The worst of times, the best of times

Unity, Togetherness, Deefiance…the story of how 25 points wasn’t enough.

By Steven Reid

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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This arcane measure was surely designed to ensure a club with a proud, long history would start the next season in the old Second Division – if they survived that long.
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rookie manager Smith found a loophole that would bring a string of increasingly unlikely players into Dens for a maximum of three games each.

It was designed to hurt us, to send us an unequivocal message. In truth, given it was intended to consign us to relegation, it was most probably destined to kill us. Bizarrely and unwittingly it actually made us stronger: fans and players brought together in defiance, or as it became known Deefiance. The chant of ‘25 points, it wasn’t enough!’ is as improbable as the events that unfurled to make it a reality. Adversity brings out the best in people, but even with that in mind the events that unfolded on and off the park ensured that what started as the worst of times quite quickly became the best of times to be a Dundee supporter.

There was no doubt that Dundee Football Club deserved to be made an example of. Not only was the crime of seeking a ‘sporting advantage’ beyond their financial means perpetrated, it was the second time in quick succession for this repeat offender. The result? The club received a 25 point penalty reduction.

The first indiscretion had been madness; the kind of folly only a pair of successful brothers owning the football club they’d supported since boys could suffer. Everyone could see it coming. You’d need to have been wearing a straggly, blonde Claudio Caniggia wig back to front for many months not to. The Argentinian World Cup star was the headline act in an improbable cast of Georgian internationals, Italians with top European football experience and even a man from China who was meant to make the mighty Dee a household name in his homeland.

Common wisdom is that the evil Bosman scuppered the plan to buy low and sell high, stopping Dundee from reaping the benefits of these stars both on the park and in their bank balance when they waved mshvidobisa, ciao and zài jiàn for huge sums.

The truth is that to entice these players to Dundee a host of luxury cars, plush houses and fat pay packets were required – along with a management team whose travel budget for frequent visits to spend time with their families in Italy could have kept a lower league outfit afloat for a season or two. Suddenly it was easy to see why, even with Caniggia heading for a lighter shade of blue in Glasgow and the homegrown Rab Douglas to their green and white cousins for, reportedly, seven figure sums, it was a debt crazily reaching over £20m that was Dundee’s undoing.

The club had survived this utter folly and remained in the top flight before capitulating a season later, consigned to relegation after seemingly being safe. In many ways we’d never recovered and yet the second time was different. Yes, there was a sugar daddy fantasist with Calum Melville the pantomime villain and exuberant mouthpiece fronting a group of business and football people who should have known better. Having been on the board of Rangers, Bob Brannan arrived with the pedigree of someone who understood the game inside out. However the manner in which the club, under his guiding hand, accepted Melville’s money with no guarantees it would continue, was naive at best and, possibly, at worst negligent.

Admittedly Dundee also had some big-name talent on the park, which initially Melville apparently funded; however this time they weren’t packing ex-English and Italian top-flight stars, but one-time Partick Thistle playmaker Gary Harkins and recently-signed Livingston wonderkid Leigh Griffiths, the latter only beginning to hint at the ability that has seen him slowly win over the Celtic faithful.

With all this going on in the background, on the pitch the 2010-11 season had started like so many others for Dundee: the perennial tag of big fish in a small pond seeing them installed yet again as favourites to boldly stride back into the land of malted milks and Honey Nut Loops known at the time as the SPL. However those same bookies were soon scurrying to drop their odds as quickly as The Dee squandered points, with only 11 gained from the team’s opening eight league fixtures.

The unpopular management duo of Gordon Chisholm and Billy Dodds, who had at the tail end of the previous season  taken on the unenviable task of replacing club legend Jocky Scott before failing to nudge their predecessor’s unreceptive team over the promotion line, were once again trying the patience of a support who never had much intention of taking to them. Yes, both had had good playing careers at Dens. Chisholm had captained a promotion-winning side, Dodds was a free-scoring partner first to the heroic Keith Wright and then a whole host of bit-part players. However both had chosen poorly in the eyes of the Dark Blues’ faithful since then, Chisholm as an unloved manager across the road for Dundee United and Dodds as chief Dundee tormentor on the park for St Johnstone, Rangers, Aberdeen (where he scored a Coca-Cola Cup final goal against his old club) and, in a final insult, the ‘dayglo’ bunch literally down the street.

