AFTER a painful break-up, most people go to any lengths possible to avoid bumping into their ex. Few schedule two emotive meetings in a week.
It’s certainly not the way Robert Douglas would have scripted it but football fate could often be mistaken for a sadistic sense of humour and on Tuesday the former Dundee stalwart will return to the scene of one of the acrimonious splits of last season.
The last time he was in that arena he had a lump in his throat as he waved his farewells and soaked up the adulation of the Dens Park fans, well aware that he would never again play for club he has served on more than 300 occasions.
His departure had been swift, the differences which prompted it irreconcilable. A massive falling-out with new manager John Brown had seen Douglas ostracised at Dens Park, his character called into question in an explosive newspaper interview and the ramifications are still rumbling on.
It could certainly be considered an influence in the fact that such an experienced goalkeeper was not bombarded with offers over the summer, in fact, there was barely a tickle until Forfar came in with the offer of player/goalkeeping coach. For a 41-year-old who had been desperate to prolong his on-field career for at least another season, it would also explain why there is still residual bitterness and no real desire to forgive and forget.
With Darren Hill being Dick Campbell’s preferred starter for Forfar at the moment, Douglas will watch Tuesday’s match from the technical area and he insists there will be no cordial handshake before or after the match with Brown.
“After what he said about me in the paper? Would you shake hands with him if he said that about you? I’m principle-driven so why should I do something I don’t believe in? I think I have played for something like 26 managers in my career and there’s only one manager I have had a problem with. All I asked was to be treated with a bit of respect and dignity and I didn’t even get that. That’s the sad part. It was incredibly hard to take but I don’t really want to go into that in depth at the moment because there are still issues regarding it which have some mileage in them but it was one of the hardest things to take in my football career, considering what I had given to Dundee over the two periods.”
There were also two periods of administration and through it all Douglas developed a lot of close bonds with supporters and staff at the ground. Those were the people bombarding him with messages the minute the cup draws were made.
“Not just in one cup but two, you wouldn’t have got a bet on that!” says Douglas, shaking his head. First up is the Ramsdens Cup on Tuesday. Seven days later, and it’s the League Cup which offers the platform. “As soon as the first draw came out, I started getting texts straight away and it wasn’t ’til later on that I realised we had them in the second one as well. But Dundee fans I’m friends with or players and staff I stay in touch with, were all texting and it will be a strange one, going back there.
“There are so many nice people at Dundee, in the office, in the kit room or the kitchen, the groundsman, lots of people who have become part of my life.” Part of the highs and lows.
Now he has a new focus. Fairly adamant he isn’t cut out for the skulduggery he says is part and parcel of life in management, after what he describes as the “torture” of training at a local gym as he saw out last season on his own, he is relishing being part of a squad again and while admitting that he was never sure he would ever have envisaged going down to the third tier, he says the professionalism of part-time Forfar has impressed him and given him a boost, even if he would rather still be playing.
“I know I’m not going to play forever but we played Morton last year in the Scottish Cup and I made a couple of saves and they were one of the top clubs in the First Division so I was convinced I could play at that level for another couple of years, but it has not materialised. That could be down to certain things which have been said but I will keep my head down and get on with it and hopefully make myself a better goalie coach and help Darren become a better goalie and if Dick wants me to play, who knows, you never know what’s round the corner.”
The “we” he refers to is Dundee, and old habits die hard. This is a man who wept when staff were laid off due to administration and a man who struggled to choke back the emotion as he took to the field for his farewell half-time lap last season.
“For some reason, no matter what – win or lose, home or away – I had an amazing rapport with Dundee fans. I don’t know if that’s because I had the chance to go on a Bosman and didn’t, or because I always wore my heart on my sleeve, stuck with them through the tough times, played when I was injured, whatever it was, that was me and what you see is what you get.
“It was incredibly hard to go out there and I will always be grateful to [Dundee’s 1962 league-winning goalkeeper] Pat Liney for coming on the pitch with me when I went on to say my goodbyes to the fans because I wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own.
“My father-in-law had got me a signed Pat Liney print as a 40th birthday present and Pat wrote ‘to my hero’ so to have him there with me meant a lot. Even last year he had told me to keep playing and that meant a lot from a guy who specifically watches goalies. He has tremendous experience and knows what he is talking about. I’m ten away from 600 senior appearances and I still want to get there, I still want to play, but we will have to see. At the moment I’m helping Darren.”
And he would love to see him get a clean sheet in the upcoming midweek fixtures. “It will be strange going back on Tuesday. Really strange, but, that’s football, I suppose.”
Part of the old guard signed up by Dick Campbell this summer, he joins the likes of Marvin Andrews and Darren Dods in the veteran camp. In the dug-out he says he is still catching and kicking every ball, while on the training ground he is looking for ways to improve as a coach while still hoping to catch the eye and a starting berth.
“It’s about trying to find that extra one or two per cent, about always trying to improve. But, to be honest, the priority is Forfar getting to the play-offs, trying to enjoy a wee run in the cups and, potentially, winning the league and if that means me working to help Darren keep the clean sheets that help us do that, then that’s what I will do.”
And, having survived last season’s travails, football hasn’t finished doling out moments for him to treasure.
On Wednesday he was at Wembley representing Scotland in the half-time penalty shoot-out. “For me that was another mission accomplished. They can put that on my gravestone now! I didn’t claim it was in a game and I have to admit the fan did have his trainers on! But I can say I saved a penalty for Scotland at Wembley.”