Dave A. Burin returns once more with his excellent account of the bittersweet career of former Dundee United star Ralph Milne.
It might seem strange to use the word failure or even disappointment about any player who achieved what Ralph Milne did. He helped catapult underdogs Dundee United, who had spent much of their prior existence in the lower reaches of the Scottish league system, to become Premier Division Champions. He played for one of the biggest football clubs in the world, under the tenure of perhaps the game’s most revered manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. He scored crucial goals to help Dundee United make an unprecedented run to the semi-finals of the European Cup. Yet Dundee-born Ralph Milne should have achieved so-much more.
I’m not going to tell you much about myself, not least because I’m not very exciting. But what I can say, is that I’ve seen the polarising views of Ralph’s ability which have made him – on separate sides of the border – an oddly juxtaposed figure of genuine adoration and satirical, ironic fondness.
Due to a quirk of friends and fate, I’ve always followed Dundee United as my other team. I grew up in Manchester as a Manchester United fan in a family enthralled with the club since around the time Matt Busby first arrived on the scene. It means that I’ve witnessed Milne’s reputation around Old Trafford, as a bit of a caricatured figure, liked, but a regular in pre-match pub chats about our worst ever XI, and the odd semi-ironic singalong at away games. Football fans have always been united by humour, but it seems a disappointing reduction of a man who had so much promise.
On one half of the City of Discovery, though, Milne is still considered a hero. I’ve seen a Ralphie Milne Ultras banner, in that distinctive hue of tangerine and black, everywhere I’ve been as an Arab, from Celtic Park to Elland Road. Even with fans down the road (quite literally!) at Dens Park, where Milne’s most seminal moment occurred, there were more than a few envious glances and grudging admissions that he was really rather good.
Some years the Championship flag flew at Tannadice, and long before his English adventure disintegrated, Ralph Milne first stepped out with the Dundee United first team, after a few promising years in the reserves. His impact was almost instantaneous. On Milne’s full debut, he scored against Dunfermline in the Drybrough Cup (remember that?!). It was followed, in the weeks to come, by a stunning equaliser at Celtic Park in a 2-2 draw, and a cracking goal against the Hibees at Tannadice.
In his book ‘Tannadice Idols: The Story of Dundee United’s Cult Heroes’, Paul Smith recalls of the young Milne that “his at times bewildering skills were mated to an audacious range of finishing”. Pacy, confident, breathtakingly skilful and cool under pressure, Milne’s talent stood out even within the impressive array of local talent coming through the club at the close of the ’70s.
In the following two seasons, Milne imposed himself as a force not just domestically, but in Europe. Whilst 1981-82 ended in disappointment, Milne scored the opener in a controversial League Cup Final defeat to Rangers, and netted in Europe against powerhouses like AS Monaco, Borussia Monchengladbach, and the kinkily named Winterslag.
Whilst Milne’s early years in the side were encouraging, problems were emerging in his relationship with authoritarian boss Jim McLean. Whilst tales of McLean’s treatment of players – including making one youth team player return to Tannadice on his day off to wash a sock he’d left on the dressing room floor – seem funny in retrospect, his harsh treatment of players ensured that the confident young Milne, in his own words, never saw “eye to eye” with his employer. It wouldn’t be the last time a manager had qualms about having Milne in his side, something I discuss later in this article with Ralph’s former Man United team-mate, the talented winger Giuliano ‘Jules’ Maiorana.
Still, Milne’s performances did not seem adversely affected. Still young fit and fast, he rampaged through the grounds of Scotland as United won the 1983 league title, scoring 16 league goals. The most famous is his virtuoso solo goal to open the scoring on the crucial final day at Dens Park, though a late winner at Celtic Park with United down to ten men was similarly vital. In ‘Dundee United: Champions of Scotland 1982-83’, Peter Munro rates it as one of Milne’s best ever strikes, recalling how “Ralphie brought it down to simply belt the ball over Bonner”. The team, and its young, local hero had written themselves into Tannadice folklore. Some predicted the beginning of an era, but United were not to win another honour for 11 years, and Milne finished his career without another trophy to his name.
For Milne, the heartbreak of an immensely controversial European Cup semi-final defeat to Roma – who admitted bribing the referee in the second leg at Stadio Olimpico -in 1984, was compounded following an alleged incident regarding Jim McLean and then Scotland boss Jock Stein. McLean supposedly told the latter that Ralph “didn’t deserve” to join the national team, and Ralph’s United career as well as his relationship with the boss, began to slowly crumble.
