As Dundee stumbled their way towards the end of the 1996-97 season it was off the field where the real drama had occurred.
As Dundee stumbled their way towards the end of the 1996-97 season it was off the field where the real drama had occurred. The Dark Blues’ form had imploded after the departure of manager Jim Duffy to Hibs, while the player who had followed him there, Chic Charnley, and subsequently Paul Tosh and Lee Power, had left a gaping hole in the playing squad. However, the real focus of the Dark Blue support was the takeover saga that had been rumoured to have involved everybody from English businessmen to Nigerian princes, and which had now been rumbling on for months.
However, by the 21st of February 1997 the actions of Duffy’s replacement, John ‘Cowboy’ McCormack, of extending the contracts of the likes of recent signing Hugh Robertson and adding the much sought after Clyde striker Eddie Annand to his squad for £70,000, suggested that somebody other than the club’s erstwhile Canadian owner, Ron Dixon, was beginning to hold the Dens Park purse strings. Local business brothers Peter and Jimmy Marr supposedly on the verge of moving into the boardroom. Something also maybe borne out by ‘Cowboy’ himself receiving a two and half year deal just weeks after the board had renegade on a similar promise.
On the park that faith wasn’t really bearing fruit, the Dens Park faithful so disenchanted by a home cup defeat from Morton that the same league fixture just a few days later attracted the measly crowd of 2264. Prolific Dundee striker Jerry O’Driscoll scored the only goal of the game - his 10th in 13 games - as The Dee maintained a two point grip on second in the table - which promised the solitary playoff slot - over St Mirren who had defeated league leaders of ten points, St Johnstone, the same day.
That weekend the long serving Dundee midfielder Kevin Bain returned from an unsuccessful trial at Rotherham, leading to him being released by the club after seven and a half years with The Dee, while The Dark Blues were linked with Clydebank fullback Paul Lovering.
Heading into the weekend game set to be played on the 1st of March, East Fife manager Jimmy Bone was keen to move all the pressure from his relegation haunted team onto Dundee, saying the team he used to assistant manage had it all to lose in their all too distant chase of the league leaders.
Hardly the most convincing of mind games but nonetheless a tame 1-1 draw at Bayview Park against a team The Dee had, on two separate occasions the same season, beaten by six clear goals, was the result; a Lee Power strike coming a minute after Matt Dyer had put the home team in front.
A brighter note for the future appeared when young Dee, Graham Bayne, was selected for the Scotland Under 17 team to face Germany in Livingston. Although it was the thought of Austrian trialist Marko Felbermayer joining up with the first team squad that grabbed the fans’ attention. In true Dundee FC style, his arrival was heralded with ‘Austrian Impresses’ in the Evening Telegraph on the 11th of March, before being followed up with ‘Austrian Not Staying’ in the very next day’s Courier. Explanations for the failed trial varying from the player and club being unable to “agree terms” through to him being “4 or 5 games from fitness”.
Better news, however, was just round the corner, fan favourite Dariusz Adamczuk signing a new 2 year deal that was sealed with a work of art! The Polish international taking a liking to an old style painting of himself playing for Dundee that his new manager told him he could remove from Dens and keep if he signed a new contract. Still, by the 12th of March St Johnstone were 12 points clear and Dundee were down to third after a goalless draw between the two at Dens all but ended the The Dark Blues’ hopes of automatic promotion.
With ‘Cowboy’ McCormack always on the look out to strengthen his squad The Dee were being linked with just about every player in Scotland. The rumour mill churning out a Dens Park return for Stewart McKimmie, whose glittering career at Aberdeen had been cut short when he was given a shock ‘free’. Although that surprise was nothing compared to the news that Jim Duffy was making another Dens Park raid to steal away cult favourite Paul Tosh and recent arrival Lee Power from Dundee in a deal worth around £200,000.
The move sparked the resignation of respected Dundee managing director Nigel Squire, who told The Courier “I’m resigning on grounds of credibility, the first I knew of this transfer was when a newspaper called asking for a comment…In my book a managing director should at least have an inkling of what is going on at his club.”
In the unusual position of being a Dundee manager with money at has disposal, McCormack initially lined up a move for midfielder Grant Johnson from them across the road, with a deal of £100,000 mooted in the papers. However the player decided the move to Dens “wasn’t for him”, but in the build up to their clash with Clydebank on the 22nd of March there was better news for Dee’s when it was revealed that ‘Cowboy’s’ rebuilding from within was set to continue with centre back Robbie Raeside extending his stay at the club until the summer of 1999.
