Interview: Christian Dailly on the science of football and family

Former Dundee United, Derby, Blackburn, West Ham, Rangers and Scotland player Christian Dailly. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Former Dundee United, Derby, Blackburn, West Ham, Rangers and Scotland player Christian Dailly. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
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Christian Dailly is struggling to define himself. It used to be easy. “When I was a footballer, I was just a footballer, that was it,” he says. But now, he wonders, what is he?

This isn’t the troubling confession, heard a million times, from those who’ve failed to find a place in the world since retiring from football.

Rather, it’s just the breezy admission he’s at a loss to sum up precisely what he’s doing now, since what he’s doing feels fresh and revelatory, taking in such fields as ecological dynamics – a theory focusing on the performer-environment relationship.

The fruits of his research could be coming to a football or athletics club, or any other place where the focus is sporting endeavour, near you soon.

Always a superb athlete, Dailly never ran with the crowd. He now has a first class honours degree in sports science for starters. It isn’t often you hear the word “pedagogy” fall from a former footballer’s mouth. The definition – for those, like me, who are unsure – is “the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept”.

Dailly explains: “The whole idea with coaching, and pedagogy, is that when you are advising it’s really handy to see it working but if you can quantify it as well, explain why it’s happening, that’s priceless,” he says. “I am in the process of developing a vehicle to put it out there and see how best to access the most people.”

In short he is developing a self-organising system for helping athletes monitor their development. Dailly is currently seeking funding. “But I’m mainly driving it myself.

“Watch this space,” he adds.

With curls tumbling down around his ears there’s always been something of the mad professor look about him. It’s also conveyed in the way he speaks, Dundonian lilt still to the fore – passionate, radical, out there. He truly wants to make a difference.

Forget the badge on your chest, he says. Concentrate on making the athlete better. It’s why he has a problem with short-termism in football.

“Whenever I see anything that’s done not for the good of the athlete I am questioning it. It’s about them, not the manager or coach.”

At a very basic level he wants athletes, from elite to amateur, to know how to reach their potential, something he certainly achieved.

He was sold by Derby County to Blackburn Rovers 19 years ago this week for £5.6 million, just one of 
several big-money moves.

Now 43, he played until he was 38, benefiting from a relentless thirst to understand his own body, and learn what makes it tick. Dailly reaped the benefit, enjoying a late career high when helping Rangers reach the Uefa Cup final nine years ago.

But he’s eschewed the normal post-playing career.

So far he’s resisted the well-trodden path that is earning coaching badges and parroting what’s been picked up from handbooks. However, he has agreed to work with Dundee United on an ad hoc basis. An already long-standing association has been deepened by the fact his son, Harvey, recently made his first-team breakthrough there.

Living in Essex, Dailly’s not involved on matchdays. But he does travel north to spend time with manager
Ray McKinnon and coaches Dave Bowman and Grant Johnson, members of the same Tannadice gang circa early 1990s.

“Obviously I know the guys at Dundee United now,” he says. “They are great guys, open to new ideas.” He is gently advising from the sidelines. “I give them a framework for the coaches to come up with new ideas,” he says. “I’m based outside London so I have not done huge amounts. I’m an ear if they want it.”

Dailly doesn’t regard himself as a football coach. Neither does he describe himself as a sport scientist – despite the degree.

So is he an athletics coach? He once helped train Jessica Judd, who recently finished tenth behind Laura Muir in the 1,500m semi-final at the World Athletics Championships in London.

“I am qualified to coach sprinters and endurance athletes – 44-year-old marathon runners who can run sub three hours and who are just mums,” he says. “It is just about athleticism, health, development. But I don’t want to be pigeonholed as anything.”

To a new generation of Dundee United fans, he might simply become known as Harvey Dailly’s father. Harvey, 18, made his debut for Dundee United last week, meaning the Daillies have become the latest father and son combination to play for the Tannadice club. Others include Frank and Scott Kopel and Paddy and Aidan Connolly.

It’s fair to say sons have found it difficult following in the footsteps of the father; offspring is yet to outshine 
antecedent. Harvey will do well to trump his father, who won the Scottish Cup with United and scored 21 goals in a 177 appearances.

Dailly travelled to his hometown last midweek to see his son make his debut for United in the Irn-Bru Cup against Cowdenbeath, watching from his brother in law’s hospitality box at Tannadice. In the reflection of the 
window could still be traced the outline of someone who remains recognisable as the 16-year-old who earned headlines when becoming United’s youngest ever player. Jim McLean picked Dailly to start against Alloa 
Athletic in the League Cup in August 1990 and then St Johnstone a few days later, his league debut. He scored in both games.

“I went from playing for my boys’ club, Sporting Club, where my dad was manager, in May and in August I was playing in the United first-team.”

But that was then, this is now. Harvey is the future now.

“Everything looks similar to when I was there,” Dailly continues. “We went up to the stand, it was the same. We sat up there for a while.

“I am a dad first of all of course,” he adds, with reference to how it felt watching Harvey. “But I probably had my skill acquisitions coach’s head on, my physiology head on, all these 
different things.

“I was looking at different factors in the game, what system are they 
playing, how Harvey is moving? How he is angling for the ball, how he is 
moving his feet? There was a lot of that going on.

“It takes away some of the exhilaration, and emotion,” he admits.

“I have a different way of looking at it. My mum was there. She has obviously watched me, and all of a sudden her grandson is out there. It was more emotional for her.”

According to Dailly, Harvey is very different to him as a player. Deployed at left-back last week, he does share 
Dailly’s versatile traits – he played mostly as a striker growing up in England, but has turned out for United youth sides and under-20s in midfield, left wing, centre-back and, most recently, full-back.

