Interview: Billy Dodds on why '˜Dick Advocaat taught me nothing'

I thought the award for '¨football mimicry had been won in perpetuity by Neale Cooper. No one was going to entertain The Saturday Interview as much as the late, great Don with his impression of Sir Alex Ferguson. But Billy Dodds has just run him close.
Billy Dodds, back working as a pundit for BBC Scotland, is happily settled in Inverness. Picture: John DevlinBilly Dodds, back working as a pundit for BBC Scotland, is happily settled in Inverness. Picture: John Devlin
Billy Dodds, back working as a pundit for BBC Scotland, is happily settled in Inverness. Picture: John Devlin

We’re in Inverness, which the much-travelled ex-goalgrabber now calls home, and we’re talking about his good friend Neil McCann. At Rangers the pair were room-mates: two diminutive Scots jumping up and down at the back of a dressing-room full of big, sexy 
foreign stars, hoping to catch Dick Advocaat’s eye and make the team.

“Wee Neil and I learned to swear in Dutch, mainly because we were on the receiving end of Dick’s abuse so many times,” laughs Dodds. “‘Godverdomme’ means ‘For christ’s sake’, as in ‘Godverdomme, Dodds’ and ‘Godverdomme, McCann’. Another popular one was ‘Klootzak’ – ‘Arsehole,’ basically.” Doddsy does the Little General’s voice and he does his jumpy gesturing.

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Scots were close to being outnumbered by Dutchmen during Advocaat’s Ibrox reign back at the turn of the century. There was Bert Konterman (“He was great”) and Arthur Numan (“A brilliant guy”) and Ronald de Boer, with whom Dodds had a training-ground contretemps. “He shoved me so I booted him up the arse. If you didn’t stand up to Ronald he’d totally overpower you. But that seemed to clear the air and we ended up golfing together.”

The bust-up paled, however, next to one involving Andrei Kanchelskis and another Dutchman, Fernando Ricksen. “It’s terrible what’s happened to Fernando,” says Dodds of the player suffering from motor neurone disease, “but me and him were always at it. ‘You Scots are trying to kill me,’ he used to say. Fernando liked to catch you late. He did this to Andrei, the meekest guy, who turned round and said: ‘Fernando, I’m your team-mate, why are you kicking me?’ He did it again. Andrei said he was being cowardly. There was a big fight and Dick sent Andrei from the training-ground. The rest of us were unhappy about that. There was a bit of a revolt. Fernando had to go, too, we said.”

Finally, Bert van Lingen was Advocaat’s No 2 and the target of some Dodds/McCann pranking on a winter shutdown trip to Florida. “We trained hard and Dick let us go out for a few drinks. It got a bit silly later when Neil and I grabbed Bert’s training kit lying outside his room, ripped it up and chucked it down the hall. Bert was doing his dinger: ‘Who did this? I know it was Dodds. I know it was McCann.’ Now, I don’t get hangovers but Neil’s never been a big drinker and the next day after training he was really suffering. Back then I called him Terry after Terry McCann in Minder and I told him: ‘You need to get something doon ye, Terry – here’s an Aero.’ I got back on the bus and when he eventually appeared I knew he’d completely spewed his ring. His eyes were popping and his face was all bloodshot. His head looked like an atlas. ‘Ya wee bastard,’ he said, ‘what did you give me chocolate for?’ We still laugh about that Aero now.”

McCann may be feeling nauseous today. He may be reaching for the Dutch dictionary of expletives. His Dundee team are bottom of the Premiership and pointless. If they lose again away to Hamilton Accies the pressure on the manager will crank up some more and might become intolerable.

Dodds, 49, feels for his old club and for his pal. And of course he knows what it’s like to be sacked only a few games into a season, having lost his job at Ross County in abrupt circumstances 12 months ago. He says: “I know what Neil is like. He’s so strong-minded and that’s a good thing. But he’s got the hardest task right now. Managing from the bottom of the league is the toughest and he needs his players behind him.

“I’m not saying he’s lost them but he needs them to produce a performance. Something has to happen in a game, like they need to score. That might sound simplistic but I’ve seen Dundee a few times in this run and they’ve created chances only to miss them, then conceded the worst kind of goals, and I think that’s taken Neil aback.”

