Interview: Graeme Payne, mercurial winger who helped Dundee United win their first major trophy

Occasionally, interviews don’t unfold as expected. As we splashed through winding Norfolk lanes en route to Norwich train station, it felt as if I was learning more about Graeme Payne from his wife than I’d managed to elicit in around three hours of conversation the previous night.

Graeme Payne, left, challenges for the ball with Partick Thistle's Alan Hansen in 1977. Picture: SNS

Fiona, originally from near Poolewe, informs me the family, including son Mark and daughter Ashleigh, were close to relocating to Shetland rather than the Broads when Payne’s career fizzled out – his own description – in the mid 1980s. Oh, and he won 
Scotland’s inaugural young player of the year award in 1978, something Payne had mentioned but was vague about – he wasn’t sure of the year.

While enjoyable, fascinating company, and eager to please to the extent he had, aged 63, clambered up to the loft to retrieve medals and moth-eaten old shirts from his career – “this one’s from the Monaco tie, I can’t mind who I swapped it with!” – it seemed the amiable Payne suffers from a familiar dose of 
Diffident Dundonianitis.

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It reminded me of a claim made by his old manager, and sometime nemesis, Jim McLean, who once asserted that, given two players of equal ability from the west and east coast, he’d always opt for the former, because they were more likely to be of the sort to sell their own mother a dummy. Payne recalls another version. “I remember wee Jim saying if he had a good wee yin and a good big yin, he would always go for the good big yin,” he says. As older readers may recall, Payne stood only 5 ft 6in in his stocking, mercurial feet. That might have been one of several problems that seemed to exist between the pair.

Still rooted on the east coast, just a lot further south, Payne, who grew up in the Kirkton area of Dundee and blossomed alongside fellow future United star David Narey in the all-conquering St Columba boys’ side, remains unwilling to blow his own trumpet, unlike his musically accomplished father, who, he’s far happier to recount, was a pipe major in the 24th Dundee Boys’ Brigade pipe band. He was entertaining fans at Tannadice long before his son when the band were invited to play before a match in the 1950s.

Self-deprecation ran in the family. George, or Dode as he was known, had other talents too. “My dad was a good footballer but he never really mentioned it,” says Payne. “He worked at Baxter Brothers, where he was a foreman dyer. Which was quite handy because he used to wash my jeans after I had been playing football in the big kilns they had there.” His mother, Isabella, or more often 
Bella, was presumably relieved to see some of the household chores farmed out. Payne was the second youngest of nine children.

Older brother Kenny was a player at Arbroath and Forfar Athletic and in 1978 reached the semi-final of the League Cup with the latter outfit, who were minutes away from eliminating Rangers to reach the final after taking a 2-1 lead (they eventually lost 5-2 in extra time). Another brother, Jack, once had the offer of a trial for Tottenham Hotspur.

Payne, however, was the only one who featured in the opening credits for Sportscene. “My mother was not into football. You know how you get these trailers at the start – she would watch that because there was a wee clip of me in it and then go to bed.”

But this wasn’t the limit of his achievements, far from it. Perhaps before we go on, we ought to explain what brought him to the Norwich area. While at St Johnstone, and following a stint with Arbroath, he decided to study for an accountancy degree at Dundee College of Further Education. “Norwich Union – now Aviva – offered me an interview and I got the job. They offered graduate training. I came down and finished my studies here. I was not playing football anymore. I fizzled out, like a good soldier! I faded away. St Johnstone was my last club, I just said to myself: ‘I have had enough’.”

While his quiet, understated demeanour might suit his current career, he certainly never played football like an accountant. He was once considered the most brilliant antecedent of Scotland’s tanner ba’ generation. “I’ve been all over the place watching games,” announced Scotland manager Ally MacLeod before an Under-21 clash with Wales in February 1978. “But Willie Miller of Aberdeen and Graeme Payne of Dundee United are the two best young players I’ve seen.”

It was several months before the ill-fated World Cup adventure in Argentina, so such pronouncements from MacLeod were still being treated seriously. Anyway, it wasn’t just his word people had to go on. There was the opinion of Payne’s fellow pros, who voted him the best young player in the country (Rangers’ Derek Johnstone, another Dundonian, won the top award) at the end of that season.

