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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Ralph Milne – When the floodlights fade.

Ralph Milne – When the floodlights fade.

By Mick Roberts

During January 2010 MUTV broadcast a half hour documentary on Ralph Milne focussing on his highs and lows as a footballer. For those that missed it here’s a transcript I’ve pulled together.

The story was told from several perspectives; one focussing on the comments from four supporters who obviously idolised Ralph, comments from Ralph himself on his life with contributions from Sir Alex specifically focussing on his brief United career.

Believe me, I think you are going to find some words and descriptions used by the Scottish lads to describe Ralph as fairly extraordinary.

The programme started by focussing on three Dundee United fans sat around a table in their local pub; Alan, Scott and Greg.

Alan started off. ‘One of the most exciting players I’ve ever seen. Coming down that right flank……’

Scott interrupts. ‘Ah. Fantastic.’

Alan picks up his thread. ‘He would normally produce the goods on the big occasion.’

Gregg adds his two pennuth. ‘Aye. For sure. Especially on the big nights. There was no better sight under the floodlights at Tannadice midweek and Ralph going down that hill in the 2nd half. That was awesome.’ He sighs, ‘An awesome sight.’

To support these platitudes from his admirers we were shown a clip of Ralph collecting the ball just on the right edge of his opponent’s penalty area where he controls the ball sublimely before lobbing the onrushing keeper to score a superbly taken goal.

A local writer Gary Robertson recalls his early days. ‘In your early teens going along to watch Dundee United and seeing guys like Ralph Milne,’ he pronounces it Millen, ‘…electric pace, great with the ball at his feet and usually his goals were spectacular. When you’re a young guy you just look up to guys like that. He lived the dream that we all possess I think, of being a local guy playing for your local team and reaching the heights.’

At this point Ralph took us back to the day he signed for Dundee United. ‘My father left me to my own devices, he never interfered but he was immensely proud when I signed schoolboy forms for United. My mother had four kids so she had to look after them all, there was no airs and graces with my mum. She looked after us. My father went out and bought a load of booze and laid it on the table. When the Dundee United manager and two scouts came in my father offered them a drink and the said. “No. We don’t drink.” And I’m like that,’ he puts his head in his hands in mock horror, ‘I don’t believe you’ve done that dad. But he was proud.’

All four lads reminisced about their greatest moment, Dundee United title winning side of 1982/83 in which Ralph played an integral part. The last game of the season incredibly took United to Dens Park, the home of their city rivals Dundee and make special mention of United’s first shot on goal by guess who?

Film shows Ralph receiving the ball inside the Dundee half, just outside the centre circle. He immediately controls the ball and rides a challenge at the same time, turning to run towards goal, transferring the ball from right to left foot. Twenty-five yards out from goal he sees the keeper off the line and deftly chips him with his left foot for another great goal.

Variously the lads called it, ‘fantastic’, ‘unbelievable’ and, ‘just what you came to expect.’ Ralph himself describes it thus. ‘It was a defining moment of my career really.’

Gary Robertson again. ‘Watching Ralph in the title winning season of 82/83 and the European Cup of 83/84 you really were saying. “This man should be playing for Scotland and regularly.” Us as football fans didn’t see what was going on behind the scenes. Ralph maybe had personal problems which we didn’t know about but Ralph really should have been up there with the best of them. He was, but he should’ve been getting capped for Scotland. There’s no doubt about that.’

That was really the high point of Ralph’s career at Tannadice and the man himself had this to say about his departure from the club and how he eventually ended up at Old Trafford. ‘I wasn’t getting a game. I was being brought in for the European games and then getting left out for the domestic games. It got to the stage where I thought. “I’ve got to get out of here.”

‘I didn’t want to leave but I just knew for my own sake that I just had to get out. They eventually sold me to Charlton. I didn’t enjoy Charlton at all, it was a totally different set up. I’m not knocking the club or anybody there but I just didn’t enjoy it and I just wanted out. I was there for a year and went to Bristol City on loan and I scored a twenty yard volley on my debut and Terry Cooper,’ the Bristol City manager at the time, said. “I want to sign you.” And I said. “Well sign me then cos I’ve got to get out of there. I hated it down there. ‘

‘After the months loan was up Terry Cooper got the sack and big Joe (Jordan) got the job. The reason I’d gone down to Bristol City was because I thought Joe was playing. The following season I was playing well and I knew Aberdeen were interested and I wanted to come back to Scotland because my son was up here, my family.’

‘Joe pulled me in on a Thursday morning. “There’s nobody leaving this club, but with your circumstances I’m prepared to let you go. But it’s not Aberdeen” And I thought. “Oh no, it could be Scunthorpe or somebody.” He said. “It’s Manchester United.”

I said. “Wait a minute. Are you winding me up Joe?”

Here’s how Ralphie related the phone conversation with Fergie, which details just how high tech these transfer negotiations can be.

Bang on 12 O’clock the phone went. Fergie’s on the phone, he says to me. “How are you doing son?”

“Fine. Aye. Good.”

“You’re playing well now aye?”

“Getting alright now. Fitness is alright now.”

“What do you think. Do you fancy it?”

“Well, I can’t really say no can I?”

“Right. Get yourself up here. I’ll wait at the club for you.”

Sir Alex had this to say about that particular time in the player’s career. ‘He was playing for Bristol City and doing very well. Archie Knox and I were sitting one day and I said. “I wonder how much he’d cost. If we could get him for a song it wouldn’t be a daft one.” Anyway we phoned them up and they were looking for £170,000 which in today’s terms is very small but at that time we said. “Yeah, £170,000 seems fair. We’ll go ahead.”’

