Paul Hegarty, with the complimentary talents of his great defensive partner Dave Narey beside him and the occasionally unorthodox goalkeeping skills of Hamish McAlpine behind them, was at the centre of the key unit in the best-ever Dundee United side.
Originally a striker, there were some who thought Paul, at 5ft 10½, lacked the height required to be an effective central defender but any deficiency in inches was more than compensated for by his agility and natural heading ability and ‘spring-heeled’ was the favourite adjective of the press to explain his aerial superiority. He was the more aggressive of the famed United defensive duo but he was far removed from the image of a ‘bruising’ centre-half and instead he negated the influence of opposing forwards by speed of thought and perfect timing.
He was the first Dundee United captain to receive a national trophy when the Bell’s League Cup was captured in December 1979 and during his team captaincy from 1978 to 1986 he skippered United to the Club’s first three major honours. In all he made 707 appearances for United and scored 83 goals - quite remarkable for a player who, apart from his first 30 months at Tannadice, was a defender.
Paul Hegarty was also the first-ever Dundee United player to captain Scotland when he led out the national team in a match against Northern Ireland at Hampden in 1983. Paul regarded being given the captaincy of his country as ‘the thrill of a lifetime’ and it was made all the more pleasurable because not only did he have Dave Narey beside him but Eamonn Bannon and Richard Gough from the newly crowned Champions also wore Scotland’s blue that day. This match as international captain was also the only game in his eight international appearances where he and Dave Narey lined up as the central defensive pairing. Unsurprisingly, no goals were conceded.
Edinburgh-born Paul turned senior in 1972 when former Celtic keeper Ronnie Simpson, then manager of Hamilton Academical, signed him from Tynecastle Boys Club but it was a successor of Simpson, Eric Smith, who is credited with very quickly transforming the promising youth into a much-in-demand forward. The young Hegarty’s 30 goals in 103 (plus 1 sub) appearances was the reputation-enhancing scoring return which attracted the attention of a number of clubs in Scotland and England but it was United who made the bid which was accepted by the Douglas Park side and part-time Accies star Paul was transferred to Tannadice on 12 November 1974 for the then considerable fee of £27,500.
Just four days after signing for United, Paul made his debut from the substitute’s bench in a 5-0 win over Partick Thistle. He settled into the team, playing alongside rising star Andy Gray, but the widespread perception was that his future lay not as Andy Gray’s partner but as his replacement. In Paul’s first season with United he scored five goals from eighteen appearances. It was a respectable return and he impressed everyone with his tireless running but his goalscoring touch was less in evidence during 1975/76. Andy Gray had gone to Aston Villa in September 1975 but the feeling persisted, not least with Paul himself, that he lacked the extra bit of pace needed to be a top striker in the Scottish First Division. His manager had noted it too and Paul found that Jim McLean was using practice games to try him out in midfield, further back or out on the wing. The positional changes suggested the manager believed Paul Hegarty had the talent to succeed at the top level; a public display at centre half against England striker Bob Latchford proved it.
United’s visit to Ibrox on 13 November 1976 was postponed due to international call-ups and Everton also had a blank Saturday for the same reason. As a result a friendly was arranged between United and ‘The Toffees’ and at a foggy Goodison Park in Liverpool Paul Hegarty was fielded alongside Dave Narey for the first time. His main task was to mark Bob Latchford, Everton’s England striker. This ‘Heggie’ did to great affect and, although the meagre 4,000 crowd who watched the less-than-eventful goal-less draw were not to know it, one of the finest defensive partnerships ever seen in Scottish football and the cornerstone of United’s success of the late seventies and most of the eighties was born that day.
Hegarty and Narey may have been very different players in so many ways but they not only shared an outstanding consistency of performance but a remarkable regularity of appearance and from the beginning of the 1977/78 season to the end of Paul’s penultimate term in 1988/89 it was very a rare occurrence when the names ‘Hegarty’ and ‘Narey’ were not read out at Tannadice - or elsewhere when United were the visitors. Significantly the great partnership featured in every single championship-winning match in 1982/83.
Jim McLean and Walter Smith’s belief in Paul Hegarty’s qualities were quickly vindicated. By April 1978, on the eve of United’s Scottish Cup semi-final with Rangers, Paul was being described as ‘ the most outstanding central defender in the country this season’ and he was named, along with United’s Graeme Payne and Dave Narey, by Scotland manager Ally MacLeod in his original World Cup Squad of forty players. The United trio were amongst a number of promising young Scots who in the Scotland manager’s words were ‘peeled off to await their chance in the future’.
In a career which had very few disappointments this was the closest
Paul came to playing in the World Cup finals but twelve months later,
and after another highly successful season, he gained recognition of
a different kind. In April 1979 the Scottish Professional Footballers
Association voted Paul their Player of the Year, the first and to date
only United player to be selected for this award from fellow professionals.
A month later Paul Hegarty became only the second United player to play
for Scotland when he lined up against Wales at Ninian Park, partnering
Alan Hansen in defence. Scotland lost 3-0 but the game in Cardiff was
the first of five consecutive caps for Paul in a two month period and
the sequence also included a match against England at Wembley. Although
the Scots lost 3-1 it was in Paul's own words ‘a fantastic experience’,
an oft-quoted career highlight. In less than 30 months Paul had graduated
from Goodison ‘trialist’ to international regular.
Scotland Under 21s (4 caps*)
Scottish League (One cap)
In 1979 he also began to collect winners medals with United and lifting the Club’s first national trophy, following the 3-0 defeat of Aberdeen at Dens Park in December of that year is an obvious early career high point although by August 1982, with United highlights coming thick and fast, he regarded the 1980 League Cup win over Dundee, also by 3-0, as his most memorable match. By the end of that season the biggest domestic prize would be captured and his career highlights would again have to be reconsidered.
THE HEGARTY MEDAL TABLE WITH UNITED
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