In less enlightened times, it was genuinely believed that the position of the Moon in the sky could distort people’s mood, and even their sanity, with those affected dubbed “lunatics”. While our understanding of science has come on leaps and bounds since the days of yore, the cyclical loosening of judgment by unknown means is still present in Scottish football.
A few weeks ago, Jim Spence penned a provocative piece calling for renewed discussion of a merger between the two Dundee clubs. As I’m a fair man, I’ll set aside my suspicions that this has been prompted by his own team being relegated at Dens by Dundee, and focus on the merits of the argument instead…
At first glance, I can understand why those outside of the City of Discovery bubble, such as blogger Richard Wilson, would deem such a plan to be worthy of consideration. Two teams in Scotland’s fourth-biggest city, competing for the same fans, could, in theory, do so much more if they combined their resources and fanbase.
In reality, it would be a travesty that no real football fan should give the time of day. The case for a merger – such as it is – unforgivably focuses on a financial case flimsier than United’s defence and some Pollyanna projections about the end result that totally ignore the reality of what football is and is not about. More than anything, it would set a dangerous precedent that should alarm any Scottish football fan.
First of all, let’s take a closer look at the financial argument. In recent years, Dundee have entered administration not once, but twice, with United only saved from the same ignominy by the largesse of the Thompson family. To make ends meet, both are selling clubs, with United’s infamous flogging of Nadir Ciftci, Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong blamed for their sudden slide down to the Championship. Across the road, the loss of Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart is soon to be compounded with Scott Bain’s departure.
It’s claimed that a merger, with one stadium (either new or old), one set of training facilities, one playing squad and a larger fanbase would more than make ends meet, and allow the new club to thrive. It’s undeniable that two clubs have higher overheads than one club, and that the sale of “spare” assets would help cover some initial startup costs (and may even cover the bulk of a new stadium), but so much of this case rests on the idea that the support of both sides will have no issue with supporting the new side.
Let’s get real here: in the petty zero-sum game of Scottish football fans, any merged club would need to have a totally neutral identity, or at least balance out the borrowing of heritage from each side. If the new club – let’s call it Dundee City, to save time – played at either Dens or Tannadice, the fans of the other club would, by and large, view this as a takeover. The only way this could go ahead would be to build a new stadium, and then that opens a whole host of other questions about its location and capacity. The idea of ground-sharing, either on its own merits or as a precursor to a merger, should be a non-starter anyway.
Both of the current stadiums are just outside of the city centre – unless it was built on the rubble of the current grounds, any new ground would have to be built on the city outskirts (most likely to the west of the city, and potentially even within Angus Council rather than Dundee City Council). Dens and Tannadice are far from perfect, but if fans of “Dundee City” have to cart themselves off to a soulless plastic behemoth (let’s call it the “Teckledome”), it’ll make the crowds dwindle even further.
Given that there’d likely be pressure from the authorities to use this opportunity to build a mid-sized stadium of 25-30,000 for the purposes of cup competitions and internationals, the Teckledome’s atmosphere would be as non-existent as that of the moon causing these flights of fancy. Playing in front of a stadium that is, at best, 20% full for most games is hardly going to inspire the team to greatness, is it?
I’m also struggling to see this massive football crisis in the city of Dundee spotted by others. Both teams have, for the last four or five decades, been in either the top tier or the second tier. Dundee’s seven year stretch in the second tier which ended only recently is, from memory, the longest barren stretch I can think of, and I don’t recall anybody calling for a merger then.
The nature of football, both in Dundee and more widely, is that success comes in peaks and troughs. Dundee’s trough has, admittedly, been a lot longer than most, and we have underachieved as a club while United have won trophies and wandered the continent. Claiming that there is now a “slow lingering descent into football irrelevance” reeks of hyperbole and an overreaction to relegation.
Away from the practicalities, the reality of the footballing situation and the cash, but even more important is the heart and soul of this debate. Why should fans of the two clubs have to sacrifice their teams for the chance of a little bit more success – for what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?
Spence arguing that it’s time to break away from old traditions, and to then reminisce about older generations watching both teams in alternate weeks (no surprise, given that United were basically a pub team while Dundee were in Europe and winning the title in the 60s) is a bit contradictory to say the least. “Tradition” and “petty tribalism” cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand when one team is on its uppers. At every step of a merger there would be heartache for both sets of fans.