At the time HMRC had decided they’d had enough of football clubs stretching their patience and credit limits, a zero tolerance approach which rather strangely favoured hanging clubs out to dry and reaping nothing in return. Hence with debts this time smaller than before, although still at the not insignificant amount of £3.84m, Dundee Football Club once again had camera crews, reporters and supporters camped outside their grand old front door to discover which players had been unceremoniously punted by the administration boot. Club captain Eric Paton, goalkeeper Scott Fox, recent signings Dominic Shimmin, Charlie Grant and Brian Kerr, returning loanee Mickael Antoine-Curier and long-serving midfielder Paul McHale were among the nine players put out of work.

The cruelest blow amongst the playing staff might have come to striker Colin McMenamin, a player who had suffered the same fate at both Livingston and the now defunct Gretna.

Bizarrely, kit-man Neil Cosgrove was the only member of the non-football side of the club to lose his job – something that actually upset all the players involved more than their own fates – while controversially the management duo of Chisholm, who had left a secure job with Queen of the South, and Dodds, who had been persuaded to leave a part time role with Queens as well as a lucrative pundit position with the BBC, were also dispensed with.

The shock was compounded further with the punishment handed down by the Scottish Football League. Not only was the club placed under a transfer embargo, stopping even the possibility of further loan deals such as those done when the squad was culled – Jamie Adams, who had been borrowed from St Johnstone, and David Witteveen and Johnny Stewart both from Hearts – there was also an unprecedented 25-point deduction coming the club’s way. This arcane measure was surely designed to ensure a club with a proud, long history would start the next season in the old Second Division – if they survived that long.

The club was hanging on to existence by its fingertips. The appointed administrator Bryan Jackson optimistically quoted the chances of survival at 50-50, while privately believing the odds were not even that favourable. There were two fronts to be fought on and each was as important as the other. Jackson and CEO Harry McLean – a late arriver on the board who was brave enough to not to throw in the towel when the administration bell tolled – calling to the support to dig deep yet again. However, even if the huge task of raising enough funds to reach some sort of Creditor’s Voluntary Agreement (CVA) could be achieved, if the club slipped under the weight of their points deduction into the Second Division, the chances were that it would all be in vain.

The appointment of Barry Smith as a rookie manager was a risk, regardless of the fact that he had been captain during the previous administration, had led Dundee to their last major cup final (hitting the post early on in a 2003 Scottish Cup final they should have won against a lacklustre Rangers side) and had pulled on the dark blue more than 400 times. However the fans were sure to rally behind a man close to their hearts and especially if he could instill his own never-say-die attitude into the sparse squad he inherited. Alongside him, player-assistant managers Rab Douglas, who had returned to Dundee in 2008, and the experienced English lower-league campaigner Matt Lockwood, who had moved north to Dens Park earlier in 2010, would prove invaluable. 

Even more crucial off the park was the manner in which the support immediately sprang into action. Gigs, all manner of sponsored events, supporters’ club get-togethers and bucket shaking were the order of the day. Out of nowhere a bond beyond that of people who simply gathered together every second week to watch their heroes (or not) win, lose and draw galvanised into a cohesive unit of fund raisers, money collectors, event organisers and authority badgerers. Auctions were held, with avid memorabilia gatherers brave enough to part with their treasures and hand over all the proceeds towards the CVA agreement. The family of 1962 championship-winning captain Bobby Cox even donated the match balls from both the game against St Johnstone at Muirton Park that clinched the title and the European Cup quarter-final against Anderlecht from a year later. The winning bidders, who between them spent £6,000, donated their spoils back to the club to display.

