Dundee class of ’62 hit their half century

Alan Gilzean scores the second as Dundee go on to claim the title
Alan Gilzean scores the second as Dundee go on to claim the title
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Dundee’s greatest side to be honoured on title anniversary

Fifty years ago this afternoon, Alex Ferguson was involved in another game where the destination of a championship was at stake. Rather than being manager of Manchester United, he was the centre forward at St Johnstone.

Alan Gilzean inducted into the Scottish Football hall of fame

Alan Gilzean inducted into the Scottish Football hall of fame

Rather than seeking a win over local rivals Manchester City, he was in search of the point which would keep him and his St Johnstone team-mates in the First Division, at the same time perhaps frustrating the title ambitions of another set of local rivals.

History shows that, on this occasion, he fell short. Though time may have hampered his memory, his admiration for the opponents that day had not diminished by the time he wrote his autobiography, Managing my Life, in 1999, with the help of ghost-writer Hugh McIlvanney.

“Dundee at that time were a team without a conspicuous weakness, an amalgam of all the attributes needed to win a championship,” he declared, before listing what he believed had been their first XI.

“It wasn’t a bad effort,” noted Patrick Barclay, in his own recently published biography of Ferguson entitled Football – Bloody Hell!, before going on to correct the Manchester United manager’s mistakes. Bert Slater, who Ferguson had misremembered as being in goal that afternoon, was not signed until the summer after Dundee’s maiden championship success, while it was Alan Cousin – not Cousins – whose double-shuffle left defenders bewildered.

Barclay, McIlvanney and Ferguson all have something in common. McIlvanney, then football correspondent for The Scotsman, Barclay, at the time a 14-year-old Dundee supporter, and Ferguson were all at Muirton Park on 28 April 1962, as were the team that trips off the tongue of every Dundee supporter, if not quite one distinguished knight of the realm: Liney, Hamilton, Cox, Seith, Ure, Wishart, Smith, Penman, Cousin, Gilzean and Robertson.

The side picked itself, although Craig Brown, later to become Scotland manager, was one of four stand-ins called upon.

Five team-mates have since joined manager Bob Shankly in the high stand. Shankly passed away shortly after the 20th anniversary of the championship win, while Andy Penman and Alex Hamilton died tragically early, within a year of each other, in the early 1990s. The six surviving members from the class of ’62 will gather again tomorrow night for a gala dinner at the Caird Hall in Dundee, when a ground-breaking year will be toasted.

Elsewhere, Ipswich Town won the First Division championship for the first time in their history. In music, Bob Dylan’s career got under way with the release of his first album.

Although it was a first – and so far only – Scottish title for Dundee, there were players who already knew what it took to win one before the season kicked off with a 3-1 win at Falkirk. Gordon Smith, Bob Seith and Bobby Wishart shared six championships. Indeed, Seith, who had won the league with Burnley in 1960, became the first player to claim an English title and then a Scottish one, in that order.

Smith, famously, earned three championships with the great Hibernian side of the Fifties, and then won another one, aged 35, with Hearts. He turned 37 in the summer before Dundee’s championship season.

Alan Gilzean scored 24 goals, but, when I met the reclusive former striker in January, he underlined again and again who he felt had been the clinching factor in the success: Smith. It seems strange to think of a hero having his own hero, but Smith was certainly that to Gillie, who, unusually, had grown up as a Hibernian fan in the Perthshire town of Coupar Angus. “He should have been Brazilian”, he says, with reference to Smith.

Bobby Wishart, the inside forward, concurs, crediting Smith with providing Dundee with the glamour Gilzean would later bring to Tottenham Hotspur.

“When he came to Dens Park, he brought with him the top press guys,” he says. “Harry Andrews of the Sunday Express started coming to games. Jack Harkness of the Sunday Post, Rex Kingsley of he Sunday Mail, they all started coming up to Dundee. They were the three big guys.

They then started having a look at the team. ‘This guy Gilzean can play, this guy Ure is not bad’, they’d say. They would have come up anyway, but they came up quicker because Gordon was there.”

Wishart had been at Aberdeen when the Pittodrie club won their first Scottish title in 1955. “I wouldn’t say we were experts on it, but we had all been subject to the pressures which gather when it looks like you might be winning a title,” says Wishart of the experienced trio of himself, Smith and Seith. Remarkably, Wishart, with two title medals, cannot even claim to be the owner of the most such mementoes in his own street in Currie. Ralph Brand, a few doors down the road, won seven championships at Rangers. But the Ibrox forward missed out on one in 1962.

It had looked like Dundee had blown it even after a 5-1 win at the home of Rangers, their nearest rivals. Four successive defeats in February and March saw many conclude Dundee were outwith the elite of clubs who possess the required class to win a title.

“After making the early part of the journey in the reassuring glow of smooth success, they stumbled into a dark valley of doubt,” wrote McIlvanney in The Scotsman.

According to Wishart, the Aberdeen team he was part of earned relatively little acclaim compared with Dundee. “They have never had the publicity, the credit which was afforded to Dundee FC,” he says, before pondering why: “Dundee were football, pure football.” Also, Aberdeen did not follow up their title win with a run to the semi-finals of the European Cup, as Dundee memorably managed. “We were not just champions of Scotland, we were in the top four in Europe,” points out Wishart.

It says something that Ferguson should take time out from reviewing his own career to pay tribute to this Dundee side.

It says something that Bob Crampsey, the respected Scottish football historian, hailed them as the best Scottish club side of his lifetime. When Wishart went down to Preston North End to visit Seith, who was manager there for a spell in the late Sixties, all Tom Finney wanted to talk about were the exploits of the Dens Park team.

“He was more interested talking about Dundee’s run in the European Cup than he was talking about himself,” recalls Wishart. “He thought we were terrific.”

Another Englishman impressed by Dundee was Kenneth Wolstenholme, the commentator who later gained fame when reporting on England’s World Cup win in 1966. “I knew Ken from Burnley days and a few of us met up with him after the European Cup games,” says Seith. “He would say: ‘I can’t believe what you are doing’.”

Wolstenholme made his name when noticing some people encroaching onto the Wembley pitch, just prior to Geoff Hurst’s final goal v West Germany. At Muirton Park, 50 years ago today, they simply swarmed on as Dundee did what they had to do, winning 3-0.

“I was never one for pitch invasions,” says Wishart. “I wasn’t used to that. There was no form or protocol for that. The feeling was: get off the park before disaster strikes.”

It wasn’t that kind of afternoon. Given Dundee’s blighted recent history, this was a rare day when everything seemed to fall into place for the Dens Park side. They could even have lost, and still been crowned champions. Rangers were held at home by Kilmarnock in their last game.

“I remember getting up on the morning of the game, it was a beautiful sunny day,” recalls Seith. “I remember thinking everything is right with the world, nothing can go wrong. St Johnstone needed a draw to avoid relegation, we needed a draw to win the championship.

“There were hints that there might be an underhand agreement. I was pleased we won convincingly. We played particularly well that day. I was glad we won with a bit of style.”

Even Gillie will be at the dinner tomorrow, lured north from his base in Weston-Super-Mare. “It’s just a shame the whole lot of us can’t be present,” he told me. There will be fewer still when the 60th anniversary is reached. Now is the time to praise them.