FYP's Speroni Week rolls on with today's entry coming from north of the border as Dundee club historian Kenny Ross discusses Speroni's time in Scotland.
Dundee Football Club has always had a fine tradition of great goalkeepers at Dens Park and Julián Speroni certainly fits into that category, making what many fans consider not one, but three of the greatest saves ever made by a Dark Blues' keeper. Signed under freedom of contract from Argentinean side Athletico Platense by Italian manager Ivano Bonetti in the summer of 2001, Speroni was joining The Dee's attractive, cosmopolitan side that already included fellow Argentines Juan Sara, Fabian Caballero and Walter Del Rio.
Dundee had been on the lookout for a keeper when Marco Roccatti returned to Bologna after a year loan and Bonetti had been alerted to Speroni's potential by one of his Italian contacts. Speroni was only too happy to come to Scotland after being subjected to gun touting, knife wielding, fanatical, Platense fans in the dressing room after a defeat and in his three years at Dens became a popular, cult figure between the sticks.
Speroni's debut was delayed however after he had problems obtaining an Italian passport which he was entitled to through his grandfather. Julián required a European passport to stop him needing a work permit but the delay in obtaining one meant young goalkeeper Jamie Langfield started the season in goal in the Intertoto Cup game against Yugoslavs Sartid.
By the time his passport came through, Langfield had established himself as number one and Speroni had to wait until a Scottish Cup tie at home to Falkirk in January to get his chance. His debut was encouraging in the 1-1 draw but Bonetti put Langfield back in for the next league match but a poor performance by Jamie in a 4-2 defeat at Motherwell meant Julián, wearing squad number 12 was recalled for the next match at home to Hibs.
An excellent performance in the 1-0 win gave Speroni not only his first Dark Blue clean sheet but also the chance for the number one spot for the rest of the season which he grabbed. Despite not making his debut until January, Speroni won a number of the Supporters Clubs' Player of the Year awards in May such had been the high level of his performance.
In the next year, season 2002/03, with Jim Duffy now in charge, Speroni was an ever present and it was a momentous year with a fourteen match unbeaten run, a top six finish, unbeaten against bitter rivals Dundee United for the first time since 1989 and a Scottish Cup Final appearance for the first time in thirty-nine years.
On the 'Road to Hampden' for the final against Rangers, Speroni was a key player with clean sheets in the third, fourth and semi-final rounds. In the fourth round tie against Aberdeen in particular, Speroni was immense and he made a save from a free kick that Dons manager Steve Paterson described "one of the best saves I've ever seen" on the television highlights at night.
With the score at 1-0 to Dundee on the half hour, The Dons were awarded a free kick just outside the box. Frenchman Eric Deloumeaux took the kick and when it took a wicked deflection off the wall, it looked a goal all the way. Speroni however had other ideas and when he had started moving to his right, he somehow managed to twist in mid air, stretch his arm out to the left to make the stop to keep The Dee ahead and they would eventually go on to win 2-0.
Dundee lost the final 1-0 but with Rangers also clinching the SPL title the week before, Dundee qualified for the UEFA Cup. It was to be the Dark Blues' first foray into premier European competition for twenty-nine years and Speroni, now wearing squad number 1, was again magnificent, pulling off two world class saves against Vllaznia and Perugia.
In the preliminary round Dundee drew KS Vllaznia from the northern Albanian town of Shkoder and it was very much a trip into the unknown. No Scottish side had ever won in Albania including Celtic's Lisbon Lions and Alex Ferguson's triumphant Aberdeen Cup Winners' Cup side but Dundee came back with a 2-0 win with huge credit going to Speroni.
The Dark Blues had controlled much of the early exchanges but after taking the lead right on half time, Vllaznia put huge pressure on Speroni's goal at the start of the second. One save in particular from a Mansaku header was simply top drawer as he tipped the ball over the bar when it had seemed destined for the top corner. It deflated the Albanians and they barely troubled Speroni's goal afterwards and a comfortable 4-0 win in the home leg saw Dundee safely through.
In the first round, Dundee drew Intertoto Cup winners Perugia from Serie A but a 2-1 home defeat in the first leg gave The Dee a mountain to climb in Umbria. Try as they might, Dundee couldn't make the breakthrough in Perugia and they had to rely on a world class save from Speroni to keep them in the game. With the second leg still goal less, Speroni superbly tipped an angular drive over the bar but it would eventually count for nothing as the Italians got their goal and went through 3-1 on aggregate.
By now Speroni was a cult hero at Dens and the fans would repeatedly chant his name as he had become popular for his charisma, agility, shot stopping and sometimes sheer audacity for trying to beat outfield players with his skills.
Just a few weeks after the Perugia game however, Dundee went into administration with debts of £23 million and while twenty-five players and staff were released including Fabrizio Ravanelli and all of Julián's fellow Argentineans, he was one of the lucky ones who kept his job.
For the rest of the season it was an uphill battle with a threadbare squad to avoid the relegation which would surely have killed the club. Speroni, again an ever present, was one of the star performers as they pulled away from the bottom towards the end of the season and they eventually finished a very credible seventh - top of the bottom six.
It was obvious at the end of the season however that the best players would have to be sold to balance the books and Speroni was one of those. Several English clubs made an enquiry but the first firm offer of £750,000 (of which Speroni's contract entitled him to a third) came from Crystal Palace and he was off to Selhurt Park with Dundee banking a much needed half a million from his sale.
In total Speroni made 133 appearances for The Dee, keeping twenty-seven clean sheets and although the support accepted the necessity to sell him to raise funds, it was still a huge blow to lose such a popular and gifted player. When Palace were promoted to the Premiership through the play-offs this year, the Dundee fans flooded their own forums with messages of delight and congratulations for Speroni and he will always be fondly remembered at Dens.