The away game against the no longer existent Bankies was a dull drab nil-nil draw that was made all the more dismal by St. Johnstone only being able to take a point at home from third bottom Stirling Albion, while Airdire moved second after beating the Paisley Saints 2-1. A result which kept The Buddies a point behind The Dee, who were two off Airdire and a further twelve behind St Johnstone.
With money still clearly burning a hole in the manager’s pocket, a player who had lined up against Dundee two days before was the next to be linked with Dundee. James Grady suggested in Monday 24th’s Courier as being lined up by the club. While Youth Coach, Ray Farningham, who was also still registered as a player at Dens extended both sides of his contract to the end of the 1998-99 season, although his off field work was expected to be his main focus from now on.
In these pre-transfer window days the excitement of in-season player acquisitions was never far away and with the links to Grant Johnson and James Grady still the talk of the town, 24 year old goalkeeper Arve Kyik was headed to Dundee to try out for the club due to injury to first team regular between the sticks, Billy Thomson; youngsters Gary McGlynn and Jamie Langfield being the only keepers currently at the club. With there being no game on the Saturday, the Norwegian goalie played in a full-scale warm up tie on Friday 29th March alongside German trialist Dirk Bresner, before the Sunday Mail revealed that McCormack had failed in a bid to land Motherwell midfielder Billy Davies.
Neither of the European pair impressed in their short audition, leading ‘Cowboy’ to re-sign goalkeeper Barry Thompson, who had been playing with Forfar since being released from Dens just months before, while John McLaren, the younger brother of Dundee United’s Andy, also signed up after the 22 year old midfielder had been released by fellow play-off rivals St Mirren. With these signings revealed on April 2nd, the Dundee support could be forgiven for thinking that what had happened the day before was an April Fool’s prank, prolific Clyde goalscorer Eddie Annand, who had 42 goals to his name from 64 games with The Bully Wee, joining up on a three year deal for what seemed like the bargain price of £70,000. Annand’s new manager going on to state in Friday the 4th’s Daily Record that “Eddie’s worth DOUBLE what I paid for him” (how right he was!).
Not even the signing of ‘Steady’ Eddie could reignite The Dee’s season however, the new recruit’s ‘notable miss’, according the Sunday Mail, arguably the turning point in the Dens Park tie against Falkirk on Saturday 5th April. Ex-Dee Jamie McGowan rubbing salt into the wounds of his former club with both Falkirk goals, while Annand’s most memorable moment in the 90 minutes appears to have been being ‘bowled into the opposition dugout’ by Falkirk’s Neil Oliver, who was booked for his troubles. Welcome to the 1st Division Eddie.
And as had been a theme of recent weeks, not only was the defeat a sore one for The Dee faithful, but it went further to effectively end their season, with Airdrie hammering the hapless Clydebank 4-1 to go 5 points clear of Dundee in the race for the singular play-off slot.
Falkirk may not have given Dundee an inch on the park but their manager, Alex Totten, did bring a gift to Dens, the Dundee shirt worn by his friend and former Dark Blue teammate Alex Hamilton in the 1964 Scottish Cup Final. As my scrap book attests, this beautifully framed, all white long sleeved top being rather magnificent and it’s no surprise that vice-chairman Malcolm Reid looked absolutely delighted to receive the generous gift that paid tribute to a true Dee legend.
With only six games left in the season Friday the 11th of April’s Evening Telegraph took great delight in ramping up the pressure on the faltering Dee’s. ‘No Margin For Error At Broadwood: Do Or Die For Dundee’ blaring from their back page as The Dee headed to the team just above them in the play-off race knowing that defeat would surely end their slim hopes of usurping the Diamonds. But after only 19 minutes the task already looked beyond Dundee as Forbes Johnston scored his first ever goal for Airdrie. Things would only go from bad to worse for Dundee and with four minutes to go until half-time, ‘Cowboy’ McCormack’s marque singing, Eddie Annand, saw his second yellow card of the game and, in only his second game for the club, his first early bath.
Then four minutes into the second half Hugh Robertson brought down Paul Jack in the box and the most hatchetest of hatchet men, Kenny Black, thundered the resultant penalty home. Things would only then go from worse to disastrous, with fan favourite, Dariusz Adamzcuk becoming the second Dundee player to get his marching orders after receiving two yellow cards. The first of those bookings was something of a mystery, as it was flashed at the Pole when he seemed to have been fouled by Airdrie’s Brian McPhee, although that he then kicked out at the Diamond’s keeper, Andy Rhodes, when the goalie clearly had the ball in his hands, meant that ‘Cowboy’ branded his player’s actions as “Very, very amateurish”. Ironically, man of the match that day was a certain Airdrie player named Jimmy Boyle…I wonder whatever happened to him?