Dodds was No 2 to Jim McIntyre, the pair being dismissed by Staggies’ supremo Roy MacGregor after five defeats in a row. When Dodds offers his take on their record – the “miracle” of keeping the club in the top flight in their first season in charge, achieving sixth and League Cup glory in the second and surpassing that in the third by dragging County off the bottom – it’s obvious that he feels the axe was harsh. “Those five defeats came against the top five and then Roy got rid of us. I know he regrets that now.” Dodds would return to management with McIntyre if the right opportunity came along, but currently he’s back doing punditry on Sportsound where our man has always seemed the owner of the phrase: “He put his laces through it.”

Football-wise, the Highlands may have brought him some disappointment but the love of a good woman, his partner Lorraine, has persuaded him to stay on in the region. He laughs as he remembers his earliest excursions for Radio Scotland, Chick Young at the wheel. “Whenever we got held up on the A9, which was often, Chick would shout: ‘Bloody caravans – they should be banned!’” He says that having spent so much of his football life on the east coast – Dundee, St Johnstone, Aberdeen, Dundee United, then after Rangers back to Tannadice – folk still assume he’s from there. But this is an Ayrshire coal miner’s son, a New Cumnock man and proud of it. His career, goals everywhere he went, might have finished in France, only for a mooted move to fall through. “Just think: they might have called me the boy from Nouveau Cumnock. Ah well … ”

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Pre-Maggie Thatcher and the pit closures, New Cumnock had a population of around 7,000 and, according to one of its most famous sons, was “a thriving wee place”. Now it’s less than half that figure and, although the wooden house where he was born has gone, his parents Jim and Barbara still live in the village. Barbara was also the name of his sister, killed in a road crash in 1997.

“I don’t remember all my games but I’ll never forget that Aberdeen played Hibs at Pittodrie and I scored a penalty the day I learned Barbara was on her deathbed.” The accident happened near the family home, Barbara’s car colliding with a council truck. Dodds was rushed away after the final whistle and found his mum with a broken sternum and his sister on a life-support machine. She died five days later.

“Barbara was five years older than me and used to boss me about. I wish she was still doing that now,” he adds, eyes moistening, but then he smiles. “She was the same as me with the OCD. I like everything to be just so, shirts in my wardrobe in a nice neat row. But don’t worry I’m not psycho about it like the guy in the movie Sleeping with the Enemy. Barbara had just got herself a new place for her and her sons, Ian and Colin, after the break-up of her marriage and had done it up lovely. She’d actually brought the boys up to Aberdeen just before she died, which probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and I’m telling you these are five days I will always treasure.

“I often think her death was a Sliding Doors moment for me. I wasn’t a bad guy before and nor do I think I would have got into trouble if I’d gone along another route, but the route I did take definitely made me grow up. It made a man out of me. I had a lot of responsibilities in the aftermath. Me and my dad had to identify the body. I’d never seen him cry before but he did that day. I had to organise the funeral, Barbara’s estate. And I had to look out for the boys.

“They’ve both grown up well. Colin’s in a rock band called Vukovi. I saw them play Inverness a while back and they’re really good. You see, the Dodds have always been musical. My dad and Auntie Ruby were a wee duet who never quite got a break. My own daughter Eva taught herself guitar and has just gone off to uni to study music. Me, I’m a no’ bad chanter.”

Dodds, who also has a son, Cameron, from his marriage, reckons his new-found resolve after Barbara’s death brought him his move to boyhood heroes Rangers in 1999. “Barbara followed my career and I wish she could have seen me get to Ibrox and play for Scotland.” Big sis missed his best goal, an audacious lob for Rangers against Sturm Graz in the Champions League in 2000 which he often recalls, although there’s another one he likes, a bit more obscure.

“It was for Scotland against Bosnia on a paddy field in Sarajevo [1999, Euros qualifier] and no one remembers because the game was on Channel 5 although [manager] Craig Brown still talks about it. I picked up the ball just inside their half, most unlike me, and decided: ‘I’m gonnae run.’ Terry McCann out wide was screaming for a pass. I kept going, beat their big guy Muhamed Konjic who played for Coventry, kept going. ‘This isnae me!’ I was telling myself and Terry was still screaming when, 20 yards out, I hit this golf shot, left foot as well, and it went in like a missle.”

