BACK in the summer when the fixtures were published, those who complain about the play-each-other-four-times predictability of the Scottish Premier League were forced to admit that the 2012-13 list had caused a tingle of excitement.
Who were “Club 12”? Were they a football team or an international spy organisation possibly with links to that cult 1960s TV series with the “I am not a number” catchphrase, The Prisoner? Then all was revealed: they were Dundee, managed by Barry Smith.
Barry who? Come now, don’t be so condescending. He’s been to hell and back with the Dee, having survived two spells of administration, and he’s been to Albania and back with them as well. It’s your obsession with the top flight, the rarefied heights of football which attracts (just) five-figure crowds, that’s to blame for your ignorance here. Well, that and the fact Smith flies so low under the radar.
As politely as possible, I ask if he’s turned up at an SPL ground with his team and gone almost unnoticed. Not deliberately, but simply as a result of him being this shy and retiring. “It’s possible,” he says. “Maybe someone at another club has walked right past me. If it’s happened, I’m not going to take offence because I’ll almost certainly have been heid doon, thinking about the game. That’s me generally. I’m not a guy for the big entrance. I don’t want to be noticed.”
True to his word, he enters Dens Park looking like the man who’s come to service the boiler rather than the manager. I’m studying a photograph of the 1962 championship-winning team as he approaches in a Harrington jacket, jeans and trainers. In his office above his desk there’s a montage of images of Bobby Cox, the captain of that great side. The jacket stays on throughout and Smith shifts in his chair, as if he’s still trying it out for size. Disconcertingly, the chair is very squeaky. But Dundee, 2012-13’s surprise mystery guests, may just be finding their feet in the SPL.
Beating Hearts and a draw at Fir Park has clawed them to within four points of second-bottom St Mirren. Today they entertain the SPL’s surprise mystery leaders, Hibs. This should be Smith’s day off but he’s got footage of the opposition to study after we’re done talking and there are intricate drawings of the Hibees’ corner-kick routines on the desk. Corners are the responsibility of Leigh Griffiths, formerly of this parish of course, and his old boss is full of praise for the SPL’s current top scorer.
“Leigh did very well when he was here and the great wee spell he’s having right now reminds me of just before he signed for Wolves. Everything he hits is going in. Now I hope he won’t mind me saying this but he’s so left-footed it’s incredible. I’ve seen him take on shots with his right and clear the stand. But look at that [right-footed] finish [against Dundee Utd] last weekend – fantastic.
“I hope he won’t mind me saying this either: he’s one of those boys who just needs loved. He’s off the cuff and he’s got his faults but he needs someone like a father-figure to give him a bit of guidance.” That’s now the job of Pat Fenlon – is Smith surprised at how well Hibs have been doing this season? “I think Pat needed time to see a plan start to bear some fruit, just like Craig Brown at Aberdeen. Look at both these clubs now. But time is something we managers don’t often get.
“I’m going to need time, too. We weren’t meant to be here although we’re not using that as an excuse: we want to stay. The last two results have been good but we’re not getting carried away. The players were giving me everything before when they couldn’t get a win. The only difference is they’ve been coming back to training on the Monday with smiles on their faces, which is nice, but we know that most folk still expect us to go straight back down. That, by the way, is brilliant motivation to prove them wrong.”
Smith is 38 and a Paisley buddy who’s finest achievement to date is the 23-match unbeaten run two seasons ago which steered Dundee out of administration the second time. Something I didn’t realise until playing back my tape, he sounds a bit like Kenny Dalglish. Even without the vocal similarities, he likes to underplay and dampen down, usually with a quizzical expression and occasionally a contrary remark. For instance, if you bring up the name of Brian Laudrup, don’t expect an embellished, self-mocking, after dinner-style anecdote about his Celtic debut when he was terrorised by the Rangers wing wizard. He was subbed at half-time and pressmen had no option but to dust down the “twisted blood” cliche.
“Brian Laudrup’s a great player, simple as that,” he says tersely. Silly question – how did he feel afterwards? “If you’re not playing well you’re not happy with your performance. But he did that to far better players than me.” Smith is quietly persuasive about this, however, and soon you’re asking yourself why the great Dane chose to coast in the SPL for so many years. “He never did that to me again,” adds our man, and then comes a dry punchline worthy of Kenny: “That is, I never played against him again!”
Presumably that day, from somewhere in the Celtic ranks, there were comforting words for the full-back. He says not, and this surprised him. But all experiences are useful as the young boss works out his management style, not least the bad ones. “I take a lot of time with the kids here, tell them they’ll have off days and try to reassure them.”
He’s learned from all his managers. In some instances it was how not to do the job, although he’s reluctant to criticise. “That was their way, doesn’t mean it’s wrong, just that it doesn’t suit me.” I throw a few names at him and almost right away, with Lou Macari, we hit a snag. “I’m not going to talk about that time. It wasn’t great but to be honest I’m not sure how much of that was down to Lou. Celtic weren’t in a good way.”
