The last few days have been marking 20 years since Dundee United manager Tommy McLean signed three Scandinavian players to boost his struggling squad. Those three players were Lars Zetterlund, Erik Pedersen and Kjell Olofsson, and now two decades on, DUFC Archive team member Derek Keilloh looks back on the impact that the trio had and in particular the memorable 1996/97 season.
Above: The 1996/97 Dundee United squad photo, taken prior to the arrival of the Scandinavian trio who would have such a great influence on the side.
For Dundee United, the 1996/97 season did not start well. Despite being a newly promoted side, early results fell well below expectations and Billy Kirkwood was sacked after a disappointing if slightly unfortunate 1-0 defeat against Hearts at Tynecastle.
Although it was early in the season, no-one could really argue with the decision. However, the choice of Tommy McLean as a successor was controversial, given that he had been appointed as Raith Rovers manager only six days beforehand. A Rovers fan claimed at the time “I don’t think many people will trust that man again after this. He has certainly lost a lot of respect and credibility as far as I’m concerned, it really is a disgraceful act”.
Disgraceful act or not, clearly the prospect of working with his brother had been highly persuasive for Tommy McLean.
The squad was evidently not quite up to the rigours of Premier League football, and reinforcements were needed. No doubt an embarrassing 3-2 defeat to his former club in his second game in charge rather concentrated McLean’s mind. Off he went to Scandinavia with a shopping list.
Of course, along with Morton, Dundee United had pioneered the signing of Scandinavian players in Scottish football. In the mid 60s, Jerry Kerr became one of the first Scottish managers to tap that market, with the signings of such luminaries as Finn Dossing, Lennart Wing, Orjan Persson and the like.
These players, as much as any, were pivotal in Dundee United’s transformation in the 1960s from an unheralded provincial team to a European force.
Thirty years later, Tommy McLean was to do much the same thing.
Above: (from left to right) Erik Pedersen, Kjell Olofsson, Lars Zetterlund and Tommy McLean.
For the next home game against Hearts, United had two trialists in the team. Kjell Olofsson was a Swedish striker who had previously played in his homeland for Moss. Erik Pedersen was a defender and a former Norwegian international who had been playing his trade with Viking Stavangar.
United won the game 1-0 with a Robbie Winters goal for only their second league win of the season, and both players were signed on a permanent basis the following week, with Olofsson costing what proved to be something of a bargain at £400,000.
A third Scandinavian was signed that week too, with Swedish midfielder Lars Zetterlund joining the club from Orebro for a fee of £100,000. Although Zetterlund was a name which many United fans would have recognised.
Zetterlund’s signing received a lot of interest simply because he was in the IFK Gothenberg squad when they played against Dundee United in the 1987 UEFA Cup final, although his on pitch action was limited to a late substitute appearance in the first leg in Sweden. However, he had in fact played in both legs of a UEFA Cup tie three years earlier, when United took on AIK Stockholm in the first round of the 1984/85 UEFA Cup. So Tannadice was a ground with which he had some history.
All three had pedigree, but that is never a guarantee in itself, especially when signings come into unfamiliar leagues midway through the season. However, in due course they were to transform United’s season.
All three of the Scandinavians played in United next game, a 3-1 win away to Motherwell, in which Olofsson scored his first goal for the club, a header from an Andy McLaren cross.
Despite that promising result, overall the team took a while to truly get going. An excellent 1-0 win over Rangers at Tannadice in December gave a hint as to what the team was capable of, as a massively expensive Rangers side at the peak of their powers was negated by a spirited performance by United. Erik Pedersen, not for the last time, virtually neutralised the previously unplayable Brian Laudrup. An own goal from Richard Gough to give United the win only added an extra touch of hilarity to proceedings.
Above: Erik Pedersen at Tannadice in 1997 (note partially completed Fair Play Stand in the background).
It was after Christmas that United really clicked. After a 1-0 defeat at Celtic Park, United embarked on an astonishing run of 11 wins and two draws from their next 13 league games, plus the team beat Stirling Albion, Hearts and Motherwell to reach the semi finals of the Scottish Cup.
The tenaciousness of Pedersen, the class of Zetterlund and the superb forward play of Olofsson transformed United, for that four month period, into the best side in the country. The three Scandinavians also seemed to raise the game of those around them, with the likes of Robbie Winters, Ray McKinnon and Steven Pressley having arguably the best spells of their United careers. Coupled with the brilliant if eccentric Sieb Dijkstra in goals, United were truly formidable opponents, and confidence among team and fans grew with every win. It was a great period to be a United fan.
