Football: Zetterlund's quest to banish the lost years

Phil Gordon talks to a past villain chasing glory today for Dundee United
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The Independent Online
Ten years ago, Lars Zetterlund helped to play his part in Dundee United's greatest disappointment. Now the Swede is entrusted with replacing those tears with cheers and paving the way for a bright new future.

In 1987, Zetterlund was a teenager in IFK Gothenburg's side which defeated United in the Uefa Cup final. It marked the beginning of the end for the unit Jim McLean had moulded into one of the best in Europe. Now McLean's younger brother, Tommy, is in charge and success in today's Coca-Cola Cup final against Celtic at Ibrox would represent an important step in winning back United's prestige.

McLean, a manager with an excellent track record at Motherwell, was brought in by his older brother - these days, United's managing director - in September 1996 to stop the club sinking into the First Division for the second time in as many years.

McLean took one look at his squad and decided a thorough overhaul was needed. The only problem was that such surgery would cost a fortune, so the canny manager went shopping in Scandinavia instead, picking up players whose season had just come to an end - it was October - on freedom of contract. Two of those free agents were Zetterlund and the Norwegian midfielder Erik Pedersen. The trio was completed by the striker Kjell Olofsson, a Swede who cost pounds 400,000 from Moss in Norway.

Zetterlund scored the goal which took United back into the Uefa Cup last May, a rich irony given his role in their downfall all those years ago. In the intervening period, neither had seemed to flourish. While some of Zetterlund's Gothenburg team-mates went off to find riches and fame abroad, he moved on only to AIK Stockholm and Orebro.

For United, who in the Eighties became used to a diet of Barca, Roma and Manchester United, the freefall to places such as Dumbarton was similarly unappealing. Now both are trying to make up for lost time.

"I have a few winners' medals from cup competitions in Sweden," said Zetterlund, "but there it is a really small occasion. There would be sometimes only 7,000 spectators for a final. But here it is very different. All of the players and supporters are excited about going to Glasgow, it will be a big day."

That passion was one of the selling points when McLeanasked Zetterlund if he fancied a move to United. Zetterlund recalled the Tannadice fans at the Uefa Cup final and he agreed to pitch himself into the heat of Premier League battle when his body yearned for the warmth of a beach somewhere.

"I had played a whole season in Sweden including some games in the Intertoto Cup for Orebro," he explained. "I was very tired but United was a team I remembered fondly from the Uefa Cup and the public cared about their football. So I came. I had an up-and-down season last term because of tiredness and I struggled at the beginning of this. But things have been getting better recently."

They certainly have. United sit fourth in the league and last week's 4-0 defeat to Celtic is the only blip over a good couple of months in which they also knocked out the Coca-Cola Cup holders, Rangers, at Ibrox on their way to this final. Zetterlund, though, is not worried about the Parkhead result giving the psychological edge to Celtic.

"I certainly hope they feel more confident because they had such a big result, they might just think they can beat us so easily again. That is perfect for a team like us."

Unlike 17 years ago, when United won the League Cup in back-to-back triumphs for their first ever honours, the competition no longer carries automatic entry to Europe. Jim McLean's United used those successes to book their ticket for the Uefa Cup, a competition in which they enjoyed phenomenal success. By 1990, they were the seventh best of all time in that competition, behind giants such as Juventus and Barcelona but ahead of every other British club, thanks to a perennial ability to reach the last eight.

The only season they never entered was in 1983-84, when, as Scottish champions, they took part in the European Cup and came within 90 minutes of that final too. Only a bitter 3-0 defeat to Roma, overturning a 2- 0 first- leg lead, stopped them returning to the Olympic Stadium for a final with Liverpool.

If Zetterlund and his team-mates can conjure up a trophy today, then it might prove to be the launch pad for a league campaign to ensure that all roads lead, if not to Rome, then to Europe again.