BY MARK GODFREY

This year’s Road to Hampden….sorry, Celtic Park…is nearing it’s conclusion and this blog, following various teams on their quest to win the Scottish Cup, takes another step towards the final.

The competition, which celebrates it’s 140th anniversary this year, throws up a semi-final between two clubs that experienced their first Cup triumph exactly 100 hundred years apart – Rangers (1894) and the team we’re supporting by virtue of their 5-0 demolition of Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the quarter-final, Dundee United (1994).

Semi-finals are traditionally held on neutral territory, but with Hampden Park undergoing renovation for the Commonwealth games and the competition’s final taking place at Celtic Park, the Scottish FA decided some time ago to hold both ties at the home of Rangers – Ibrox Stadium.

Oddly, due to Rangers’ demise and current status as a third tier club (albeit already crowned champions), Premiership highflyers Dundee United will go into the game as the bookies favourites and despite home field advantage and a partisan majority crowd against them, manager Jackie McNamara will fancy his chances of meeting either Aberdeen or St.Johnstone in May’s final.

But first, as is customary with this feature, we profile the historic city of Dundee.

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Evidence of habitation goes back to ancient times, but Dundee really began to grow from around the late 12th century. English and Scots forces (led by Robert the Bruce) fought over the city during the 14th century. During Tudor times, Dundee was the scene of much conflict during a period of war rather peculiarly called “the Rough Wooing” of 1543-1550 when Henry VIII tried to force a marriage between his son Edward and the infant Mary, Queen of Scots. The following 150 years continued to bring siege and skirmish to the city on the northern bank of the River Tay right up until the end of the Jacobite uprising.

Once peace broke out, Dundee flourished during the expansion of empire and the Industrial Revolution. The whaling and textile industries boomed and the city became famous worldwide for the production of jute – the cheaper, tougher alternative to materials such as linen which was spun throughout the city’s plethora of mechanised mills. As with so many industrialising towns and cities of Great Britain during this era, the population of Dundee exploded, with immigrant workers from the countryside and beyond – especially Ireland – rapidly filling the need for mass employment.

During Victorian times, Dundee also became synonymous with the production of marmalade – the most notable being Keiler’s – and shipbuilding. Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic research vessel – the RRS Discovery – was built on the Tay and it’s there she rests today as the focal point of Dundee’s waterfront tourist attractions. Probably the most iconic structure of the city is the Tay rail bridge which links Dundee with Wormit in Fife. The bridge was opened in 1878 but just 18 months later, a catastrophic failure resulted in a train plummeting into the icy river killing all 75 passengers on board. The remains of the original support pillars can be seen alongside the current framework of the bridge.

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Some other points of note about Dundee are that it’s twinned with Dubai amongst other cities, Winston Churchill was the MP for the city between 1908 and 1922 and there are statues of The Dandy’s Desperate Dan and The Beano’s Minnie the Minx in the middle of High Street – the city’s main shopping area (The Dandy and Beano publishers DC Thomson and Co. were based in Dundee).

Famously, the city is home to two Scottish senior clubs who are based, quite literally, across the street (Tannadice Street to be precise) from each other. There’s Dundee FC, the older of the two clubs founded in 1893 and Dundee United who began life as Dundee Hibernian in 1909.

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Dens Park belongs to the Dark Blues of Dundee while our Scottish Cup charges have called Tannadice Park (originally Clepington Park) home since 1909. The club changed its name to Dundee United in 1923 after being saved from bankruptcy by a group of local businessmen who then wanted to increase its appeal to supporters.

Most of United’s earlier years were spent in the shadow of their near neighbours who were regularly playing at a higher level and, during the mid-part of the 20th century, challenging the Old Firm for honours. The tide began to turn in the favour of The Terrors from 1971 onwards following the appointment of Dundee’s Jim McLean as manager.

McLean guided United to a Scottish Cup Final in 1974 and to successive top 3 finishes in Scotland’s top tier just a few years later. The club won its first major honour in 1979-80 when winning the League Cup against Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen, who went on to be crowned champions later that season. This success heralded the beginning of Dundee United’s golden era.