“He was a late developer physically,” says Dailly. “He is over 6ft now. But he was always the smallest player until he was 15. He was tiny.”

Daily made a point of keeping Harvey out of the academy system in England. “He just worked on his skill in the back garden, getting the ball down and playing boys’ club football every Sunday, on horrible pitches. We always kept in touch with United. It was actually [former youth supremo] Stevie 
Campbell we kept in touch with.

“I said I am not putting him anywhere because he is too small. I want him to develop in the garden, out in the street, in the park, just with the ball. He will touch the ball more times in the garden than in an academy session.

“He has started to get a wee bit stronger. Now he is physically strong enough to play in a first-team match; it’s the first time he has actually looked big enough to play in a game like that [United defeated Cowdenbeath 2-0].”

While Tannadice isn’t the school of hard knocks of old, Dailly doesn’t expect, nor does he want, Harvey to get an easy ride: the opposite if anything.

“He does not get preferential treatment,” states Dailly. “Ray is looking to have players coming through from the under-20s good enough to play for Dundee United. If you ain’t 
good enough you don’t play, no flippin’ danger.

“In Harvey’s case it is probably a case of him having to reach even higher standards, because of the association. But he conducted himself well. And that’s a start. He has had a taster.

“But he has a long way to go.”

Something that might become an issue is his place of birth: Blackburn. Harvey is the third eldest of Dailly’s four children. Since he and wife Kirsty initially tended to have a child at each new career posting, it meant Harvey was born in Lancashire, while Dailly was at Blackburn Rovers – his third senior club.

“We started early,” he says. “We had one born in Dundee, one born in Derby, one in Blackburn, and one in London. Every time I moved club we ended up having a kid!”

As to whether Dailly jnr will declare for Scotland or England, should international football become a possibility, he says: “It is up to him. You’d better ask him! He should not be thinking about that yet.”

Nevertheless, it’s impossible to imagine a scion of the patriotic Dailly clan playing for any country other than Scotland.

Until fairly recently Dailly
seemed to have disappeared from the public eye. “I’ve been reading,” is what he says when asked to account for this retreat.

From an academic family, he has relished the chance to catch up on opportunities lost when leaving school so early to become a professional football (although he did still earn eight O-Grades and four Highers). “It was good to delve back into it and experience the university way of doing things,” he says. “But for me the access to literature was key. It takes you off on all these tangents. The number of ‘ahh ha’ moments, you have…”

There’s a video on YouTube dating from two years ago where Dailly is being interviewed after graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University as a distance student. “That was me about five pints in, there wasn’t much health going on that day!” he admits.

He’s looking the part, wearing a gown as well as mortar board. From youngest player to pull on a Dundee United shirt to mature student, it’s just another guise for Dailly, who first entered 
the public consciousness as a flying teenage striker with United.

“I just remember flashes of me running, feeling good,” he says now of his debut against Alloa. “You have just come off your first pre-season and your adrenaline is pumping. I have more memories of my second game v St Johnstone. The first one is a bit of a blur. But the St Johnstone game when I ran through and scored, that’s hard to get out of your head.”

The recent re-connecting with United, initially through his son signing youth terms two years ago, has mended the slight rift that developed between some United fans and their one-time golden boy. The tension stems from Dailly apparently going back on his word not to sign for another Scottish club by joining Rangers.

“It was not something I was too 
worried about,” he says.

“It’s the way it goes. I never thought I’d play for anyone else in Scotland. But your career takes you on a certain pathway. I thought I had earned the right to go somewhere where everyone wanted to win. And, lo and behold, everyone wanted to win at Rangers.

“It was nice to have that every single day, be among a group of people who actually were thinking the same thing: ‘We need to win. There is a 
reason why we’re doing this’.”

Dailly’s world-view is very simple.
He says: “Are you prepared to 
dedicate yourself to the game to help me and my family and this team and this club? That’s what is missing these days.”

Dailly’s lament is particularly heartfelt. He was for so long the beating heart of the Tartan Army, their 
mascot on the pitch. He’s a link to the last time Scotland qualified for a major finals, in 1998, as well as a famous win at the Parc des Princes, one set to be remembered next month, ten years on.

He’s also a survivor from the last and so far only time Scotland have won in Lithuania, with next Friday’s trip to Vilnius for a World Cup qualifier looming into view.

“I ended up playing in midfield to shut things off,” he recalls of Scotland’s 2-1 victory in Kaunas in 2006 [a month before beating France for the first time in that qualifying 
campaign, when Dailly also played].

“When you score for Scotland it does not get much better. Being the type I am, having played for Scotland since under 15s, it is all I ever wanted to do – be good enough to play for Scotland. I did an interview after the game [v Lithuania] on the pitch. All the Scotland fans were kept in. They all sang my name for about ten minutes. It was amazing. ‘Is that really for me?’ Crazy.”

Dailly is still putting life and limb on the line for Scotland. Impressively for someone who retired five years ago, he recently managed to sustain one of the most serious injuries of his career in a veterans’ sixes international tournament.

Scotland were winning 3-1 against Mexico in their opening game when he slipped. “It was a proper collarbone in pieces job,” he says. “I had an operation the next day. I had a plate and eight screws inserted – that plate is now my collarbone basically.

“That is me now got about seven or eight plates in my body, about 15 screws.”

Others involved in the tournament, held at the o2 in London, included Rivaldo, Michael Ballack, Deco and Paolo Di Canio, Dailly’s old team-mate at West Ham United.

“Because there were so many ex world class players there, there was a lot of pampering,” he says. “We just took advantage of that!”

Dailly seems quick to disassociate himself from such stellar company. But there are few Scottish footballers in recent times with his pedigree. The hope is such talent and determination are in the genes.