Celtic Park 20 April 1983: Celtic’s clash with Dundee United would go a long way to determining who would win the Scottish Premier Division title. Going into the match the home side were in the driving seat and another two points would make them strong favourites to clinch a third successive league title.
This was however, by no means a two-horse race. Also in contention were Aberdeen, who would end the season by winning the European Cup Winners Cup in Gothenburg. What would the SPL give now to have three evenly matched sides challenging for the league title?
Given what was at stake, it’s hardly surprising that the match was such a highly charged affair with five goals, a red card and an outcome that proved crucial in deciding the ultimate destination of the league championship trophy.
There was also no shortage of quality on display, which is hardly surprising when considering some of the players in the starting line-ups: with Paul McStay, Charlie Nicholas, Davie Provan, Richard Gough, Paul Sturrock and Eamonn Bannon involved, brains were always likely to win over brawn.
Early pressure from United paid off when Paul Hegarty scored following an error from Roy Aitken. However, the sides went in level after Nicholas equalised from the penalty spot his 47th goal of the season.
Just 7 minutes after the restart, the visitors regained control. After Murdo McLeod pulled back Davie Dodds, Bannon made it 2-1 from the resulting spot-kick. However, United’s hopes of holding onto their lead suffered a massive blow when Richard Gough received a second yellow card following an alteration with Provan.
The extra man advantage looked to be working in Celtic’s favour when Tommy Burns levelled the contest with just over a quarter on an hour to go. However, the away side were not to be denied.
With 6 minutes left Bannon hooked a cross in from the right. It was controlled by Ralph Milne – on his chest – before the midfielder unleashed a volley from around twenty-five yards out. Pat Bonner in the Celtic goal was powerless as the ball dropped under the crossbar and sealed a memorable win for the visitors.
The win kept United in contention for the title but Celtic were still were top of the table. That all changed the following week as United overcame Kilmarnock 4-0, Celtic lost by a single goal at Aberdeen.
Despite never having won the championship in their history, United did not show any sign of nerves during the run-in, rather they seemed to thrive on being the new league leaders. Comfortable victories over Morton and Motherwell meant that another win on the final day, against local rivals Dundee, would clinch the title.
Another stunning goal from Milne, this time a chip from just outside the opposition box, helped United to a 2-1 win and they were confirmed as worthy champions, finishing a point ahead of Celtic and Aberdeen. Prior to manager Jim McLean’s appointment, the club had never won a domestic trophy but the championship added to the two League Cups he had delivered in 1979 and 1980.
In domestic terms, United failed to build on that success with the title never having returned to Tannadice since. However, when it came to European competition, they proved to be formidable opposition in the years that followed.
The season after winning the league, United reached the semi-final of the European Cup, only falling to Roma in circumstances which have later been shown to be dubious, to say the least. Had they managed to reach the final, United would have been underdogs against eventual winners Liverpool, but they would have been more than capable of causing an upset.
Three years later, United’s UEFA Cup run saw them memorably defeat Barcelona home and away before eventually losing in the final to IFK Gothenburg.
As for Ralph Milne, he left Tannadice in 1987 and following spells with Charlton Athletic and Bristol City, he joined Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. He failed to make his mark at Old Trafford and fans south of the border may not remember Milne with any great fondness. However, anyone in Scotland who seen him play will remember a gifted midfield player who contributed to one of the most significant league title wins in the history of the Scottish game.