Ralph now relates the time he first met the boss at Old Trafford. ‘I got to the stadium at half past five and Fergie meets me and says. “You’ll need to come with me. I’ve got a dinner at half past seven.” So we went to his house and I’m like that, you know, looking around.’ He looks up at the surroundings he is now sat in but as though he is looking at grandeur on an epic scale.

‘There’s MBEs, OBEs and all that stuff he’s got. It’s quite spectacular really and I wasn’t really listening to him and he says, “Right, here’s how it’s going to be Ralph.” And I’m still looking around. So he’s blathering away, well, not blathering, but really telling me what’s going to happen but I’m not really hearing it. I’m just awestruck looking at all the photos and everything so,’ meaning the contract being offered to him, ‘I says. “Right, yeah. Give it here, I’ll sign it.”

Fergie offered him the choice of staying at his house for the night of spending it at the same hotel that the club had Mal Donaghy based in. Ralph explains which choice he took and why. ‘It looks like if you stay at the manager’s house it’s like you’re the teachers pet straight away. So I chose the hotel. I couldn’t remember a thing he’d said about the contract. I would have played in goal for swept the terracing for him.’

The following morning he was paraded before the press and he could not quite believe what was in store for him. ‘Then you walk to meet the press. Now, I’ve dealt with the media before but the media at Old Trafford is quite intense but the main focal point was. “How could Fergie bring someone in from the third division to the first division for £170 grand?” So that highlighted the media question about my capabilities.’

Back to the pub in Dundee, Alan had this to say. ‘It wasn’t like they’d spent £10million on him. I saw him score a few goals down at Old Trafford, played some good games, so it wasn’t like it was a disaster. But we knew we’d seen the best of Ralph Milne.’

With eyes growing ever more misty Ralph went on to describe some key moments of his career with the reds. ‘My first United game was against Charlton. All the Charlton fans were behind the goal at the Scoreboard End giving me stick and I caught this volley about twenty yards out, it took a deflection but it was going in anyway and I was like. “Get it up yer Charlton.” I hated that place anyway.’

‘On boxing Day we played Forest and I scored. We were second in the league and we went into the Liverpool game on New Years Day and we pummelled them. We went 1-0 down and it was worse case scenario. For them, not us because I think Brian McClair scored the equaliser and we beat them 3-1. That was probably the best game I ever played in for Manchester United. The next day we had to play at Middlesbrough at 12pm. We were knackered. We were poor and we got beat 1-0 and it all went wrong from there.

‘We went from 2nd top of the league and finished in 11th I think in the league. It was quite obvious that the manager had a bit of work to do and he signed quite a few players in the summer and then I knew that I was only going to be a fringe player now.’

Gary Robertson was asked for his views in Ralph’s time at United. ‘You hear stories since that he’s got the unwanted accolade of probably the worst signing ever for Manchester United. It’s hard for us to comprehend that from up here. What we saw Ralph Milne do with a football was just unbelievable. It’s just a pity that the Manchester United fans didn’t get to see the same kind of ability that he had here.’

Sir Alex had this to say, heaping praise on Ralph for developing a bright young talent at the club at that time. ‘There’s a lot of criticism of that signing; against myself, against Ralph also but he did a fantastic job in helping young Lee Sharpe who was developing into a left back at the time. He did a great job that way, helped him out, helped him positionally, worked back to protect him and I think that goes over peoples head – that he did that type of job for us.’

Finally, as the programme drew to its close Ralph summed up what it was like to realise the dream was nearing it’s end. ‘It’s very difficult to deal with mentally. It’s hard to look up and say. “You’re gubbed. The game’s over. You might as well pack it in.” A lot of people retire gracefully but I my case it was hard to cope with. When you know you can’t do it anymore, it’s difficult.’

He then openly discusses the drinking culture and addresses briefly the problem he has had with alcohol. ‘It was like a footballing culture after every game. You get your shower, shave, out of the dressing room and go for a drink with your team mates and then it was party on. In my time that’s just the way it was.

‘I’ve cut down – I’m down to 14 a day! I’m joking. People get the wrong impression from the press who’ve got you billed as an alcoholic. I like a drink but I don’t get up in the morning and go straight to the fridge. I can go without it for days. I do like a drink, but there’s no way I’m an alcoholic.’

Back to a couple of those members of the Milne fan club back in Dundee. Greg said. ‘I just feel privileged that I saw him at his peak.’

Gary Robertson says. ‘I’d like to look back at Ralph’s career and say he reached the heights at Dundee United that we may never see again. He was such a stand out player of a generation. I just wish the Manchester United fans would have got a wee taste of that.’

Andy McPhee, a lifelong friend of Ralph’s and a man that even now he considers his best friend asked him if he had any regrets. Ralph paused briefly before replying. ‘None at all. I’m just privileged to have such good friends as you. Aye, things can only get better eh? D.Ream I’ve no regrets I’ve had a great life.’

The programme ended showing Ralph scoring three spectacular goals for Dundee United and then the picture blended into film of him receiving a fantastic ovation from Dundee United fans at what looked like a special dinner for the man. Very moving too and this was the voice over from Ralph Milne himself as those pictures were played. ‘To get to Old Trafford, you can’t get any higher. That is the top. I don’t care what they say about Real Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan, any of them. It doesn’t get any bigger than this.’

Ralph Milne career history

Dundee United – 1979/1980 to 1986/1987. 286 appearances. 73 goals. Holds the club record for goals scored in European competition with 15.

Charlton Athletic – 1986/1987 to 1987/1988 – 22 appearances, nil goals.

Bristol City – 1987/88 – 19 appearances. 4 goals.

Manchester United – 1988/1989 to 1989/1990. 23 appearances. 3 goals

West Ham United – 1989/1990. 1 appearance on loan in the League Cup.

Career Total. 351 appearances. 80 goals.