Interview: United legend Davie Dodds on his hoodoo over Dundee

It is one of Scottish football's most fantastical tales. How Dundee United, a modest'¨club with small crowds which made its players wear really skimpy shorts, became champions of the land. These legends are often asked how it was done and I for one never tire of their reminisces. But not all of them talk, two being especially shy and retiring since the title was won 34 years ago.

Davie Dodds, now 58, can reflect on a career that brought him  150 goals in 321 starts for Dundee United. Picture: John Devlin
Davie Dodds, now 58, can reflect on a career that brought him 150 goals in 321 starts for Dundee United. Picture: John Devlin

Was Davie Dodds vying for the honour of being known as the Tangerine Pimpernel with David Narey his chief rival? Maybe, as the tallest and skinniest members of the side, this pair felt particularly self-conscious in their trunks. Well, after today they still seek Narey here and they still seek him there. But – hurrah – Dodds has 
spoken at last.

I find the 150-goal man in Broughty Ferry, happy to recall his semi-hooligan grandads, Tannadice alchemist Wee Jum and the arcane rituals of “Snots vs Poofs”, borrowing a hotel porter’s suit to sign for boyhood favourites Rangers then upsetting the man’s wife, and much more. He’s even happy to talk about why previously he wasn’t happy to talk.

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By the way, that was 150 goals in 321 starts – a phenomenal record. The most he scored in a season was the Premier League-romping campaign of 1982-83 with an average of more than a strike every two games. That’s exactly the kind of return you want from your rangy frontman when your club has a mad-genius manager, uses the smallest number of players of any modern-day winners and has a funny way of pronouncing its half-time meat-filled treats.

Dundee goalkeeper Bobby Geddes lies helpless on the ground as Davie Dodds turns away to celebrate his goal in the 1980 League Cup final

United gave the rest fair warning they were going to make this kind of history but either the others didn’t listen or were powerless to stop the Terrors’ charge. Two seasons before, on 6 December 1980, Jim McLean’s team won the League Cup – actually retained it – proving that the first success was no fluke. That was a notable day on a hill above the Tay, and one being evoked tomorrow as the city rivals do battle in the same competition at the same venue to decide who progresses as 
section winners.

“For that final to be Dundee United
versus Dundee was special,” says Dodds, now 58, “and for it to be played at Dens Park was extra-special because at that time these games were never taken away from Glasgow.

“It meant a lot to me because I was a kid at Dens Road Primary School who ate, slept and breathed football. I watched Dundee one week and United the next, crawling under the turnstiles for free.”

Dodds remembers a hubbub of anticipation, a sellout crowd and a frozen pitch. “I’m pretty sure I wore my Sambas that day. Although we were favourites we knew we couldn’t lose or we’d have never heard the end of it. The final maybe wasn’t a classic, but we were thrilled with the result.”

Davie Dodds alone with his thoughts, a mascot bear and a bottle of beer after Dundee United win the league in May 1983.

Our man grabbed the opener in the 3-0 victory which maintained a remarkable record against the Dark Blues for a player who’d grown up in the shadow of their stadium. “Playing for United, on loan at Arbroath, and at Aberdeen and Rangers, I never lost to Dundee in a game in which I scored. Somebody told me recently that run stretched to 15 matches.”

Dodds’ back-post header from a cross by Paul Sturrock, who scored the other two, was classically simple and classically United. How many times did Luggy, socks down and head down, swivel through 180 degrees and chip to the far stick where Dodds lurked, like a strip-cartoon tyke hanging round his favourite lamp-post?

Among Dodds’ many goals in Europe there was one against Manchester United exactly like that. “It wasn’t instinctive,” he says of the partnership with Sturrock. “We had to go back after training and work at it. Even when I was scoring 20 goals a season my afternoons were spent with Luggy and in the final I knew exactly where he was going to put that cross.” I suggest that since it was such a well-worn routine Dundee might have known as well. “Aye but they had Bobby Glennie and Les Barr playing for them – two right donkeys. Don’t write that – they’re good friends of mine. Ach, put it in – they’ll just laugh.”

Afterwards the winners celebrated with a party at Frank Kopel’s house. “Even though the rivalry was one where the supporters hated each other for 90 minutes but would drink together afterwards, maybe if we’d gone to a pub the Dundee lot might have thought we were rubbing their noses in it.” The manager must have been well-chuffed, I say. “It was always hard to tell with wee Jim, but I suppose he must have been.”

