Alan Pattullo: Shakespearean tragedy played out at Tannadice
D undee's senior football clubs are no strangers to controversy. But if Dens Park is the setting for a soap opera, Dundee United are where a Shakespearean tragedy is being played out.
Asked in December 2013 where he saw himself in five years’ time, erstwhile Dundee United chairman Stephen Thompson replied: “Probably still sitting here. With less hair, if that’s possible.”
But Thompson could not have been further away when news broke yesterday that he was stepping down from the role of chairman “with immediate effect”: he was attending the wedding of his eldest daughter in Australia. Before the extreme weather conditions intervened, that happy event was set to clash with his club’s biggest game of the season, against St Mirren last night.
But Thompson has learned a valuable lesson the very hardest way at Dundee United. That is, family comes first. Or at least it should.
It used to be that the club at the top of the street were cast as undisputed top dogs on Tayside for producing colourful stories. Dundee have been the go-to club for journalists who have hitherto enjoyed feasting on a diet that included signing Claudio Caniggia and two administrations. On a busy day for reporters in the city yesterday, the announcement Dundee made a loss of more than £350,000 in the last financial year confirms the Dens Park club are determined to be competitive on the dysfunctional front. But United’s plight includes another dimension. There’s something profoundly poignant about what has occurred at the club over the last decade.
Indeed, it’s possible to trace this back further, to when Jim McLean, the architect of the modern Dundee United, was twice cast out to the extent that he had his privileges at Tannadice withdrawn for a spell.
But it’s the Thompsons we are concerned with today. And how one man’s obsession with a football club has sown the seeds for such a bleak harvest, provoking hostility from the stands as well as familial discord.
It’s 20 years since grocery store magnate Eddie Thompson began his quest to take over the club having started following United after moving to Dundee in his twenties. He finally bought out McLean in 2002, spending an estimated £1.2 million to acquire the former manager’s shareholding after an often-bitter battle.
Cancer cruelly struck Thompson down just six years after he achieved his dream. There’s little question the long hours and stress involved in trying to return the club to the top did not help treatment. He attempted to put his affairs in order, appointing son Stephen to the role of chief executive before his death.
Daughter Justine, meanwhile, became a director and was primed for a leading role before more tragedy intervened. She lost her husband Ken in a motorcycle accident days before her father died in 2008. Justine, pictured, resigned as a director in 2016, shortly after a Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Hibs. Relations between her and Stephen are understood to be strained. The club has proved a tricky inheritance.
Even walking the streets of his hometown has proved problematic for Stephen. On top of this, a student teacher is to stand trial this month accused of assaulting him after a Betfred Cup tie at Dens Park earlier this season. Stephen has been eyeing a way out of a challenging, high-profile position for some time. A final parting of ways between the club and a family now seems to have been set in motion.
There is still a stand named after Eddie Thompson. Cath, Eddie’s widow, remains honorary club president. But as happened in the case of McLean, relations have soured.
Few are mourning Stephen Thompson’s exit – if that is what the latest development signals.
There is often an empty seat where Justine once sat in the Eddie Thompson stand. According to one source, she is now an “infrequent” attender at games. Whether Stephen will continue to go to matches remains to be seen.
One consequence of yesterday’s news is that there will be no obligation for him to attend the club’s next agm, on 30 March. With United currently 17 points behind Championship leaders St Mirren and simply fighting to get games on, never mind win them, it was shaping up to be an uncomfortable assignment for Thompson. Short as well as long-term finance has to be to a worry – United have managed to play just two home games this year due to postponements because of weather and cup commitments.
Thompson intends to sell “the bulk” of his shares in the club over the coming months. Justine has already sold hers – to Mike Martin, the man who succeeds her brother as chairman. All Arabs hope he has a plan.
There are just three directors left: Jimmy Fyfe, David Dorward and Martin, the newly installed chairman. Martin, who is based in Dalkeith, will be asked to reveal his intentions by reporters at a press conference at Tannadice on Monday. It’s speculated he has buyers standing by to purchase Thompson’s shares. Gussie Park, the pitch across the road from Tannadice, has already been sold to Martin, with the funds likely to be used to pay off some, if not all, of the soft loans received from the Thompsons, estimated to be around £680,000.
This in turn brings us to the question of what has been the price of the Thompson family’s involvement in United – financially at least.
We’re all familiar with the quip that the way to make a small fortune from a football club is to start off with a large one. They are certain to have lost money but perhaps not as much as suggested after the sale of shares and paying back of loans. Until cancelling it two years ago, Stephen also paid himself an annual salary.
However, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for Thompson junior. The statement released by the club yesterday sought to underline his successes but also noted the disappointment of relegation that occurred on his watch. They won a Scottish Cup in his reign – just United’s fifth major honour – but were also relegated from the Premiership, which could prove the more significant event in terms of the welfare of the club.
Yet it’s the impact on a human level that turns this tale into one containing such a hefty emotional charge – and leaves one family reeling from the cost.