Interview: Neil McCann on why Dundee must leave Dens Park
Or, a year later, last game of the Premiership, having just completed your emergency mission to save Dundee and returned to TV duties, was it the merry abuse you received from Celtic fans at their title-winning party which persuaded you that there might be something deep, meaningful and longer-lasting to this management lark after all and caused you to scamper straight back to Dens Park?
Both questions, I hasten to add, are asked in the most lighted-hearted manner possible. He screws up his face about the first and asks: “Did I really say that? Are you sure? Well, there was a manager-in-the-making, wasn’t there?” And to the second inquiry he offers a wry smile and a quiet sigh: “I’ve had a lot worse than that in my time, a lot worse.”
Here, though, is McCann in his Dens den and he looks perfectly at home behind the manager’s desk, dirty grey skies clearing over the pitch outside his window, the thrum of feverish skiffle seeping through the walls from the players’ lounge next door.
There are constant interruptions. A cleaner wants to vacuum the carpet bearing the Dundee crest. One of the Under-21s fetches tea, McCann points out he hadn’t asked how I take it, the lad says he made an educated guess and the gaffer quips: “This boy’s got a chance.” Then the No 2, Graham Gartland, pops his head round to show off some of the Spanish he’s been learning. McCann says “I’m having some of that” to which Gartland retorts: “Nah, no piggybacking.” A cuestas, as they say in Madrid, Seville, Valencia.
Oh, the merry banter. Bromas alegres. It’s going like a fair in here and you realise why McCann, 43, wondered what life might be like in the dugout after seven years in the TV pundits’ studio – and then craved it. The macho electricity pulsing through the place, the anticipation of a big game upcoming, it’s what all football men always say they miss the most when their time is done.
Games don’t come much bigger for Dundee today: a trip down to Ibrox. “It’s not daunting at all – I can’t wait,” says the former Rangers winger who enjoyed four and a half glittering seasons in Govan. Maybe this isn’t an obvious place to go searching for a first league victory. Doubtless, as we peer down at the touchline from on high, McCann will look like a Toytown figurine – but don’t be fooled by his boyishness and his diminutiveness. He’s a tough little guy who has stood up to the challenges of the arena before. And he has big plans for Dundee.
McCann, having played Blue Adair last season to rescue the club from relegation, could have walked away a hero, certain of his place in legend and pub quizzes. He actually did – walked straight back to Sky TV convinced he didn’t want the gig full-time. Then came the change of heart. Some were surprised he would give up such a cushy number as talking about football for the far trickier one of winning games with a club such as Dundee. And doubtless when the first three matches in the league were lost these sceptics were saying: “Told you so.”
Did McCann start to have second thoughts? “Not at all. We were playing well. Hamilton Accies beat us 3-0 but we could have won 7-4. I’m not frightened of the job and I’m not here for four or five weeks again. I want to turn the club around. I want to remove this sense that it’s okay for us to be merely surviving. At some point the mentality of the club has to change so why not now? This season I want our ambition to be top six and having a real go at winning something.”
There’s ambition off the park, too. “We’ve got brilliant plans which are going to be so exciting for not just the club but the whole city.” He’s talking about the proposed move to a new stadium at Camperdown Park for which there are the stayers – those who want Dundee to remain at Dens, maintaining Tannadice Street as a world heritage site for football fans with Dundee United next door – but McCann is among the goers. “I respect history. This is where my career began and I’m proud of that. I was signing a birthday card the other day and the photo on the front was of the [1961-62] title-winning team standing on the old ramp that’s still there. I love the [Archibald] Leitch stand. I love that generations have been involved with the club: Willie Robertson as the head groundsman, then old Brian, then young Brian. But it’s time for change and time we moved. I believe these plans are the right ones if we want to have the mentality of being a top club.”
Admitting to being obsessive by nature, Port Glasgow-born McCann is a driven individual. If you only know him through his telly persona as one of the pundits who never deliberately courted controversy that might come as a surprise. You might wonder, then, if his steeliness came from having played for the Old Firm. In fact, he seemed to have it right from the start.
The best advice he was given in his young days came from John Blackley when the Hibs great was assistant to Dens manager Gordon Wallace. “I was 16 and had just signed with Dundee. My father was with me that day and John gave us a lift back to the train station. Dad was recalling what he said just the other day: ‘If you’re going to make it in football you have to be single-minded. Don’t get sidetracked by your pals’.”
These pals were the Port Glasgow lads with whom he’d play football in the street until being chased by the police, sometimes getting up to other kinds of mischief. I wonder if this was an Angels With Dirty Faces-type childhood where, as in that classic old movie, a reformed young ruffian can conclude: “There but for the grace of God go I.” He laughs. “Port Glasgow was tough but it wasn’t the Bronx. There were a lot of brilliant people there as well.
“I used to run with the boys and I think we all got into bother of some sort. But I always knew what I wanted to do and that was be a footballer.
“Just turned 12, I played in a cup final for Port Glasgow Boys’ Club. We lost 10-2 but I scored both our goals and I was the only one picked up by the Dundee scout John Ward who was watching the game. I was okay at school, could have done a whole lot better, but at St Stephen’s High I was only ever interested in trying to sneak in a few more seconds of football, maybe grab the winner, before having to dive through the sliding windows back into the classroom before the teacher walked in.
“John Blackley’s advice was sound but leaving my pals behind was no big drama for me. Two of these guys are still my pals to this day – Euan Morrison has a barber’s shop and Stephen Gallagher manages a bookies. And I remember Dad – man’s man, drove a forklift at Faslane – getting a bit emotional as he was waving me off on the train heading up to Dundee on my own for the first time, but I was fine.”
