At around 9.30pm on Friday, May 19, 2017, time stood still. Every supporter in the main stand, myself included, held their breath. As Paul Dixon’s deflected header looped over goalkeeper Robbie Thomson, the anticipation hit me: that split-second feeling just before the ball is about to go into the net. This was not an equalising goal in the 72nd minute of a humdrum league match in November, nor the opening goal of a routine win against a struggling team in on a Spring afternoon. This was the final minute of the second leg of a play-off semi-final, a goal that would end year-long hopes for the losers and allow the victors to carry on dreaming. A goal in the last minute is the most thrilling – and the most heart-breaking.
As the ball rippled the corner of the net, I was carried forward by the exuberant surge of those behind me. Regaining my footing, I was embraced by the stranger next to me, a man whose only previous conversation with me had been to tell me that the three seats to my left were not taken. On the pitch, some fans were sharing their moment of jubilation with the players wearing tangerine. At the final whistle, I punched my fist in the air, half in celebration and half in defiance, clapped the victorious team as they came towards us, and joined in with songs in praise of Dundee United. It was only the second time I had ever seen them play, and I do not support the club.
A week prior to this game, I had embarked upon a mini-trip around Scotland with the aim of watching ten football matches in ten days. In what felt like a footballing rite of passage, I saw my first ever Junior match. It was a drizzly Monday evening encounter in Perthshire between Luncarty and Kirriemuir Thistle which seemed close in style to the annual Atherstone ball game in which there is only one rule: opponents are not allowed to kill anyone. I witnessed Celtic’s soon-to-be invincibles decimate Partick Thistle, watched a second-tier women’s game between Jeanfield Swifts and Glasgow Girls during which I was told the home team would soon be rebranded as the women’s team of St Johnstone, and also made my first ever visit to the Highlands to see an entertaining game between Ross County and Hamilton, unaware that 124 days later I would relocate to an area that I had instantly fallen for, with the Staggies being my local team.
I wrote a part travel, part history, and part football book based on my ten-day voyage. The inaugural game of the trip was my second-ever visit to the city of Dundee, to see a 3-0 victory for Ray McKinnon’s side in which midfielder Wato Kuate morphed from muscular athlete with the passing skills of an anxious motorway driver to cult hero in the space of one spectacular goal which put the game beyond the team from Greenock. Because of this victory, my options for the following Friday were either a plethora of Lowland League under-20s matches, a couple of amateur games, or the deciding encounter between Falkirk and Dundee United. Having been advised that the game would sell out, I managed to buy my ticket over the phone in one of the Highlands’ most illuminating locations, the car park of Tesco in Dingwall.
Both of my parents are Scottish, so I adopted one of their clubs as my second team to my first love (the club nearest to where I grew up in England). It was Celtic or Dunfermline Athletic. I rejected the agony of potentially winning only one trophy a season and regularly playing in the Champions League which would ensue if I adopted my Mum’s team, and instead jumped aboard the bandwagon of success with Dunfermline. I wrote previously in Nutmeg [issue 4] about my once-a-year trips to East End Park, and so with my Pars leanings in mind, match number eight of the 10 would be the only game of the trip in which I favoured one team over the other.
Football rivalry can be the oddest of constructs to the distant fan. Developing a love for a club through a family bond does not necessarily equate to a deep-rooted dislike for another. Besides, in my Dad’s mind, Raith Rovers was the rivalry, not Falkirk. Leading up to May 19, I had spent time in Falkirk and disliked neither the place nor the people. The actions of a moronic minority in throwing fake eyeballs onto the pitch to mock Dean Shiels – whose ability to play football whilst blind in one eye makes him far more remarkable than reprehensible supporters with no brains – has made me acutely aware of the underlying animosity between Dunfermline and Falkirk, but at the time of the Dundee United game, I did not wish to sit with the Bairns’ fans as they celebrated victory, mainly because my musical snobbery could never bring me to unironically bounce along to Tony Christie’s Is This The Way To Amarillo? I made my way into the stadium with a mixture of excitement about the game and guilt about me preventing a lifelong supporter to get a ticket.
Despite having chosen to make a trip to watch ten matches involving teams I don’t support, I’ve long maintained a scepticism for those who call themselves ground-hoppers. While I can appreciate the beauty in a match involving two neutral teams, even to the point of enjoying it more than the pressure and anxiety that accompanies watching the team you support, this exists within the duality of also following a team. To only like the sport but to not wrap yourself in the emotional baggage that serves to identify you as a fan is a strange concept, akin to dating someone you have no emotional feeling for. In contrast, attempting to manufacture support for one club because their opponents have a rivalry with your second favourite team does seem a tentative reason. Football fandom is largely a sense of belonging, an underlying bond that brings together people from all walks of life because of their choice of team to support. When I travel away with my team, I see faces I recognise but have never spoken to, and occasionally people I have never seen before. Not once have I questioned their place, and this ideology eased my paranoia as I sat in my maroon hoodie like someone who had taken a wrong turn on the way to Stenhousemuir.
On that Spring evening, the majority among the largest crowd of my trip believed that the home side would complete the task begun with a 2-2 draw at Tannadice three days earlier while I was sitting watching Ross County push Hamilton one step closer to a relegation play-off. The Lanarkshire side would await the winners of this match, with media experts predicting that either Falkirk or Dundee United would be promoted at Hamilton’s expense.
Dundee United started nervously, with the away support groaning at every misplaced pass. In contrast, Falkirk fans were full of positivity, hoping to banish memories of previous play-off disappointments. After 11 minutes, James Craigen’s low drive cannoned off the post and nestled into the net behind Cammy Bell. After previously losing 3-0 and 3-1 to Falkirk during the season, the evening seemed to be already over.
