Obituary: Doug Smith, footballer and club chairman who had a 44-year association with Dundee United

Doug Smith
Doug Smith
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Born: 18 November, 1937, in Aberdeen. Died: 5 December, 2012, in Dundee, aged 75

Douglas Bryan Smith of Dundee United FC, always known as Doug or Dougie, never achieved the highest honours in football because he played centre-half at a time when the Scotland international side was blessed with numerous fine exponents in the No 5 jersey – Ron Yeats, Ian Ure, Billy McNeill and Ronnie McKinnon to name but four – and Jock Stein’s Celtic were the dominant force in the land.

Yet Smith achieved perhaps a finer form of recognition in the notoriously fickle sport of football. He won the lasting respect of everyone in the game, and he will be forever remembered for his feat of playing 628 competitive matches without receiving a caution. His 44-year association with Dundee United marks him out as one of the great “one club” men, and he served the Tannadice club with distinction as player, director, vice-chairman and chairman.

United’s flags are flying at half mast last week to mark the passing of a man who truly earned that much-used but often devalued epithet “club legend”. Tributes have been paid to him far and wide, both by players who were his contemporaries, and those who saw his work on the administration side of football. People in the sport often speak of a “football man”, and Smith was that to his boots.

As chance would have it, last weekend saw the Tayside derby between United and Dundee FC at the latter’s home, Dens Park. It says much for the nature of football in that city, and about the respect in which Smith was held, that the minute’s applause held for him before the match rang out from the home support as much as from the away fans.

Born in Aberdeen, Smith came from a family of four brothers, three of whom went on to play football at a senior level.

His brother Hugh played for Forfar Athletic, but the best-known of the trio was Dave, who began his career with Aberdeen before moving to Rangers, where he was a member of the side which won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1972.

As a teenager, Smith was a member of the Aberdeen Lads junior club where Ron Yeats was a star centre-half. Having played at right-half, Smith converted to centre-half and filled that position for the Lads after Yeats was signed by Dundee United.

After serving his time to become a fully-fledged painter and decorator, Smith followed Yeats to Tannadice but under manager Jerry Kerr, it was Yeats who was the regular first choice, despite being on national service – Smith made his debut in a midweek match in September, 1959, when Yeats was on duty.

When Yeats left for Liverpool to lead Bill Shankly’s great side of the 1960s, Smith made the No 5 jersey his own after the club had won promotion to the First Division in season 1960-61. He went on to play ten seasons almost without absence, missing just four matches in that time.

In the early 1960s, Dundee FC was enjoying its finest hour, winning the Scottish League Championship and reaching the semi-final of the European Cup. United, by contrast, were usually a mid-table side until they finished fourth in season 1965-66 and earned a place in European competition for the first time.

It is often forgotten that in 1966-67, the heroics of Celtic and Rangers in reaching the finals of Europe’s big two competitions were added to by Kilmarnock, semi-finalists in the Fairs Cities Cup, and Dundee United, who achieved the memorable distinction of beating Barcelona home and away, before losing on aggregate to Juventus.

Smith was always recognised as a solid, dependable player of exceptional fitness, and his career took a new direction in 
season 1970-71 – by which time he was club captain – when he was handed the task of taking penalties, a job which he relished. He had scored three goals for United before that season, and enjoyed scoring many more from the spot.

His reputation as the club’s “ever-present” took a knock, though, when he was injured and spent a couple of months on the sidelines.

There was still time for Smith to rally, and he led United to their first-ever Scottish Cup final in 1974, in which they were beaten 3–0 by Celtic.

Smith’s playing career began to wind down, and in January, 1976, midway through his 19th season, he played his last competitive game for the club, which awarded him a testimonial in recognition of his long service.

Smith had already decided on a post-match career in the licensed trade, and trained diligently before taking up the licence at the Athletic Bar on Strathmartine Road not far from Tannadice.

Visiting supporters often called in to this public house where the dignity of “mine host” ensured that decorum was maintained at all times.

In 1983, just as United were about to hit their greatest heights under manager Jim McLean, Smith was asked to 
become a director. He later served as vice-chairman under chairman McLean, and during that time he served on various committees for the Scottish Football League and Scottish Football Association before serving a term as president of the league in 1997.

Smith replaced McLean when he later resigned as chairman in 2001. Some troubled times followed for United as the club was put up for sale and McLean at first refused to sell his shareholding.

In 2002, Smith was the main victim of boardroom machinations which eventually saw the Thompson family take the helm at Tannadice.

Dignified to the end, Smith said after his ousting: “Thank you for all my time at Dundee United. I have enjoyed it immensely. I wish the club well in the future.”

He maintained some associations with the club. In 2008, he was one of the first group to be inducted into Dundee United’s Hall of Fame.

Doug Smith was predeceased by his wife, May. He is survived by his daughter Louise and son David, and by his brothers Hugh and Dave. His funeral will be held today at 11am at Dundee Parish Church (St Mary’s).

MARTIN HANNAN