In A week when the Dandy has transferred from printed to online page, there is something comforting about Dundee’s Dens Park being host to an old-fashioned, rumbustious derby clash tomorrow afternoon.
Possibly illustrating how over-familiarity is killing the Scottish game, the meeting – the first competitive fixture between the sides at the ground since a relegation tussle in 2005 – had very nearly sold-out yesterday, with the remaining tickets all expected to go today.
The interest in the fixture is one reason why Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell, present at the latest round of reconstruction talks at Hampden Park on Thursday night, turned to Scot Gardiner, his opposite number at Dundee, and expressed his admiration.
“You know, you really have a proper football club there,” he told Gardiner, following a discussion about attendances. Dundee currently lie sixth in the crowds table for this season, with home fixtures against United, Celtic and Aberdeen to come before the end of the year. Not bad considering they are currently planted at the bottom of the only table that will matter come the end of the season.
Whether or not Dundee’s latest visit to the Scottish Premier League will be a prolonged one might rest to some extent on the outcome of tomorrow’s match.
Another dispiriting defeat like the one meted out at Tannadice by United in August certainly won’t help Dundee’s chances of staying up, although prospects do now look brighter than then, when many observers were startled by just how far short of their rivals Barry Smith’s side looked.
A period of improved form has helped Dundee avoid the misery of being completely detached by Christmas and has further whetted the appetite ahead of tomorrow. That said, even the pre-season friendly between the teams was watched by more than 11,000 fans, which means that by the end of this weekend, 35,000 tickets will have changed hands for the three derbies played since July.
At a time when Scottish football is trying so hard to fathom how to fill stadiums on a regular basis – and remember, this match is being broadcast live on television as well – Gardiner ponders the reasons for such high excitement. He identifies what he describes as a “different feel” to this particular cross-city fixture, as opposed to those in towns and cities elsewhere.
“I am not trying to do any other games down, but here, fans from both sides will be getting out of the same taxi, meeting up in the same pubs,” he says. “Also, it seems to matter more to the actual city. In other derbies, you don’t have taxi drivers and the like saying ‘this is good for the whole city’ so much. There seems to be an acute realisation that this game benefits the whole town, and is something to cherish and show some civic pride about.”
After Celtic’s progress to the last 16 in the Champions League on Wednesday night, another sold-out match would provide the Scottish game with a further fillip. Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, will be among those taking in the sights and sounds tomorrow, returning to the stadium where he made his Celtic debut 12 years ago this month.
The old ground will be filled to the rafters. At no time will the applause be more vigorous than when those in attendance are asked to salute the life of Doug Smith, the long-time United servant who died this week, aged 75. Smith is redolent of another era, one when it was possible to play more than 600 times for a single club and not be booked. Both teams will also wear black armbands to mark the passing of someone who wore the No.5 jersey with distinction for 15 years at United, and then went on to serve the club as chairman.
At half-time, other old heroes will be saluted. To mark the 60th anniversary of Dundee becoming the first side to retain the League Cup, the old trophy itself will make an appearance, having been fetched from Govan. The cup is on tour this weekend and will first stop in at Ibrox as Rangers mark their 140th anniversary at today’s game against Stirling Albion.
When returned to Dens, the League Cup will join two surviving members of the team, Doug Cowie and Jimmy Toner, in being paraded in front of the supporters. Of course, there is something here for the 4,000 United fans present too; after all, it was 32 years ago last Thursday when their side won the same trophy for the first time, against Dundee – and at Dens Park.
For Dundee, it is a fond reminder of a time when their team reached three successive Hampden finals, with a run to the final of the Scottish Cup in 1952, where they lost to Motherwell in front of more than 130,000 spectators, book-ended by the League Cup triumphs.
“It is an achievement which is often forgotten or overshadowed by Dundee’s Scottish League championship win in 1962,” writes Kenny Ross in Dundee’s Hampden Heroes, a recently published book celebrating the club’s League Cup wins.
“When I first set eyes my eyes on Dens Park, the grass was in the process of being cut,” recalls Cowie in the foreword. “The groundsman was cutting the grass diagonally and it looked a picture. With the help of the shining sun, the whole picture was complete.”
According to Gardiner, the same stadium was “completely buzzing” yesterday. The need for the Dundee players to train on their own pitch this week due to the frost-bound state of parks elsewhere provides derby weekend with a further old-time quality, as will the sight of the United squad walking up the road to the game from Tannadice, their kit bags in hand.