Dundee United look forward rather than backwards

IT HAS been a long time since Dundee United were referred to as part of the “new firm”, but the club’s management are confident the hurdles of the pandemic may soon be consigned to the past. The Tangerines’ finances took a hit in 2020-21, but the club managed to limit their losses to £ 2.5 million for the campaign. 

Dundee United aim to be a top six Premiership club and qualify for European football. In 2021-22, they are currently in a Conference League position and are still in the Scottish Cup, their objectives look realistic at the moment.

The club’s turnover in 2020-21 was down by around 2.5% to £ 3.8 million, while their deficit was an improvement on 2019-20 when they lost £ 3 million. Like all other Scottish clubs, the lack of matchday income decimated turnover, but Dundee United fared better than some – Hearts saw their revenues drop by 38%, Aberdeen 22% and Celtic 13%.

With revenues dropping, the wage bill became more of a drain on the club’s finances. In 2020-21, the wage bill was up by 7% to £ 4.9 million and this represented 132% of income. In 2019-20, the wage to income ratio was 120%. Ideally, the club would like to see the ratio closer to 80%, still high but much more manageable.

Scottish football benefitted from the government’s relief measures and Dundee United secured £ 2.8 million from the debt facility which has a zero interest rate and is repayable over 21 years. The club estimates it has lost around £ 4.2 million from the pandemic.

In addition, the club’s owner and chairman, Mark Ogren, a US-based businessman, has made interest free loans of over £ 9 million to the club since taking over in 2018. He is committed to the club in the medium to long term and is aware that success on the field is the best way to get a return on his investment. 

Covid has got in the way of his plans and his claim the club is “going places”, and he has received some criticism from a section of the fanbase. However, Dundee United won the Championship in 2020 and returned to the Premiership.

The club expects to return to profit in 2022 partly due to income from transfers involving Lawrence Shankland (who was sold to Beerschot for £ 1 million) and youth product Kerr Smith (£ 800,000 to Aston Villa, rising to £ 2 million), and also a return to normal income streams. 

There is also considerable upside to match attendances. In 2019-20, they averaged 8,500 at Tannadice, but the 2021-22 gates are around 6,500. There is potential at Dundee United, although the gap between the “old firm” and the rest of Scottish football is enormous and growing all the time.

The fans have played a major role in assisting the club during the pandemic, with most of the 3,000 season ticket holders waiving their refunds and the Supporters Foundation donating £ 100,000 towards the development of the academy site at Gussie Park. 

Dundee United could end 2021-22 in a better financial state and bound for European football, that would certainly be a case of going places, to quote the club owner.

McLean’s Dundee United, breaking the mould in Scotland

THE PASSING of Jim McLean will sadden many people in Dundee and right across Scottish football. He was, after all, one of the instigators of the duopoly that was called  “The New Firm” – Aberdeen and Dundee United which broke the Celtic-Rangers stranglehold. For many people, Scottish football had never been more interesting. But it didn’t last long and by the end of the 1980s, Rangers were changing the face of the Scottish game and even Celtic were struggling to keep up with them. But back in 1982-83, a minor miracle took place in a city renowned for being the home of comics like The Dandy and The Beano. Dundee United were Scottish champions.

McLean’s world

Jim McLean became Dundee United manager in 1971. He had been a journeyman of a player, turning out for Hamilton Academicals, Clyde, Dundee and Kilmarnock, playing almost 400 games. He was just 34 years of age when he was put in charge of Dundee United.

McLean built a squad of players that would form the nucleus of the United team for many years. By the mid-1970s, young players who would play a pivotal part in the 1983 title success were being nurtured or signed from junior football. Just take a look at the appearance record of the team that won the championship: two played more than 800 games for the Tannadice club; two made 700-odd appearances; another one more than 500; one played over 400; two almost 400; and three played more than 250. It’s an astonishing record. What’s more, three of the team went on to become Dundee United managers. This team spirit was indomitable as Dundee United won the title.

Dundee United were a small club in comparison to the Glasgow pair. While Celtic and Rangers could pull in 40,000-50,000 to their home games, United attracted 9,000. This makes Dundee United’s success even more notable.

Success brewing

Things started to happen at the back end of the 1970s. Dundee United had been runners-up in the Scottish Cup in 1973-74, losing to Celtic. In their line-up, however, was future Scotland manager Walter Smith and a fledgling Andy Gray. By the end of the decade and into the 1980s, McLean’s men had won the Scottish League Cup in 1979-80 and 1980-81. The first of those saw them beat Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen 3-0 after a replay. The team, though, was taking shape: Hamish McAlpine, Derek Stark, Paul Hegarty, David Narey, Eamonn Bannon, Paul Sturrock and Billy Kirkwood were all in the line-up. The following season, with Davie Dodds added to the team, they beat neighbours Dundee 3-0 in the final.

