James McPake: ‘Dundee are back in the big time and I just wish my dad could have seen it’
What joy to be travelling to Dundee in long trousers. To be casting off the lockdown slobbers and heading out the door. To be catching a train, sitting side by side with other members of the great unleashed. And to be rediscovering the City of Discovery on the climb up to Dens Park for my appointment with James McPake.
If this Saturday Interview had been Zoomed like so many over the past 16 months I would not have been cheered by the sight of the long queue at the stadium for just-announced tickets for Dundee’s return to the Premiership today against St Mirren.
I would have missed the big message on the wall next to the players’ entrance underneath the Archibald Leitch stand: “’Mon the ’Dee! You can do it!” The inscription is in chalk and so hardly counts as graffiti. Easily removable, but since it speaks, with proper punctuation, of the club’s struggle to return to Scottish football’s top table, maybe it could remain, at least until the next Tayside monsoon.
I would have missed the comedy moment in the snug hallway when the first team squad led by star playmaker Charlie Adam return from training to collect lunch in tupperware boxes and when it comes to Jason Cummings he squints at the indeterminate brown substance and asks Paul McMullan: “F***’s that, like?”
And in McPake’s office I wouldn’t have seen the photographs of the manager’s three daughters on the shelf next to the desk and in particular the one of Sophie as a baby nestling in the crook of an arm, although this is all you see of the person holding her.
“That’s because it’s my dad,” says McPake, 37. “I’ve never spoken about this before but the reason you’re not seeing his face is he’d only just passed away. This was the day he met his new grand-daughter a wee bit too late.”
To arrive at this moment in our chat we’d been talking about stress. Of taking Dundee to the playoffs only for the season to be cancelled by Covid. Of being thumped 6-2 on the opening day of the next campaign. Of other bumps in the road, leading to what he admits were “some dark and lonely nights”. Of his frustrations with social media when a fan’s grumble about the inconsequential goal conceded in an impressive victory would gnaw away at him. Of the “noise” increasing over the rookie maybe not being up to the task - “But then [technical director] Gordon Strachan said that at no point was I going to be sacked. That was humbling but, look, I know I’ve been under pressure.”
Who’d do this crazy job? “But we love it,” he says. So he wants more? After putting his body through so much physical strain as a fiercely committed player, he’s ready for the mental and emotional strain of managing in the Premiership?
“Absolutely. This isn’t stress compared to what’s happened to some folk these past 16 months. And this isn’t stress when I think of how I lost my father, suddenly, seven years ago.”
At the time McPake was playing centre-back for Dundee, similarly just returned to the top league, and dad Michael, a retired Polkemmet miner, was his biggest fan, hardly ever missing a match. “He’d been given the five-year all-clear from throat cancer but then it turned up in his lungs. This was just two weeks before he died but it seemed to be treatable and he was optimistic.”
Then McPake rolls up a sleeve to check his tattoos for the time of Sophie’s birth. “It was close to midnight on a Saturday night and I remember phoning Dad to tell him. ‘A lovely name, son,’ he said. On the Monday he went into hospital with a chest infection. My biggest regret is not taking Sophie to see him so when we talk about setbacks in football, fans booing me and asking why the hell I didn’t bring on the subs any earlier and did I regret that? No, that’s my regret right there.
“Stupidly I went to training on the Tuesday. I felt I had to be there, having been given a whole international week off to wait for Sophie to arrive. Afterwards, back in the changing-room, there were 16 missed calls on my phone. No showers, straight into the car I shared with Paul McGowan and Gary Harkins, the three of us battering down to Monklands General. My brother was standing outside. I knew right away I’d missed Dad. By 20 minutes. No goodbyes.”
He pauses to dab his eyes. “Look at the state you’re getting me into,” he says, then smiles. “Maybe, with Dad passing, I learned something about myself. How important football is to me. I missed the next game because of his funeral but played the following week and we beat Hamilton, our first home win of the season. Was I ready? Probably not. Walking off I saw my brother. The seat next to him was empty. If Dad had been there, we’d have clenched our fists, the way we always celebrated together. I had to look back down at the pitch - floods of tears. It was release.”
From the family’s North Lanarkshire home, McPake’s father would ferry him to juvenile games. The village of Salsburgh is tiny but not insignificant with the “M8 church” looming over it. Really Kirk o’ Shotts, it’s of the type which must make some commuters think: “Maybe I should get back to regular worship this Sunday … ” In the - reputedly haunted - graveyard is Kate’s Well: “Lovely spring water,” confirms our man. According to centuries-old local myth, a giant who had been terrorising peddlers was decapitated as he drank from it. There’s also some football heritage: both Motherwell’s Jamie Dolan and Airdrie’s Derek Whiteford were Salsburgh boys.
McPake began his pro career with Livingston, initially as a striker (“I was rubbish!”), then in 2009 he moved to Coventry City with his father making trips to the Midlands to watch him. The Sky Blues were a decent Championship side at the time. “Jordan Henderson was on loan with us and we had Aron Gunnarsson - the king of Iceland for captaining their national team to that great Euros win over England.” McPake, though, was even more impressed by his bosses, Chris Coleman then Aidy Boothroyd - so much so that in mid-20s he already knew he wanted to become a manager.
“I loved the way Chris approached his work - his honesty, his openness, the way he simplified everything. Gordon Strachan here is like that. He’s great for football advice, life advice, everything. I worry I ask him too much. Sometimes he does say: ‘Son, you’re going to have to sort this one out yourself.’
“With Aidy at first, though, I honestly thought his training was boring. It was all tactics-based, shaping up, right from the start of the week: ‘This is what Notts Forest do, here’s how we’re going to counter them.’ Some players just want to kick a ball about outside and I was like that.
