In the cynical, money obsessed world of football, it’s pleasing to know some honour still exists. When Stephen Dobbie left Queen of the South nine years ago to begin the second act of a fascinating career he assured chairman David Rae it wasn’t goodbye forever.
Being a farmer, Rae likely feared what Queens would get back, providing Dobbie was even good enough to keep his promise. A striker fit for the knacker’s yard? Dobbie has trashed such a notion.
This adopted son of Dumfries looks lean and remains hungry for goals; 20 already this season, including his 100th for the club in two spells, struck two days before Christmas Day in a 3-2 defeat by St Mirren.
Now 35, he claims he is fitter than ever. Those who remember him in his chunkier Hibs days, or perhaps at St Johnstone, where he says he tipped the scales at 14 st, might register a little surprise at this transformation.
“Even when I show my kids photos of me playing when I was at Hibs they are like: ‘Dad, look how fat you were then!’” he says. “It makes me laugh. When you have kids [Dobbie has two sons, Jack and Maxwell, with wife Susanne] you eat how you want them to eat. Also extra training, before and after training. I look after myself more. Sunday is a family day instead of when you didn’t have kids and you would be out on Saturday night having a few beers. It’s just the way of life really.
“I was living at home in Glasgow when I was at Hibs, travelling through with Tam McManus – he was a good laugh. We got on really well. He was a bit crazy. Going to work every day at Hibs, there were all these team-mates your age – now these days I am old and there’s all these young players. We had good, more experienced players as well like Grant Brebner, who was excellent and I think very underrated. And Colin Murdock came in and did well, Gary Smith – a really good group.”
But what distinguished Hibs was the crop of talented youngsters who emerged at the time. The phenomenon is illustrated in a photograph from the time following a League Cup semi-final victory over Rangers at Hampden in 2004 – Dobbie came on to score the equaliser 11 minutes from time, Hibs then triumphed on penalties. This new breed – Dobbie, Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Steven Whittaker, Garry O’Connor and Derek Riordan – were captured celebrating the moment Frank de Boer struck the post with his sudden-death effort.
In its portrayal of hyper, sinew-straining emotion, delirious floodlit figures breaking away from the centre-circle, the photograph is hard to beat. It’s also poignant; while each member enjoyed successful careers, the gang was quickly broken up. It was a flickering moment in time. Dobbie, for one, left the following year, frustrated at the failure to break into the first team under Tony Mowbray, who succeeded Bobby Williamson. He admits he was hindered by his own unwillingness to live life as an athlete should. But he wasn’t alone there.
“The ability was there it was just getting the off-field stuff right,” he says. “At the time there was an influx of kids coming through. They all went on to do great things. I ended up going down the way while they were going up the way. What is going to be for you is going to be. Maybe if I had done the right stuff then I might not have had the success I have.
“You live and learn,” he adds. “When the penny finally drops you have to take your chance. Luckily I played in good teams and I did my work.”
Relishing playing nearly every minute of every game, he’s reaping the benefit now. “The amount of players I see sitting around and not being involved and they are happy,” he laments. “It is a short career. The amount of players like Derek [Riordan] and Garry [O’Connor] who do not play anymore and they could be… Sitting about watching other people play is the worst, like I was doing at Bolton [Wanderers].”
Riordan and O’Connor are especially galling cases of too much, too young. “Different people, different lives,” says Dobbie. “They had so much when they were young. Everyone deals with it their own way. I dealt with the start of my career wrong. When you are 60, 70 years old, you might look back and wonder: ‘could I have done it better?’ Everyone will wonder that. But I do not regret it because it might not have turned out this way. It is just one of those things.”
Despite his adventures, and misadventures, planning this interview confirms Dobbie retains the same mobile number from those Hibs days. He has been with Susanne since school. There might have been some excess in his youth but there’s dependability running through his core, one reason why he’s still going strong.
Dobbie is preparing to sign a new contract with Queens in the coming days, with his current one set to expire this summer. Riordan, who at least scored over 100 goals in the top flight during three spells at Hibs, is now out of action, whereabouts unconfirmed. O’Connor, meanwhile, last played senior football nearly four years ago at Morton. Glory days, they’ll pass you by.
Except, in the case of Dobbie, they didn’t. It’s just he had to drop down further before coming back up. Dumbarton, where Dobbie played on loan in Scotland’s bottom tier, were a handy reference point for sports writers wishing to emphasise the striker’s swinging fortunes. His penultimate game for the club, in front of 400 at Montrose, contrasted vividly with the 90,000 who saw him help Blackpool triumph in what’s commonly described as world football’s richest game – the Championship play-off final.
He did it again the following year, this time scoring for Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea as they took the step up to the top flight, where they remain – for now.
Journalists tended to present it as an overnight success story. But there was nearly four years between Dumbarton and his first Wembley play-off experience. Dobbie credits Ian McCall, who first signed him for Queen of the South, with turning his career around, while also saluting Dumbarton’s part in the process. “They were the catapult back up to where I wanted to be,” he says.
As for McCall, “he impressed to me I could make a career out of this”. Perhaps McCall, a talented player whose self-discipline was often questioned, saw Dobbie threatening to make the same mistakes he did.
