Tales From the Scrapbook Part 6 - 1997-98 Season Part 1
With a busy summer of recruitment rounded out by the signing of Livingston ‘keeper Robert Douglas, Dundee fans entered the 1997/98 season not just with the perennially unwanted tag of favourites around their necks but with the actual belief that this time a squad might have been assembled that was capable of living up to those expectations.
A solid, if not quite spectacular pre-season tour of England kept spirits high - although manager John ‘Cowboy’ McCormack had been scathing about his players even after a few wins - but, as ever, none of that meant anything until the real ball came out on Saturday the 2nd of August 1997 when Dundee hosted fellow promotion hopefuls Falkirk at Dens Park.
‘New Look Dens Men Off To A Flying Start’ announced the following day’s Sunday Post as The Dee delighted the home faithful with an unanswered three goal romp. The first strike came in the 36th minute, Eddie Annand taking advantage of an untimely slip by Falkirk’s Kevin James and as the ball sped into the danger area, Jerry O’Driscoll won the race to power home from eight yards out.
Annand himself would add a second, driving in a dangerous James Grady cutback on the hour, before young substitute John Elliot scored from the spot three minutes from time, after being “downed” by that man James again, the future Hearts star not having his best day.
It was no surprise that Monday’s Courier suggested that ‘Dark Blues Fans Have Reason To Smile’, with club captain Barry Smith confidently adding in the same day’s Daily Record that “Dundee are on the up”. Ever the pragmatist, Dee gaffer ‘Cowboy’ McCormack was keen to temper the excitement with the Evening Telegraph headline calmly and simply stating ‘John Won’t Get Carried Away’.
However, with supporters purring over the performance and with Thursday the 7th’s Tele’ suggesting that more new faces could still be added to the Dundee squad, the manager might not have been getting ahead of himself, but many fans were.
Meanwhile, the Marr brothers revealed the next day that they had once more increased their shareholding in their newly acquired club. Taking their ownership to just under 89% after the current, various holders of 908,149 shares had indicated a willingness to part with them after the brothers made their legally bound offer for all other shares, having previously taken majority control of the business.
On the field, an unchanged line-up of Robert Douglas, Barry Smith, Lee Maddison, Dariusz Adamczuk, Brian Irvine, Dave Rogers, James Grady, Darren Magee, Eddie Annand, Jerry O’Driscoll and Jim McInally made hard work of dispatching East Stirlingshire 1-0 in the League Cup. A lone goal from O’Driscoll, who was continuing his scoring form from the season before, in the 79th minute all that separated the sides on Saturday the 9th.
As he had on his debut, new Dundee goalie Rab Douglas showed his shot stopping class, but it was O’Driscoll and Grady who had spurned countless opportunities to make the score-line more comfortable for Dundee and in the end, that The Courier described O’Driscoll’s winner as ‘sparing Dundee’s blushes’ was fair assessment.
‘Comeback Kid’ was the Dundee headline in the much missed Sporting Post on the same day, the story alluding to the journey that re-signed midfielder Darren Magee had undertaken, what with this stint at Dens being the player’s second after Magee had been released not long before by previous manager Jim Duffy.
Darren credited his mother and father for encouraging him to work hard to get back into the game, with thanks also going to the likes of Dundee’s Barry Smith and George Shaw for making him so welcome back at the club and helping him settle in again. This story, sadly, would go on to have a tragic end, with Darren losing his life in 2006, aged only 29, but for now the young midfielder was playing an integral part in Dundee’s early season promotion push.
Both on and off the park things continued to evolve, Moira Phillips being announced as the club’s new Pools Coordinator on Tuesday the 12th of August, while in a separate Courier story Finnish midfield trialist John Rantala was said to have made a big impression on manager ‘Cowboy’ McCormack. However, whatever that impact was, by the next day the Fin’s time at Dundee was already over.
Later the same evening Dundee would suffer their first defeat of the season, Airdrie going through to the second round of the Challenge Cup thanks to an 88th minute Steve Cooper goal after Dundee’s Robert Douglas had almost single handedly kept the Broadwood club at bay.
The Dens Parkers must have wished that a lightning strike on Airdrie’s ground earlier in the day, which had caused last minute electrical repairs to be carried out after a fault in the fire warning system had left fans queuing in the rain until the last minute, had been more terminal. Especially considering that other than the re-introduction of previously injured young defender Craig Tully, this was pretty much a first choice 11 that had so badly underperformed.
