ALMOST exactly 25 years ago the Scottish Football Association braced itself for an afternoon which had the potential to plunge into one of excruciating embarrassment.

The Prime Minister of the day was due at Hampden as guest of honour at the Scottish Cup final between Celtic and Dundee United.

To suggest that the Right Honourable Margaret Thatcher was not a popular figure in Glasgow in 1988 is as controversial as opining that tomorrow might be Sunday. The leader of the Conservative and Unionist party was nearing the end of her 11-and-a-half years term, and Thatcherism was a creed which, as now, provoked deep divisions.

Inviting her into the bearpit of Scotland's national stadium, in front of a capacity 73,000 crowd largely drawn from the demographic which most despised the Prime Minister, seemed to be an act of breathtaking rashness. The morning of Saturday, May 24, was bright, warm and sunny, but what would the afternoon hold?

While the build-up to the final had focused on Celtic, chasing the double in their centenary year, and a still-formidable Dundee United side, there was plenty of other news to keep the back pages busy. In this newspaper a youngish football writer with a full crop of hair called James Traynor started an article by stating: "One of these days there will be good news concerning Rangers."

That the same gentleman is now employed as a highly paid fire-fighter on Edmiston Drive is proof that there is nothing new under the sun. Or, in this case, the Herald.

The same week, Edinburgh businessman David Murray stepped up his attempt to buy Ayr United by tabling an "astonishing" £1.25m offer. Closer scrutiny revealed it to be £500,000, with the balance being in the shape of a business strategy which was reported – perhaps generously – to be worth a further £750,000.

Twelve months earlier the Prime Minister had been criticised for leaving Perth to attend the FA Cup final at Wembley. Somewhere in London a public relations genius decided she would grace Hampden the following year, but this actually played well with an SFA desperate to elevate the Scottish Cup final to the status of the London showcase.

Thatcher being Thatcher, she did her best to crank up her unpopularity rating on the eve of the game. During a Scottish Conservative and Unionist rally in Perth she told the true blues: "The Scots invented Thatcherism long before I was thought of." The Daily Record's front page was all over the quote, describing it on the morning of the final as a spectacular own goal.

Strangely, there hadn't been much in the Scottish papers about Thatcher's visit. But both Jim McInally and Andy Walker, who played in the final, recall that it had been the subject of much debate at Tannadice and Celtic Park. So much so that a compromise was agreed with the SFA: the players would be introduced to the Prime Minister, but not out on the pitch as is normal practice with a guest of honour.

"The visit was pretty controversial," confirms McInally, who played in the midfield for United and is now the manager of Peterhead. "We were under a bit of pressure from the SFA to meet her. Some of the players weren't keen so the SFA asked if we would compromise by doing it inside the stadium. Jim McLean was as anti-Thatcher as anybody but he felt we should go with that."

According to McInally, the United players shook hands with the Prime Minister in the foyer. Andy Walker, now a Sky Sports pundit but then a Celtic striker, says he and most of his team-mates met Thatcher in a different location. "In the old Hampden you went in the front door and there was an old snooker room to the left," he recalls. "We lined up in there and she came down to meet us."

"A few didn't get involved and the one who refused point-blank was Mick McCarthy," reports Walker. "He was from Barnsley and the son of a miner. Shaking hands with her was a no-no for Mick."

Before the game started Thatcher took her seat in the stand to a chorus of boos and protests. Many in the crowd brandished red cards. Derogatory chants ran round the ground. But that was the worst of it, and when an engrossing final got under way most of the crowd switched their attention to the pitch and Celtic's dramatic late come-back to win the double in their centenary year.

The SFA, and its then secretary Ernie Walker, were deemed to have escaped what could have developed into an ugly afternoon.

The last word goes to McInally. "You didn't need to be a politician to be horrified about what was happening in Scotland at the time," he points out. "Scotland was getting a raw deal between the poll tax and other things that were going on. It was a bit of a no-brainer to feel the way many of the players did, but it was a massive cup-final for us and that was more important than anything else."