Davie Dodds, now 58, can reflect on a career that brought him 150 goals in 321 starts for Dundee United. Scoring past Dundee goalkeeper Bobby Geddes in the 1980 League Cup final win was one of his highlights. Picture: John Devlin

Dodds scored the Arabs’ first-ever goal in a Hampden final. He scored against Roma which must have made English readers of Shoot! stop their chortling and wonder if the striker’s declared ambition in the magazine questionnaire – “To win the European Cup with Dundee United” – wasn’t so fanciful after all. And he netted a seven-minute hat-trick only to be docked part of his bonus by his hard-to-please boss.

“It was the Scottish Cup, we ended up thrashing Motherwell 6-1 and yet wee Jim effectively fined us. The basic at United was quite low, 250 quid, but the bonus was 200 quid plus there was an extra 50 if we’d entertained the people.”

McLean was the sole judge so in this Tannadice’s Got Talent contest he was even more omnipotent than Simon Cowell. “That day we didn’t quite cut it for some reason. I was like: ‘Well, if you’re going to reduce my money that’s me and hat-tricks finished.’ He told McLean this? “No of course not. There was no point arguing with wee Jim.”

Even harder on Dodds were opposition fans. He became the target for abuse – a song which was unflattering about his appearance, often sung by gormless fatties as they were lifting yet another pie to plooky faces. “I heard it during the warm-up or if I was over by the wrong touchline but, really, it didn’t bother me. Football can be a cruel
place, and folk pay their money and have a right to say what they like.” Do they? Criticising poor play is one thing; denigrating someone’s looks is quite another. “Well, the sport attracts a fair few numpties. Maybe the ones who gave me a slagging weren’t allowed to speak in the house so the game was how they let off steam.”

Dundee goalkeeper Bobby Geddes lies helpless on the ground as Davie Dodds turns away to celebrate his goal in the 1980 League Cup final

Dodds is being incredibly tolerant but had a harder attitude towards taunts in print. “Why, if I’d just scored the winning goal, would a journalist choose to comment on my looks?” The name-calling continued long after he hung up his boots. He’d still find himself the butt of a gag in tabloid columns, banter-filled phone-ins and raucous after-dinner turns. As before, rarely could the man telling the joke ever be confused with George Clooney. Dodds shrugs. “There are certain newspapers I don’t speak to, and certain guys in the media I cannae stand.” When he was first-team coach at Rangers his marriage broke up. This obviously affected his children, but there was the added aspect of the ridicule he received. “I split with the missus after getting caught with a lassie, who I’m still with 20 years later. I got a hard time in the press, which I could take, but it wasn’t nice for my son and daughter.”

Dodds grew up with a “bike and a ball, like every other lad in Dundee” although Celtic Boys’ Club in their wisdom initially installed him at left-back. His heroes were Andy Gray and Derek Johnstone and when eventually moved up front he had plenty of scope to score goals, playing for his school, Boy’s Brigade company and Sporting Club in Dundee’s ultra-competitive Sunday juvenile leagues. But it was the canny McLean who fine-tuned his game, spotting that while he wasn’t a natural at holding up the ball like his idols, a half-turn from the inside-left position made the man who wore 
No 11 devastating.

In that Shoot! profile listing his 
showbiz favourites as Bryan Ferry and Dallas actress Victoria Principal, Dodds rated his father David, a painter-decorator, and mother May, a nursery nurse, as the most important influences on his career. His proud parents saw him represent Scotland at every level – under-15, 18, 21 and full international, winning two caps. Earlier he was also well supported by both his grandfathers, occasionally too enthusiastically. “They had a bit of a reputation when I was a boy, roaring at the referees during my games at Lochee Park and Fairmuir Park. Mum and Dad would stand well away from them because sometimes the refs would stop the play and order them to leave.”

Dodds made an immediate impression at United, scoring two goals on his debut aged 17 at Arbroath, although it took him a few seasons to properly break through as he was a part-timer, his father having urged him to get himself a trade, so he was learning the old man’s skills, just in case football didn’t work out.

But it did and for that he thanks his team-mates. “I was lucky to grow up in a squad full of guys who were really good teachers as well as players. Wattie [Walter] Smith, Jackie Copland, George Fleming, Andy Rolland, Frank Kopel and Andy Gray – for the brief time we overlapped were all really helpful, while Gordon Wallace was the forwards coach for Luggy and me.” Just then, George Fleming passes 
our cafe window. “There goes another,”
 he says.

Dodds reckons he was “an average player but a quick learner”. Advice passed down was immediately assimilated and adopted. “It was simple stuff, like how as soon as a ball’s hit the striker should get going. I was always moving, trying to anticipate, ready for a rebound. Almost all my goals were six-yard box. When I’m asked why I never took penalties I say: ‘Too far out!’” But Dodds doesn’t think today’s young players enjoy the same level of education. “That’s down to the foreign influence in the game, I’m afraid. Some of the players from abroad are just thinking about themselves and taking the money. They’re not interested in teaching youngsters.”

