There Is a Light (That Never Goes Out)
The above team pic re-emerged on Twitter last week and, in 2018, begs to be critically evaluated through the medium of emojis:
That strip 💙
Donald Mackay’s flares ✌🏻
Iain Fleming’s hair ✊🏻
Frank Upton’s Gazelles 😎
Cammy Fraser only being 23 on the pic 😮
George McGeachie only being 21 🤭
Jim Shirra’s double chin 🍻
The other thing that stands out is that there were some cracking footballers pictured, players who would win promotion that season and lay the foundation for nine straight Premier Division terms. The 1980s was a much better decade for music, fashion and the Mushy Peas than most people realised at the time, with the Smiths, Lacoste and Keith Wright providing the antidote to Duran Duran, tartan jeans and Ross Jack. Three straight top-six finishes? A cup final (of which we will never again talk)? Four semis? Average crowds not far shy of 10,000? What you wouldn’t do for a bit of that action these days.
Us being quite good in the 80s did however coincide with a certain other mob enjoying their best ever period, something that perhaps made contemporary fans less appreciative than they should have been. It was by no means a bad time to be a Dundee fan, but it was a frustrating one.
How Soon Is Now?
I was first taken along to Dens in 1983, with my old man’s warning not to repeat any of the language I was about to hear in front of my mum (strangely this warning didn’t extend to teachers, policemen or others who were presumably fair game in the ‘fuck off you cunt’ stakes) ringing in my ears and for the next few years Dundee always seemed to be the verge of doing something, but never quite getting there.
A return to Europe was missed out on the last day of the season twice. Our best managers were enticed elsewhere. Great youngsters were brought through and rough diamonds were brought in but their time at Dens overlapped like Jim Smith filling in at full-back.
Ian Redford departed for Ibrox before that team pic was taken while Stewart McKimmie (1983), Iain Ferguson and Cammy Fraser (both 1984), Bobby Connor (1986), Ray Stephen and Colin Hendry (both 1987), Tosh McKinlay and John Brown (both 1988) and Tommy Coyne (1989) caused varying degrees of anguish for the Dundee support when they moved on. Jim Duffy’s career was (temporarily) ended by injury in 1987 but at least we would hold on to Keith Wright into the 90s.
Redford, McKimmie, McKinlay, Ferguson, Fraser, Brown, Connor, Coyne, Wright and Hendry would all win medals and/or caps after their time at Dens, leaving you to wonder what might have happened had we been able to hold on to them all a bit longer. The problem with playing counter-factual football is that it’s easy to ignore the laws of cause-and-effect. The signings of Bomber, Connor and Stuart Rafferty were funded by Rangers raiding Dens for Ferguson and Fraser. Likewise, the Cobra and Mongoose partnership only came into being after our bid to bring Fergie back from Ibrox was turned down.
That’s not to say us Dees don’t have some reason to curse the failure of the planets – or defence and attack in our case – to align though. The free-scoring side of 87-88, with Coyne at Wright at the top of their game, was hamstrung by a leaky backline after Duffy’s early-season injury while Colin Hendry, who would go on to captain his country and win the English Premier League, had been sold as a misfiring striker before his potential at centre-half was recognised.
Archie Knox once remarked that Dundee were three players short of a very good team but every time one of those jigsaw pieces was found, another gap would appear elsewhere in the puzzle. If it was this that led him leave Dens and return to Alex Ferguson’s right-hand side at Aberdeen, then his frustration was more than matched by the Dundee support. The decade’s optimism, which Archie had done more than anyone to engender, suffered a lingering, 18-month death from October 87 to March 89 when Duffy, Bomber, Tosh and Super Tommy were lost to us in turn. Relegation followed in 1990.
By the new decade, the descent into the madness for which Dundee has been renowned ever since had begun. Instead of becoming a team capable of regularly appearing at Hampden and competing in Europe, Angus Cook was trying to merge us with United.
That Joke Isn’t Funny Any More
The much-maligned Vince Mennie, often heralded as our worst of all time, had the misfortune to be a poor player in a good team. Vince was a far better player than many to have pulled on the Dark Blue since. His fate is similar in some ways to Dundee’s in that era. With Aberdeen and United enjoying periods of historic strength in addition to the Old Firm and a resurgent Hearts, not to mention a good St Mirren side, the 80s may have been the hardest decade in Scottish football history to make an impact. All the same, given the quality of players to have trodden the hallowed turf over that period, it can’t help feel like a missed opportunity.
The same, in poorer man’s terms, could be said of the past four-and-a-bit years. We were promoted to a renamed Premiership missing three of the country’s biggest five sides. United would drop out two seasons later. Inverness, Ross County and Championship Hibs won silverware before Celtic shat themselves over Rangers’ return and appointed a proper manager. We’ve managed a solitary top 6 finish, have barely troubled the latter stages of the cup competitions and seem locked in a perennial relegation fight, one we may well succumb to this season. The chance to open up a gap over United on and off the park that would impact on the fortunes of both for a generation has been squandered and at a time when our owners have provided their managers with what they admit is a top 6 budget each year. In relative terms, all this represents a far bigger missed opportunity than the 1980s.
Still, as today’s players are fond of saying, we go again. Or, as Morrissey put it before he went all EDL, there is a light and it never goes out…