IT IS not such a new phenomenon in England, where there are as many as five top-flight clubs owned by American investors. But in Scotland, as Tim Keyes accepts, involvement from across the Atlantic prompts one question: Why?
It isn’t, however, a completely novel concept, not even with specific regard to Dundee. Indeed, the last time a North American voice was heard in the Dundee boardroom, it belonged to Ron Dixon, the flamboyant Canadian who is supposed to have bought the Dens Park club on a whim in the early 1990s when he saw the then owner’s Rolls Royce parked outside the stadium.
But that ended badly, with Dundee suffering from the eventual neglect of an absentee landlord. This was the worry of older fans when Keyes became involved at their club. Because the Texan-based, Wisconsin-raised businessman is a rare visitor to these shores, it has remained a worry, particularly since Dundee fans voted to let the consortium he is part of, Football Partners Scotland (FPS), buy a controlling interest in the club two years ago this week.
So it seems a good time to sit down with Keyes, the remarkably youthful looking 46-year-old who, it is hard to avoid saying, holds the key to Dundee’s future.
It is also well-timed because little more than 12 hours earlier, Keyes was helping erase concerns he has no real feeling for the club by leaping to his feet with around 3,500 others to applaud James McPake’s late, late equaliser in another absorbing Dundee derby.
This perhaps conveyed as much as words could about his reasons for sticking around and his pledge, made again yesterday, to stick around a whole while longer.
“I am a huge football fan,” he said, as he sat in the Dens Park boardroom in a training top with a large DFC badge stitched on the breast.
“This club has become literally and figuratively my club – or our club with my partners. Just to see us succeed means everything. I grew up a big fan not of Scottish football, but of football in America. I was brought up in Wisconsin so the Green Bay Packers were my team growing up. “I was passionate about them as a kid – I was a season- ticket holder and went to all the games. Since we have taken over Dundee, the level of commitment, passion and anxiety I now have for Dundee far exceeds anything I had ever in the States. Now to own a club and to be here and experience and see games like yesterday, that is the reward more than anything.
“I am always a fan first, that is the way I grew up. Find your team to support and love. There is one crucial difference to when he was a kid at Green Bay Packers games. There is a bit more anxiety because you are writing cheques at the end of the day,” he smiled.
So who exactly is Keyes, the man in whom local interest became even more intense when he succeeded Bill Colvin as Dens Park chairman earlier this summer? And will he carry on writing the cheques?
What he is not, for one thing, is a complete football – or soccer – ingénue, as many possibly feared. He played the game from when he was “four or five years old” and reached the relative heights at Stanford University, where he played with and against those who went on to form the core of the United States World Cup squads in 1990 and 1994, including Tab Ramos and Kasey Keller.
“At the time I was there – the late 1980s – is about as high as could go in American soccer,” he explained. “The MLS was not around. If you were really, really good you could maybe go and play in Europe but not many people did then.”
He described himself as more a “Thommo”, referencing Dundee skipper and holding midfielder Kevin Thomson, than a Gary Harkins-type flair player. The Dundee fans just hope he is as safe a pair of hands as goalkeeper Scott Bain, whose late save from Dundee United striker Simon Murray manager Paul Hartley described as “world class” on Tuesday.
They have been given every reason to believe Keyes is someone on whom they can depend so far. He has asked to be judged on their work to date. He and John Nelms, another American who is the Dundee-based director of football operations, have overseen both a Championship title win and then a top-six success last season on Dundee’s return to the Premiership.
“In a couple of weeks, we will have owned the club for two years,” he said. “I think we have done a good job over two years. We are not perfect. We will never be perfect. But I think the club has come a long way in two years. I hope the fans see that and I am sure they do. Winning the league and then top six, we have done pretty well so far.”
The Dundee business model is not reliant on turning a profit. So long as the club breaks even, Keyes is content.
He and his father, James, the other figure in Keyes Capital, rely on other businesses to keep the family firm in clover, selling everything from medical products to IT software. They also own land in Arizona and Texas, as well as developments in South Carolina.
“It’s family money, we can put it wherever we want,” said Keyes. “We are here [at Dundee] for the long term. That is how we run most of our businesses in the US. Because we are a family office and do not have for the most part outside money, a lot of our businesses we plan to own for ten to 15 to 20 years – whether it is a football club here or a company in the US.
“That is the way we operate – for the long term. We are not here to turn a quick profit and flip it. We are not in it to make money,” he added.
“We are not in it to lose money. But we are not in it to take a profit and go back home. If we did sell a player, the money will be ploughed back into the club.”
After Tuesday, the sale of players has become a more pertinent question. Keyes noted that “eight, nine, ten scouts” were sitting behind him at the derby, likely interested in star performers Greg Stewart and Bain, among others.
“Obviously the better we play, the more they will be looking at our players,” Keyes said, content to accept this has to be the modus operandi for clubs like Dundee, where it is pleasing to report the penny – or should it be cent – seems finally to have dropped.