Interview: Jim Duffy on crazy bosses, a surprise award and staying teetotal

It’s a tough choice and I can’t decide. Is the funniest yarn Jim Duffy tells me the one about Edgar Davids? Because there’s another one, evoking the image of a ?hundred cheapo footballs wafting uselessly on the breeze, which is pretty good too.

Former Dundee and Hibs boss Jim Duffy is now in charge at Dumbarton. Picture: John Devlin

Mind you, it could also be Duffy’s shaggy dog story about the greyhound track. Back in the 1990s, big, bonkers ideas were a speciality of Ron Dixon, Dundee’s Canadian millionaire owner. On a visit to Dens Park 
“Vancouver Warlord” – Dixon’s Mafia-esque nickname – was perturbed by the wooden uprights eight yards apart at either end of the pitch and the horizontal pieces of wood sat on top. “Jeez, what the hell are these?” demanded Dixon. “Er, they’re the goals,” replied manager Duffy. “You know, for the football.” “Well, they spoil the look of the track – get rid of them.”

The entrepreneur also dreamed of ice hockey at Dens – presumably not on the park, although who could say for sure given there was doubt over Ron Dixon being his real name and some wondered if he later faked his own death? – and it was he who queried Duffy’s advance on expenses. “We needed new balls. I costed 20 at £1,000 but Ron thought that was way too much. He said: ‘I saw them for sale, four bucks each at the gas station.’ I told him I didn’t think they’d be of sufficient quality. ‘Buy ’em,’ he said. Right enough, they were plasticky and squishy, no better than beach-balls. I produced them at training, just for a laugh.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

For the Dutch master anecdote we move on to another ill-starred Dens reign, that of Giovanni di Stefano. “He thought we could sign Davids,” continues Duffy. “All I would have to do was fly over to Turin and tie everything up. I tried to imagine how this would go: ‘Hullo Edgar, it’s very nice to be here with you at your luxurious Juventus training facility and I’m sure your penthouse apartment is pretty fabulous as well, given that you earn £90,000 a week in Serie A, one of the top leagues in the world. But you’ll be aware that Dundee from the 
Es-pee-el want you. We train Tuesdays and Thursdays next to the Michelin factory and we’re getting ready for our Forfarshire Cup tie at Brechin where they’re very proud of their hedge. You up for that, aye?’”

These are dark days for the Dark Blues who seem intent on crashing through the relegation trapdoor. No one has removed the goalposts; the team simply can’t win a game. Turin was probably not seriously on the itinerary but next season it seems sure to be destination Arbroath and the harsh reality of a slap on the face with a dry smokie.

To those without a vested interest, 
Dundee’s history can read like a Bash Street Kids annual, only even more madcap. Duffy recounts the comic cuts from his three spells as a player and two as a boss with a stand-up’s patter and good timing. But he has a vested interest and there’s a sadness behind his smile today. “I feel for Dundee right now, I really do. The club mean a lot to me, as does the city. I lived there, had a daughter born there, had my kids go to school there, good times. I haven’t seen many of their games so I don’t know whether they’ve been unlucky or just not good enough. But, looking from afar at the infrastructure, there doesn’t seem to have been lessons learned. And, apart from Cammy Kerr, what about player development?”

Well, is Duffy done with Dundee? Or could he be tempted back one more time? “As a manager, I would say no. But, you know, these days there are other kinds of gigs.” One such is director of football, a role he briefly filled at Hearts during the Vladimir Romanov era. After Dundee he was pretty much shockproof. Vlad the Mad, therefore, he viewed as “a funny guy, a bit like a Bond villain”. Others were intimidated by him, of course, and few asked the question: “Er, can we really afford this?” Says our man: “I knew it was all going to tip.”

Duffy and I meet in Glasgow, his home city. He insists on picking me up from the train station and driving me to our hotel rendezvous and in the space of the three-minute trip he’s already aired his views on the state of newspapers, the over-preponderance of coffee shops and, yes, unnecessary car journeys.