In some ways it felt wrong, but it was actually a proud and exciting time to be a supporter of the club. The feeling that our actions had a real, tangible and vital part to play in the survival of the team we loved is a rare one. Those same emotions spilled over on to match days; a collective support known for its lack of patience and critical eye applauded every pass, whether it found its target or not, and loudly encouraged every player as they stretched for a tackle, won a corner, or took a throw-in.

If evidence was ever needed that a fully supportive crowd can turn into the mythical 12th man, the Deefiant season was it. The players used the cliché of the pre-match huddle to show their determination. It could have backfired, but the larger than normal crowds in the stands understood the message it conveyed. Players who could have been forgiven for viewing events at the club as betrayal were illustrating just how much they cared and that they were up for the fight. They understood the sacrifices the fans were making and that their former team-mates had been forced unwillingly into. Crucially they were prepared to do everything within their powers to keep the football side of the club alive.

With an appeal against both the transfer embargo and points deduction destined to fail, the players found themselves not only bottom of the table on minus 11 points, but a massive 20 behind ninth-placed Morton. Three successive draws steadied the ship, with the two big-name players, Harkins and Griffiths, proving their worth. With the languid-looking but silken-footed Harkins pulling the strings and Griffiths not only finding the net once in each of those three draws but also three more times during victories that followed against Partick Thistle and Ross County, new manager Smith was already on the way to recording an eight-game unbeaten run and eclipsing anything achieved by any of his predecessors in their first few weeks.

Administrator Jackson was beginning to believe that the fans could, with help from a newly-created Dark Blues Business Club – ironically formed by Peter Marr, one of the brothers who had taken Dundee into their first administration – and a televised home Scottish Cup tie against Motherwell which raised  £82,500, lead the club to survival. A £2,000 donation from Dundee-supporting Scotland midfielder Charlie Adam was gratefully received, but it was the gesture of a local Dundee-supporting Junior footballer that really summed up the backing the club received from the community.

Having always dreamed of playing for the club he loved, Lochee United captain Craig Robertson had been lucky enough to have Dundee accept the invitation to provide the opposition for his testimonial. Smith pieced together a team of youth players and stars from the past such as Bobby Glennie, Javier Artero (who flew in from Spain for the game) and even Smith himself. They turned out at Lochee’s Thomson Park in front of a crowd of almost 1,700 as the Junior outfit trounced their “professional” opponents 6-0 in sideways rain. Robertson got to achieve his dream, captaining Dundee in the second half and looking every inch the part as his introduction – and that of Lochee manager and ex-Dee Paul Ritchie – improved the Dark Blues’ showing. Robertson decided, in a hugely selfless act, to donate the proceeds from his testimonial season to the club he loved. The sum of £14,000 was possibly the single biggest donation received during the whole administration process.

With the three loan singings heading back to their parent clubs and the inevitable injuries and suspensions making it ever more difficult for the manager to find 11 players to fill his team sheet, increasingly unbelievable events began to unfold. Griffiths scored seven goals in eight games as Dundee won seven and drew three before top-flight Motherwell rattled the DFC train right off the tracks with 4-0 win at Dens in the cup.

With only youth players available beyond the threadbare squad, rookie manager Smith found a loophole that would bring a string of increasingly unlikely players into Dens for a maximum of three games each. Billed as that most mysterious of contributors, ‘trialist’, one-time Clyde man Tom Brighton, ex-Morton defender Stewart Greacen, former Dee’s Steven Robb and Graham Bayne, and English striker Jake Hyde (who scored three goals in two matches) gave their everything in short cameos. However the two most celebrated trialists, men whose appearances summed up the almost ridiculous events surrounding the barely-surviving club were a TV pundit and a supporter who had already gone above and beyond for the Dark Blue cause.

Having come through the youth system at Dens in the mid 1990s, Neil McCann was already a Dundee legend, having provided some memorable cup nights, culminating in the Coca-Cola Cup final. The pacey, goal-scoring wide man left in 1996 before spells with Hearts (twice), Rangers and Southampton and had eventually traded in cold Scottish afternoons on the park with First Division Falkirk for cold Scottish afternoons in a pitch-side wooden hut for Sky Sports nearly two years earlier.

