Not merely a wonder of our football, but a wonder of our country. That’s what I think of Dundee and Dundee United living on top of each other, their grounds separated by just 200 yards. But now one of the spouses wants out of the marriage and it’s truly tragic.
If you like averting your eyes from the thud and blunder of the games to gawp at the architecture of the grounds – and I do – then both Dens Park and Tannadice have their interesting aspects and quirks. But the biggest quirk is that 200 yards – a distance which the greatest-ever athlete, Usain Bolt, could run before you’d have chewed a mouthful of Dundonian “peh” the requisite number of times before swallowing. If schoolboys in Lima and Karachi know anything about Scottish football it will be one of these three things and hopefully all of them: Arbroath 36, Bon Accord 0 is a world-record score; the league comprises Celtic, Rangers and a few other clubs; two of these other clubs can be found on the same bus route, are served by the same bin-lorry crew and, not very long ago, the sweet smell of jute carried on the breeze from the mills would reach them simultaneously.
But the proximity of Dundee and Dundee United to each other is more than just a fancy-that fact. Personally, I think it’s art. I was about to call it situationist art though apparently the term doesn’t really emphasise situations, locations, addresses and the ability – aided by that same wind – to hoof a ball from the centre-circle of one park into the middle of the other. Shows what I know, but it’s still art.
Now, though, Dundee want to move. Flit from Dens to a new home three miles west. Presumably the club hope the setting of a country park will open up bright vistas. They insist that Dens has outlived its usefulness and that producing “21st century entertainment in a 19th century building” is no longer feasible. But has what they will lose been factored into this equation?
Dundee and Dundee United are like conjoined twins. They are who they are because of that 200 yards. The characters of both clubs are defined by the hugger-mugger dynamic. If one was suddenly unable to gaze across the street at the other anymore, they would feel a pang.
They might not comprehend it but they would suffer it. Sure, the fans shout and scream at each other and when Dundee had the chance last season to relegate United, their fans turned up dressed as ghouls carrying cardboard coffins. Vanquishment duly achieved, it was cheered right into Dens’ rickety rafters. But United were only leaving the top division. Supporters of both clubs could continue being publicly irritated but secretly comforted by the fact the sworn enemy were still plying their trade in the usual place.
Dundonians believe they have a big, bad rivalry like any other in football but there’s something endearing about this one because the clubs live cheek by jowl, and something comical, too. Panto jokes too numerous to mention and too corny to repeat have been told about those 200 yards. Oh, that William McGonagall had lived to see football establish itself on a hill above the silvery Tay.
If Dundee and Dundee United were a comedy double-act, which would it be? Maybe Mutt and Jeff whose get-rich-quick wheezes in a strip-cartoon date from the first major trophy being carried into the city, Dundee’s Scottish Cup of 1910, the same year United were voted into the league. Or Laurel and Hardy, with one always lording it over the other, or Steptoe and Son, with one always trying to leave the other. Or – this will annoy both tribes – how about Fran and Anna?
Seriously, I’m envious of them and wish my team lived next door to the mob I pretend to hate. As a boy attending my first match in the city – at Dens – I made my father walk me round the inactive Tannadice just before kick-off. Football tourists from all over the world must do the same on their pilgrimages.
The dream date for any fans seeking the unique, never-to-be-repeated experience of a football fiesta spread across the colosseums was 18 February, 1968. Both hosted Scottish Cup ties on a thrilling two-peh afternoon begun with 11 goals at Tannadice then moving on to Dens. What a Lowry-esque scene that must have been with Sandeman Street thronging with four sets of supporters. I wish I could have been there but must make do with the match programmes, bought on eBay.
Dens thrums with history – more so than that other place, the Dark Blues’ cognoscenti would claim. The main stand, after all, was designed by Archibald Leitch, the master football architect. But, according stadium expert Simon Inglis, it is remarkable that the ground should have ended up being built on the same street as a team started by Irish immigrants – United previously being known as Dundee Hibernian. Even though Dundee, the city, was “much less defined or blighted” by sectarianism than Glasgow or Edinburgh, Inglis – author of the book Engineering Archie – calls Dens’ positioning “an extraordinary quirk of fate”.
That the clubs have managed to tolerate each other for so long will make the break-up even sadder. I hope the fans – on both sides of the street – will do all they can to resist it. I hope Relate will get involved. Meanwhile I’m looking forward to Sunday and my next trip to Dens via the Forth Bridge, which is one of the lesser wonders of Scotland.