Celtic made waves across Europe with their Champions League group stage win over Barcelona.  While the result was a notable upset, it was in keeping with the Catalan side’s decidedly average record against teams from Scotland.  Curiously, in 18 contests Barca have won six, drawn five and now lost seven against Scottish opposition.

The Bhoys’ recent triumph was their second against the side from the Nou Camp, following on from a first-leg win in the 2003/04 UEFA Cup which helped them progress to the last eight of the competition.  Back in season 1960/61 meanwhile, Hibernian’s 3-2 victory at Easter Road clinched a 7-6 aggregate win in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup quarter-finals.

However, when it comes to taming Barcelona, one Scottish team have a record that many bigger clubs can only dream of.

Dundee United have twice been drawn against Barca in European competition.  In the four matches played over those ties, United have won the lot, scoring seven goals and conceding only two in the process.

The sides first crossed swords in the second round of the Fairs Cup, in October and November 1966.  At the time, the Terrors were very much the second side in the City of Discovery – they had returned to the top flight in 1960 after an absence of 28 years and had only spent four seasons in the first division during their entire history.

Such a record was in stark contrast to their neighbours from along the street.  Dundee already had a Scottish Cup victory and two League Cups by the start of the 60’s and in 1962 took the League title to Dens Park for the first time.  The Dark Blues were to prove no mugs in Europe either, reaching the last four of the European Cup and the Fairs Cup during the same decade.

However, a fifth place league finish in 1966 meant that United not only finished above their great rivals, but also qualified for Europe for the first time.  Manager Jerry Kerr – the man who had overseen promotion – had built a very capable side.  Attacking talent like the experienced striker Dennis Gillespie and young Ian Mitchell were complimented by a contingent of Scandinavian signings.  Danes Finn Dossing (who missed the Barca tie through injury) and Mogens Berg, Swedes Orjan Persson and Lennart Wing and Norwegian Finn Seemann were brought in long before foreign players were all the rage with British clubs.

The opposition were by no means the best side in Barcelona’s history.  Third in La Liga the previous season, Barca were in the midst of a barren run of 14 years without a league title.   However, as defending Fairs Cup champions, they were expected to progress to the third round with a minimum of fuss.

The opening exchanges of the first leg at the Nou Camp saw the home side with most of the possession (sound familiar?) and the visitors happy to wait for opportunities to counter.  After 13 minutes, one such chance allowed United to stun the home crowd, with Billy Hainey scoring United’s first goal in European competition.

Barcelona continued on the offensive and had chances to equalise.  However, the visitors not only preserved their lead, but extended it early in the second-half.  Seemann converted from the spot not once, but twice, after being ordered to retake his penalty-kick.

The hosts did pull a late goal back from Fuste, but United held on for a famous victory.  After such a remarkable performance, could United finish the job with home advantage in the second-leg at Tannadice?

The majority of the 28,000 crowd (still the record attendance for a match at United’s home ground) certainly thought so and inside the first 20 minutes, their confidence proved to be justified.  Despite Barcelona again dictating play, United extended their aggregate lead through Russell.  The supposedly plucky underdogs were taking control and four minutes into the second-half, the contest was effectively over.  Hainey, the man who had scored the first goal of the tie, also scored the last, completing a glorious double for the European debutants.  The score would have been even more emphatic had two other ‘goals’ not been disallowed.

Unfortunately, the draw for the next round was every bit as challenging, with Juventus overcoming United 3-1 on aggregate.  However, they had made their mark with few clubs having made such a spectacular entrance to European club football.

By 1987 the Fairs Cup had become the UEFA Cup, and in the quarter-finals of that year, United and Barcelona were once again drawn together.  Kerr’s successor, the dour disciplinarian Jim McLean, had already been in the job for more than a decade and had taken United to heights which they had previously only dreamed of.  A team including the talents of David Narey, Eamonn Bannon and Paul Sturrock not only delivered the club’s first major trophies – consecutive League Cup victories in 1979 and 1980 – but also pipped Celtic and ‘New Firm’ rivals Aberdeen for the league title in 1983.

In the subsequent European Cup campaign they reached the semi-finals, where they lost out to Roma in a feisty encounter.

Celtic and Rangers were about to reassert their stranglehold on the domestic game in Scotland, but The Tangerines were seen as the nations’ European specialists.  The rematch with Barcelona was the fourth time during the 1980s that United had made it to the last eight in Europe.

The Blaugrana meanwhile, were a team looking to ease the pain of the previous season.  Not only had they finished the La Liga season in second place, 11 points behind Real Madrid, but they had missed a golden opportunity to finally lift the European Cup.  The final in Seville saw Steaua Bucharest, and in particular goalkeeper Helmuth Duckadam, stun the favourites in a penalty shoot-out.

As was the case in their first tie more than twenty years before, Barcelona were expected to progress.  The tie had an added edge given the British involvement at the Nou Camp: Terry ‘El Tel’ Venables was at the helm and Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes featured in both matches.

Any nerves that United’s players may have been experiencing ahead of the first-leg in Dundee were quelled within two minutes.  20-year-old Kevin Gallagher put the home side in front with a volley from a seemingly impossible angle to the right of the opposition penalty area.  Whether the strike was intentional is debateable to say the least, but the goal was enough to give the Scots a first-leg lead.

Naturally, United approached the second-leg at the Nou Camp cautiously and for most of the first-half their tactics frustrated not only Barcelona’s players, but also their fans, who began to turn on their own side. However, a fortuitous break of the ball from a corner allowed Caldere to volley home and level the tie.

Despite the setback of conceding just before the break, the visitors stood firm in the second period and it seemed that their efforts would be enough to force extra-time.  However, McLean’s side hadn’t read the script and with five minutes left, they won a free-kick to the left of the opposition box.  When Ian Redford played the ball into the centre, John Clark – a striker turned central defender – met the cross and headed the ball home via the underside of the crossbar.  Everyone present, Barcelona included, knew that the game was up.

United weren’t finished.  With 90 minutes on the clock and McLean screaming at his midfield to retain possession, the ball found its way to Sturrock on the left touchline, deep in enemy territory.  As he made his way inside, he flighted an inch-perfect cross which was nodded home by former Dundee striker Iain Ferguson.

Lightning had well and truly struck twice, with the provincial club once again slaying one of the giants of the game.  While the 1966 victory was special, second time around was an even greater achievement, given the gulf in resources and the standard of players at the disposal of each manager.

Venebles expressed his belief that United would go on and win the competition, but sadly it wasn’t to be.  They became the fourth Scottish club to reach a European final, but IFK Gothenburg lifted the trophy after a 2-1 aggregate win.  A marathon 67-game season meant that United ran out of steam, also losing the Scottish Cup final to St Mirren just three days before the second-leg against the Swedes.  It was a cruel end to a year where McLean’s side had contributed so much at home and abroad.

Since that epic 86/87 campaign, United haven’t gone beyond the second round of a European competition.  As for Barcelona, well, they haven’t fared too badly.

Barca have also gained some revenge for the previous losses, defeating United in pre-season friendlies in 2007 and 2008.  Given the history between the two sides though, whether they would be able to do the same in a competitive match remains to be seen.

By William Heaney

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona