Interview: Dave Bowman on red mist, red cards and Jim McLean

Midway through my chat with Dave Bowman, a woman from the Tannadice staff approaches'¨with a greeting card. Someone is leaving and she wants one of the toughest-tackling players ever to wear the tangerine of Dundee United to sign it. Then, spotting my recorder, she apologises for interrupting the interview by letting slip a wee swearie word.

Now 54 years of age, Dave Bowman is a scout at Dundee United. Picture: Sammy Turner/SNS

“Aw naw,” says Bowman pointing at me, “this guy here’s a good Christian and we’ve been nattering about God. How’s you blaspheming like that going to help me get into the ministry? I’m hoping to become club chaplain here.”

“Aye right,” laughs the woman as she beetles away. “Do you want me to tell your friend whit you’re really like?”

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Dave Bowman, whit’s he really like? Well, United fans dubbed him Psycho and before a city derby the local constabulary thought they should have a reassuring word with him as a death threat had been issued.

He was once sent off four times. No, the number of red cards in a single match totalled five. Actually, both are true. Two separate conflagrations in the fag-end of his career at Forfar Athletic are often mixed up.

But could you meet a nicer, friendlier, funnier, mellower, more self-effacing, less macho fellow? I doubt it. Every Saturday afternoon Bowman, now 54, would try to win the ball in the middle of the park and sometimes – quite often, actually – that would involve him kicking people. “Then every Saturday evening I would go home and play with my daughters – I’ve got five of them – before they went to bed. It was always exciting when their Barbie
dolls got new outfits. And I’ll never forget when Cindy took delivery of her fantastic caravan…”

On fourth-round day in the Scottish Cup, he’s testament to the virtues of trying and trying and trying again. Three times in five years he helped the Arabs reach the final and three times they lost. “The first of them [1987] was sandwiched between the two legs of our Uefa Cup final – thanks a bloody lot, SFA – and St Mirren beat us. The following year we were one-nil up against Celtic and Eamonn [Bannon] was about to score with a header
only we were made to play with a new kind of ball, the Derby Star, and because it was much bouncier it scudded into the turf and cleared the bar. Roy Aitken – who should have been sent off earlier, by the way – led the charge for their comeback. Then in 1991 against Motherwell I scored a goal, which didn’t happen very often, but still we couldn’t win. So yet again during the presentation we had to walk past the cup with the other team’s ribbons on it. I’ve always thought that was a cruel trick to play on the losers. And to twist the knife some more that year we got given the winners’ medals by mistake and had to hand them back later!”

But, in 1994, United at last lifted the trophy. With the scruffiest, sclaffiest goal but who cares? It ruined Rangers’ double treble. The trick this year will be to stop Celtic’s treble treble. This afternoon the Arabs, for whom Bowman now scouts, make the short but potentially hazardous journey up the north-east coast to Montrose. Ever been the victim of a cup shock, Dave?

“At United there were a couple of close shaves, East Fife and Forfar. When I was at Hearts, though, Forfar managed to cause an upset [1982]. There’s a poignant story 
to that game. Two days before it their 
striker John Mitchell, who lives along the beach from me in Broughty Ferry, stopped his car to change a tyre when this lorry hit him. He was in an awful bad way but the Forfar boys won the tie for him. I think they backed themselves to do it with their win bonuses.”

For the United heroes of ’94 there will be a 25th anniversary reunion. “I haven’t seen some of them for a while. Welshy [Brian Welsh] is in Washington although I did bump into Gordy [Gordan Petric] at a charity match. What a size he is now – he must have eaten half of Belgrade!” That team were managed by Ivan Golac, who hippyishly reasoned that smelling the flowers might circumvent United’s cup hoodoo. “Ivan was great. He made you feel like the best player in the world. He said Jerren Nixon was worth £14 million. But, although I was pleased to have finally won the cup, I was sad for guys like Luggy [Paul Sturrock], Heggy [Paul Hegarty] and big Dave Narey, the best player I ever saw, whose time had gone. By ’94 there was only Jimmy Mac [Jim McInally], Mo [Maurice Malpas] and myself left from the previous attempts. And of course I was sad for wee Jim.”

Bowman has lots of stories about Jim McLean, pictured inset above, some funny, some touching. And he begins with an impassioned defence of the great grumpy potentate’s methods. “Folk used to say he put too much pressure on us – rubbish. Pretty much everything I achieved in football was down to him. Yes, he was a bit of a tyrant. Yes, he was never satisfied. But I wouldn’t have played for Scotland if wee Jim hadn’t pushed me all the way.”

He pushed everyone, and now the sons of wee Jim push themselves. Every year United legends set off from Tannadice on a charity cycle round the four Angus clubs. It’s a 75-mile slog and Bowman recalls how last time in the teeth of a biting Arbroath gale he was pedalling but not actually moving. “There was an electric bike for those who got too tired and Raymie [Ray McKinnon] had to resort to it. Now, he had more ability in his little toe than me but I was under wee Jim’s command for a bit longer and so were big Dave, Heggy, Mo, Hamish [McAlpine] and Holty [John Holt], who organises the cycle. We all managed to keep going.”

Now Bowman is laughing because he’s remembering possibly the most unintentionally funniest of McLean’s half-time explosions. “There was an old washing basket full of shinpads and wee Jim was 
so angry he tried to kick it across the 
dressing-room and got his foot stuck.” As lobsters will tell you, reversing out of a creel is almost impossible. “Our speed coach was on the floor trying to free wee Jim’s foot while he carried on bawling at us. Did we laugh? No way!

