Why I took some pleasure from Dundee United’s pain

I know it seems vindictive to get such satisfaction from the misfortune of someone else, and I know I’m not the vindictive type. But I can explain.

By Alan Pattullo

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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I was there for the ridiculous cycle of torment that was being knocked out of the Scottish Cup five years in a row by Dundee United, between 1987 and 1991.

May 2, 2016. If I am being honest, the realisation of the fairytale that was Leicester City’s Premier League title win annoyed me a little, as much as I was cheered by the achievement itself.

What anguished me was the timing. Chelsea’s late equaliser against Spurs, which confirmed Leicester’s success, came just a few minutes after 18 year-old Craig Wighton’s in-my-eyes rather more significant winning goal for Dundee against Dundee United.

And what a story: a teenager, one who grew up supporting Dundee, scoring the last-minute winner to send Dundee United down under the noses of their own supporters. (Disappointingly, trepidation served to keep the number of visiting fans down when, ideally, they would all have been there to take their medicine.)

That, surely, would merit the full Sky ticker-tape treatment. Breaking: Dundee relegate rivals Dundee United – boyhood fan side-foots home last-minute winner.

But when I eventually got back to the Phoenix bar in Dundee’s west end – after a quick tour of pubs nearer Dens Park – to toast a memorable evening, ears still ringing after the full South Enclosure experience, it was like this historic event had never happened.

Instead, it was wall-to-wall coverage of bloody Leicester City’s first-ever English bloody title win.

Big bloody deal.

For me, and a few thousand others, the big deal was Dundee putting Dundee United down. That is what 2/5/16 will forever mean to those of the dark blue persuasion.

Indeed, it might well remain all that ever matters for I am not hopeful of seeing Dundee lift a major trophy in my lifetime. Those wishing to know my age can calculate it by simply noting the last time Dundee won a major cup, now 43 years ago and counting.

Which is one of the reasons why Dundee supporters, particularly ones of my 1973 vintage, got so worked up about the prospect of getting something fairly significant over on United. I have heard it uttered that putting United down could be as good as winning a major trophy;  perhaps better. I think I understand this.

Yes, I know it wasn’t a Dundee success as such. I know it seems vindictive to get such satisfaction from the misfortune of someone else.

Even my dad, my gracious, sensitive and sports-mad dad, was surprised by my insistence that Dundee being the ones to administer the final blow to United’s survival hopes meant everything. He noted I wasn’t the vindictive type. And I like to think I am not.

But this is football. And where would the game be without petty rivalries. As W. Somerset Maugham – or was it Ally MacLeod? – said: it is not enough to achieve personal success, one’s best friend must also have failed. Well, I’m the first to admit Dundee have not enjoyed anything like Dundee United’s success in the last 40 years.

So hoping a nearby ‘friend’ fails is about as good as it gets, hence the scenes (including a tangerine-coloured coffin being carried through the streets) on that Monday night in May.

Not that I’d wish anything terminal on United. The two-teams-on-a-street scenario is something I cherish; without the rivalry I wonder if I’d feel the same about Dundee FC. I actually don’t think enough is made by the city of the clubs’ closest-football-grounds-in-Europe status.

There should, in my eyes, be a visitor centre somewhere on Sandeman Street/Tannadice Street celebrating this shared history, one which would  I concede have to chronicle the team down the road’s remarkable emergence from the shadows as well as Dundee’s own storied past.     

So yes, there’s a basis for the bitterness. Not all Dundee fans are psychotic enough to wish relegation pain on United for its own sake. It is revenge. It is payback for the city upstarts becoming top dogs, often at Dundee’s own expense.

But it also – and this is the rationale which predominantly accounts for how I feel – offers Dundee the longed-for chance to re-establish themselves as the premier team in town.

Not since the 1959-60 season have Dundee been able to say they are in a higher league than their rivals. The club has not been slow in seizing the opportunity to do so in their close season commercial activities. Season tickets are not just for Dens Park. They are for Dens Park – “home of the city’s Premier team”. And quite right too.

An exorcism had taken place there a few weeks earlier. Every Dundee fan will have their own personal film reel of flashbacks, some more gruesome than others. I was fortunate to avoid witnessing Dundee United winning their second major trophy, which happened to be against Dundee. At Dens Park. Where they had also won their first major honour a year earlier.

I was also fortunate to miss their first and so far last Scottish Premier League title win. Which happened to be secured against Dundee. At Dens Park.