Unusually sanguine, John McCormack was “Disappointed but not downcast”, hoping his team would show a “positive reaction for Saturday’s league clash with Partick Thistle,” going on to add, “It’s always disappointing to lose but it’s early in the season and although it’s a setback you just have to get on with it.”
Heading into the Saturday 16th August league clash against Partick Thistle, Dee defender Dave Rogers gave a more scathing assessment of his team’s mid-week show, describing it in The Courier as “diabolical”. Although he did also highlight that their next opponents had lost to Hamilton on the same night, so they too were heading into the game after a setback.
‘Cowboy’ responded by shuffling his pack, full back Lee Maddison reintroduced to the line-up at the expense of Tully, while high flying young goal-getter Jerry O’Driscoll sat out, with Eddie Annand getting the nod.
With a crowd of only 2557 in the spacious Firhill Stadium, Dundee re-found their form, a goal each from the front two - Annand and James Grady - added to late on in the game by a Maddison free kick that took a slight deflection on its way to being the defender’s first senior goal.
With a comfortable 3-0 win secured, after only two league games played Dundee found themselves as the only team in the division with full marks, although both St Mirren and Hamilton remained unbeaten on 4 points each.
Dave Rogers, on the other hand, was viewed as having been lucky to see out the 90 minutes, the hot headed Englishman only being yellow carded after a clash with Thistle’s Gareth Evans that saw his fellow countryman stretchered off with a suspected broken leg. It would be fair to suggest that Rogers’ reputation as being something of a loose canon was only just beginning to come to the fore.
Even with The Dee’s flying high, the manager was given the green light on Monday 18th August to strengthen his squad further, and the next day announced that ex-Southend Irishman Declan Perkins was at Dens on trial.
The same day The Evening Telegraph reported on a ‘meet the fans’ session the Marr brothers and McCormack had held, revealing, amongst other topics that the owners believed it would take somewhere between £7 to £9 million to bring Dens Park up to top flight standard but that no dialogue had ever taken place with Dundee United regarding ground sharing, while the possibility of building a new home for the Dark Blues couldn’t be discounted.
The latter idea however would have to be achieved in a similar, cut-price manner which saw St Johnstone, for example, team up with supermarket chain Asda to mitigate expenditure. The Marrs going on to highlight the problem by mentioning that another player could have been bought by the club with the money already spent on improving the standards at Dens that season alone (deja vu anyone?).
The meeting also revealed that, depending on sponsorship income - which had been very healthy so far (Friday’s Courier detailing that all home games were already sponsored, only 3 track side advertising boards were still available and that The Dark Blues Executive Club had doubled in size) - money would remain available for the acquisition of new players without the need for any to be heading for the out door. In fact it was also mentioned that the club had recently turned down a ‘half a million pound’ offer for an unnamed player.
The event - which was hailed by all in attendance as a huge success - also confirmed that the long running transfer dispute over the sale of Neil McCann to Heart of Midlothian some two years previous had finally been settled in Dundee’s favour, with a fee in the region of £200,000 now having been paid by the Edinburgh club for the winger’s services.
Unfortunately, the next evening’s Coca Cola Cup tie at Dens against Aberdeen - a team The Dee had many memorable tussles with around the time - wasn’t such a night to remember. Ex-Dark Blue’s hero Billy Dodds scoring twice and setting up his strike partner Mike Newell for a third goal in what was a bad tempered and all too easy 3-0 win for the away team.
Hardly the perfect way to prepare for the visit of fellow promotion rivals St Mirren when they visited Dens on Saturday 23rd August 1997. However, ‘Cowboy’ kept the faith with the same 11 that had succumbed to The Dons - and which had admittedly brushed aside Partick - with his loyalties being rewarded with a hard fought, yellow card strewn 1-0 win over the Paisley Saints.
Eddie Annand’s 18th minute strike maintained his goal a game ratio and the Dark Blue’s 100% league record, even if The Buddies were adamant they’d been denied a late penalty when Barry Smith had clashed with St. Mirren’s Tom Brown in the box in the dying minutes.
With Hamilton beating the recently relegated Raith Rovers 2-0, the West Coast side remained just two points off the high flying Dee’s, while Dundee’s next opponents, the aforementioned men from Kirkcaldy, had gained only 2 points from their opening three fixtures. Third spot went to Morton who, sitting on 6 points were already three behind the leaders, while joint fourth placed St Mirren and Falkirk had amassed just 4 points each.
