Walter Smith: All Roads Lead To Rome

THE wolves are still hungry.

It is a day when an entire city bares its teeth, when even the waiters at the team hotel growl malevolently as the staff and players of Dundee United sit down for breakfast. It is April 25, 1984 and all roads have led to Rome, the Scottish side having arrived in Italy to play the second leg of a European Cup semi-final. United lead the tie 2-0 following a win at Tannadice a fortnight previously and are on the verge of an historic triumph.

Jim McLean’s side have been made aware that they are unwelcome guests in the Italian capital and local animosity will become distilled inside the Stadio Olimpico. As United make their way across the city, Roma supporters inside the stadium drape banners written in English over the front of the stands which state: “Dundee be careful: the wolves are still hungry” and “God curse Dundee United”.

There is another which declares: “Rome hates McLean”.

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The United manager is persona non grata inside the city’s football colosseum, the unwitting villain of the first leg. Following Roma’s defeat on Tayside, a story has been circulated in Italy that McLean insulted the great Bruno Conti during the game – a tall tale perpetuated by Roma manager Nils Liedholm. Club officials have also accused the United players of doping ahead of their triumph in the first leg, putting the Roma supporters in a state of apoplexy.

“It was a hostile atmosphere. The whole environment was hostile – even the waiters in the hotel were none too friendly. I couldn’t understand it at the time,” recalls Walter Smith in Part One of The Big Interview with the former United assistant manager.

“During the game at Tannadice, the ball had bounced out towards our dug out. Jim had got the ball and bounced it back to one of their players [Conti], who had come to get it. Their manager later said that there had been an altercation. He was talking about that moment on the touchline when the ball went out of play. He said that there had been an altercation between Conti and Jim McLean, during which he said that Jim had called Conti an Italian whatever… I was there and Jim didn’t do that.

“So they exaggerated this whole case. That was European football – the stakes were so high for both teams.”

Roma felt the pressure more, since that year the finale of the competition was to be held at the Stadio Olimpico. Defeat against United had risked embarrassing the famous Italian side by denying them the chance to compete in a home final, so club officials took steps to tip the balance in their favour. They paid French referee Michel Vautrot a £50,000 bribe and sullied a match which ended 3-0 to the home side.

“The referee was later found to have taken bribes – he was found guilty of that,” Walter says. “But, I must say, during the game there wasn’t a decision which I questioned.”

He had little time for reflection in the aftermath of the match. Walter had entered the dug out as assistant to McLean but left it as the United manager’s bodyguard; fending off Roma players who wanted a square go with McLean after the final whistle. Walter does not admit to it in the podcast, but it was later reported that the coach was struck a number of times as he helped his manager to reach the sanctuary of the dressing room.

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“After the game it started to get nasty. Jim managed to escape up the stairs to the dressing room and left [United reserve goalkeeper] John Gardiner and I to hold them off,” Walter reveals.

“I was more disappointed for Jim. To take a provincial team like Dundee United to that level, to have an opportunity [to reach the final] after winning 2-0 in the first game, Jim deserved a day in the sun. That would have put him up there with the very best managers to have taken a team to a European final.”

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