LEE Wilkie’s dad opened the door to find Jim McLean on the doorstep. He was there in response to an angry letter from the avid Dundee United fan. Apparently, this was an argument that had to be settled face to face.
“My dad went to the games home and away, Europe, everything, and I can’t even remember what he was unhappy about but he was unhappy about something so he wrote a letter telling him. I think I was playing football in the house, a three-year-old or something. My dad was more surprised that Jim McLean had turned up at the house wanting to speak to him about it, which is something you don’t hear too much of these days.”
Some clubs would need to have personnel chapping doors from dawn to dusk if they responded to every barb coming their way at the moment. Certainly at Dundee.
Derbies are almost always must-win games for fans but this afternoon, Dundee really do have to win their Scottish Cup quarter-final at Dens Park, says Wilkie. He believes it is the only way for the Dundee board to begin to quell the unrest caused by the sacking of Barry Smith and the decision to replace him, on an interim basis, with John Brown.
On the other side of the street, a mangerial change was acclaimed by the Tannadice faithful as Jackie McNamara’s arrival in place of Peter Houston boosted players and punters alike.
Wilkie believes that was the main reason for dispensing with Smith so abruptly. Wilkie said: “A lot of people are thinking it’s to do with getting a lift for the derby but it could end up backfiring on them because the fans are really upset. I think the board and the manager will both be desperately hoping they win the derby, because that will prove to the fans it will have been the right appointment.”
With Dundee 15 points adrift in the SPL, Wilkie says the cup is all they have left to fight for this term. “This game is massive for Dundee. United are in a better position league-wise, a better position in relation to the manager, and the fans are pretty content. So I would imagine if United lost the game, it is not as big a threat as it was if Dundee lost it.”
Wilkie is a man who has had a foot in both camps. The son of that avid United fan who grew up an Arab, he trained with both clubs as a youngster before opting for Dundee. He spent eight years there before moving across the road, where he played for and captained the side. But, after four years, injury forced him to quit the game. That means he has affection for both teams and insists he will be sitting on a metaphorical fence this afternoon.
“I do try to stay neutral because it is a small town and you would start getting a bit of stick if you went one way or the other!”
That would be easier if Smith was still at the helm at Dens. A good friend of the former manager, Wilkie is annoyed he wasn’t given more time and peeved that the exceptional circumstances of the season, where Smith was thrust into the SPL with a team built for the SFL, did not garner him more patience and understanding. As Montrose assistant manager, Wilkie has invited Smith to help out at Links Park as a way of staying involved in the game.
“I feel sorry for the Dundee fans because they do need a bit of stability. They haven’t had that for years. Even when they had the likes of Fabrizio Ravanelli and they were up high, they just needed someone in place who could bring a bit of stability to the club. I actually think that Barry was doing that to a sense, then getting thrown into the SPL disrupted it a little bit. He was preparing a team to win the First Division and suddenly they were in the SPL.”
That desire for stability is why Wilkie is not sold on the idea of bringing Brown in on an interim basis. He is more impressed with the way United have conducted their business.
Wilkie was consulted by United when it came to selecting their new gaffer and is delighted former Scotland team-mate McNamara was given the role. “He was a great player, a great person and one of the people I looked up to when I was in the team. I spoke to Stephen Thompson before he announced him, just to give my thoughts. I think he is a good person and will do a good job. He has got a lot of respect in the game and I think that will come across in his management style. The players will respect that. He has worked with some good coaches and I think the players will definitely improve. He is a young manager and a young coach with new thoughts about the game which is always good for football. You always need new ideas.”
But, while both sides hold a place in his heart, Wilkie says he is unlikely to attend this afternoon’s game. Having been forced to hang up his boots, he says watching his old teams in games he would have hoped to be involved in previously, still hurts too much.
The Scottish Cup is already a bittersweet tournament for the 32-year-old. Having announced that his knee problems had got the better of him and he would be bowing out, his then United team-mates dedicated their 2010 trophy success to him and he joined captain Andy Webster in collecting the cup.
“It was a great thing from Peter Houston and from the players. Obviously, I would have loved to have won it as a player, there would have been nothing better than that, but second best is obviously what happened and I really appreciate everybody allowing me to do that.
“There was a part of it where I did feel slightly embarrassed even doing what I did, but I’m glad I did because I think if I hadn’t I would have regretted it. I just made my decision when the boys came up to me after the game and said ‘we want you to do it’.”
But the competition has offered him little cheer over the years. Growing up a United fan during the time of an alleged jinx, he saw them lose finals to Motherwell and Celtic and then missed out when they finally won in 1994.
“I can’t remember why not! I probably wanted to play football with my mates or something.”
But Dundee served up cup woes as well and, when the team made it to the 2003 final, Wilkie was suspended for the 1-0 defeat to Rangers.
“I deserved a bit of luck in the cups. I got booked in the semi and missed the final. We were so unlucky – it was an Amoruso header and I probably would have been picking him up – although then it might have been 3-0 we got beat!”