As a Dee, it hurts to admit it, but Dens Park is the scene of United’s greatest triumph, when they won the league at Dens in 1983. What United fan would willfully watch the pitch where Ralph Milne stood, hands aloft, as his long-distance chip floated into the back of the net be torn up by diggers? What Dundee fan would shrug as the seat they went flying from as Craig Wighton relegated United in stoppage time was nonchalantly ripped away by workies?
When Dundee City’s kit which must either totally avoid or totally encompass blue, white, red, tangerine and black (and, in all likelihood, green, yellow, pink and purple) is unveiled, who is going to care? Not me. Not anybody whose heart flutters as the old tannoy creaks out “Up Wi’ The Bonnets”, or who’s the first to the jukebox to stick on Love Is In The Air. It’s not our team. Never will be.
Supporting Dundee or Dundee United is not a gloryhunting exercise. In fact, it’s an exercise in masochism, as following most Scottish teams is – that’s the point. Those in the city who are gloryhunters do what people across Scotland do, and support either of the Old Firm or focus all of their attention on English football. These people will not magically flock to support a single city club; if they’re not tempted by one of two local teams with storied histories and a fierce but friendly rivalry, they sure as hell won’t start paying attention when Dundee City flop onto the scene. Sure, on the odd occasion one of the city’s teams get to a cup final, we take 20-30,000, but the 6,000 or so who go each week to each club go because it’s in our blood.
Imagining that a single Dundee team could stop Dundonian kids picking Chelsea or Barcelona tops over dark blue or tangerine strips for Christmas is treating the wrong symptoms of the conditions caused by the footballing Scottish mouse being in the same bed as the English elephant. A merger would do absolutely nothing to fix the governance and financial issues faced by every single Scottish club.
In fact, arguing for a Dundee merger would do incredible damage to Scottish football. As things stand, we have the sixth and seventh largest average attendances in Scotland. Should all of those teams with smaller average attendances also merge? Should Motherwell, Hamilton, Albion Rovers and Airdrie form Lanarkshire Rovers? How about a Fife United – goodbye Cowdenbeath, East Fife, Dunfermline and Raith Rovers, it’s been a hell of a ride – or an Angus FC? Should Partick Thistle, Queen’s Park and Clyde combine to create a third force in Glasgow to take on Celtic and Rangers? Why do we allow those greedy Highlanders to have Ross County, Inverness AND Elgin in the senior leagues?
For some perverse reason, a Dundee merger is seen as more feasible than the options above, despite our two clubs having larger fanbases and a more famous rivalry than any of the above. One of Scottish football’s strengths is that sense of belonging, that most towns and all of our cities have clubs that people can attach themselves to. Making a snide judgment about what size and success a team has and thereafter deeming it unworthy of survival based on your own subjective criteria is beneath contempt.
A Dundee merger would also rob Scottish football of one of its great fixtures. Dundee derbies have drawn in large crowds on TV in recent years, with at least one game beating some English Premier League and Serie A games for viewers. Is anybody honestly going to claim Dundee City v Aberdeen or Dundee City v St. Johnstone would have the same pull for broadcasters and viewers alike?
Whether you support Dundee or United doesn’t depend on your class, religion, or even what part of the city you’re from. One of the great joys of being a Dundee/United fan is having access to that rarest of things: a genuine rivalry which is relatively even-handed and free from any shadowy undertones. Ask fans of Kilmarnock, Motherwell, Aberdeen or St. Johnstone what they’d give for a proper blood and snotters rivalry like ours, and then ask yourself why you’d throw that away.
Of course, Aberdeen actually did do that – four clubs merged back in 1903, long before football became the pervasive force in Scottish culture it is now. As did Dundee, who formed out of Our Boys and East End in 1893 in order to apply to join the embryonic national league. The most recent merger – the creation of Inverness Caledonian Thistle in 1994 – was undertaken (partly) for this same purpose, and even with that goal in mind it was very controversial, with some fans of the original sides refusing to ever back the Caley Jags. Without an identifiable purpose such as league admission, the only other acceptable grounds for a merger would be if the overwhelming majority of each club’s support were calling for this. A handful of United fans, raging at being in the second tier, absolutely does not tick this box.
Written by Gary Cocker