A photo appeared on twitter recently which got me thinking. It showed Jim McLean shaking hands with “Mr Dundee United”, gentleman centre-half Doug Smith on what I would think was his retirement, dating the picture around end of season ‘75/76. Also in the picture were portents of things to come – Paul Sturrock, John Holt and Ray Stewart. And Billy Steele. It’s the presence of Billy Steel in the photo which got me thinking.
I started watching United regularly in 1973. While Jim McLean already had a reputation for giving youth its chance, what excited me then was the players United signed – or the anticipation of. Each brought a promise of something different to the team, and my expectations for each new signing were absurdly high. I can still remember the frisson when United picked up Billy Steele from Rangers on a free. In my youthful naivety, I assumed that he would be a vital addition to the first team. Certainly three goals during the League Cup sectional ties in August ’75 was a pretty good start. Unfortunately, that was about as good as it got for the less talented Billy Steel(e) who plied a footballing trade in Dundee. He rarely featured again, and was punted to Dumbarton for £5k in September ’76 (note: Dumbarton seems to be a recurring theme in what follows).
Signed a couple of months later was The Next Player To Attempt To Replace Andy Gray©, Dumbarton’s Barry Gibb lookalike Tom McAdam. To be fair, Tom didn’t do too badly. He lasted a couple of years, 74 games and 24 goals, without convincing. Even I could see that he wasn’t really a good fit for United and Jim McLean. He played centre-forward, and, er, that’s about it. It was obvious by then that McLean liked players who were very adaptable, and capable of playing in more than one position.
Which is curious, given that Celtic then turned Tom into a pretty decent centre-half.
The next Game Changer was Billy Williamson, a player with respectable first team experience at Aberdeen and a League Cup winners’ medal, signed in February ’77. Just the sort of player we needed to supplement the youthful skills of Narey, Holt, Payne, Sturrock etc. Six months, seven starts and one goal later, he was swapped for Dundee’s Scottish international midfielder, the late Bobby Robinson. We definitely got the better of that deal.
What next? Paul Sturrock and the emerging Davie Dodds needed an experienced striker to play alongside. Dumbarton’s prolific beanpole John Bourke (The Next Player To Attempt To Replace Tom McAdam© as he was known to the Dumbarton fans) was seen as the answer, and a fee was paid in September ‘77. My fading memory precludes me from quoting it here, but it was a decent amount. However, the culture shock of moving from the west coast to Dundee was too great for Bourke. He played one season (29 starts, 6 goals) then did a bunk, refusing to turn up for pre-season training in July ’78 and was duly flogged for £40k to Killie. Still, I suppose some respect is due to Big John for having the cojones to stand up to Wee Jim and fleeing back to the sun-baked climes of Dunbartonshire, fun and sunshine, there’s enough for everyone. All that’s missing is the sea, but don’t worry, you can suntaaaaaaan!
In the continuing quest for a goalscorer around this time, United then signed Scotland’s entire stock of professional footballers called Gordon Wallace. One (the better one, more of which later) was a free from Dundee in ’76. The other, signed October ’77, was prolific (another recurring theme here) for Raith Rovers. So much so, that there’s a street in Raith named after him. Probably. You can guess the next bit. 9 starts, 3 goals, hasta la vista en route to Berwick Rangers, where I don’t think he’s commemorated in any way. Well, apart from The Gordon Wallace Berwick International Airport.
The final name in this cavalcade of mediocrity is that of Stranraer goal machine Derek Frye. Following in the footsteps of McAdam, Bourke, and Crap Gordon Wallace, Frye stepped up a league or two and promptly got altitude sickness of capability. 1 goal in 8 games over a year, and off he popped to Ayr United in August ’79. I did name a cat after him though. Big brute, huge testicles, massive claws, borderline psychotic, capable of turning from purring house pet to Kray-like violence in a nanosecond. If only human Derek had displayed such a killer instinct in the penalty box. But enough of tired metaphors.
Now I’m sure United bought other players during this period, but these are the names which always spring to mind, all failing to make the grade at the level they were signed to play at (notwithstanding “Barry” McAdam’s successful positional change at Celtic, could have been a Tragedy that Jim didn’t spot that potential).
Conversely, United did very well in picking up some old pros as short terms fixes – The Good Gordon Wallace, Alec Rennie, Henry Hall to name a few, all capable of imparting their knowledge on the park to their (much) younger team mates, and making valuable contributions in their own way. Indeed, Henry Hall deserves special mention, as his goals in ‘75/’76 helped stop United getting relegated in the first season of the Premier League. And where might that have led should such an event have come to pass? Jim McLean getting fired? I remember plenty at Tannadice calling for his head around that time. You fools!
Anyway, by the end of season 1978/79, I had no expectation that United would ever pay a fee for a player which would ever be justified. Did it matter? The youth policy was throwing up players every year who were totally schooled by McLean, knew their roles and were ultra-disciplined in how they filled them - Gray, Narey, Payne, Holt, Stewart, Sturrock, Stark, Dodds, Milne. The production line was rolling.
And then. Summer ’79. I was a student, working for Dundee Parks Department. On the way to work, I bought the Daily Express. I make no apologies for that. It was cheap. The SENSATIONAL back page splash was United paying £100,000 for Willie Pettigrew!
WTF! OMG! LOL! £100K FOR WILLIE PETTIGREW!
Fair to say, the grass edgings on the paths of Orchar Park didn’t get their usual professional attention that day. Here was United signing a full international, a quality player proven at the level we were playing at. What had changed? Who cared! Willie was soon banging them in, with the aplomb you get for £100k.
But if we were chuffed with Pettigrew, paying £165k (A Scottish transfer record. I’ll repeat that – a Scottish transfer record) for Eamonn Bannon two months later really was heading into uncharted waters – and in more ways than one. By December ’79, United had won their first ever trophy, with Willie scoring twice in the final.
So we come back to Billy Steele et al. What is apparent (with hindsight) is that United paid money for some pretty rubbish players during the mid/late 70s, whilst at the same time bringing through a golden generation of home-grown youngsters. Whatever changed with regards to United’s signing policy, I’d argue that paying the big bucks for Pettigrew and Bannon provided the final impetus to change Dundee United from also-rans to trophy winners.
In summary, as with most things, you get what you pay for. Jim always liked to compare United to a corner shop competing with supermarkets. There’s a certain irony that it was only when his own buying habits moved from the corner shop to Harrods that the Dundee United jigsaw was completed.
I’ve not mentioned two players who were also bought by the club during the 70s who were instrumental in the success of the team 1979 – 87. Paul Hegarty (The First Player To Attempt To Replace Andy Gray©), £40k from Accies in ’74, converted to centre half in Nov ’76, went on to enjoy a stellar career and captain his country. Ian Phillip, £25k from Dundee in ’78. The holding midfielder’s holding midfielder. The man Claude Makele calls Le Dieu. Or Ian. Can’t remember which. Two league cup winners medals, 5 games in the league winning season.
Thanks to DUCFarchive.co.uk for all stats!
Peter Clark saw Dundee United win the league at Dens in 1983. His wife suspects everything since has been a bit disappointing.