Highlights are perhaps hard to pick out from such a period of sustained excellence, but one result truly stands out. The victory over Rangers at Ibrox which was the high point among many high points.
This was a Rangers side at the absolute peak of their powers, in their own stadium, and they were utterly dismantled by a superb display of counter attacking football. Teams did not go to Ibrox and give the home team a footballing lesson.
Dundee United did. Goals from Winters and Olofsson gave them a 2-0 win which was every bit as comfortable as the scoreline suggested.
Given the team’s form, hopes were high that United could repeat their Scottish Cup triumph of three years earlier. United did suffer their first defeat of 1997 the previous week against Hibs, but this was seen as a mere blip. However, the semi final against Kilmarnock, also at Easter Road, was a dreadful game and ended goalless. The replay was not significantly better, and was eventually settled in Kilmarnock’s favour by a late goal from future United player Jim McIntyre. Given United would have faced First Division side Falkirk in the final, this had to be considered a massive wasted opportunity.
The season rather petered out after that game, although United had already more than done enough to clinch 3rd place in the league and a place in the UEFA Cup for the following season. Rangers did gain revenge for their previous defeats at United’s hands by beating them 1-0 at Tannadice, a result which clinched their ninth consecutive league title.
Above: Lars Zetterlund in action against Celtic, season 1997/98.
However, this was as good as it got under Tommy McLean’s tenure. The next season was more of a struggle, with McLean’s forays into the Scandinavian market proving less successful than his previous ones. The likes of Goran Marklund, Mikael Andersson and Magnus Skoldmark were never going to live up to their predecessors, and despite reaching the League Cup final and a phenomenal 5-0 victory over Aberdeen (a game perhaps most memorable for a stunning goal from Zetterlund and a brutal assault on a corner flag by Dean Windass), the season was something of a struggle. The League Cup final saw a rather lacklustre 3-0 defeat to a resurgent Celtic side who would go on to win the title that season for the first time in ten years.
United’s form in that season utterly collapsed after Christmas, and towards the end of the season they were drawn into a relegation battle. United only guaranteed their Premier League survival in the penultimate week of the season with a 2-1 win over Hibs, where two second half goals from Olofsson relegated their opponents and kept United up. Olofsson’s 18 goals were essential for United’s survival, and indeed only Marco Negri scored more league goals that season. Olofsson managed two more goals than some fellow called Henrik Larsson.
One strange statistic for that season is that United finished with 37 points, 15 of which were earned in a five match winning run in October and November. United only won three times in their other 31 league games that season. Without that run, United would surely have been playing First Division football in 1998/99.
Above: Kjell Olofsson in action verses Dundee in September 1998. Although he scored on this occasion, his side had to settle for a 2-2 draw.
That season did not start any better than the previous one had ended, and McLean was sacked four games into the season to be replaced by Paul Sturrock. The subsequent signing of Billy Dodds ultimately covered a lot of United’s problems, and his goals were every bit as influential as Olofsson’s had been the year before in ensuring United stayed up.
Injury restricted Erik Pedersen to only eight appearances, and arguably time was beginning to catch up with both Olofsson and Zetterlund. Olofsson still managed ten goals that season, although he was rather overshadowed by Dodds. At the end of the season, Pedersen returned to his home county to play for Odd Grenland, and Olofsson and Zetterlund moved to Moss and Orebro respectively, signalling an end to United’s second Scandinavian era.
Pedersen was inducted into the Dundee United Hall of Fame in 2011, and Olofsson received the same honour in 2012. Indeed, Pedersen got himself a tattoo of United’s badge as a permanent reminder of his time in Scotland.
The fact that three overseas players with no previous affiliation to United and who spent such a relatively short time at the club are all remembered with such affection, even 20 years on, in an indicator of how much of an impact all three had on the club. None played more than 100 games for United, however it’s hard to imagine what state Dundee United would have been in the late 90s without them.
In its own way, Dundee United’s second Scandinavian invasion had every bit as much of an impact on the club as the first. The fans who saw them play will never forget them, nor those four months in 1997 in which United looked almost invincible. It was relatively brief, but it was fantastic.
Written by Derek Keilloh