Stephen Thompson on Dundee United’s family affair

Football clubs were once always thought to be the heartbeat of the community, so it is strange to visit Tannadice Park at nearly lunchtime in the middle of the week and be met by a sign that says reception closed, and to phone a number for assistance.

Dundee United chairman Stephen Thompson. Picture: SNS
Dundee United chairman Stephen Thompson. Picture: SNS

The Christmas decorations are up but no-one seems to be at home.

This sense of a club having been abandoned is not unique to Dundee United. Many whose training facilities lie elsewhere – in United’s case, they are across the longest road bridge in the country, and a few miles further on in St Andrews – can feel deserted. However, on a street with not one but two football clubs, you expect a hustle and bustle of football players coming and going, as well as reporters and office staff, and, perhaps, considering where we are, even the odd agent or two.

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This side of the street is home to the team of the moment after a run of form that means fans have become blasé. “So who are we scoring four against this week?” they ask (Ross County are the ones expected to feel the force of United’s young tyros this afternoon). Meanwhile, the recent changes at boardroom level have simply served to underline that United are a family business. So where is everyone? It isn’t quite a case of Stephen Thompson, the chairman and recently installed majority stakeholder, having to come down and answer the door himself. But it feels very different to how it once did.

Dundee United younster Ryan Gauld. Picture: SNS

Cost-cutting is one reason for the lack of bodies, as are advancements in technology. Because the players all eat at the training base in St Andrews, the kitchen has been closed at Tannadice, with the loss of staff – hence the shop-bought prawn sandwich which sits unopened on the desk Thompson sits at more rarely now. People can now work remotely, the chairman included. It is a long way from the days when his father, Eddie, used to be first and last out, at both United and the Morning Noon and Night grocery business he sold in 2004 in order to save the financially ailing club.

The fifth anniversary of his death passed in October. Perhaps the sense that sufficient time has passed was a motivation behind the boardroom re-jigging and transferring of the shares held by Cath Thompson, Stephen’s mother and the late Eddie’s wife and now honorary president of the club. Stephen now holds 52 per cent, while sister Justine Mitchell’s stake has been upped to around 34 per cent. Stephen concedes these moves were sparked by the need for a cash injection due to the “peaks and troughs” of life running a football club. Once all the money from the sale of Johnny Russell to Derby County is in, the debt at United will stand at £4 million, including overdrafts. It peaked at £7 million a few years ago. However, he wants to point something out: “We are under absolutely no pressure to sell in January”.

This pronouncement will hearten supporters, whose enjoyment of the present is tempered by the constant worry of players leaving before United have been able to fully benefit from the likes of Ryan Gauld and Stuart Armstrong on the pitch. While cheering news, the recent flurry of contract extensions only increases these fears. Are their deals being extended in order to inflate their worth, the footballing equivalent of turkeys being fattened up for Christmas?

“Every club is a selling club. What we don’t want to do is sell them below market value,” stresses Thompson. “And getting them on the right contract is important as well. There is no chance any of them will leave for less than a million. In fact, we would be looking for a lot more than that.”

United accepted a bid of £700,000 from Sunderland for John Souttar from earlier in the season, but this transaction was aborted. In a refreshing development, the centre-half decided to stay and continue to learn his trade under United’s impressive young manager Jackie McNamara, while surrounded by other tender-aged talents, and, just as importantly, his friends.

“I spoke to Jackie about it yesterday and told him I do not want to sell anyone in January – unless it is an exceptional offer, whatever an exceptional offer may be,” adds Thompson. “You will know when you get it. But £500,000, £600,000, £700,000? Not interested.”

“The ownership of the club has changed, the financial outlook has changed,” he adds. “The way the club is going, a whole load of things have changed. But John chose not to go [to Sunderland] and I am glad he chose not to go. You keep forgetting he has only just turned 17. His younger brother is playing for the under-20s – and he is only 15. There’s no rush. It’s been annoying recently. We are building a team here. People have been quick to tell us what to do. Everyone under the sun is telling us what to do. Someone made a comment about being a stepping stone to Old Firm and we are sitting third in the league!

“They are in a great environment. The three young ones – [Andrew] Robertson, Gauld and Souttar – are more interested in getting a flat together, learning to cook and playing football than they are moving. They are in a great environment, with great facilities at St Andrews.

“There is a lot going on that is positive. But we have not won anything, we have not achieved anything yet,” continues Thompson.

You wonder whether the contract extensions – many of them until 2016 – mean next season could be the crucial one for the club. The chairman does not rule out this season. “There is still a 
Scottish Cup to be won.” he says.

“But then you are relying on a ball that might hit the post – that’s the nature of sport,” he adds. “At Morning Noon and Night you could predict to the nearest £100 every week what you would make – it was a steady business.”

Football, of course, is a lot harder to predict, which brings us on to another subject, one that you might expect to bring Thompson a great deal of satisfaction. Peter Houston’s departure as manager was predicated, on his belief that United’s results could only suffer if he was expected to rely so heavily on young players. Houston vacated the chair and McNamara arrived, at much less expense, although there was a long-running issue surrounding the compensation fee with Partick Thistle, his former club. McNamara has succeeded in proving that United can prosper with kids. Thompson, however, resists any urge to gloat.

“When you look back at Peter’s record in the history books it is the second best at the club,” he says. “I will say nothing about what happened. The club has moved on, we have all moved on. You just hope you get the right appointment, ask the right questions. I get on really well with Jackie – he has a different way of doing things, life coaches, dietitians and the like.”

