The story is apocryphal and Archie Knox neither denies nor confirms it. But it is recalled by some that on his first day as manager of Dundee, Knox walked into the dressing room, hung up his coat and challenged those who wanted to question his authority to have it out with him there and then.
“I can’t remember that!” the man himself, now 68, says. “But I think I knew in the early days there needed to be a lot of ‘we need get our finger out here’ finger-wagging sort of stuff.”
Whether true or not, it is very easy to imagine it happening since it sums up his passionate, no-shirking-permitted approach to coaching which is illustrated by another incident, one Knox is able to verify this time.
He once stopped a half-hearted training session at Manchester United and ordered the players to come back in the afternoon, and then again in evening if they hadn’t improved their attitude. The likes of Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes looked at this intense farmer’s son from the Angus village of Tealing, realised he wasn’t joking and wisely chose to toe the line.
So, too, did those less gifted players at Dundee in December 1983.
On the last day of the previous league season Dundee had suffered the ignominy of Dundee United claiming their first league title at Dens Park, further confirming the shift in the axis of power in the city.
Knox knew what was happening. Indeed, as one of Jim McLean’s first tranche of signings, which also included the likes of Frank Kopel, he was there for the start of the then fledgling manager’s Tannadice revolution.
Like McLean, Knox became known as being someone with whom you did not take liberties. Like McLean, he was driven, adopting the same discipline throughout his football career that saw him rise in the early hours of the morning, sometimes as early as 3am, to help his father on the farm.
It was hardly surprising that McLean should be drawn to such a work ethic. Combined with this were the midfield talents that saw Knox move from Forfar Athletic to St Mirren. But Knox remained based in Dundee, where he had a job as a building surveyor. “Jim’s brother Willie was assistant manager at St Mirren, and I used to go into Dens Park, when Jim was at Dundee, at lunchtime,” he recalls. “Jim would take me for extra training. I think it was to keep himself fit as much as anything. He used to do the running with me.”
On being appointed manager of Dundee United in 1971 McLean quickly tied up Knox’s signing, for the princely sum of £2,500. “I was happy to come back,” says Knox. “I was going to Paisley two nights a week for training. I used to get the mail train back and get back at 1am and then you are in at work at eight in the morning.”
It didn’t seem strange for a Dundee supporter, one who missed only one game home and away in Dundee’s championship season of 1961-62, to sign for United. After all, Knox had also gone to watch United, including their first win over Barcelona at Tannadice in 1966. “You supported both teams to an extent,” he says. Although then a player at United he was all too aware of the likely cost to Dundee when they were relegated in the first season of the newly-formed Premier League in 1976. That, combined with McLean’s arrival at Tannadice, “changed everything”.
The top tier was cut to ten clubs and Dundee chose the wrong time to finish ninth after a string of fifth-placed finishes in previous seasons. Knox, sidelined by the pelvic injury that ended his playing career, was at Ibrox watching when Dundee United, who finished eighth, secured a 0-0 draw against a demotivated Rangers side that had won the treble four days earlier.
The result sealed Dundee’s fate and was especially agonising since they had to wait for the rearranged fixture to be played after completing their own league schedule the previous Saturday. Knox agrees the scenario where one city team went down and the other survived on a matter of goal difference changed the course of football history in the city.
“It was a hell of a blow when Dundee went down because it took a long, long time for them to get over it,” he says. Some might contend they are still recovering. Knox himself helped as much as anyone to stabilise the club in the 1980s with such astute purchases from the lower divisions as Bobby Connor from Ayr United and John Brown from Hamilton Accies. He was lured south from Aberdeen, where he had moved on from being player-manager at Forfar Athletic to become Alex Ferguson’s assistant. Shortly after winning the European Cup-Winners’ Cup with the Pittodrie club, he was offered the Dens Park manager’s post.
“Having been a supporter of course I was interested. I was up in Aberdeen and I thought ‘it’s time I had a go at doing this managerial lark myself’. After the ’86 World Cup Alex then asked me if I would go back up to Aberdeen again. I thought ‘you have to stay ahead of the game in this job’. I honestly missed the bits of success we had in Aberdeen even though I enjoyed Dundee.
“I signed John Brown, Robert Connor and people like that. But you always knew, because we had lost the likes of Iain Ferguson and Cammy Fraser before that, that if you had someone who was worth money then they’d be sold on. At the end of the day it is the manager who pays the price.”
Since returning to be Ferguson’s assistant at Pittodrie, Knox hasn’t worked as a manager in his own right again. But he remains comfortable with his decisions. Dundee continued to make life difficult for managers by selling players, while he ended up at Manchester United.
“I remember Alex turning up, I was out training with the guys in the afternoon. My mother had been ill and I thought ‘oh he’s got bad news for me here’. I ran up to him and his very words were: ‘We are going to Manchester United’. Oh aye?! When’s that? ‘Tonight!’
“Alex went on: ‘You will be offered the job here, what do you want to do?’ I knew I could not replicate the success he had at Aberdeen so I went with him.”
For all the good fortune that has come his way as trusted confidant of not only Ferguson but also Walter Smith, one moment will forever vex Knox. It occurred during Dundee United’s first major final, the Scottish Cup final in 1974 against Celtic.
“I missed a sitter that day,” he says. “It still haunts me. You were looking at a team with [Billy] McNeill and [Kenny] Dalglish so we were up against it and ended up losing 3-0. But it could have been an equaliser!” United went on to lift major honours, and will do so again in the future, perhaps even this season. But more critical is survival, something Knox knows only too well from Dundee’s post-1976 slump.
“I hope they get out of the predicament,” he says. “There’s no question this game is the most important in a long line of derbies. I honestly think it will end up a draw because there is so much at stake for both teams and they will be desperate not to lose. If United can still be in striking distance in the last five games they still have a chance.”