“If it wasn’t for him or Queens I might not have done what I have done,” says Dobbie. “That’s why I always said, when I am nearing the end, I will come back and play for Queens. If you look at my career, going back to Blackpool a number of times, when you have success at a club and you love playing for the club and have an affiliation with the fans, then that is half the battle won coming into work every day.”
Dobbie resolved to get fit, shed weight and score goals; 20 and more in each of his first three full seasons at Palmerston Park. Dundee United and Motherwell vied to sign him. But then he heard of interest from Swansea, where Graeme Jones, the former Hamilton Accies assistant manager, was now assisting Roberto Martinez.
“So I was like, OK let’s see what happens and luckily the team went on a good run, I scored something like seven in four games near the end of the season, and that was it done,” he recalls. “It was a surprise. But I could not turn that down.”
It was bargain of the century as far as Swansea were concerned. But again, success was not immediate. A loan period at Blackpool, under Ian Holloway, truly ignited his career. He was Charlie Adam’s accomplice at Wembley as the Seasiders completed their incredible ascent to the to the Premier League against Cardiff City in 2010, having struck a vital goal in the semi-final.
Has Scotland produced a better, more natural goalscorer this millennium? Kris Boyd might be one but then he struggled outwith Scotland. There are possibly more similarities with Ross McCormack. Like Dobbie, he is a proven goalscorer in England’s second tier. Yet the gulf in their respective net worth is startling – McCormack has gone for fees totalling £23 million, while Dobbie’s overall transfer sum is in the region of £1.5m.
“Ross played for Rangers and Scotland, when you have that mantle it adds to your value,” explains Dobbie, who started his career at Ibrox but never played for the first team. “He has done great for himself over his career. I was £700,000 to Brighton and then around the same again to Palace. When times have come around I have just seen out my contract and then if I was moving on, would move on then. Apart from at Brighton I have never really pushed to get out of anywhere.”
He was a victim of his own success in many ways. Each time he played a significant part in helping a club reach the Promised Land, he contributed to filling their coffers, thereby allowing them to buy higher profile, if not necessarily higher quality, strikers. It happened at Swansea, where Rodgers brought in Wayne Routledge and Danny Graham, and then at Crystal Palace, where Ian Holloway, despite being a firm fan of Dobbie, was unable to accommodate the Scot in his Premier League squad of 25 players. He only ever played nine times in the English top flight, just twice from the start – once for Swansea, once for Palace.
“To this day I have a great relationship with Ian [Holloway],” shrugs Dobbie. “At the time you want to be involved. I mean what can you do – sit and be in a huff? It was an international break and I was back in Scotland. He phoned and said: Listen the chairman is trying to get players X, Y and Z in and if he does what it meant for me. I was not happy at the time but once it is done is it done. There is no point grumbling about it. It was hard to take because I had helped the club get there but after a couple of days you just get on with it.”
Dobbie tends to excel under intense, perhaps slightly eccentric figures; McCall, Holloway, Rodgers. Under the last named at Swansea he enjoyed his best ever season; 11 goals in 48 appearances in a slightly more withdrawn No 10 role en route to the Premier League in 2010-11. “Brendan was obsessive. He never shouted at half-time, but when his notepad came out his jacket, and if he came to you first, you knew you were in trouble. He normally liked to work from back to front in his half-time talk.”
Holloway was less earnest. “He would come in in the morning and look outside and say: ‘Nah we are not training today boys. C’mon we will go bowling’. Or he will take us to a country park and the next thing you know he is on a speedboat going across the loch.”
The grounds of a David Lloyd centre in Hamilton, where Queens train, offer fewer opportunities for such frolics. Dobbie’s family is still based in Lytham St Annes, where former Scotland skipper Colin Hendry lives “round the corner” and fans of Blackpool regularly stop to reminisce about the good times.
But his heart lies just a two-hour drive away in Dumfries, the surprising place where someone who grew up in Balornock, north Glasgow, has found a spiritual home. He lies fifth in Queen of the South’s all-time list of leading scorers.
While Jim Patterson’s haul of 251 goals is unlikely ever to be beaten, Dobbie is eyeing overhauling three legends directly above him – Andy Thomson, current team-mate Derek Lyle and Bobby Black, who’s in second place on 120 goals. At the time of writing, and prior to this afternoon’s trip to Livingston, Dobbie sits on 101 goals. It’s not so much finishing playing he fears, rather no longer feeling the thrill of scoring.
“At Rangers in the afternoons I would go out without a goalie and put two poles two feet away from each goalpost and work on my finishing,” he recalls. “I work with a few young boys here [at Queens] and I make sure I tell them not to blast it. I tell them to try to put it in the corner because more times than not you can curl it away from the goalie instead of giving them a chance by smashing it.
“Through my career you will not see many of my goals being blasted – a good Scottish word for it,” he says. It’s true, perhaps the pick of the bunch – though he prefers a Scottish Cup strike against Dundee ten years ago – being a deft flick over the goalkeeper’s head against Brighton while at Swansea.
“The goalie slid out to me – why not try it?” he says. “More often than not when you have no time to think you just do it, with often better results. I always try and side foot it or curl it. I have worked on it throughout my career. I am 35 and still doing the same. And if it’s not broken…”