Despite recording third placed finishes in ’84-’85, ’85-’86 and ’86-’87, the side were disbanding. Between the title win and Milne’s departure in the summer of 1987, the likes of John Reilly, Richard Gough and Billy Kirkwood all left, with one-club-man Hamish McAlpine retiring. It was the end of an era at Tannadice, with the promise of future domination having evaporated, and Milne headed south of the border in search of success, but his story, too, would reveal itself to have hit a peak on that May day at Dens Park, never to scale those heights again.
Whilst Milne’s struggles at Old Trafford are well documented – as were the issues with drink and gambling which had affected him by this time – his previous two years in England were unsettled and disappointing. He took criticism from Charlton Athletic’s fans hard, after a woeful season at the Valley, and whilst he fared a little better at Bristol City – competent performances in the old English Third Division (present day League One) were a far cry from tearing through defences in one of Scottish Football’s strongest eras.
Manchester United came calling in 1988, with Alex Ferguson and his assistant Archie Knox – admirers from the days when Milne’s Dundee United had pipped Aberdeen to the league title – recruiting Ralph. Already, issues with drink and gambling were causing problems. It wasn’t helped by Milne joining the Old Trafford ranks at a time when the ‘drinking culture’ of the club was still in place, with the likes of Norman Whiteside and Bryan Robson were in the team. Whilst Ferguson was trying to build a more professional set-up, Jules Maiorana feels that Milne was treated unfairly by the boss, claiming that Ralph “was made a bit of a scapegoat”. Maiorana recalls a “nice lad” who the players “got on well” with, and in truth, things began smoothly enough for Ralph in the famous red and white of Manchester United.
Milne’s first half-season at United offered some promise. He scored opening goals against a few sides in late 1988, not least Brian Clough’s talented Nottingham Forest side, but his performance levels dropped, and the once pacy winger looked unfit and, for once, short on confidence. His following two years at the club were not to be happy ones. Sir Alex Ferguson later called Milne his “worst ever signing” in a 2009 event for the LMA (League Managers Association). Jules Maiorana remarks that “it was very disrespectful”, and that whilst the media are often brutal about players’ performances, “you don’t expect your old manager” to act that way. “It’s a big shame for Ralph”, Maiorana says poignantly, “a lot of Man United supporters will remember that quote from Ferguson rather than his true playing ability”.
Milne moved onto the now-defunct Sing Tao Sports Club of Hong Kong in 1991, leaving the following year at the age of just 32, and quitting the game altogether. Whilst he never criticised Ferguson, the manager’s despatching of Milne was ruthless. Whilst the Red Devils celebrated a first European trophy for 23 years, Milne was left to reflect on his exit from the club, later telling Oliver Brown in The Telegraph, “it makes a huge impression when [Manchester] United want to sign you, it makes a huge one when they want to get rid of you. Bang, the door’s closed. You’re finished.” Whilst one door opened for that club’s famed ‘Class of ’92’, another closed for a player who had shown such promise, and whose career had finished so unceremoniously.
Whilst Ralph Milne’s struggles as a footballer evoke sympathy, in the way that those of other unfulfilled talents such as Andy Ritchie do, his behaviour in his years since football have rightly eroded much of that sympathy. Fiona Spence, his partner for many years, spoke openly about Milne having punched, head butted and verbally abused her. It’s a sobering reminder of the fact that someone who may seem a hero on the field can act reprehensibly off of it.
There have been too many flawed geniuses in Scottish football for there to have been an easy solution to the problem. Personal problems, clashes with dictatorial managers and the criticism he endured from his own supporters at Charlton all evoke empathy. But the selfish, unapologetic tone of Milne’s autobiography, What’s It All About, Ralphie? and his treatment of the women in his life diminish much of that sympathy. Whilst I concur with Jules Maiorana that “it’s nice to see on social media that some people do speak so highly of Ralph” as a footballer, the attitude of the man who lit up Tannadice on those cold European nights makes him easy to enjoy but difficult to respect or admire.
Written by Dave A. Burin (@GoldenVision90)
Thanks to Jules Maiorana for his invaluable contribution.