Dundee v Celtic conjures memories for Tommy Coyne

Tommy Coyne, now 52, swapped shirts with some of the world's finest players. Picture: John Devlin
Tommy Coyne, now 52, swapped shirts with some of the world's finest players. Picture: John Devlin
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Former striker recalls storied career and 1988 goal in Dundee’s last home win over Celtic

After Saturday’s Scottish Cup tie between Dundee and Celtic, reporters wishing to talk to those who have made their mark in the preceding 90 minutes will pass their requests to a press officer called Tommy. Born 27 years ago, he was named after the striker whose goal separated the teams the last time Dundee defeated Celtic at Dens Park.

There are probably several other Tommys of around that age who were born in Dundee at the time. While he didn’t stay long Coyne sealed a place in the hearts of one half of the city and irritated the other by scoring freely after crossing the great divide from Dundee United. “Thank you very much for Tommy Coyne!” Dundee fans sang at derbies, to the tune of the old Cadbury’s Roses ad.

There’s no getting away from it, it’s a long time ago now. And, for someone who once chronicled Coyne’s every move, more than a few frayed scrapbooks ago. So it’s a thrill to now be sitting opposite the man himself in a Glasgow restaurant. It’s unmistakably Tommy Coyne who rises to greet you even if he betrays evidence of a slight limp when he gets up from his seat.

A hip replacement several years ago means he does not even play fives now, nor does he go to the gym. Even so, he looks trim enough to still lead the line for Dundee, Celtic and any of the teams he once played for including, despite an accent by way of Govan, Republic of Ireland. He turned 52 on 14 November last year, the day Scotland hosted Ireland at Celtic Park in a vital European Championship qualifier.

It was a game you might have thought he would be desperate to attend, given his 22 caps for Ireland during days when Jack Charlton was reeling in players from all over with his elastic interpretation of eligibility rules. “I intended going,” says Coyne. “Then the closer it came I thought I am not sure I want to go. It meant getting tickets for me, my sons, maybe my dad too. That’s six tickets. It meant phoning up the FAI and saying I need six tickets. I don’t think so. They were only getting 2-3,000.”

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So he watched Scotland’s 1-0 victory at home. “I wanted Ireland to win,” says someone who travelled to Spain to support Scotland at the World Cup finals in 1982. “Scotland never gave me a game, so why would I want them to win? If Scotland are playing someone else I would want Scotland to win but if Scotland are playing Ireland, I’d want Ireland to win. I don’t think it would be right if I wanted Scotland to win.”

He is slightly more torn over his allegiance this weekend. Mitchell, his ten-year-old son, recently found the YouTube footage of his father scoring for Dundee past Celtic goalkeeper Alan Rough on 24 September, 1988. Remarkably, with the sides due to meet again in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup this weekend, it stands as Dundee’s last victory at Dens against Celtic (indeed, Dundee’s only ever victory over Celtic in the Scottish Cup was in 1894, before they’d even moved to Dens).

In truth, the strike isn’t one of his finest, though if you watch the move develop from the beginning, it says everything about Coyne the player. He chests a pass down inside his own half, sweeps the ball out wide, and then is there on the edge of the six-yard box to bundle in a cross from the left from Keith Wright, his old strike partner in a productive double-act dubbed the Cobra (Coyne) and the Mongoose (Wright).

“My son doesn’t want Dundee to beat Celtic again,” he says. “He said if Dundee win then that record is gone. I said I know but sometimes you want those records to go.

“He’s a Celtic fan but now he plays for St Mirren youths I have told him he must want St Mirren to win, even if they play Celtic. You have to. Tommy junior – he still looks for Dundee results, he was born in Ninewells. I’d probably like Dundee to win. It gives them a chance to go and win a trophy. Celtic will always win trophies. It is not often Dundee get the chance.”

Even given his links to Dens, this must be difficult for a Celtic fan to admit. Growing up on Broomloan Road, in a now demolished row of tenement houses in the shadow of Ibrox, his loyalty to Celtic was hard earned. He and his father, Tommy senior, were members of the Govan Brighton Celtic supporters’ club, based in an area known as “Wine Alley”.

“We used to go on the bus through to places like Dundee on the old road, through Auchterarder, places like that,” he remembers. “I watched Jocky Scott, who signed me for Dundee, in the ’70s when Dundee had a great team, and I’d be in the away end.” Despite his commitment to Celtic, Coyne was beguiled by football, whoever was playing it. “They used to open the gates at Ibrox with ten minutes to go and I’d get warned by my dad: ‘if I ever see you in watching that Rangers….’ But I’d go and watch. It was a game of football. I remember seeing Davie Cooper, who I played with briefly at Motherwell, tear them apart [for Clydebank] in a League Cup section game.

“I was never ever going to sign for Rangers because they did not allow it at the time,” he continues. “The school I went to [St Saviour’s] wasn’t far away – just at the back of Ibrox. I’d been asked a few times but when it became clear what school I went to it was dismissed. There were [Rangers] people looking. As soon as they found out I went to a Roman Catholic school they’d say: ‘it is out of my hands’.”

Dundee United had no such qualms. They wanted to sign him on S forms when he was 14, Jim McLean tempting him with the offer of £5 in his bank account each month, which he could withdraw when he turned 16. Coyne declined, preferring to wait instead for the expected interest from Celtic. While it did come – Celtic assistant manager Sean Fallon used to pick him up from home and take him to training – the chance to sign did not.