With the Tele' warning ‘Raith Will Arise’ on Thursday 29th August, the following day’s Courier saw things from a different perspective, pointing out that ‘Dundee Aim To Widen Gap’, which maybe makes it all the more surprising that The Dee’s fringe-midfielder, John McGlashan, was injured in a Thursday bounce game against the very same opponents the first team would line up against just two days later.
Whether familiarity bred contempt, who knows, but the ‘big game’ ended in a two-all stalemate, with goals in the first half hour from Grady and Annand - the latter’s flick then lob described as a goal ‘long to be remembered’ - nullified by the away team through counters from substitute Derek McGill and Danny Lennon, with both Raith goals coming in the last ten minutes. Although with results elsewhere going in Dundee’s favour, they actually extended their lead at the top of the table to 3 points.
On Wednesday 30th, Iain Anderson saw a reward for the form that found him being linked with a move to numerous top flight clubs through a call up to the Scotland Under 21’s, while back at Dens, Jerry O’Driscoll, Eddie Annand and forgotten Dee, Gavin Rae, were laid low with a bug.
Also receiving plaudits was Dee manager McCormack as he won August’s Bell’s Manager Of The Month award - with Bert Paton (Dunfermline) winning the top flight trophy, while Stenhousemuir’s Terry Christie and Arbroath’s David Baikie picked up the prizes in the lower divisions.
With no league games that weekend, the news in Tuesday the 9th of September’s Courier that ‘Dundee Get Their Man As Kelly Signs’ had The Dee support smiling. ‘Cowboy’ adding former Northern Irish youth internationalist Russell Kelly to the ranks - the ex-Darlington and Chelsea player moving to Dundee after a month long contract with St Mirren had expired.
The same day saw the same newspaper cover a story that would go on to shape the future of Scottish Football in so many ways - and with hindsight, most of them negative - as the back page blared ‘It Is Time To Break Away, Say Scotland’s Top 10’. Hearts revealing they had agreed with the other nine top flight teams to tender their resignations from the Scottish League in favour of creating their own set-up.
Lex Gold, chairman of their Edinburgh rivals Hibernian, also being quoted as saying “Our proposals will be good for Scottish Football as a whole, not just the top clubs. We have exciting plans in store and will reveal the way ahead…” Although The Scottish Football Association’s chief executive, Jim Farry, countered that “There has been no formal contact with the SFA about this matter…”
Hedging his bets, Dundee FC chief executive Peter Marr, who’s club were of course heading the pack in terms of promotion into this proposed new set up, gave a cautious welcome to the news, saying “Obviously we have to wait and see what the exact terms are but speaking personally, what I have heard so far hasn’t been bad. The top 10 clubs say they can’t continue working with the Scottish Football League and have stated promotion and relegation would continue. In the past there has been talk that membership would depend on the facilities of the clubs themselves but that hasn’t been mentioned yet this time. In any case we are already working on plans to improve and modernise Dens Park over the next couple of years.”
Although just the very next day the 'ever balanced’ Daily Record featured a large photo of a sun drenched Dens under the headline ‘DOWN IN THE DUMPS - Get Your Grounds Up To Scratch Or You’ll Be Left In The Cold’, with the photo caption adding ‘Grounds For Concern…Dundee will have to upgrade Dens Park to get into the new set-up.’ The self aggrandising Lex Gold going on to detail, “This time there will be no room for sympathy or sentiment.” And with 10,000 all seater stadiums seen as a must, along with having a functioning youth player programme, it looked as though this time the ‘top teams’ meant what they were saying.
Dee boss McCormack was sure everything would be OK in the end, stating “They [The Marrs] have told me they are working day to day on ways of improving Dens Park or moving to a completely new ground.” Although one other first division manger, who remained nameless, was more bullish when saying “First Division clubs could have 10,000 all-seater grounds then be told their stadium doesn’t look good enough to get in because it has areas of empty terracing. But that would rule out Celtic too as their ground isn’t complete yet. And what about youth development? How can Rangers say they deserve a place in the league with their record of bringing through youth?”
Back in the realms of the Dundee first team, goalkeeping coach Billy Thomson was readying himself for action away to Ayr United, what with first choice ‘keeper Rab Douglas having a hamstring issue, while second choice Gary McGlynn had a gash on his thigh.