So now Thompson is speaking as the owner of United rather than just chairman, is there any difference? “I suppose it gives you a bit of an extra edge,” he says. “Although as chairman I ran the club as it was supposed to be run, or tried to anyway. But when you run the club as majority shareholder the buck stops with you ultimately. My mother has stepped down from the board. And, of course, my sister has come on to the board.”

It is Justine’s re-emergence that is the most intriguing aspect of the recent changes. She had been lined up to play a central role at United. At a press conference in early 2008 to announce that then manager Craig Levein had also taken on the director of football role, Eddie Thompson, while seeking to put affairs at the club in order, made it clear that his daughter could well end up succeeding him as chairperson.

Described as a “tough cookie” by Eddie then, she needed to be far more resourceful than anyone in their worst nightmare could have imagined, when, in the space of just three days in October 2008, she lost her husband and then father. Ken, with whom she had a young son, Monty, was killed in a motorbike accident while Justine was driving just in front.

Eddie then died after a long battle with cancer days later and the resultant grieving process understandably altered her plans to play a more active role in the club. Stephen stepped in and has 
sufficient self-awareness to recall how it was perceived at the time. He was cast as the son who was only where he was because of an inherited entitlement, whose qualities shone with a lower-wattage bulb compared to those of his larger-than-life father.

“People don’t think that now,” he says. “You have to prove yourself, which is fair enough. But it was tough at times, no doubt.”

Thompson provides a fascinating insight into the difficulties involved while charting a course between maintaining good familial relations with a sibling – in this case, Justine – while also ensuring the needs of the business are met. It wasn’t always easy, he admits. Originally he had planned to take all the shares held by his mother and put more money into the club.

“But then Justine said she wanted to get involved so that was fine,” he explains. “Families and business is always difficult. You have the emotional side of it but you have to think of the business as well. When dad bought the club he wanted over 50 per cent so he had control. It is the same argument for me.”

“I was quite clear that a football club needs clear leadership,” he adds. “As parents, you want to treat your kids equally, and mum wanted that [when re-distributing her shares]. But my view is, dual ownership would be a disaster for the club, we would never get anything done. I was trying to explain why. Someone has to make a final decision. Everything is fine now.”

The future might not be completely feminine, but it will be heavily influenced by both Justine and his mother, who still goes to every match home and away. “There was something on TV earlier in the week saying it will be another 20 years before women have equality in the boardroom, and football is worse than anywhere I would have thought,” says Thompson.

“Justine will bring a lot,” he adds. “There was one or two issues before it was concluded but you expected that as we were both fighting our own corners to get what we believed was right. She has a lot of ideas, and she is getting up to speed on everything. She runs her own [spa] business, and she will help on the commercial side. We do not have a big management team.”

Interestingly, Stephen is the only director who lives in Dundee. Justine is based in Edinburgh, and two others, Mike Martin and Derek Robertson, are in Dalkeith and Dunfermline respectively. It is to his credit that he is happy to remain a visible presence in the city. “Someone even stopped me for a photograph last week,” he suddenly exclaims, wide-eyed at the ridiculous nature of such a request. It hasn’t always been so easy, and this is before the brickbats rained down after United’s perceived part in Rangers’ SPL exclusion, and an argument over ticket prices after a game was abandoned.

“We did not win a home game from August until the end of January this year. That was hard,” he says. “You start to think: ‘what am I going to do here?’ In saying that, it had been a fairly successful six, seven years, since Craig [Levein] came in. Even when my father came in at the start we were avoiding relegation. That’s the real pressure.”

Eddie’s early days as owner were indeed stressful. Some of his early decisions were informed by the news, broken to him shortly after he took control of the club, that he had cancer. “My father, to be fair, threw a bit of money at players he knows he probably should not have done under Ian McCall,” says Stephen. “At the back of his mind he knew he had cancer and he didn’t know how long he had left, whether it was two, three or five years.

Although not as considerable as Justine’s challenges, Stephen also had his own private struggles in the weeks following his father’s death. “Two weeks after my dad passed away, and the death of Ken, who was my best friend, I was in the Court of Session getting a divorce,” he recalls. “And, of course, I took on being chairman.”

Now remarried, Thompson has a young son, Ben, to complement the two children from his first marriage. They are all following in recent family tradition of following United – a tradition that began with Eddie’s relocation to Dundee from the west in the mid-1960s, when he transferred his loyalties from Motherwell to Dundee United. At four (the age when Stephen became a fan), Ben recently attended his first away game, which happened to be at Motherwell. “What was the score again?” wonders Thompson. He takes a not-unreasonable guess: “Four-something, I think!

“Most people know that Motherwell were my dad’s first team. There is something – a rattle-type, thing – from my granddad in the boardroom there so I was giving him a wee history lesson.

“My grandfather actually died while at a Motherwell match long before I was born,” he adds.

Of course, the great regret is that Eddie Thompson did not live to see what many describe as some of the best football at Tannadice since the 1980s. “My mum will never get over it [his death],” says Stephen. “Even winning the [Scottish] Cup in 2010 seems like an eternity ago for me. So much happens in football. Sitting on the SPL board and now the SPFL board, there was lot to deal with – a league merger, administrations.”

“I think dad would be surprised how relatively well things have gone in recent years. My father thought no-one could do it like he could do it. That was the way he was in business. I have a bit of that too.”

“I said to mum just the other day that dad would love nothing more than to see the way the team are playing now, particularly with a lot of them coming through as young kids. Because of the football, he is not really forgotten. They still chant his name now and again, and his pictures are up around the club. You always feel his presence.”

As for his son, there are always rumours circulating the city that with the club returning to a more even financial keel, Stephen might be looking for a way out, although these seem to have been put to bed with the recent boardroom announcements. “Where I will be in another five years?” he wonders. “Probably still sitting here. And with less hair, if that’s possible.”