In 1981-82, they finished fourth in the Premier, but it was clear that both Aberdeen and Dundee United were now challenging the establishment. Rangers, certainly struggled to keep pace with the new order, but Celtic won the title in 1982.

The future is Orange

McLean went into the 1982-83 season with realistic ambitions for his side. “I didn’t think we had the strength in depth to win the league, although I knew we were good in the cups,” he recalled some years later.

But they got off to a good start in 1982-83, beating Aberdeen 2-0 at Tannadice. Pretty soon, United’s consistency and some key wins made people accept that perhaps this could be their year. They were unbeaten in the league until their 10th game, a crushing 1-5 defeat at Aberdeen after Richard Gough had given them the lead.

Aberdeen were the team to beat that year and Ferguson’s side inflicted a second defeat upon United on January 3. That was followed by a 1-2 defeat at Rangers and suddenly, questions were asked about their ability to last the pace.

By March, the title race had become very intense and when Dundee United went to Aberdeen on March 19, they could ill-afford to lose. They won 2-1 and with Celtic losing at Dundee, the initiative had started to swing United’s way again.

The game with Celtic on April 20 was another landmark event. Gough was sent off early on but three times United took the lead, running out 3-2 winners.

Then three successive 4-0 wins, against Kilmarnock, Morton and Motherwell, put them in the driving seat. The win against Kilmarnock was especially vital as Celtic slipped-up at Aberdeen that same day.

It was all stage-managed for a grand finale on May 14. United were top with 54 points, Celtic and Aberdeen one behind on 53. United had to go to, of all places, Dundee, while Celtic hosted Rangers and Aberdeen were at home to Hibernian.

Over 29,000 packed into Dens Park to see the most important Dundee derby of all time. The ground was full more than 30 minutes before kick-off. United raced into a 2-0 lead, thanks to a superb chip from Ralph Milne and Eamonn Bannon’s close range follow-up after his penalty had been parried. Dundee played well and pulled a goal back, but despite a tense finish, United held on. Celtic had won 4-2 after being 0-2 down and Aberdeen had no trouble in beating Hibs 5-0. It was enough for United to win the title by a single point.

McLean, not normally shy of speaking his mind, was speechless. But once he regained his voice, he admitted his team had not handled their nerves too well and the tension had got to them. “I would like to think that Scotland is happy for us and don’t begrudge my players this success. It is incredible,” he claimed.

Just £ 192,000

Only two players in the Dundee team cost money – Bannon and Hegarty. Most of the players had been around the club for some years, yet they were still very young. Goalkeeper McAlpine was 34, but the rest were under 30 and in their prime as players. Many would go on to have international careers and some tried their luck in English football.

Paul Sturrock became a Dundee United legend and scored 171 goals in 576 games for the club. He had been with the club since 1975 and was in Scotland’s World Cup squads in 1982 and 1986. Defender Paul Hegarty arrived from Hamilton and was converted by McLean from attack. Full back David Narey’s other claim to fame was a spectacular goal scored against Brazil in the 1982 World Cup. Derek Stark gave up an ambition to join the police force to go full-time with the club.

Bannon had joined from Chelsea and he played 440 games for the club before joining Hearts, his first club. He was capped by Scotland and featured in the 1986 World Cup. Ralph Milne, a winger capable of scoring excellent goals, was only 21 when the club won the league, a year older than Gough, who would play in England with Tottenham.

Midfielder Davie Dodds, sadly, had to quit at a young age through injury, but played more than 350 times for the club. Also in midfield, Billy Kirkwood went on to manage the club in 1995 after his playing days were over.

What happened next?

It was always going to be tough to retain the title and United finished third in 1984. But the European Cup brought great excitement to Tannadice. They beat Hamrun Spartans of Malta (6-0 on agg.), Belgium’s Standard Liege (4-0), Austrian side Rapid Vienna on away goals and then faced Italy’s Roma in the semi-finals. They won the first leg 2-0, but crashed out 0-3 in the second game. It had been a memorable run. In 1986-87, they reached the UEFA Cup final, beating Barcelona on the way, losing to Sweden’s IFK Goteborg.

It’s nigh on impossible for the club to recapture that golden period, but Dundee United fans will always raise a glass to the great Jim McLean.