There is, you might notice, a theme developing.

But I did witness countless derbies in the 1980s and early 1990s when a talented United side invariably swept Dundee aside. Not always, granted. In fact, Dundee often fared better against United than they had any right to.

But I can still remember when Dave Smith applauded United off the park after an embarrassingly one-sided 3-0 win over Dundee, again at Dens. That’s right, Dave Smith. The Dundee manager.

He didn’t last much longer.

I was there for the ridiculous cycle of torment that was being knocked out of the Scottish Cup five years in a row by Dundee United, between 1987 and 1991. It was unusual enough to be drawn against the same team for five straight seasons. But to lose, eventually (there were at least some replays involved), every single darned time?

The first exit, at the semi-final stage, was particularly harrowing. Up 2-1 at half-time against a United side that reached the final of the Uefa Cup a couple of weeks later, I can remember plotting with my sister our travel arrangements to get to Hampden for the final. Cue a second-half turnaround that I am now old enough and damaged enough to realise was always likely to occur.

But back then it led to a sustained period of teenage gloom. Head bowed against the window of a Stagecoach bus, the trip back to Dundee from Edinburgh – the SFA, in their wisdom, had decided to play the game at Tynecastle, despite both clubs’ agreement to toss a coin to decide on a venue in Dundee – seemed to drag on even longer due to the number of Dundee United supporters’ buses whizzing by with their cargo of joyous fans.

We haven’t even done the 1990s yet. Fortunately, Jim McLean’s powers had begun to ebb. United were as poor as they had been in a generation but still managed to lift their first Scottish Cup, the one significant claim to superiority, other than seniority, my beloved Dundee had left by then.

I remember studying for my finals at university in Dundee in a flat along the Perth Road. My pen scraped involuntarily down the page as the cheers of the fans gathered in the city square for the trophy parade drifted west along the Tay, sending jolts of pain shuddering through my body.

Even when United were relegated the following season it was hard to derive too much pleasure: Dundee were already down. On the day United’s demotion was confirmed we were in Stranraer trying hard to look on the bright side after missing out on promotion by a couple of goals.

But I tend to defer to author Jim Wilkie, an eminently sensible Dundee FC fan, when it comes to footballing matters in Dundee. After all, he wrote the book on the subject – the brilliant Across The Great Divide. He confirmed my suspicion; it might well be an age thing. In the run-up to what Dundee fans dubbed the “Get Doon” derby, I gave him a call. “So Jim, what about this Dundee/Dundee United dynamic – are you hoping Dundee pull the trigger? Is it churlish of Dundee fans to dearly wish for this to happen?”

A pause down the phone line, perhaps even a little sigh. “Times have changed,” the sage began. “You are considerably younger than me. But we once watched the teams week about. When Dundee play United, there is a slight ambivalence for me. Even today I do not want United to go down – and I think there will be an unpleasant experience if it is the deciding game.

“Of course, I wanted United to win when they won the league [at Dens]. I am a Dundee fan. But I watched the United team that was promoted from the second division, with players like Ronnie Yeats and Dennis Gillespie, I do not follow their fortunes but I found it quite easy to go to European games for example and support them.”

“When it comes to the crunch, I want to see them do well rather than badly. I am slightly distressed by the thought of Dundee fans singing ‘the Dees are having a party’, or whatever the song is, if their demise is confirmed by Dundee. How stupid! I am uneasy with it.”

So some Dundee fans, it’s clear, are still influenced by burnished memories of skipping from one side of the street to the other to watch games. Back in the 1950s and 60s, United were not perceived to be a threat to Dundee’s status as top team in the city.

But the majority of Dundee supporters now are of an age to have only lived through the anguish of Dundee’s decline, which was bad enough without United’s simultaneous emergence as a European force. Like woodworm in the old Dens Park main stand, bitterness began to bury deep into pores. It’s only natural.

Which is why I was surprised by the high number of people, many of them football literates, including Tam Cowan on Off the Ball, who seemed genuinely surprised to hear a Dundee supporter might welcome the prospect of United’s Waterloo coming at Dens.

My United supporting friends, by contrast, expected nothing other than to be placed under siege on social media by a gloating Dee. They knew they’d given it out – and more – to me over the years.

Although I have to confess something else: as I scanned the upcoming season’s fixture list to locate the derby dates there was a brief, if acute, sense of loss upon remembering there will be no league derbies for at least 12 months. But hey, we’ll live.

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

Issue 11
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