Worryingly, Thomson himself hadn’t fully recovered from a back issue, but with a couple of days training behind him he was still above young Jamie Langfield (who had been training with Scotland under 18s) in the pecking order. While youth striker John Elliott had been drafted into the under 17s Scottish set-up.
In the event Thomson was Dundee’s only unused sub in a game where Douglas was beaten on the 61st minute by a Darren Henderson header. However, with Dundee’s ‘Steady’ Eddie Annand being gifted an easy headed goal prior to Henderson’s strike, it was an Iain Anderson penalty with 15 minutes to go that secured all three points for The Dee. Anderson himself being awarded a ‘five-star performance’ in the Sunday Post match report the next day.
It wasn’t such a good afternoon for Dundee debutant Russell Kelly though, the new acquisition coming on as a sub for the injured Lee Maddison on 12 minutes but only 25 minutes later he too was replaced by Jerry O’Driscoll. Although the new boy’s groin strain wasn’t thought to be too serious.
The win kept Dundee 3 points ahead of second place Hamilton in the league, with St Mirren and Greenock Morton a further 3 adrift, as Dundee remained one of only three unbeaten teams in the Scottish Leagues. The others being third placed Premier Division Rangers and second placed Division Two outfit Livingston.
One player on his way out of Dundee however was diminutive striker George Shaw. The frontman having tried to engineer numerous moves away from the club the previous season before eventually agreeing a new contract when John McCormack took ownership of the hot-seat from Jim Duffy.
But not having been able to displace any of Eddie Annand, James Grady, Jerry O’Driscoll or even young John Elliott in the boss’s first team thoughts, in the end it was a club long linked with Shaw who finally agreed a deal for the player. A straight swap with Dunfermline Athletic seeing fullback Derek Fleming heading in the other direction and becoming Dundee’s 10th new signing of the season.
Although a proposed move by defender Robbie Raeside to join Ayr United looked to be dead with his hopeful new club not having been back in touch with ‘Cowboy’ since hearing the price it would take to tempt the manager to let Raeside leave for Somerset Park.
With the top of the table clash between Dundee and Hamilton at Dens looming on Saturday 20th September, John McCormack was candid enough to admit that he was relieved that the Accies’ live-wire Jose Quitongo would miss the game due to suspension. But any hopes the Dundee manager had that the player’s absence would make his charges’ task easier were dashed by two first half strikes from the visitors. Goals from Eddie Cunningham and Dave McFarlane enough for Sandy Clark’s men to secure a 2-0 away win and claim top spot in the league on goal difference.
On a day that Dundee huffed and puffed, while finding Hamilton’s on loan Celtic keeper, Andy McCondichie, in inspired form, one of the few to gain a passmark as The Dee’s lost their unbeaten league record was new signing Fleming, but the defeat couldn’t stop his new team mate Iain Anderson from picking up the Bell’s Player Of The Month award, or McCormack from collecting his second consecutive manager’s award. Although doubtless all three would rather have had a win against Hamilton instead.
On the same day The Sporting Post linked Dundee FC with school sites at St. John’s High, which reportedly had structural problems, and the disused Rockwell High as potential new homes if, as had been mooted, the club were set to leave Dens Park. Although owner Peter Marr suggested they were looking at unused greenfield locations as more suitable sites.
With Hamilton continuing their good run with a 3-2 home win over joint bottom Stirling Albion, the pressure was now on Dundee to keep pace and while their 2-0 away win over Morton - courtesy of goals from Russell Kelly (his first for the club) and Iain Anderson - saw them match Hamilton’s +8 goal difference, the Accies remained top by virtue of having scored one more goal than their rivals across the season.
On the last day of September 1997 The Evening Telegraph announced ‘Dundee Idol Jocky Is Back - But With United’, as the Dee playing legend and ex-manager joined the staff across the street as a coach after having been out of the game since being replaced by ex-Dundee manager Jim Duffy at Hibs. Ironically, the vacancy Jocky would be filling had come about by the Tangerines’ player-coach, Jim McInally, moving to the Dark Blue side of the street to become an integral part of Dundee’s promotion push.
At Dens, the board announced a new vice-chairman, Derek Soutar, with the impressive performance of the newly elevated board member’s promotions department cited as why he had merited this new role.