Disappointed, Coyne took an apprenticeship as a joiner, joined Clydebank and began his senior playing career playing up front alongside Bobby Williamson. “We worked for the same company in Glasgow – he was a bricklayer at Lafferty builders,” Coyne recalls.

United did not give up their pursuit although Coyne wonders whether having to spend £65,000 on a player he could have got for nothing turned McLean against him. He signed for United in 1983, just after their league win and in time for a European Cup run where he featured in the semi-final, coming on as substitute in the first-leg win over AS Roma, a matter of months after working as a joiner in draughty Glasgow tenements.

His inability to break into the team had less to do with prejudice on McLean’s part than the standard of player he had to displace, including Paul Sturrock and Davie Dodds. But McLean, angered that Coyne was not making a better fist of it, turned to a hypnotist to get to the bottom of things. “It was me and Ralph Milne who got it. Wee Jim obviously expected more from us.”

Coyne is unsure whether it worked: “I bumped into the guy later, he tried to claim the credit for winning me a move to Dundee!”

He made his Dundee debut in December 1986 and though the team struck six times that afternoon in a resounding win over St Mirren, Coyne did not feature on the score-sheet. Indeed, he did not score for several games. “Here we go, I thought,” he says with a smile.

He broke his duck against East Fife, kicking off a spell when he could not stop scoring, pitching him into a race with other continental stars for the European golden boot. In season 1987/88, when Coyne struck 24 league goals by Christmas, Dundee fans became unusually preoccupied with the Turkish league, where Galatasaray striker Tanju Colak was matching their player goal for goal, and eventually, drew clear of him, as did others. Coyne finished fourth in Europe on 33 goals but was still invited to Monaco to be presented with an award by Uefa.

He wanted to take Wright, whose selflessness he felt helped him excel. Strangely for someone who easily struck-up partnerships, Coyne is identified with one of the more memorable lone-striker shifts. Charlton described his contribution to Ireland’s victory over Italy at the USA 94 World Cup as “one of the bravest” performances he’d seen. The No 15 chased lost causes, harried defenders. In the run-up to fellow Glaswegian Ray Houghton’s winner, it is Coyne who pressurises Alessandro Costacurta into making a mistake. He ran and ran that afternoon in the New Jersey heat, making himself ill in the process.

Summing up the Ireland era of the time, Charlton offered Coyne the chance to rehydrate – with Guinness: “I was walking along the corridor and he stuck his head out the door of his room and said: ‘in you come Tommy’. He had a bar in his room, Guinness was flowing. He said sit down, have a drink. It was Jack, [assistant] Maurice Setters and me. I had a coke. But they were sitting drinking. It was the World Cup. I could have had a pint if I’d wanted.”

Coyne adored his time with Ireland, scoring on his debut v Switzerland and often side-lining more stellar names such as John Aldridge and Tony Cascarino, the £1 million misfit signing for Celtic who had ousted him from the team at Parkhead.

“I felt sorry for Tony,” says Coyne. “I don’t know whether the pressure got to him. [Liam] Brady brought him in and he wasn’t doing it. The manager kept sticking by him and when he took him off the fans were booing him and cheering me as I came on. That got the manager’s back up against me.

“Me coming on and them cheering me made me feel good but I think the manager was thinking: ‘I am the one who picks the team, you will not tell me what to do’. So he tried to get me away. I was always in and out and I needed to play. I had the chance to go to England and whether I should have gone or not... it just seemed I was languishing. I was not getting any younger.”

Even the manager who signed Coyne for Celtic, in a £500,000 deal from Dundee, jettisoned him. At the start of the 1990-91 season Billy McNeill exiled Coyne from the team until November, when a combination of injuries and poor form saw him forced to turn to the striker for a midweek clash with Motherwell. Coyne scored twice in a 2-1 victory. By the end of the season he was the highest scorer in the Premier Division, again.

“The majority of Celtic fans have a lot of regard for me,” Coyne says. “I think they realise that at the time the team wasn’t winning things. Had it been another era I would have been more successful. There is always going to be some fans who do not like you; there was an element who did not really take to me. But that happens to everyone. People can be like that.”

It says everything about Coyne’s character that he was able to recover from these football-associated knockbacks, just as he did after enduring the most tragic, cruellest blow of all when his wife Alison died in desperately sad circumstances during his time with Tranmere Rovers, shortly after the birth of Bradley, their third son.

“Football gave me a focus, I was fortunate in that respect,” he says, on the subject of raising three sons by himself prior to meeting wife Anita, with whom he has two more children – Mitchell and an eight-year old daughter, Stelli (four sons and then a daughter, Coyne notes, the direct opposite to his own parents, who had four daughters and then a son).

Coyne returned to Scotland with Motherwell, where he spent his longest spell with one club and where, arguably, he tasted most success, finishing second in the league in 1993/94 under Alex McLeish (he also topped the Scottish goal charts again, with a third different club – a unique achievement).

A storied career, but no winners’ medals, no golden boot? The modest Coyne just shrugs, as well he should. He has memories of swapping shirts with a veritable who’s who of world football in the 1990s, including Roberto Baggio, Ronald Koeman and Lothar Matthaus. “They are now lying in a bag,” he says. “Not in a frame or anything. My boys used to wear them to football training – that is what they are for. Now I am thinking what a waste, maybe I should sell them. They are no use whatsoever. It burdens everyone else, things hanging about to do with me.”