The boy in the crowd

Or, me on about memory again, and not really football.

First, a bit of football history context. In the late 70s and early 80s, the so-called “New Firm” of Aberdeen and Dundee United briefly upset the traditional domination of the Scottish game by the Glasgow “Old Firm” of Rangers and Celtic. The reasons for this are many and varied, though contributing factors were the managers in place in Pittodrie (Aberdeen’s ground) and Tannadice (United’s): respectively Alex Ferguson (who would go on to become arguably Britain’s greatest ever manager with decades of success at Manchester United) and Jim McLean.

For the only time since the Scottish league was formed in 1890, the period 1983-85 saw “provincial” clubs become league champions for three years running. The reasons this period ended are also many and varied, but that’s all you really need to be going on with. To summarise, in August 1984 the Dons and the Terrors were not only Scotland’s two best teams, they were among the best in Britain and indeed Europe: Aberdeen had won two European trophies in the previous 18 months, and United had reached the European Cup [now Champions League] semi-final. Just re-read that sentence to appreciate to what extent the past is indeed a foreign country. In the current corporate megabucks era, it is utterly unimaginable that two such small clubs could compete regularly at such a high level.

At the time, I was an Aberdeen fan. I grew up in Fife and technically my closest team was St Johnstone, who at that time languished in a lower division and didn’t even register on my football radar. But the biggest “local” team was Dundee United, of whom my gran, uncle and oldest cousin were all fans. I did have a sneaking regard for them because I shared a forename with two of their star players, Paul Hegarty and Paul Sturrock, and I didn’t know anyone else called Paul. But my allegiances were with the Dons: I had the replica kits and everything.

I went to the match in question with my uncle Ian, my cousin Colin, and Ian’s friend Sandy Kilgour. It was an ordinary league match, one of 36 that each team would play that season: nothing special or in any way remarkable. It was my first football match, and until March 1996 my only one.

Let’s jump forward now. I went off football in 1986 when I moved to High School, and had almost no engagment with it until the 1994 World Cup, by which time I was a student and had many friends who were into football. The next match I attended was the March ’96 Dundee derby – Dundee United v Dundee FC – and once again it was at Tannadice. In the intervening years Tannadice, like most stadia belonging to larger clubs, had undergone a transformation in the wake of the Taylor Report which followed the 1989 Hillsborough disaster: the ground was all-seated, the terraces had gone and we sat in a new East Stand which had not existed when I’d last visited.

This derby match – United won 2-0 – rekindled my interest in United, and I was soon a fan. But…surely I was an Aberdeen fan? Isn’t that the story we’re all led to believe, that you support one team all your life, and no other? Well, no. It wasn’t as if I had changed overnight, dumping the Dons in favour of their east-coast rivals. This wasn’t ret-con, it was a reboot. And the thing about becoming the supporter of a team (whatever the sport), is that you are enveloped into that club’s history, and inherit their list of honours. That reflected glory explains the huge popularity of certain clubs far beyond their expected geographical reach (Celtic and Rangers are slightly different, for reasons that don’t need explored here).

And so I “inherited” United’s past exactly as if I were an umpteenth-generation fan, and some of that past I’d lived through and remembered: their 1983 league title win (one of the clinching goals was scored by Ralph Milne, whose birthday was the same day as mine), and their incredible UEFA Cup Final journey in 1987 (among the few post-1986 televised football matches I watched). In the interim, United’s glory had faded and in 1996 they were enduring a season in the second tier of the Scottish game. The days of Jim McLean’s European adventures were firmly in the past, but wait…I already had a tenuous link to this, didn’t I? Even if not a United fan at the time, my first ever experience of a match was of that mighty team: Narey, Hegarty, Malpas, Gough, Sturrock, Bannon, Milne, Kirkwood and the rest.