Davie Dodds alone with his thoughts, a mascot bear and a bottle of beer after Dundee United win the league in May 1983.

Obviously McLean was a huge figure in Dodds’ life. This is not a man who can be summed up in a sentence and, like every old Arab I’ve met, he seems to still be pondering the weird and wonderful ways of this brilliant, crabbit, complex football obsessive as if studying for a post-grad degree.

“The first thing to say is that he was an outstanding coach, way ahead of his time.” He drilled the team superbly. “We could all run and run and we had to be able to do that. In that era you got booted across the park. Craig Paterson at Hibs used to kick lumps out of me, but Motherwell were the worst. Their back-four of Stewart MacLaren, Willie McVie, Gregor Stevens and Peter Miller were absolutely horrendous.”

Dodds had his fall-outs with McLean but then just about everyone did. “He was always on at me about something: not tracking back or covering at a corner or something. He was a perfectionist. And to be honest nine times out of ten he was right.

“But I was always giving my good pal David Narey stick because he never seemed to get into trouble. If we’d lost a goal wee Jim would blame me and never the big guy strolling about at the back or Heggie [Paul Hegarty] next to him. Wee Jim idolised David – well, he was an fantastic player.”

United were an extremely tight-knit group, though, bonding through the Presbyterian work ethic of their boss at training and, if Tannadice had witnessed victory, which it often did, a few pints on a Saturday night.

“We always finished off on Fridays with a kickabout: the Snots were the city boys like me, David and Hamish [McAlpine] while the Poofs were the guys who lived in the Ferry and Monifieth like Heggie, Eamonn [Bannon] and Billy [Kirkwood]. Then after games when we had to take our medicine of an earwigging from wee Jim, we all got quite good at going ‘Okay, boss, got it’ so we could hurry up and get to the pub. But didn’t Eamonn always like to have a debate? He’s an intelligent boy, you see, so he’d argue his case. Him and wee Jim could he at it for half an hour over something daft like a thrown-in.”

Some arguments couldn’t be settled that quickly. “That was the one of differences between wee Jim and Fergie [Sir Alex Ferguson, who signed Dodds for Aberdeen later]. If Fergie shouted and bawled at you it would be all forgotten about by the next day. But sometimes wee Jim wouldn’t speak to you until you’d gone in front of the rest of the team and apologised.

“Fergie could also make you feel, if you’d played well, like a world-beater. Wee Jim didn’t really do that. Maybe Fergie was the better man-manager and Jim was the better tactician. He’s not enjoying good health right now, which must be upsetting for his family, but he was a brilliant manager who won the league with little Dundee United, which can never be taken away from him and will never be repeated. When we’d done it, by beating Dundee at Dens, I definitely saw him smile.”

Dodds laughs as he estimates McLean attempted to replace him “about ten times”. He outlasted all of his potential replacements. Three days after the heartbreak of United’s European Cup semi-final exit in Rome he found himself in the reserves. “Me and Ralph Milne got blamed for the defeat.”

Eventually he decided to try a change of scene, only to end up with a manager “even more of a shouter and bawler than wee Jim”. This was Gilbert Gress at Neuchatel Xamax and while Dodds was just about coping with Gress’s outbursts while learning French in the mornings, his stay in Switzerland was cut short when his wife suffered post-natal depression. He was pleased to switch to Pittodrie, only for Fergie to leave shortly after. The call from Govan came completely out of the blue and, even though it was as a back-up player and sometimes he’d end up centre-half in the second string, it thrilled his father and younger brother Allan, both Rangers fans.

There was still some work to do before that move was signed and sealed: strict adherence to Ibrox’s ultra-formal dress code. “I’d come down in my jeans and needed a suit. The porter at Glasgow’s Hospitality Inn very kindly loaned me his and it just about fitted me. But Ian Durrant wasn’t going to let this pass without comment and slagged off me and the tin flute in one of the tabloids. The porter’s wife wasn’t happy because it was her man’s best suit and she’d bought it for him. I was staying at the hotel for three months until I found a house so I had to listen to her mumps and moans a few times.”

Just as well this was Davie Dodds, possessor of surely the thickest skin in Scottish football.

Davie Dodds, now 58, can reflect on a career that brought him 150 goals in 321 starts for Dundee United. Scoring past Dundee goalkeeper Bobby Geddes in the 1980 League Cup final win was one of his highlights. Picture: John Devlin