On cue, over the non-contrived cheering of the home crowd, came the sound of Amarillo. It inspired a thought about a link between the song and the two teams. As a kid, I loved the TV show Rainbow, not knowing that presenter Geoffrey Hayes was a Dundee United supporter. When Peter Kay teamed up with Tony Christie in 2005 to re-release the song for Comic Relief, Hayes gave one of many cameos in the music video. In a 2006 BBC poll, Rainbow’s Zippy was named the greatest celebrity sports fan by a landslide margin, defeating both Sean Bean and Delia Smith. According to Hayes, he begged the producers of Rainbow to make Zippy tangerine in homage to the club, although Zippy was already his light shade of orange by the time Hayes joined the show in 1973.
According to the former presenter: “One of the most common questions I’m asked is ‘What in God’s name is Zippy meant to be?’ You have me, a big bear, and a pink hippo and then there’s Zippy. I don’t think anyone has a clue what he’s meant to be, but I do know why he’s tangerine. It’s because – like me – he’s a Dundee United fan.
“I lived in Dundee for much of the 1960s and even came back a few times in the 1970s. I had very happy times there and my fondest memories are of going to Tannadice Park one week and Dens Park the next. I became a United fan. They were languishing in the Second Division in those days, playing teams like Brechin and Alloa. Dundee were the strong successful team at the time, but we thought United played the more attractive football.”
In reference to the song, neither Falkirk or Grangemouth are on the way to Amarillo, but it does not stop the stadium singing in unison. Sha la la la la la la la… Falkirk
For the rest of the first half, Dundee United seemed tense, desperate to just stay in the game. Flood and Kuate in midfield were overpowered by Kerr and Craigen, and Murray and Mikkelsen were frustrated and isolated up front. More than one voice around me loudly expressed a desire for manager Ray McKinnon to depart. Yet, towards the end of the first-half, questions began to be asked. Mikkelsen found space on two occasions, but his efforts were closer to the back of the stand than the back of the net. The increasingly influential Tony Andreu then cut back for Murray, but again the shot failed to hit the target.
In the second half, the momentum shifted. Perhaps it was because I was not a supporter of the club and immersed in the tension, but I could sense Dundee United were going to score. For all their confidence in the opening period, Falkirk began to freeze. The supporters seemed quieter, whereas the away section knew they had nothing to lose. Falkirk were the favourites, but their first-half domination had only yielded one goal. I was convinced that a Dundee United equaliser would result in a winner.
Suddenly, I was on my feet, appealing decisions, shouting at the referee for his early whistle for a foul that resulted in William Edjenguele’s shot hitting the bar and crossing the line. I became infuriated with Tony Andreu for scuffing a shot from yards out, and I momentarily thought Simon Murray’s header was going to hit the net. Falkirk had retreated, Dundee United were free from fear, and while the narrative doesn’t always follow the expected pattern, a large part of me knew that the goal was coming. On 79 minutes, a long ball by Charlie Telfer was flicked on by Tony Andreu. Murray, the red-headed striker who never stopped chasing lost causes, ran towards Aaron Muirhead, who was the clear favourite for the ball. Muirhead tilted his body to the right, his shape all wrong, sticking out his right leg rather than the natural movement of his left. Murray seized the moment, winning the ball to leave him through on goal. Having ran all game with little reward, he found the awareness to shift his body so that he would strike the ball right footed, the ball flying past the diving Robbie Thomson.
The away end exploded with relief, an outpouring of euphoria. Falkirk were distraught, but they fought back. A Luke Leahy effort flew across goal. The visitors were forced into a change. Substitute Fraser picked up an injury and was replaced by Alex Nicholls, whose contribution arrived in the 87th minute. A throw in from Sean Dillon found Nicholls, who was allowed time to look up before swinging a left-footed cross to the back post. I followed the flight of the ball, noticing left-back Paul Dixon leaping in the air, being challenged by Tom Taiwo. The ball was neither headed clear nor struck cleanly towards goal. It unnaturally bounced into the air. Everybody around me was on their feet, seconds feeling like minutes as the ball looped towards the goal. Even as the ball flew over Thomson there was an element of uncertainty, and a sense of temporary calm, before the ball bounced onto the line and into the net. In many ways it was a freak goal, Dixon heading the ball onto the back of Taiwo, causing the unusual movement that confused the goalkeeper, who tried in vain to claim the ball but also ended up in the net. Sweet Marie was no longer waiting, and Paul Dixon was running in celebration.
When I reflect upon my 90 minutes wrapped up in the intensity of Dundee United, I feel a mixture of amusement and confusion. For all that the game was my favourite of the trip, it ultimately meant nothing. Dundee United’s season did not have the perfect ending; a 1-0 aggregate defeat to Hamilton in the play-off final condemned the Arabs to another season in the second-tier.
Football matches can be beautiful experiences, but the celebration at the end of the Falkirk match was premature in the light of what subsequently occurred. I could walk away after my 90 minutes, keeping the positive memories of one Friday night in May, whereas those who I embraced would have to pick themselves up for a further season in the Championship. When they played against Dunfermline, I would not once think of how they briefly made me feel, instead wanting the Pars to ruthlessly defeat them.
Four months after the play-off semi-final, Dundee United would return to the Falkirk Stadium. I was one of 3,000 fans who did not return for the next game, a drab 0-0 draw. Neither Dundee United goal scorer remained at the club, with Simon Murray joining Hibernian and Paul Dixon signing for Grimsby Town. For 90 minutes, I was immersed in the fortunes of Dundee United, and while it will remain a memory that can never be taken away, it is also an experience that cannot be replicated.