“Then I got it. And as a manager myself now I know it’s important. The buzzword is ‘philosophy’. I’ll shy away from that but, basically, you need to know what you’re about, say, when it’s Rangers and they’re so fluent. How do you stop them? You need to have an idea. I wish I’d made notes at every one of Aidy’s sessions.”
Before management, though, McPake still had some football to play. Fairly calamitous football as it turned out. In the January transfer window of 2012 he was one of the seven loan players brought to Hibernian by Pat Fenlon, though after the 5-1 Scottish Cup final thumping by Hearts, just about the only one to endear himself to the devastated support.
How did that match go so horribly wrong? Proof he’d by then become a thinker about the game is evidenced by this: “If only Leigh Griffiths sticks out a leg on halfway. Suso [Santana] would have fallen over it but instead the player is coming along the touchline. [Pu] Kujabi gives him a wee nick and even though this happens outside our box, the ref says penalty. Suddenly, from getting back to 2-1 just before half-time, it’s 3-1 to them right after the restart and we’re a man down.”
A partisan view of events, perhaps, but then McPake ended up signing on at Easter Road and “falling” for the club. “I loved playing for Hibs. It wasn’t a great time in their history and when I was made captain I would have been in the firing line for the fans’ anger - quite rightly so - but they were great with me.” The support appreciated his attempts to plug holes in the dyke, of which there were many. This, despite recurring back issues, a legacy from Coventry. “Every international break I was flown down to London for an epidural. Every Thursday I was taking Diazepam so I could play games.”
His father was at the final - one of a 42-strong army of family and friends including his wife Dawn. The couldn’t-care-less attitude of some in green and white that day has been heavily criticised down the years. McPake judged that the mood on the team bus would jar with his own feelings and phoned for his brother to collect him at the Hampden entrance. “I just wanted to dive under the covers and not come up.”
He’d been injured when the Hibees began their freefall two seasons later but got himself fit as toes began to curl round the trapdoor. “I was desperate to help and think I could have done but the manager [Terry Butcher] wouldn’t play me.”
It was time to leave, and as Hibs tumbled into the Championship, McPake was able to remain in the top division with his switch to Dundee. Now he’s laughing as he remembers eldest daughter Ailey’s introduction to Scottish football: “Her very first game was the playoff Hibs lost to send them down - terrible booing. Then ten minutes into my Dundee debut I took an elbow to the face. Gash just below the eye, blood everywhere. Hopefully Saturday, her eighth birthday, will be a happier affair.”
McPake’s battle wounds remained sufficiently limited in that first season for him to miss only two games, one because of a broken rib and the other for his father’s funeral. That sadness apart, he was enjoying his football on Tayside and, for a change, staying away from the treatment room. It wouldn’t last.
In the following campaign’s New Year derby he dislocated a knee straining to repel waves of Dundee United attacks. Typical McPake, but this all-or-nothing tackle shocked those with a close-up view, including the wife. “The first thing Dawn said to the physio was: ‘Will he walk again?’ I was like: ‘Come on, I’ve had injuries before.’ She wasn’t far wrong.”
Mercifully, neither Ailey nor just-born Sophie were at that game. “For long enough, though, they only ever saw me in crutches or a full leg-brace. I had four or five operations, double-figure injections, the specialists trying everything, taking out my blood, spinning it, putting it back in.” Eventually, after two years, McPake had to admit defeat.
“Folk would say to me: ‘It must have been tough, all that rehab, the lonely days in the gym, setback after setback.’ Well, with my dad passing, the worst thing that could happen to me had already happened. Since then, as I say, the pandemic has left lots of people more bereft than me. And I was never alone: not with my family around me, my managers here, Paul [Hartley] and Neil [McCann], the guys in charge of the club, John [Nelms] and Tim [Keyes]. They paid for the best surgery for me and when that didn’t work they let me coach our brilliant academy kids. If I fail as manager - and I’m going to do everything to try and make sure I don’t - then I’ll shake their hands and say ‘Thanks very much’ for Dundee are my team now.”
So: manager. McPake smiles again as he remembers “car club” with the aforementioned McGowan and Harkins, plus Gary Irvine and Simon Ferry. “Jeebsy [Harkins] and me were undefeated quiz champs and in the back seat I used to beat up Paul so much that I awarded myself a boxer’s belt. I’d sit on him until he was forced to submit. Once, though, we got stopped by the police. I did think: ‘What am I doing, the father of young girls, being pulled over for fighting on my way to work?’” Fun days, player bants, but now, with fall guy McGowan one of his charges, the task is serious: keeping Dundee in the big time.
He’s under no illusions: “Lose and you get hammered. Win and it’s ‘Well done, but there’s a harder game coming next week.’ Hey, it’s the beautiful game!” But he’s ready for the challenge, can’t wait for it to begin.
“In my very first interview I said I wanted to build a team which would make Dundee fans proud.” Adam, ex-Liverpool and the rest, signed up for his boyhood favourites and Cummings arrived with goals for the perfectly-timed charge, climaxing in the playoff triumph against Kilmarnock. “Killie had been in the top league for 28 years. They had a lot to lose and we had everything to gain. I’d like to think the supporters were beaming with pride over how we performed and now we want to stick around for a while. We’ll have to prove we’re worthy of our place but we’ve got real belief.”
At Rugby Park McPake saluted the old man in the time-honoured manner. When he won his manager-of-the-year award he took it back to Salsburgh to show his mother, Mary. “‘Oh, I like that,’ she said, which surprised me because she’s never come to any of my games, thinking the tension would be too much. I miss Dad not being up in the stand but am thinking: ‘Mum’s put my trophy on the mantelpiece so he can see it.’”
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