The result saw Dundee slip to fourth, some 18 points behind champions elect St. Johnstone, 8 behind play-off spot holding Airdrie and now 2 off St Mirren, who were the next team on The Dee’s fixture list. As the game approached, the league struggles of the club were put into perspective when the brother of Dee midfielder Hugh Robertson tragically died from a head injury sustained in a football match between amateur sides Portlethen United and Glendale. Hence it was to Hugh’s immense credit that he chose to line up for a Dundee side without the services of suspended duo Adamzcuk and Annand, as well as the injured pair of Robbie Raeside and goalkeeper Billy Thomson, whose injury hit season now culminated in a head-knock in training that resulted in concussion.
As anyone who has followed Dundee will tell you however, when our backs are against the wall, we often respond in the best of ways. A goal apiece from Iain Anderson and Gary McKeown securing all three points for the home team at Dens, pushing The Dee back into third and with Airdrie drawing 1-1 with Morton, back to within six points of second with three games to play.
Anderson, however, was quick to deflect any praise towards Robertson, saying in the Sunday Mail: “I think that was Hugh’s best performance of the season. Considering all the things that he’s been through this week, I thought he was immense.” And the paper quite rightly agreed, awarding the Aberdonian midfielder their man of the match vote.
Rather bizarrely in mid-week it was a 9 month old transfer that took The Courier’s headline on Wednesday 23rd April 1997, ‘Still In Dispute’ declared as Dundee and Hearts wrangled over the transfer of a certain Neil McCann. The deal that had originally been struck between the clubs was for £200,000 to go to the Dens Park club along with Hearts midfielder Stuart Callaghan, who was valued at £50,000. Callaghan, however, refused the move, leading The Scottish League to invalidate the deal even though McCann’s transfer had gone through. Now, three quarters of a year later Dundee were still looking for the £50,000 shortfall from the deal, while the Edinburgh club were making out they were due to pay no more money. And so a tribunal was expected to make a decision on deal within the month.
With the doors on the last chance playoff saloon swinging once more, Airdrie slipped up once again, a 2-1 home defeat at the hands of third bottom Stirling Albion confirming the Broadwood men were feeling the pressure in their push to get over the line.
New signing Eddie Annand, now back from suspension, finally scored his first goal for the club to put Dundee 1-0 up after 68 minutes of their tie against Partick Thistle the same day. That result would have taken The Dee back to within three points of second with 2 games to play, but an injury time equaliser from The Jag’s Andy Lyons saw the Sunday Mail announce ‘Cowboy Goes Wild’ in their match report, while the following Monday’s Evening Telegraph took the more pragmatic and insightful approach of suggesting Dundee had ‘Ability - But No Leader’. And with the earlier transfers of Charnley, Tosh and Power to Hibs, they were probably right.
With Dundee’s slim promotion push more of a feeble nudge, The Courier speculated on the future of the manager should the mooted take-over by the Marr brothers go through; Dundee managers past and future, Jocky Scott and John Brown, both linked with the job alongside ex-Raith boss Jimmy Nicholl. However, with Airdrie continuing to implode on the park - this time with a 0-0 draw away to East Fife (only the Methill men’s 11th point of the season!) McCormack was intent on focusing on the job at hand. Once more his team took the lead, this time through a 24th minute own goal from Morton’s John Anderson, but yet again that prime position was squandered. This time Craig McPherson equalising for the home team twelve minutes later. And even though Dundee went back ahead of previously third placed St Mirren on goal difference, the five point gap Airdrie had secured ended The Dark Blues’ play-off fight for another season.
Frustratingly, with the battle over, Dundee would go on to thump Stirling Albion at Dens 4-2 on the closing day of the season - Annand, Raeside, O’Driscoll and a Tait own goal cancelling out a Bennet strike for Albion. Airdrie were beaten 1-0 at home by champions St Johnstone, meaning that The Dee finished third, only two points off The Diamonds, and knowing that if they’d held on against Partick and Morton, they’d have had a play-off shot at second bottom Premier League side, Jim Duffy’s Hibernian, for promotion. That The Dee finished 22 points off the top spot, however, should be a strong indication of just how far short they were of being top-flight standard, a ridiculous 31 players taking to the field in the famous Dark Blue across the season’s 36 league games…
The other championships in Scotland went to Rangers, Ayr United and Inverness Caledonian Thistle, while in England Manchester United, Bolton Wanderers, Bury and Wigan Athletic took the silverware. How times change!