And ageing. We talk about that because he’s just turned 60. Was it a big deal? “No, but do I feel 60? Aye. The ravages of time are catching up.” He means the knee injury which ended his playing career. “I don’t take painkillers all the time but I needed them this morning.” Metaphorically, though, he’s still getting a kick of the ball. As manager of 
Dumbarton he’s not yet ready for the pipe and slippers. “And getting to 60, as I think Maurice Chevalier said, is better than the alternative.” Then a grin. “Old Maurice was a right ladies man, wasn’t he? But I don’t think that gig exists anymore.”

Duffy insists he’s “not one for reflection” but there’s a whole heap of reminisces in our two hours together. Did you know he’s really a frustrated DJ? “That was what I fancied doing when I stopped playing. My love is music, not football. I go to concerts all the time and was at one last night – Hall & Oates. I was a huge Bowie fan and loved Prince. I got into music in the glam-rock era, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople and Queen. I liked punk, the Sex Pistols and the Clash. And Oasis when they came along. At Dumbarton the players keep me up to date with the new stuff, although I don’t like excessive swearing in songs and am aye telling them: ‘That’s not smart, you know. There are other words in the English language.’ But I’m not the oldest swinger in town. I came out of Steely Dan recently feeling really spritely compared to the rest of the audience.”

Romanov, Delia Smith, Ken Bates, Milan Mandaric. Duffy could write a book on football potentates and the crazy schemes which come to them in their sleep. He started penning his memoirs once only to stop, which is a shame given that there are plenty of biogs out there which don’t have a chapter on how, as a defender, you become 
Player of the Year despite your team shipping 100 goals and being relegated. Also, how it feels to be helicoptered into a club as their hot new manager but with the same outcome. Of the 1984-85 Scottish PFA prize for vainly trying to plug all the holes in the Morton dyke he says: “Also nominated were Davie Cooper and Paul McStay. No way could I lace their boots as footballers and the same went for the other guy on the shortlist, Frank McDougall, who came from Milton, just up the road from me in Maryhill. I bumped into Coop later and apologised for winning the award. ‘Everyone at Rangers voted for you,’ he said. Then Paul told me everyone at Celtic had done the same! I don’t know, maybe there was a political dynamic involving the Old Firm but other clubs 
voted, too. I’d like to think I won that season for never giving up.”

The chopper fanfare came at Hibernian. At the time – this was 1996 – did he think it over-the-top? “Not really. I’d wanted to say my goodbyes to the Dundee players and Hibs wanted to announce me later that morning. The helicopter was for reasons of speed but it was painted as them making a big fuss. Not back then, though. The helicopter has only become a thing in the years since. But I made mistakes at Hibs. I rushed in and tried to change things too quickly. When the previous guy [Alex Miller] has been there ten years a club only knows one way to travel.”

Needless to say, when he took charge of the League One Sons last October, Duffy didn’t abseil down Dumbarton Rock, landing in the centre circle of the funny one-sided ground down below. He’s enjoying the job despite its many challenges. Last 
Saturday was the first time in an injury-
ravaged six months when he was able to field a full complement of team plus subs. He’s still trying to understand the vagaries of the wind-flow which, when there’s only one stand, may be a forlorn hope. During training, Tuesday and Thursday nights, he has to be mindful of the fact that six players go to work on the railways immediately afterwards. And then there’s the tracksuit issue. “When a player leaves the club he’s got to give us back his tracksuit as we can’t afford to buy new ones. If a 6ft 3ins centre-back goes and a 5ft 5ins winger arrives, that’s too bad for the wee bloke. This has just happened, by the way.”

When the season is over Duffy will head to Las Vegas with wife Joanne and the kids to mark the big six-oh. By then he should know how much the Sons hierarchy will be prepared to gamble on the next campaign. Dumbarton had five seasons in the Championship, discomfiting the likes of Hibs and punching above their weight. Can Duffy get them back there?

“I want us to compete for promotion. To do that you have to be able to attract players of a similar calibre to your rivals. It could be a very tough division next time.

“I’ve told my board what I think I’ll need. They’re wonderful people, by the way, and work tirelessly for Dumbarton but, at this level, every pound is a prisoner.”

The bold Duffy means absolutely no disrespect to his present employers but he believes himself to be “better than League One”. The dream, he says, would have been the Scotland job and he still allows himself to wonder what coaching the top players available to him might be like – “even if that was the Faroes.”