I could justifiably claim a sense of belonging. Except…

Except I knew nothing of the match I’d been to: my one true connection, my “in”, was a pile of scattered half-memories. I’d spent most of that first match staring around me in terrfied awe, rather than at the action on the pitch. I’d never been in a crowd that size – had never seen so many people in one place. Never been in a “building” as large as Tannadice (itself only the 6th or so biggest football ground in Scotland). The noise and passion of the fans was eye-opening; and the language used was a shock to my small-town ears. But as to what was happening on the pitch? No idea. I remembered almost nothing except seeing Aberdeen and Scotland goalkeeper Jim Leighton – my favourite player – kick the ball upfield. When the match was over and we filed back to the car, I didn’t even know what the score was and had to ask. No-one seemed keen to tell me; was I rubbing salt in some wound? I didn’t know.

So, for years afterward I had a vague idea that Aberdeen had won 2-0, but no definite recollection that would back that up. For whatever reason, the fact that I’d just seen my team win had made almost no impression on me at the time: did I even check the Sunday Post next day for details? Again, no idea, though no doubt I could retroactively “create” such a memory. Twenty years later, I tried to find out which match I’d been to – I had no ticket stub, no matchday programme, and neither Ian nor Colin could remember to which, of the many matches they had attended, they’d taken me along. I scoured United’s official history, but the scoreline didn’t quite ring true, because of some of the other memories I had of that sunny Tayside afternoon.

One: the Aberdeen fans cheering – presumably a goal.

Two: the United fans cheering, and Colin picking me up and shaking me in feverish joy – presumably a United equaliser.

A third memory was the spot where Colin and I were standing: right at the front, just along from the corner with the Shed End. Tannadice had, and still to an extent has, distinctive raised brick corners edging the pitch (see lower right of image below). Even though the terrace has now long since been relaced by the full-seated George Fox Stand I could still point you, within a few metres, of where we stood that day, circled in red here:

Tannadice Park, Dundee, 1980s (post-August 1983, because the league championship flag is flying at the top of the picture)

So, had the match then finished 1-1? I tried to establish which game fitted those facts. I remembered a warm day, which suggested early season and therefore August or September. I remembered talking about it to schoolfriends on the Monday, and that meant Primary School, which I finished in 1986. And I remember that we lived in a particular house at the time, so it must have been 1983, 84 or 85. So I looked for league matches on a Saturday against Aberdeen in those months for those years. Even though the teams drew 1-1 in August 1985 at Tannadice, I finally plumped for August 1984. Why not the former game, if the “facts” seemed to mesh with memory? Because the Aberdeen keeper in 1985 was Bryan Gunn, not Jim Leighton. I found the matchday programme for the 1984 game on ebay and bought it, as if capturing a lost moment from my past. But was it my past? I still didn’t know for sure.

The United history database, Arab Archive [why Arab? this is why] has recently been uploading hundreds of match highlights to their YouTube channel, and on a whim I searched for and found the 1984 Aberdeen match. 20 minutes of highlights included a late-first-half Aberdeen goal – check – and then, crucially, and missing from what few reports I had found on the game – a disallowed United goal, hence the short-lived cheers from the United fans – check. Then, a few minutes before the end of the game (and Aberdeen’s second goal), the ball went out of play on the touchline near the North Terrace.

Frank McDougall of Aberdeen stands in attendance; a ballboy looks on, and Maurice Malpas of United jogs forward to take the throw-in before a row of young supporters decked out in tangerine.

And – you know that feeling when in a crowd you recognise a familiar face? Some geometry of features that your brain can connect to form a known identity? – then, I saw myself.

Dundee United v Aberdeen, 25/08/1984. courtesy

That’s me, highlighted, with Colin to the left in his United replica top. Goal!

I am quite clearly watching proceedings, but have no memory of it or, as I said above, almost anything else that happened on the pitch that day. So I had a moment’s doubt: is it actually me? But however good our long-term memory is, or however good we like to think it is, we are occasionally confronted by evidence of a past moment that we simply cannot dredge up from the recesses of our minds. And that is recognisably me and my cousin, exactly where I remember us standing, in a match whose component parts were scattered to time, enough of which I’ve now pieced together to answer an utterly unimportant, yet somehow significant, question from my childhood, 37 years later. And though I’ve been a United fan now for a quarter of a century, and even though on that day I was supporting the opposition, finally it feels like some bedrock of my support has taken solid form at last.


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