from assured success as they went into the final weekend, with a genuine three-way fight to the trophy making for a thrilling conclusion.

Defending champions Celtic, whose attack was spearheaded by league top scorer Charlie Nicholas, had held the upper hand going into the final straight but United had underlined their credentials with a 3-0 win in Glasgow. Despite that, Billy McNeill’s side could have jumped back to the top of the table with a final day win if United lost.

Aberdeen, UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup winners that week under the guidance of Alex Ferguson, were also placed to pounce if there was any slip-up.

SEASON 1982/1983 Dundee United's manager, Jim McLean sits proudly with the Premier Division trophy which United won that season.

United had to perform and a derby match away from home amped up the pressure. The team needed a good start to calm the tangerine-clad crowd inside Dens and Ralph Milne delivered in style after just four minutes.

The United number eight carried the ball from the edge of the centre circle to approach the Dundee penalty area. Milne had options to pass either side of him, or the space to carry the ball in closer to goal.

Instead he looked up, measured the situation and lifted the ball over Dundee goalkeeper Colin Kelly and into the net from 25 yards out. It was less blooter, more Bergkamp, and a goal worth watching over and over, as the United faithful undoubtedly have in the years since.

Eleven minutes in, United had the comfort of a two-goal cushion. A foul on David Narey gave United a penalty and Eamonn Bannon stepped up to the spot, His penalty was saved by Kelly but he was first to react to the rebound, prodding the ball home to the delight of the away fans.

United’s bitter rivals were never likely to roll over and accept defeat and Dundee fought back, with Ian Ferguson thumping a shot past Hamish McAlpine just before the half hour mark to make it 2-1.

Dundee pressed for an equaliser and came close on more than one occasion but United were resolute, while results elsewhere meant there was no room for error.

The visitors stood strong and the full-time whistle made them icons. United were champions for the first time in their 79-year history. McLean had masterminded an historic achievement. Success had been delivered, and at the home of their rivals.

John Holt, who replaced Paul Sturrock from the bench and played his part as United manfully defended their lead, still cherishes the memory of a special day.

“It was absolutely brilliant,” he told STV. “Especially being local as well and playing against Dundee.

“When Bannon scored and Ralph Milne scored, it was fantastic. And my memories about the supporters were different class.

“We didn’t realise how big it was, winning the league. But when you look on it now, or if you go back to those days as well, it’s usually Rangers or it’s usually Celtic, or maybe Aberdeen. For us to win that league was fantastic.”

Goalkeeper Hamish McAlpine shared Holt’s appreciation of the noise the fans made in celebrating their success.

“The atmosphere was just incredible,” he said. “It was just tangerine and black all the way.

“And then the game, I can’t remember a lot about the game. Ralph’s goal was just unbelievable.  We got the penalty saved and Eamonn stuck it away the second time. Then they scored and put us under a bit of pressure.

“Just the atmosphere after that, coming off the pitch was just superb.”

McLean had said at the time that he hoped United’s triumph could be an inspiration to other teams to believe they could reach the same heights and challenge the domination of the Glasgow clubs but his side’s achievement stands out as remarkable four decades on.

The example set by his side remains one that others can aspire to and current United manager Jim Goodwin has urged his players to look at the club legends for a lift as they battle against relegation.

“The players are aware of the significance of that, albeit we are at the other end of the table now fighting for our lives, when those guys 40 years ago were competing up at the top end to go and win championships he said this week.

“It is something that we could only dream of at this moment in time but it does give you an understanding of where you are and what kind of club you are at.”

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