Out with the Old: When Dundee United and Aberdeen challenged the Celtic-Rangers duopoly

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.

It is inconceivable that such a thing could happen these days. Celtic and Rangers have shared the last 33 titles between them, with the former pushing for their eighth consecutive crown this season. It is scarcely believe that a club from outside the Old Firm could even mount a prolonged title tilt, but in the mid-1980s it was not at all unusual to see another club overcome the Glaswegian giants.

Prior to the 1982/83 campaign, either Celtic or Rangers had been crowned champions in 16 of the previous 17 years. Aberdeen’s success in 1980 was seen as an aberration at the time, but later events recast the Dons’ triumph as the start of something more sustained. Indeed, in 1983, 1984 and 1985, neither Celtic nor Rangers got their hands on the prize.

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It was Dundee United who upset the form book to become champions for the first – and only – time in their history in the first of those years. And when Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen took the Tangerines’ mantle to claim the next two trophies, the two clubs from the east coast of Scotland were christened the New Firm.

Only twice previously had there been consecutive seasons in which the trophy didn’t remain in Glasgow – when Hibernian and Third Lanark took the 1903 and 1904 titles respectively, and when Hibs claimed back-to-back crowns in the early 1950s. Aberdeen and Dundee United’s success breathed fresh life into Scottish football, which was already flourishing at international level: the national team were regulars at the World Cup in those days, qualifying for each edition of the tournament between 1974 and 1990, while some of the best players and managers in England hailed from north of the border.

It could all have been very different, though. Celtic were sitting pretty at the summit of the standings at the start of 1983, having opened up a six-point lead at the top. Yet the expected procession never materialised and while the Hoops maintained a favourable advantage as February began, a run of only four wins in 11 games before April let the chasing pack back 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, meanwhile, were a further 15 points back in fourth.

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Dundee United’s team of the ‘80s are best known for what came next. With the title secured they proceeded to do Scotland proud on the continent, reaching the last four of the European Cup before bowing out in controversial circumstances, as a questionable 3-0 loss to Roma overturned their two-goal aggregate lead.

It was only two years later that Giallorossi president Dino Viola was found guilty of attempting to influence the referee, a misdemeanour which saw him suspended by UEFA. Dundee United would eventually reach a European showpiece in 1987, losing to Gothenburg in the UEFA Cup final having beaten the mighty Barcelona en route. While McLean’s side were winning admirers across Europe, their domestic form slipped and they finished 10 points adrift of first place in 1983/84.

Juggling commitments wasn’t so much of a concern for Aberdeen. Ferguson’s men had been winning a trophy a season since 1980 and were accustomed to challenging on multiple fronts, having brought home the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983 and the UEFA Super Cup the following year. And so a side featuring Gordon Strachan, Mark McGhee and Jim Leighton cantered to the league title by a seven-point margin, despite failing to win any of their final four games. Celtic were runners-up while fourth-placed Rangers were once again well off the pace, finishing 15 points behind the Dons and struggling for continuity amid several managerial changes. That would not change until Graeme Souness took charge in 1986.

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While the trend over the past two decades has seen a floundering member of the Old Firm leave the door open 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 began the defence of their crown in scintillating form, winning 15 of their first 17 games; Celtic, meanwhile, did not register back-to-back victories until the middle of September, ceding early ground in the title race. Dundee United lost six of their opening 11 assignments, although they did recover to ultimately finish third.

It meant that, despite a little wobble around Christmas, the Dons again won the league by seven points to consign the Old Firm to their longest barren spell in the history of Scottish football.

As it turned out, though, the mid-1980s were a false dawn rather than a changing of the guard. Celtic took the title in 1986, kick-starting a new era of Glaswegian rule which shows very little sign of ending any time soon.

Out with the Old: When Dundee United and Aberdeen challenged the Celtic-Rangers duopoly
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