Like Miller (and Narey), he was named in MacLeod’s original 40 for Argentina but dropped out along with the other two when the number was whittled down to 22. John Robertson and, fatefully, Willie Johnston were preferred in the wide areas. “I might have done something, I might have been a flop, you never can tell,” says Payne.

He was still young. Most felt confident his time would come. He was being tracked by the then European champions. Liverpool manager Bob Paisley came to watch him in a League Cup clash v Hearts.

And his time did come, if not in quite the stellar way anticipated. Forty years ago this month, and one of the reasons for tracking him down to a cluster of houses a few miles outside Norwich, he helped United, the club he supported, win the League Cup, their first major trophy, against Aberdeen – more of which later. And then, 12 months later, he claimed two corner assists when they repeated the feat against local rivals Dundee.

“My dad was a Dundee fan so I don’t know why I supported United,” he says. “Dundee were the more prevalent team, United were up and coming. They actually always seemed to beat Dundee at the time. It was not long after Dundee’s league win. I don’t know. I just had a thing about United. I liked the proximity of the pitch, you were right up close. You could actually see people, see their eyes.” The then United manager Jerry Kerr snapped him up following a schools’ cup final held at Tannadice in 1971 and after Payne had been on trial at Leeds United and Chelsea. “I think I could have signed for Dundee,” he adds. “My dad mentioned there was some interest.”

Dundee had their own pocket dynamo project. Gordon Strachan was breaking through around the same time. Long ginger manes, diminutive and skilful, they were very alike but, according to many around the scene then, Payne was the far more likely star – as Liverpool’s later interest confirmed.

“He done better than me I suppose when it came to things like caps and trophies. He got a good move when he was struggling a bit to get a game for Dundee. He moved to Aberdeen and just flourished.

“I played against him loads of times. He was an excellent player, really skilful. He had a good engine too. I have not seen him in yonks.”

Did he consider Strachan to be a rival in the best young footballer in Scotland stakes? “I suppose so, yes, there was a bit of rivalry – especially when he played for Dundee.”

But while Strachan went on to clinch that life-changing move to English football, specifically Manchester United, and played into his forties, Payne, for better or worse, remained in Scotland and called it a day at 32, with the scars still evident on shins left exposed by his habit of letting his socks slip around his ankles. He pre-dated Paul Sturrock, aka 
Luggy, in that regard.

Remarkably, he never did get that Scotland cap – Strachan, in contrast, won 50. “Even though it was harder to get a cap in those days, I would have thought I’d get one,” he says. He was restricted by a sciatic problem and, in contrast to the legion of players who are quick to claim they owe everything to a genius called Jim McLean, can reasonably claim his career was perhaps hindered by a manager who was not the type to throw an arm around the shoulder, something Payne might have benefitted from.

Even his hour of glory, helping his boyhood heroes win their first major honour, was tarnished by McLean, who dropped Payne to the bench for the League Cup final replay at Dens Park of all places after a turgid 0-0 draw with Aberdeen, with Billy Kirkwood taking his place.

“Wee Jim planned to put me on in the last five minutes to give me a run but I didn’t get on in the end. I was still part of it. But it was heart-breaking. I did not play any worse than anyone else (in the first game).”

Payne feared missing out once more the following year v Dundee. “I thought he was going to leave me out again because he did not think I could play on hard ground. And it was really, really frosty the night before that game. I thought: ‘here we go again, he is going to put me subby’. But actually the ground was quite soft round about 3pm.

“It was a great occasion, two sets of supporters going for it. I remember taking two corners, Heggy (Paul Hegarty) heading them on and Luggy scoring at the back post twice. Two exact same goals.” According to Payne, they ended up back at teetotaller McLean’s house. “Drinking tea, most probably!” he says.

It’s ironic that Payne has ended up working in England, because that is where many felt he should have headed when he was a footballer. McLean himself stressed it was the only option, since it was becoming apparent Payne was suffering from the football authorities’ refusal to clamp down on over-zealous and, in some cases, malicious tackling from behind.

