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1970-71 was relatively successful with a sixth place finish. The next campaign was to be the last for Jerry Kerr who was replaced by Jim McLean in December 1971. The new Manager immediately began rebuilding the team with a strong emphasis on youth development. He brought in several time-served senior players with the intention that they would strengthen the team and assist the development of a growing band of talented youngsters. Within two years, the plan bore fruit as United won through to their first-ever Scottish Cup final in May 1974. They lost 3-0 to Celtic but just getting there was further proof of the progress made at Tannadice in a very short time.
In the next league campaign, United finished in fourth place and gained entry into Europe again but it was another short European experience in 1975-76. That season was also the first of the new Scottish League Premier Division and many clubs struggled. In the case of United, it took a last game of the season goalless draw against Rangers at Ibrox to retain top-flight status. With very few changes to the playing staff, United completed 1976-77 in fourth place and went one better in the next two seasons, each time gaining entry into Europe. Season 1979-80 marked another milestone in the history of Dundee United as they reached the final of the League Cup for the first time. After a goalless draw against Aberdeen at Hampden Park, the replay went ahead at Dens Park and United won 3-0 with a commanding performance. A year later, the trophy was retained as United returned to the scene of their first League Cup triumph to play local rivals Dundee. The outcome was the same, as United controlled the game to win 3-0. United won through to a third League Cup final in succession in the next season but despite a good performance they lost out to Rangers. 1980-81 also brought a losing Scottish Cup final against the Ibrox club after a replay.
Over the early 1980s United were a strong force in Scottish football and in Europe with many memorable games taking place. Along with Aberdeen, they were dubbed the ‘New Firm’ as both sides strongly challenged the Old Firm of Celtic and Rangers. United reached the pinnacle of their league achievements in 1982-83 when they won the Premier League championship. The last game of that campaign was at Dens Park where all United had to do was beat local rivals Dundee to claim the title. A packed stadium witnessed United take a two-goal lead early in the game and at the final whistle, it was 2-1. The celebrations lasted long into the night and beyond.
The Premier League title gave United entry into Europe’s premier tournament and they blew the opposition aside in every round to reach the European Cup semi-final against AS Roma. Leading 2-0 from the first leg, United were within touching distance of the final but in the second leg the Italians overturned the lead to knock United out. 1984-85 was another successful season with a League Cup final and a Scottish Cup final, but both were lost. A year later, a close run league race ended with United in third place. The next season was United’s best in Europe but a hectic schedule of matches did not help as the Club reached the UEFA Cup final and the Scottish Cup final. Both finals had to be played within a fortnight. The first leg of the UEFA Cup final against Gothenburg resulted in a single goal defeat and United then lost the Scottish Cup final against St Mirren. Just four days later the second leg against Gothenburg ended 1-1 and the Swedish club lifted the trophy at Tannadice. United fans were no doubt disappointed but their sporting applause for the winners and good behaviour throughout the competition, brought the first ever fans’ Fair Play award from UEFA.
Another Scottish Cup final came at the end of 1987-88 but again a good performance was not enough as Celtic cancelled out United’s lead and went on to win 2-1. The 1980s ended as they had begun, with United on a high. United’s heightened status since the arrival of Jim Mclean was evident in the Club’s league positions and cup final appearances but it was also apparent in the number of United players honoured at international level. Although United had players capped for the Scottish League side and some of the Scandinavians at the Club in the late 1960s were capped for their country whilst with United, David Narey was the first United player recognised at full international level for Scotland in 1977. He was soon joined by a host of others.