Then, at the mention of another of his Parkhead bosses, he smiles. “Tommy Burns was a good guy. When he spoke you listened. But he was very humble about what he’d achieved in the game. I’d like to think I’ve borrowed a bit of that from him. He knew how to treat players correctly and I think as a manager it’s these guys who make you.”
It was Jim Duffy who brought him to Dundee in 1995, the beginning of a long association encompassing the roles of captain, stalwart, link to the old country when the club went fancy-continental, and now manager. It was Smith who hit a post in the 2003 Scottish Cup final before Lorenzo Amoruso and Rangers dashed the dream – “I still don’t know what I was doing that far up the park,” he quips. His quiet but strong presence has been vital in times of financial meltdown and points-docking.
He’s grateful to Duffy for all of this, and he does mean all. “If there’s a hard or mad way to do things, Dundee will find it, but I love this club.” And there were no regrets about leaving Parkhead. “I wasn’t getting a game so there was no point staying. Jim said to me: ‘Come and play here.’ I didn’t look back. When you leave one of the Old Firm your mentality’s got to be right and you can’t feel sorry for yourself. Loads of guys have gone onto nothing. But I was determined to do well here, make a good career.”
John “Cowboy” McCormack was an excellent motivator and from Jocky Scott Smith has nicked useful training techniques. But what of the Bonetti era, madder than most? Under the Dangerous Brothers, Ivano and Dario, one expensively-cologned superstar after another swanked into Dens, demanding bigger gasps of amazement each time, until finally Claudio Caniggia showed up. To make way for 12 foreign signings, 27 home-grown players were shipped out, but Smith survived. What did he learn that can be transferred to this incarnation of Dundee at a time of such uncertainty in the game and where it’s on-loan Colin Nish up front?
Again, he tries to be diplomatic. He’s still relatively new to management so, really, what does he know? Well, he does know some things. There’s a sustained burst of chair squeaks before he says he’ll talk about that time as long as it can be stressed that he’s glad of the experience, that he had no gripes with the Bonettis, that a lot of the memories are to be cherished.
“I never ever thought that me, a wee boy from Paisley, would get to turn out alongside guys who’d played in World Cups. I can still see Caniggia in our dressing room, enjoying his wee smoke. There were the others, the Ravanellis, the Caballeros and the Carranzas. Georgi Nemsadze had the most ability of any player I’ve seen – more tricks even than Jackie Jackinowski at Celtic – but Caniggia was special in other ways. He was the only one of the foreign stars who took time to speak to the young lads. He was an Argentinian god; he didn’t have to do that. I was tremendously impressed.
“Those years were incredible and strange. There were two dressing-rooms, a foreign one and a Scottish one: Steven Tweed, Gavin Rae, Jamie Langfield and me. That just caused problems. On a pre-season trip to Italy, the foreign guys got to meet up with their families; we didn’t. At Dens the translator was trying to run a pizza business out of the stadium. For our home games we’d spend the previous night in a big, expensive hotel, the St Andrews Bay, so when the opposition were Dunfermline, we’d have to travel further. It seemed that money was no object. We all got given robes. Coming from Paisley, I’d never worn one before. Scots guys are used to walking straight out of the showers in the scud. But, no no, we had to put on these robes ...
“And yet I wanted to be there. The team played some fantastic football. It was just so sad there was a downside, with the club going into administration the first time and people losing their jobs. Both times it’s happened to Dundee there have been innocent victims. I’ve been here long enough that I know everyone. When the cleaning lady is suddenly told her time’s up through no fault of her own that’s horrible. I hope I never have to witness that again.”
In Smith’s modest office there’s modest recognition of how Dundee were suddenly spirited into the top flight in the form of two “Congratulations” cards and they sit atop a modest fridge containing a few bottles of beer. To reach here, the road and the miles he’s travelled have involved some bumpy detours, and I don’t just mean across the street to Tannadice. As well as the prized passport stamp for Albania – for the Dark Blues’ Uefa Cup victory over FC Vllaznia – he’s played football in Iceland. “I didn’t really get used to having shark for tea,” he says, “and it was weird playing in the summer when the sun never sets and it’s light enough for a midnight golf league. But I love the people, their innocence, and every year I go back to Valur to see my old pals.”
As a player Smith was never a star but up close he glimpsed fabulous skills. He’s even more impressed, though, by the humility of footballers, on the occasions when it reveals itself. “I was a great friend of Bobby Cox, such an unassuming guy, and since his death Pat Liney is the only one from the ’62 team who can get along to our games. After that 23-match run to save ourselves, he said we’d done more for the club than the championship-winning team, that ours was the greater achievement. I’m not sure I believe that but it was incredibly humbling to hear that.”
What would be the old-timer’s tribute if the SPL’s great interlopers were to somehow stay up? Their determinedly unshowy manager won’t speculate but the very least that should happen is the prompt delivery of a chair which doesn’t squeak.