Dodds would win 26 caps, all of them under Brown. The national tour of duty began with the phantom game in Estonia and would include beating Germany, stumbling to a draw with the Faroe Islands and those agonising encounters with England in 1999 and Belgium 2001 when the prospect of Euros then World Cup qualification was dangled in front of us only to be snatched away.

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Back in his Ayrshire village, the young Dodds seemed at one stage to be headed for the Scotland basketball team and maybe another likely lad at Cumnock Academy, Craig Burley, would have been chasing slam dunks with him. Then he was headed for the local sock factory and a job alongside his mum when Ian McNeill, Chelsea’s Scottish assistant manager, was showing boss John Neal round some local fields of dreamers and a strike from the 16-year-old Doddsy where the laces had very definitely been put through it encouraged them to take the lad to Stamford Bridge.

Despite a number of Scots on Chelsea’s books, and him sharing digs with fellow recruit Burley, Dodds didn’t settle in London, finding the Big Smoke “scary”, and couldn’t force his way into the team. A loan spell at Partick Thistle alerted Scottish clubs to his talents as a penalty-box pest, in the opposition’s eyes at least, buzzing and skulking and ready to benefit from their inattentiveness and sclaffs.

Dundee fancied a piece of that and in a rollercoaster spell in the finest Dens tradition, he began amassing a goals tally which by the end would stand at 222 and presumably satisfied his fetish for neatness and order.

The whippersnapper up front was well protected by such tough customers as Jim Duffy, Alan Dinnie and Steve Pittman. “Teams hated playing against us because they knew they would be in for a right battle. That side reminds me of this Livingston team who, funnily enough, have Steve’s son Scott playing for them.”

Next for Dodds were St Johnstone, managed by Paul Sturrock, who became his father-figure in football, both in Perth and later at Dundee United. “He understood me, not that I took much understanding. He just let me play. But I’ll never forget something he said after one of my best games for United, a win over Celtic for the first time in ages when I scored with a lob. I popped my head round the door to say cheerio and Luggy went: ‘Aye, no’ bad the day, but you’re still the skitter on my little toe.’”

Dodds strike rate was impressive given his clubs always seemed to be struggling. “There was the notorious year [1994] when I left Dundee and they got relegated, joined St Johnstone who themselves went down then went to Aberdeen who got stuck at the bottom. I was Jonah, a jinx.” The Dons escaped the drop and his fortunes there improved to the extent of a League Cup triumph. But he reckons he failed Willie Miller and never really hit it off with Alex Miller. Then came Rangers.

What a brilliant, maddening three years they were. He had the time of his life playing for his favourites and hated being benched. He went on hot streaks of goals but couldn’t stay in the team. He won a clean sweep of domestic honours and yet this remark, for which Dodds revives his Advocaat impression, seems to sum up his Light Blue experience: “Billy, I like you as a person, not as a player.”

Dodds was bought as cover for Michael Mols. Rangers had a glitzy frontline even before £12 million Tore Andre Flo arrived and Dodds knew he’d have to really shine to impress the manager, and that’s what he thought he was doing, not least at the start of his first full season when his goals got the team through a sticky Champions League qualifier and out of tight spots against St Johnstone and Kilmarnock, only for Advocaat to leave him among the subs for that Sturm Graz game. “I was like: ‘You are kidding me. I’ve hung around for you, you’re under the pump and I’ve probably kept you in a job.’ I was raging.”

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Not even wonder goals like the one that night could keep Dodds in the side. “I was lucky in my career,” he says. “From Gordon Wallace at Dundee onwards, I had guys who were proper coaches, but Dick was a money man and, honestly, I learned nothing from him. He didn’t teach me a thing.” Doddsy laughs and there’s time for one more take-off: “Dick had moved upstairs to become director of football and one day he was on that shelf at Ibrox when he shouted: ‘Hey, Dodds, I see your new X5, yes. This is what I do for you!’ I shouted back: ‘You could get a car like that with one contract but it took me 20 years.’ Then I picked up a ball and booted it at him. ‘You’re crazy, Dodds, a f*****g crazy guy. Godverdomme!’”