Perth rejoices

St Johnstone 4They call Perth the “Fair City” and if you’ve waited 130 years for the local football team – St. Johnstone – to win a piece of silverware, it sounds like patience might also be one of its virtues. It is hard to believe that Perth is a city at all, because by modern definitions, it looks like the sort of market town you find dotted around northern Britain. But city it is – since 2012 – and right now, it’s probably one of the happiest cities around after the Saints beat Dundee United 2-0 in the Scottish Cup Final.

Come on Ye Saints

Perth was ready for this. In the days leading up to the final at Celtic Park, St. Johnstone shirts could be seen everywhere. Scarves adorned railings, shops proclaiming their love for the club in their windows and banners tied to trees on roundabouts. The local council also pledged their support for the club. It wasn’t exactly “cup fever”, but on the eve of the final, you sensed important something was afoot. In the High Street, a loan piper played “Scotland the Brave” to steel the locals for what was about to happen, while in the sports shop, people queued for their Saints t-shirts, replica shirts and even tickets for the game. “It’s been a lovely atmosphere all week,” said the barmaid in nearby Dunkeld’s Tay Bridge hotel.

If anyone doubted the interest in cup finals on May 17, either side of the border, they should have been in Perth or North London when the two teams lifted their respective trophies. For St. Johnstone, it was all about making history for the club had never been to the final before, let alone win it.

Beating the neighbours

St. Johnstone and Dundee United are only 20 miles apart along the Tay, a “real river” where people stand in the water up to the waist and fish, which incidentally costs a packet. Of course, this is Scotland, where salmon come out of the dark, cold water ready-smoked. But the fact it was Dundee United in the final gave the game an extra edge.

The Arabs, as they are known, finished fourth in the Scottish Premiership and the Saints two places below them. In their four league meetings, St. Johnstone won three (2-0, 1-0, 3-0) and Dundee United one (4-0).

The two sides are very different: manager Tommy Wright named no less than five players over the age of 30 in the Saints’ starting line-up at Celtic, while United had six under the age of 25. Some of United’s talented youngsters have been interesting bigger clubs, but manager Jackie McNamara and his chairman insist that the club will not cash in on them. Players like Ryan Gauld, Gavin Gunning, Andy Robertson and Ryan Dow have all won praise for their performances in 2013-14.

That said, St. Johnstone have a jewel in their crown in Steve May, who hit 27 goals during the campaign. May, who looks like he might be more comfortable in a heavy metal mosh-pit, is also coveted by more senior clubs.

While the final was Saints’ first, although they have reached two League Cup finals, it was Dundee United’s 10th, of which they have won only two of the previous nine. The last of those was in 2010 when they beat Ross County.

St Johnstone 2 (400x241)Punching above their weight

St. Johnstone are backed by G.S. Brown Construction, a family business that dates back to 1970. Their support allows the Saints to compete in a division where the average gate is way above the 3,806 that regularly turn up at McDiarmid Park. It’s a neat, functional and attractive stadium, very much of its time. You could argue that the Saints are actually very well supported. Perth has a population of around 43,500 and the near-4,000 average gate is almost 9% of that. There were expectations that between 15 and 20,000 people would be travelling to Celtic Park for the final.

The journey to Glasgow was interesting. I sat among St. Johnstone fans who were declaring their undying love for Stevie May, as well as their fierce hatred for all things English. I kept quiet, images of Mel Gibson and Braveheart going through my mind. Judging by the mood on the bus (ScotRail had decided to really help fans get to the game by having only a handful of trains in action) and by the noise at Glasgow Central station, all good natured and keen, the final itself would have an excellent atmosphere.

The game

According to the commentators, the vibe at Celtic Park was much better than Hampden Park, which is currently prettying itself up for the Commonwealth Games. Almost 48,000 people attended, which given that there’s no “Old Firm” club involved, was very good. In the past 50 years, this scenario has only happened nine times, such has been the dominance of Celtic and Rangers.

St. Johnstone conquered any nerves they might have in the early stages, but in the 33rd minute, Dundee United hit the woodwork through Ryan Dow. In added time in the first half, Steven Anderson opened the scoring for the Saints, heading home from five yards after Dundee United’s Polish keeper, Radoslaw Cierzniaki, flapped at a corner.

Dundee United struck the crossbar in the second period with a free kick from Nadir Ciftci, their Turkish striker. Six minutes from the end, though, the cup was won when the determined Steve MacLean chased a loose ball, challenged Cierzniak and turned the ball into the net as he lay on the ground. There was no coming back now for the team in orange.

May’s force will be with you…

St. Johnstone spent Sunday May 18 parading the gleaming Scottish FA Cup around the streets of Perth. There was more good news for the thousands of people who joined the celebrations. Scotland’s Young Player of the Year, Steve May, does not see a good reason to leave the club. Europe awaits Tommy Wright’s heroes!