“The quicker he moves across the Border, the better – for his own good,” said McLean in November 1977. “He has been reduced to half pace after only quarter of an hour in our last four games, and he cannot go on taking this kind of stick.”

But when Payne himself tried to force the matter, it wasn’t well received. It was doubly aggravating for McLean since Narey joined Payne in submitting a transfer request on the eve of the 1979/80 season.

Payne has plenty of brothers but close pal Narey might as well be another one. He likewise shuns publicity and is infuriatingly nonchalant about his past deeds. “I am not as bad as him,” smiles Payne. “I am not sure he even remembers scoring against Brazil!” Payne can’t recall how the request was delivered – did they slip it beneath McLean’s door and then run away, like impish schoolkids? Advisable, surely. But what’s clear is that the manager wasn’t amused. Payne was dropped from the team for a spell. It certainly didn’t encourage McLean to treat the player with any more 

“It was a bad mistake at the time putting in a transfer request,” he reflects. “I don’t think I’d do it now looking back. I should have been delighted to play for my hometown team – but there was a lure, the filthy lucre! Also, you were mixing with guys in the Scotland Under 21s who were doing really well down there.”

Narey didn’t suffer as badly for this act of impudence. “He seemed to get on OK. He approached it the right way and didn’t let it bother him.”

McLean knew someone developing into a world class centre-half was more central to United’s hopes of winning major honours than a sometimes-brilliant winger who would drift in and out of games.

“He used to stick me out wide,” he says. “I used to get loads of stick for coming in and trying to get involved. Tactically he wanted you out wide and deep so there was space in behind. We played 4-4-2 like most teams. As I was winger, he’d get me and even Ralph (Milne) when he was playing to get really wide so the full-back would come and mark us and there was a big space behind them. He (McLean) would get Luggy to make a run in behind. I’d see the ball about twice sometimes!”

One half was spent miserably close to the dugout, the other, blissfully, out of earshot of McLean. “Eamonn (Bannon) used to go: ‘I 
cannae hear you boss!’ I was like: ‘oh well, here he goes again’. It depended what mood he was in. Wee Jim was a moody character.” He was also, more often than not, right when it came to football. It’s something Payne accepts. But a genius?

“He must have been to get the results he got I suppose,” he considers. “He had a good crop of players.” News a statue of McLean is set to be erected outside Tannadice has reached East Anglia. “I suppose the fans will love it. I am – what’s the word? – ambivalent.”

The domestic pinnacle was and remains 1983’s league title win. It’s a thorny issue for Payne, who made only three appearances during that league campaign and actually lined up against his boyhood favourites while on loan at Morton in the penultimate game of the campaign.

When United clinched the championship, on a famous day at Dens where the crowd is thought to have exceeded 30,000, he was a member of a side which lost 2-0 to St Mirren in front of just over 1,751 people. It meant he never got the medal he would have cherished above all others.

“I was just desperate to play first-team football,” he explains. “It was me and Ian Gibson, which was good because we could travel together. I was still training at United! I used to go down on a Thursday night to Cappielow and train with them. We’d get a game, but it was strange – I would not have done it again, in retrospect, I was just desperate to play. It didn’t feel right playing against United, especially in view of what was at stake.”

Surprisingly, and despite reports he had signed permanently for Morton, he returned to United, making six appearances the following season – including getting a taste of European Cup action against Hamrun Spartans. “They’d just won the league without me so my chances of playing had hardly improved,” he points out.

Not that it matters in the final analysis because he did what he always dreamed of doing and more recently was inducted in the United Hall of Fame. “Some people would say I was the great white hope, others would say I did not fulfil my potential,” he says. “But I won things for the team I loved. I did well. I admit I was not consistent. I peaked too soon, I think.”

He mentions an old photograph showing him, McLean and Andy Gray at Tannadice on an occasion when a large generator was brought in to blow hot air across the frozen pitch. Admirably, given what he was, and could have been, there’s not a lot of that around during an evening with a quiet hero called Graeme Payne.