By this time Leigh Griffiths had been sold to Wolverhampton Wanderers, with the Scottish League killing off any idea that the in-form striker could be loaned back to Dundee after they had pocketed the £150,000 fee and few expected much from a player-pundit who had decided to halt his retirement for a three-game comeback. It should all have been a recipe for disaster. But with the ragtag selection of players continuing to produce the goods – a 2-0 win against promotion hopefuls Ross County, a goalless stalemate against league favourites Dunfermline and a 1-0 home success against Falkirk – Dundee not only managed to go unbeaten in 12 con- secutive league games since the axe had swung on their playing staff but clawed themselves off the bottom of the table, too.

The supporters, who continued to sell off their prized Dee artefacts, hold all sorts of money-collecting gatherings and simply dig deep into quickly emptying pockets, were backing their team like never before – or at least more than I’ve witnessed in my 30-plus-years of following the club. Goals conceded were seen as reason to cheer the players on, encouraging them and passing on the belief that it was only a minor setback that would, and so far always had been, overcome within the next few minutes. Furthermore, any goal scored by a squad of players quickly taking on a status way beyond their current league position was greeted as though on its own it would save the very club that the world – with the exception of some extremely generous opposition supporters – seemed to have turned against.

The strongest example of that came in the home game against Raith Rovers on February 12, 2011, when the Dees found themselves a goal down with nine minutes left. Up stepped Harkins to curl a superb free-kick into the top left corner. Spurred on by a delirious home support Dundee were awarded another free-kick in injury-time. This time Harkins hammered it into the wall and, although Raith cleared the danger, Lockwood launched a high ball into the penalty area, which bounced to McCann, who had been on the park for just over half an hour. He arched his back and tried to put a trademark left foot volley on target. Instead it looped up into the air and dropped into the Raith goal before nestling gently in the far left corner of the net. Cue utter bedlam, as 4,500 fans jumped and screamed as though their very lives depended on it. McCann wheeled off towards the South Enclosure to soak in the acclaim of a set of supporters who last celebrated one of his goals more than a decade and a half before. So momentous were the scenes that Raith striker John Baird revealed after he signed for Dundee a year later that this one moment was the motivation behind him putting pen to paper.

That said, compared with the retired, returning hero hitting an injury-time winner, the second shock trialist perhaps ranks even higher in the Roy of the Rovers unbelievability stakes. Having given the club he supported the spoils from his testimonial, Craig Robertson also proved himself to be a talented footballer in his testimonial game and was invited by Smith to become his latest trialist. It was hard to know if it was the player or the fans who were more taken aback.

This time the match was at Stark’s Park, the home of Raith Rovers, and Robertson’s performance in another 2-1 win illustrated the fine line between making it as a professional football player and years spent in the Juniors. The life-long non-league midfielder looked assured in the centre of the park as Sean Higgins, who had shrugged off a slow start to his Dundee career to provide the goals so many worried would dry up after Griffiths departed, scored one in each half. If this wasn’t the stuff of dreams for every player and fan connected to Dundee then nothing ever would be.

In fairness, the more established players were equally heroic. Higgins scored six goals after Griffiths’ departure, even though he played a number of matches with a slab of steak in his boot in the hope that the old wives’ tale of how to deal with bruising would help him through a serious injury, while Harkins played a number of games after having both of his big toe nails removed. Add in youth prospect Leighton McIntosh scoring in three consecutive games – one of which was a match-winner against Queen of the South – and Douglas rolling back the years with goalkeeping performances that would see him named the club’s player of the season, and the continued success was almost beyond comprehension. When you factor in just how awful the team’s form had been prior to administration, it was nothing short of astounding.

The unbeaten run would eventually come to an end in the sixth last game of the season although few could grudge Raith a little payback. The third consecutive 2-1 result between the sides went in the Fifers’ favour thanks to an injury-time winner. It was Dundee’s first defeat in 24 games – a club record – but, by then, the job was done. Smith’s side had achieved the impossible and turned a 25-point deduction and 20-point deficit into mid-table safety. It was a feat no one could have predicted in those dark days when the squad was decimated and the points penalty and transfer embargo put in place. Through the efforts of a squad who could have thrown the towel in, a clutch of youth players who would have never got a look in otherwise, a few loan signings and a bunch of trialists who came from across the country, junior football and Sky TV, the impossible had been made to look ridiculously easy.