Meanwhile, the stringencies of the third tier are of the kind which might drive a manager of aspiration to hit the bottle or tear out his hair. Neither of these is an issue for Duffy.

He’s been one of Scottish football’s pre-eminent baldies for as long as we can remember. Hereditary? “Aye, my dad had no hair, same with my mum. That’s a joke, although she was mad as a brush.” What’s the funniest quip re being follicly-challenged that he’s ever heard? “It was in Rotherham of all places, when I was a coach at Portsmouth. Do you know the stand-up comedian Lee Hurst? Some folk thought I looked like him, only this day there was a shout from behind the dugout: ‘Hey Lee Evans – sit down, you effing slaphead.’ I turned round and said: ‘I think you mean Lee Hurst. If you’re going to give me stick, raise your game.’ That got a big laugh but maybe some of the wit has disappeared from grounds. Nowadays fans seem more vitriolic.”

Duffy has been teetotal all his days. “I tried whisky when I was 15 because my dad drank it. Now he’s gone I still like the smell but it wasn’t for me.” His abstinence, though, has presented the odd problem. In hard-bevvying Glesca of the 1970s the non-drinker would get labelled a “poof”. In Maryhill, where six street gangs within a two-mile radius staked out their territory, refusing the offer of a pint from one of the hard nuts was tantamount to challenging him to a square go.

Duffy recalls a night over in Possil, one of the city’s most disadvantaged and toughest districts, when, already a footballer and with Joanne by his side, the whole bar stopped to watch as beer was placed in front of him, his request for a coke having been ignored. “They wanted me to drink it; I wasn’t going to. Things got pretty scary and then a pal said: ‘You should leave. I’ve 
negotiated you a two-minute getaway’.”

In football, clubs viewed it as a challenge to try to weaken his resolve. “They’d be like: ‘You don’t drink? Well you will here. We’ve got a great social scene.’

At nights out at Dundee, Duffy and fellow teetotaller Tosh McKinlay played drunk to entertain team-mates. “Fat Sam’s was a favourite haunt. I was often the designated driver and would drop off some of the guys and head home for an Ovaltine.

“Once, as I was leaving, a Dundee United player wasn’t being allowed entry because he wasn’t wearing a shirt. I gave him mine and drove off bare-chested. I was in good shape back then so didn’t scare the other motorists.

“I sometimes threaten family and friends that one day I’m going to get drunk for revenge for all the times when they’ve been absolutely blootered and I’ve had to get them home.

“But really I’ve seen my kids being born and my parents die and there have been lots of other moments when I might have been tempted but I don’t suppose I’m going to start drinking now.”

Another poignant occasion awaits Duffy the day after our chat: Billy McNeill’s funeral. His final reminiscence is about Cesar, his days as a Celtic apprentice and it begins in his provy-cheque boyhood at 47 Glenfinnan Road: “That was where I lived in Maryhill and Charles was at 49.”

Charlie Nicholas, he reckons, was thrown a ball aged three and recorded a keepy-uppy score of 12. His best mate, who has always called Duffy James, was always destined for Parkhead.

“Charles was a prodigy. In our street football he was aye nutmegging, which could land you in bother with a bigger boy from one of the gangs. He’ll say I protected him but lots of us did, including Andy Robertson’s dad Brian. My job, then, was as an enforcer but I never thought I was good enough to get to Celtic.”

But at 19 he did. “Billy met me and my dad in the New Orleans Steakhouse in 
Rutherglen. He said: ‘Mr Duffy, how would it be if your boy was to sign for Celtic?’ The old man, not one to get too excited, said: ‘Aye, that’ll do fine.’ My heart wouldn’t stop racing.”

Duffy was mentored by Johnny Doyle who flouted the no-jewellery rule by tethering a big crucifix to his chest with sticking plaster. There was further advice and encouragement from Tommy Burns who said: “You deserve to be here.”

But Duffy wasn’t quite able to displace Roy Aitken. “Now and again I’d pluck up the courage to ask Billy why I wasn’t getting a game. Being in his office was like that 
Little Britain sketch where they shrunk David Walliams into a toy version of himself. Did I think I was better than Roy? One time I even answered; ‘Yes.’ Billy was like a giant, like he was sitting on a throne, all immaculate with this glow about him. I was completely starstruck.”