Back on the park, The Sunday Post declared ‘Dundee Have Airdrie Fuming’, when The Dee’s secured a tight 1-0 home victory, as they continued to struggle to replicate their impressive away form on their own patch. The controversy, however, stemmed from the 83rd minute penalty that secured the win. Airdrie’s Jimmy Sandison adjudged by referee Alan Freeland to have brought down James Grady in the box.
It was a hard blow for the visitors to take having first weathered and then began to better the storm of having Tony Smith sent off in the 62nd minute. Although with Airdrie’s well documented ‘combatant’ style strongly in evidence, the fact that the match was strewn with bookings should have surprised no one.
The controversy, however, didn’t end there. Dundee’s penalty scorer Dave Rogers claiming in the same paper that Airdrie boss Alex MacDonald had kicked him as he passed the visitor’s dugout after having been subbed only moments after scoring. Neither of the two team’s managers were willing to discuss the alleged incident due to any possible sanction they may incur. Although MacDonald did release a later statement that reflected that “If I had kicked Rogers, the player would have been stretchered off…”
The next day ‘wee’ James Grady remained adamant that he had been fouled for the penalty, but by Tuesday 7th October that had been largely forgotten, The Courier running with the embarrassing headline, ‘Rogers Faces Censure Over False Claims’.
Hence it was a red-faced John McCormack who told the paper “On behalf of the club, the player Dave Rogers, and myself, I would like to publicly apologise to Airdrie FC and their manager for the slur that has been made on Alex MacDonald’s character. We have investigated the matter and found that the allegations made by Rogers were totally without foundation. It was a case of mistaken identity in so much that that the person he was referring to was not in fact Alex, but Airdrie coach John Binnie. Dave is from England and did not know Alex by sight. Even then I must stress that there is no question that John Binnie kicked, or aimed a kick at Dave. Dave has admitted as much and says now only that he fell over the coach’s leg.” Before the enraged Dee manager went on to add, “I have challenged him [Rogers] about his comments to the media and though he apologises, he has no real explanation as to why he said what he did. The matter has been one of great embarrassment to us and I have to consider seriously how I will discipline the player. In the meantime all we can do is to try and clear the mess up…” The Courier’s Neil Buchanan ending the story by saying that ‘Ironically Dave Rogers would appear to be without a leg to stand on!’
The bad news kept on coming for Dee’s, with the announcement on Thursday 9th October that the club had made a loss of around £200,000 over the previous year, following a profit of approximately £100,000 in the twelve months prior to that. The difference being attributed to a “new method in how the accounts were being drawn up”.
The interesting suggestion, however, that an unspecified ‘legal settlement’ of £174,000 mentioned in the accounts, had been paid to the newly appointed vice chairman of the club, Derek Soutar, after a previous period of employment by Dundee had been wrongly ended in 1992, was neither confirmed nor denied.
Still, the club’s restructuring continued apace, John McCormack quickly looking to replace scout Peter Weir, who had taken a position with Greenock Morton, with ex-Clydebank boss Brian Wright, who would now watch West Coast teams and players for ‘Cowboy’, while also taking some training sessions in Glasgow.
With another free weekend due to international games, Dundee took the decision to have midfielder regular Darren Magee go under the knife to hopefully resolve residual pain he was suffering in scar tissue after having his appendix removed. Although it was suspected that the player would be missing from action for at least a month.
After a tumultuous few weeks Dundee fans had their spirits lifted by the result their team achieved at Forthbank Stadium, even if the performance away to the club sitting joint bottom of the First Division, Stirling Albion, was less than convincing. Stirling had initially taken the lead on 37 minutes when Gary Carberry had “brilliantly turned Neil Bennet’s cross past Rab Douglas in a crowded penalty box”.
However, it was some 19 years since Dundee had tasted defeat at the hand of The Binos, and an undeserved Iain Anderson leveller looked set to extend that long run. However, with Albion new boys Landry Zahani-Oni and Atle Nilsen impressing, it was the home team who looked to snatch all three points, until that is, a most unlikely header was bulleted into the net by Barry Smith from a John Elliott cross with just three minutes remaining.
And with Hamilton drawing a blank in a nil-nil draw away to Airdrie, Dundee headed into the winter (and the end of scrap book number 9) back on top of the pile, two points better off than their nearest rivals and six ahead of third placed Falkirk.