Dundee finished 24 points clear of relegated Stirling Albion and nine ahead of ninth place Cowdenbeath, who were relegated via a play-off. Indeed, without the points deduction, Dundee would have finished second, one point behind promoted Dunfermline.

After administration was announced, Dundee lost only two of 29 league games, with the last of those – a 3-2 win over Partick Thistle at Dens – attended by 7,746 fans. Those supporters were just some of the thousands of people who went further than logic and personal finances suggested they should and ensured that their club beat the odds not once, but twice as they finished sixth in the league and came out of administration.

The strongest memory I have from that time is of the lifelong friends made on the way. There was a sense of community and spirit few supporters of other clubs will ever really experience, not only on a Saturday afternoon following their team home and away, but also on weekday evenings, Sunday afternoons and whenever else fellow supporters gathered to hatch a money-raising plan, or drum up the cash that would go a long way to ensure the cause we were all fighting for remained.

I’d love to tell you that the new-found togetherness allowed the club to rise in harmonious fashion the next season, and that same spirit of mutual support continued to pay massive dividends, but this is Dundee FC we’re talking about. With no buyer coming in to take control, a fan ownership model was adopted but, with little finance other than continued fan funding coming in and those taking up positions on the board doing it more for love than money (or arguably, experience and knowledge) a merry-go-round of board members became the order of the day.

Sadly, accusations of “blazers for the boys” became the norm from a section of support who began to wonder if the cash they had raised to save their club was now being used wisely.

On the park the season was stop-start. Smith continued to get the best out a team that eventually stuttered to second place via a late winner against Livingston on the last day of the season. It was a goal that was to prove more crucial than anyone realized. Rangers imploded in the midst of financial allegations of all and every sort and relinquished their membership of the league before being readmitted into the bottom tier of the professional game in Scotland.

Ironically, given what had happened mere months before, Dundee were the beneficiaries. The Dark Blues, or Club 12 as they became known, gained promotion on the back of goings on that all with a Dundee connection recognised only too well. The return to the Premier League was a painful one. Dundee had not prepared for a season in the top flight, having signed players on a first division budget and with a first division campaign in mind. Only two seasons after losing just once in 28 matches, Dundee were relegated with an embarrassing 22 reverses from 38 fixtures. Heroic manager Smith was sacked mid-season as all the goodwill that had been built up towards the team from the supporters trickled away into a sea of despair.

And what of our playing heroes? Harkins triggered a gentleman’s agreement struck during administration that allowed him to leave for free, joining Kilmarnock. He would soon return to Dens before heading to St Mirren and then, once again, returned to Dundee, where he is still much loved despite leaving again to join Ayr United after a spat with current manager Paul Hartley.

Douglas left for Forfar after a public disagreement with Smith’s replacement John Brown, while Higgins moved up a division to St Johnstone before slipping back down through the leagues.

Lockwood was released in 2014 after helping Dundee achieve promotion for real, although the fact he was never contacted by the club to be told he was no longer wanted left a bitter taste. Youth prospect McIntosh failed to prosper, too, and is now at lowly Peterhead.

Strangely, in the long term, none of the main players – with the exception of Griffiths – have truly prospered since, something that has been replicated in the quick disappearance of the positive Deefiant attitude supporters had towards their club. Some fans now even go as far as to suggest that a team of beleaguered and often injured players supplemented by youths, loanees and a succession of ever more unexpected trialists making a mockery of a 25-point deduction wasn’t all that special after all.

For me, it is the single biggest accomplishment Dundee FC have achieved since winning the League Cup in the year I was born, 1973. It’s also the most I’ve enjoyed going home and away to watch my team. I, for one, am still proud to Deefiantly proclaim, “25 points, it wasn’t enough”

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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