They retained the League Cup the following season, but the best was yet to come for the Arabs (the nickname of the United supporters). The 1982-83 Premier League campaign was an epic three-way tussle with Glasgow giants Celtic and old foes from up the coast, Aberdeen. The destiny of the title went down to the final day. The Dons spanked Hibernian, while Celtic and Dundee United had to face their respective local rivals if they were to triumph. At Ibrox, Celtic did what they had to do against Rangers while at a packed Dens Park, United squeaked past Dundee to win the Championship for the first, and only occasion.

With Scotland conquered, McLean took his side into the European Cup in 1983-84. While no strangers to continental competition, (United competed in Europe for 14 consecutive years from 1976 and scalped many of Europe’s big clubs on the way) the chance to compete against the very best from around Europe didn’t phase the Tayside club.

With United legends such as Paul Sturrock, David Narey, Paul Hegarty, Richard Gough and Maurice Malpas in their prime, Tannadice saw plenty of great European nights en route to the semi-finals. They would eventually lose 3-2 on aggregate to eventual runners-up AS Roma after a 3-0 second leg loss in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico; defeat denying McLean a place in an all-British final against the mighty Liverpool. As so often transpired in that era, allegations of bribery tainted the result and Roma were banned from UEFA competitions for a year after being found guilty of trying to bung the referee.

Three years later, United would finally reach a showpiece European final when they met Swedish club IFK Gothenburg in the then two-legged UEFA Cup final, having beaten Terry Venables’ Barcelona home and away in an earlier round. Sadly, United narrowly lost 2-1 on aggregate despite a memorable second leg at Tannadice. Although this was Dundee United’s greatest night – save the piss up after the 1983 League success no doubt – it would signal the beginning of the end for that great team and that special period.

As first Rangers, and subsequently Celtic began to flex their financial muscle to guarantee domestic domination, the likes of Dundee United fell further and further behind the pace. A first Scottish Cup win came in 1994, but just a year later it was followed by the ignominy of relegation for the first time in decades and although they bounced straight back to the top flight, Dundee United – along with everyone else in Scottish football – have been struggling to keep their heads above water in the significant wake of Celtic and, until recently, Rangers.

The current crop of Tannadice talent is the most exciting to pass through the club since those glorious days of the 70’s and 80’s, and with the overwhelming presence of champions Celtic having been eliminated, current manager Jackie McNamara must harbour high hopes of a second Scottish Cup win in four years; Peter Houston having guided them to success in the 2010 final against Ross County.

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McNamara has put together a young and vibrant team that’s been making quite a name for itself north and south of the border. They’re flirting with European qualification via their performance in the Premiership and have had scouts from clubs such as Everton sniffing around the likes of Andrew Robertson, John Souttar and Ryan Gauld throughout the season.

Gauld – or ‘Mini Messi’ as he has been christened – has even come to the attention of foreign observers; he was recently named 22nd on a list of European football’s 60 most exciting teenagers by respected Italian sports newspaper, Gazzetta Dello Sport, a list headed by Manchester United winger Adnan Januzaj.

United have plenty of other gifted players in their early 20’s learning their trade on the Tay such as Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven and Turkish striker, Nadir Çiftçi.

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It will be this plethora of tricky, ball players the Rangers boss Ally McCoist will be worrying about come the 12.45pm kick-off on Saturday. His side have waltzed serenely to two consecutive titles in the lower divisions in Scotland since the collapse and re-invention of Rangers, but despite having a squad likely capable of playing in the Premiership, it’s hard to determine exactly how competitive they are right now against a side like Dundee United and that’s what will make this encounter all-the-more intriguing. The Tangerines beat the Light Blues 3-0 in their Cup clash last year, so it will be interesting to see if the men from Glasgow have managed to narrow the gap between themselves and their opponents.

The Arabs will be heavily outnumbered by the Bears in the stands but will looking forward to a return trip to the other side of Glasgow for the final in May. The Football Pink intends to be present for the big game, but either way, we’ll bring you news and analysis of the outcome. We wish Dundee United all the best and with any luck, we’ll see them again soon.

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