As the season wound to a close Dundee announced the retirement of fullback Tommy McQueen, who had played for the club in last season’s Coca Cola cup final, and the release (again) of back-up keeper Barry Thompson. While ex-Dee midfielder Stuart Rafferty also left his role as the club’s Commercial Manager.
However, as the drama had played out on the field, the Dundee support had more than half an eye on the boardroom shenanigans that looked set to finally be resolved, but instead insisted in turning into an ever longer running saga. Back on the last day of February The ‘Tully’ warned ‘If Dark Blues Secure Promotion Dixon May Not Sell’; undoubtedly a huge double edged sword for the Dundee faithful. Although it was revealed that the Canadian was in talks with three interested parties, with one rumoured to be Sandy Anderson, who had recently failed in a bid to buy Nottingham Forest.
The next day The Courier went with the headline ‘Interest In Dens Deal Dead’ as they revealed that Edinburgh business man and former Dundee FC sponsor with his Novafone business (and a name well known to long-time frequenters of Dundee fan forums), Bob Jamieson, had ruled himself out as a possible purchaser. Saying he was “disappointed that Mr Dixon hadn’t responded to my proposal”.
Four days into March 1997 the same paper was proclaiming there was a ‘Fresh Twist In Dens Park Saga - Dundee FC Takeover Bid’, as local businessman Michael Johnston was credited with being interest in meeting Ron Dixon’s million pound plus valuation. Although another two bidders were also said to be interested in the club’s future, with the rumour that Peter Marr was still in the frame refusing to go away, even though the latter had denied there had been any recent contact.
Thankfully Dee’s were allowed to concentrate on the happening on the park for the next few weeks before the worrying rumour that ex-Hearts supremo Wallace Mercer - a man with a history of having a penchant for mergers - was lining up a bid. Thankfully Mercer himself emphatically denied any interest on the 26th of March, going further and saying that he felt that Dundee FC should be “owned and developed by local businessmen, people with a feel for the club and community.”
The day before, however, The ‘Tully’s’ confident headline ‘Marr Fills Bill’ gave the strongest indication yet of where the club’s future lay and if that in itself wasn’t shocking enough, the picture in The Courier of Ron Dixon laughing heartily next to club manager John McCormack, seemed to confirm that the Canadian was in town and therefore likely to be looking to conclude any deal.
Dashed hopes, however, are never far away for a Dee and it was on the 4th April that a familiar feeling of dread set in, The Courier’s ‘Sale Of Dundee To Be Held Up’ headline backed up by The Daily Record’s ‘Dens Deal In Jeopardy’ strap-line. The news being that Peter Marr’s now confirmed buy-out of the club was to be “looked into” by the Takeover Panel. Although the latter paper did add the caveat that their reporter Derek McGregor still believed that “Despite the hitch, they [The Marrs] remain favourites to take over next week, with Peter becoming Chief Executive and [his brother] Jimmy, chairman.”
Contrasting the current owner and prospective owner, The Sporting Post on the 5th April featured a picture of Ron Dixon sitting next to the expected soon to be departing club vice chairman, Malcolm Reid in the Dens Park director’s box as Dundee lost 2-0 to Falkirk, while Peter Marr was pictured leaning on the pitch side barriers at the Tayport against St Jospeh’s game.
However, the saga rumbled on, the ‘Late News’ column on the back of Friday the 11th’s Evening Telegraph declaring ‘Dixon In New Moves’, going on to reveal that the club owner had resigned as chairman and director. That said, he did remain the majority shareholder with a 70% share of the club, as now acting chairman Malcolm Reid stated: “Ron is still in control… so nothing has really changed.” Although he also predicted that the Marrs’ takeover would still go through “next week.”
But as we rolled into May with yet another underwhelming season for those of a Dark Blue persuasion just two games from completion, The Courier led with ‘Further Delay In Takeover’. Although the Evening Telegraph suggested ‘Delay Won’t Hit Plans’, as the Takeover Panel were now insisting that Dundee’s 800 minority shareholders should be able to vote on the Marrs’ bid for the club.
And so as the 1996-97 season officially ended, there was no real closure for Dundee supporters. Promotion was a distant dream once more and the ownership saga still wasn’t quite concluded. There was, however, a sense that a change was on the horizon and that an upturn in fortunes might just be headed our way both on and off the park. 1997-98, as we’ll discover, would be a season to remember and thankfully this time, for all the right reasons.