McCann sounds like he was a young man in a tearing hurry to win those three titles, five Scottish Cups and two League Cups, all but one achieved with Rangers as a flying left-winger, as well as those 26 Scotland caps. “Well, when I arrived at Dens I’d like to think I was a respectful fellow who’d come from a family with strong morals but, you know, I was probably a bit of a toerag as well.
“I’ve always been wee. The first time they checked my weight I was 8st 13lbs. I was an empty packet of crisps blowing all over the place but I was quick. I was small but I could fight my corner all right. I acknowledged the guys in the first team for having earned the right to be there but I wasn’t intimidated by them. Given the chance in training I’d knock the ball right past them.
“I remember being on the first long run of pre-season – which never fazed me because I loved distances and still do – and going up front which annoyed Stuart Beedie. He obviously wanted to be in control of the pack so he ordered me back, telling me I should know my place. Afterwards Jim Duffy said to me: ‘Your place is where you want to run’.”
Every new manager is asked what they’ve learned from old ones and they all say a bit from each – but what on earth did McCann inherit from Dens dandy Simon Stainrod? “Well, I’m not sure I’ll be wearing a fedora and a cream-coloured mac at Ibrox but Simon was a supremely confident individual with a lot of bravado and I liked his advice to young players that they should have a wee bit of swagger about them, try a nutmeg, do something unexpected. That was music to my ears. Playing out wide you should be expressive.”
First bollocking? “Maybe that was the same John Blackley. I remember an absolute roasting in language I couldn’t repeat because I wasn’t out wide far enough. He kicked the dugout and roared at me to get chalk on my boots.” McCann rates and reviews his other managers for combustibility: “Dick [Advocaat] was controlled, chopped, blunt. He wouldn’t grab a hold of you, it would be: ‘You’re not good enough – wheech – off’. But Jim [Jefferies] could go crazy and strip the paint off the walls. When Duff [Jim Duffy] kicked off it was impressive. Gordon [Strachan] could go mental and the same with Yogi [John Hughes].”
So has he gone mental yet? “If you were to ask my players I reckon they’d tell you I’ve got that in me. But I think that’s healthy. Already there have been times when it’s boiled over. Then in the cold light of day I’ve thought: ‘Mmm, maybe I went a wee bit too far there’. So I’ve explained to them that things happen in the heat of battle. But I think they need to know you’re passionate and see that you care.”
After Dundee McCann moved on to Hearts and the oxy-acetylene reprimands of Jefferies – “with Billy Brown whispering in his ear, egging him on.” With the Jambos he won his first Scottish Cup but that athletic, urgent side of David Weir, Dave McPherson, Colin Cameron, Steve Fulton, Stephane Adam and the rest could have achieved more. “That was a cracking Hearts team and we could have won the league that season [1997-98]. A key game was at Ibrox in the snow with an orange ball. From an Andy Goram kick-out I belted one from 20 yards into the top corner and we were leading 2-1 with a couple of minutes left when [Jorg] Albertz hit a free-kick which skiffed off Mickey’s [Cameron’s] studs into the roof of the net. In the dressing room afterwards, devastated.
“But, from being a swashbuckling team who would often blow the opposition away, Jim was canny enough to switch us to counter-attack for the final and we broke our hoodoo.” McCann by then had done more than enough to impress Rangers’ new manager-in-waiting Advocaat who signed him midway through the following campaign. As a Catholic.
When McCann was unveiled to the media, religion was pretty much the first question. “I expected that and I had to learn to defend myself and deal with the shrapnel. Was I worried how the Rangers fans would react? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. But while I wasn’t a Rangers supporter when I signed I became one as soon as I did and I’d like to think the punters recognised that in my performances, even the stinkers and there were a few of them! I can honestly say I never got any grief from Rangers fans although there was plenty from the other side.
“Religion had no relevance to me. I’d loved playing for Hearts, as I’d loved my time at Dundee, and here was a chance to progress my career with an exciting team – Gio [Van Bronckhorst], Claudio [Reyna], [Arthur] Numan, Andrei [Kanchelskis], the big Italian love-god Amo [Lorenzo Amoruso] and all those guys. And religion didn’t matter to my parents who were thrilled for me and have always given me such fantastic backing, right from as a kid when they’d heat up a flask of orange juice for me on cold, horrible days and buy me football boots they probably couldn’t afford.”
It did matter to some in May ’99 in an Old Firm encounter at Celtic Park notorious even by the fixture’s rigorous standards and one which – after three red cards issued by referee Hugh Dallas, felled by a missile from the crowd then re-emerging with a bloody head – was immediately dubbed the “Shame Game”.
McCann scored two goals to help Rangers clinch the title on the way to the Treble but in the midst of the mayhem wondered how he was going to get out alive. “I thought to myself: ‘This is kicking off big-time and I’m Public Enemy No 1’. Guys trying to run on to the pitch were being rugby-tackled left, right and centre and you knew things were bad when the yellow stewards were stepping aside and the ones in red were moving in. My family were all in the away end and I was worried for them. Me, I fancied my pace as I always did but if things got any worse I was going to get swamped.”
Aggro continued through the night. “My car was trashed – I wasn’t at home – and there was trouble in Port Glasgow.” The next day when he should have been re-living his goals the papers seemed to barely touch on the match, his big day ruined by “poisonous hatred”.
This has to be recalled, still, and McCann just about understands why. But he’d much rather be discussing Advocaat’s canniness – playing our man through the middle that day, the occasions he reduced the Ibrox width – and Strachan’s passion for the game and how everything McCann has gleaned from his mentors can hopefully revive Dundee, without too much need for the Jefferies flame-thrower.
Single-mindedness brought Neil McCann to this juncture and will take him on from here. And if not, will it be back to punditry? “The seat’s not being kept warm for me. Too many fancy it!”