Obituary: Dick Donnelly, Dundee’s ‘Voice of Football’

Dick Donnelly, goalkeeper, journalist and the voice of football on Tayside. Picture: Contributed
Dick Donnelly, goalkeeper, journalist and the voice of football on Tayside. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 11 September, 1941 in Dundee. Died: 21 July 2016, in Balmullo, aged 74.

If something happened in Dundee’s football orbit and Dick Donnelly did not know about it, then it was not worth knowing.

Donnelly, who has died aged 74, was the voice of football in the city from the early 1970s. He was already a newspaper man – this remained his preferred calling – when his unmistakable, nasal tones entered public consciousness in the 1980s as Dundee United began to make their name in Europe and commercial radio became established.

Donnelly joined Radio Tay at its inception. The station first aired in 1980, which was timely. Dundee United were shortly to become a force in Europe and Donnelly chronicled such adventures as a first-leg victory over AS Roma in the European Cup semi-final in 1984.

He would often commentate from technologically challenging eastern European outposts before engaging with his innumerable newspaper tasks following the completion of his radio duties. Inserts from Donnelly were also broadcast by other commercial stations such as Radio Clyde, meaning his voice became familiar to football fans across Scotland.

Those high-flying occasions covering United in Europe tended to demand high-octane commentary of the kind Donnelly was more than capable of providing. He honed the art as a schoolboy describing what was happening at football games he attended with his father, who was blind.

He was a better radio summariser than tipster: Dick’s Donkey, when he predicted a winner from a race later in the day, was a staple of his morning bulletins on Radio Tay. Once, while in Northern Ireland to cover a game, and having forgotten to check the race card, he was asked on air for his tip – panicked, he picked up a local paper near him, turned to the race pages and chose the first horse his eyes fell upon.

Unfortunately, the paper was a day old. He thus became known as the only tipster to pick a winner from the day before – and still get it wrong.

Such tales fly in the face of the popular portrayal of Donnelly as Dundee’s Rev I M Jolly. It is unlikely Donnelly ever actually uttered the phrase he became so associated with: “It’s a dour, dreich day at Dens Park.”

Donnelly was equally at home at Dens Park, home of Dundee, as Tannadice Park, United’s ground. The presence of two teams made the city an attractive proposition for a freelance journalist, which Donnelly became after spells at the Scottish Sunday Express and Scottish Daily News.

Names from what seems like another age now – such as the Daily Record’s dapper, chain-smoking Dundee correspondent Wallace Moore, and Donnelly – would go back and forth, day upon day, picking up the latest goings on at Tannadice and Dens Park and relaying them to readers.

But the convenience of neighbouring grounds in the city was off-set by a significant hurdle for journalists in this era: Jim McLean. Few sports writers working on the Tayside patch between the early 1970s and mid-1990s escaped a ban from Tannadice for writing or saying something considered unhelpful or critical by the long-serving Dundee United manager; indeed, it was a badge of honour.

Even someone as well-liked and affable as Donnelly was not spared McLean’s legendary irascibility. Donnelly suffered several bans, which came at severe personal financial cost given the number of newspapers he serviced.

Possibly McLean felt paranoid under Donnelly’s educated gaze, for Donnelly himself played professional football as goalkeeper for East Fife between 1960 and 1964, playing over 100 games.

George Dewar, a former East Fife teammate, remembers Donnelly, who he described as “remarkably agile”, shouting out instructions with a loud Dundonian voice that would later become so easily identifiable to radio listeners.

Donnelly not only distinguished himself as a good goalkeeper at East Fife. Later, having joined Brechin City, he became a goalscoring one. Having injured his collar-bone, and in the days before substitutes, Donnelly was put out of harm’s way on the wing, yet scored with a header.

Donnelly also excelled at cricket for Dundee High School FPs. Donnelly had himself attended Harris Academy, in the city’s west end, where he grew up.

It is impossible to engage in informed conversation about football in Dundee in the last 40 years, and certainly not the reporting of it, without mention of Donnelly. Any story from Donnelly – or “Charles Richard” as he was sometimes bylined on account of his first two names – carried a River Tay watermark of authenticity.

While, like so many in the industry, he started at DC Thomson, it was not, in the first instance, as a sports journalist. He served his time as a hot metal worker, before being invited to try his hand at football reporting by the Courier’s Tommy Gallacher, another former senior footballer who had played for Dundee.

For someone so associated with football in Dundee, who was born and raised in the city before moving to settle in the Fife village of Balmullo, it said everything about Donnelly’s even-handedness and professionalism that even those who knew him well found it hard to say which club he grew up favouring. It was Dundee United, for what it’s worth, which made him unique in his own family – wife Margaret, son Ian and daughter Gillian all support Dundee. His children teased their father about playing a couple of reserve matches for Dundee at Dens Park.

But at Dundee crematorium today, representatives from both clubs, and beyond, will gather to pay their respects to a broadcasting and journalistic colossus, as will many friends and colleagues.

And if it’s a dour, dreich day, no-one will mind. In a way it will seem somehow appropriate.