“I was used to wee Jim by then but when I made my United debut I wasn’t. After that game he was roaring at big Dave: ‘That’s it. You’ll never play for this club again.’ I thought he was serious. Then Heggy got it. Was there going to be anyone left for the next match? But wee Jim was light years ahead of other managers. We had a speed coach. We knew about nutrition. We had psychologists. One of them, on our recommendation, suggested to wee Jim there should be a cooling-off period after games so he shouldn’t march straight into the dressing-room and rant. So what happened? He stripped off and jumped in the shower and ranted. As far as he was concerned he hadn’t contravened the agreement.”

A bollock-naked bollocking, indeed, and McLean was a difficult man to gag. Banned from the dugout he would resort to using a walkie-talkie to stay in touch with his staff, only this wheeze came unstuck at Tynecastle. “We could see him in the stand and didn’t know why he was using hand signals and getting more and more agitated. His walkie-talkie was stuck on a frequency used by a local taxi firm so wee Jim was probably getting cabbies asking for their next pick-up. He had quite a few problems with technology. During video analysis he’d press fast-forward instead of rewind. But, as I say, no one ever laughed.”

The sons of wee Jim are saddened by his poor health. A few years ago McLean confided in Bowman he wished he’d enjoyed a more convivial relationship with the players. Bowman quickly disabused him of this notion, stressing that tough love, not having favourites and treating star men and kids equally amounted to a good formula – and that when Bowman later went to Raith 
Rovers and received special treatment it didn’t do him any good.

McLean in reflective mode said something else which Bowman cherishes. After McLean retired, Bowman’s father Andy and McInally’s dad Archie called on him to offer thanks for progressing their sons’ careers all the way to the national team. “Wee Jim told me that meant more to him than winning leagues and cups, which is an incredible thing for him to have said.”

Andy Bowman was a player, too, a Hearts legend from the golden era no less but an extremely modest one, and young Dave had to find about these late 1950s/early 1960s exploits by himself. Born in Tunbridge Wells where his father finished his career, the lad couldn’t work out, on early trips to Tynecastle to watch Donald Ford in action, why so many fans wanted to shake the old man’s hand. “Then I found a suitcase in the eaves of our house. It was full of newspaper cuttings about Dad’s team winning the title and the League Cup. One of his medals was mounted on a plaque showing that Hearts were champions having lost just one game [1957-58]. Some achievement.”

In common with many of his generation the kind of fatherly encouragement Bowman received was quiet and undemonstrative. “High praise was ‘You played okay’.” But on the public parks of Edinburgh some bonnie talents were skipping round the dog poo and broken glass. Bowman’s exact contemporaries at his famous juvenile club Salvesen and great rivals like Hutchie Vale included John Robertson, Gary Mackay, John Hughes, Keith Wright, Darren Jackson, Ian Westwater and Gordon Marshall. “Robbo and I go even further back, to Parsons Green Primary. I used to tell folk that between us we scored 300 goals for the school, not mentioning that I only got ten of them.” At Portobello High his guidance teacher was rugby guru Jim Telfer. “He asked me: ‘What do you want to be?’ ‘Footballer,’ I said. ‘You’ll need a fall-back if that doesn’t work out.’ he said. I told him I didn’t have one. He kept on at me about that until eventually he said: ‘You know what? I think you’ll probably make it in football.’

Tap “Dave Bowman” into YouTube and the first clip is of him as a teenage Jambo tangling with future team-mate Narey. “That was my first sending off so I like to blame the big man for how my career panned out. I tell him: ‘I was a top playmaker, dead flamboyant, then you turned me into a monster’.” The truth is Bowman has always been ferociously competitive, even at board games, even in such a female-dominated household.

I mention TV’s The Fast Show and the Competitive Dad sketch where the father resorts to calling up his lawyer on Christmas Day to ask if he can sue his son over non-repayment of Monopoly debts. “I think my girls might have some horror stories like that. Whatever I’m playing I have to win.” Marshall and his other golfing buddies can testify to that, too, and have taken to winding up Bowman when putts are missed by mimicking his response to all those red cards. “I didn’t realise until they pointed it out but I used to haul my shirt out of my shorts before storming off.”

Hearts liked Bowman’s competitiveness right up until the moment they needed to cash in on it. “Robbo, Gary and I knew, with the state of the club’s finances, that one of us would be sold.” At Coventry City Bowman enjoyed teaming up with Cyrille Regis but was frustrated by the club’s lack of ambition. “They seemed happy just avoiding relegation and going a couple of rounds in the FA Cup. The year after I left, what happens? They go and win the FA Cup. Meanwhile I get involved with these eternal runners-up.” Until United’s pumpkin turned into an open-top bus and they became winners, too.

Later Bowman fancied venturing abroad, ending up in a place where public executions happened. This was China during a hair-raising year at a club called Yee Hope, although there wasn’t much of that on display. “I was at a golf driving range where there were these deep gouges in a wall. I thought to myself ‘Jings, they can batter a ball here’ but then was told they were bullet holes.” The owner of Bowman’s Hong Kong-based club was a bit of a lunatic. “He thought all Scotsmen drank whisky for breakfast and was always plying me with the stuff. But he looked after us, not letting us fly to away games. ‘Planes just disappear,’ he told us, so we were sometimes 16 hours on a bus instead. The food was a challenge. ‘What’s that?’ I’d ask. ‘Beef,’ I was told. ‘And that?’ ‘Beef.’ ‘But this doesn’t look like that!’ There were often cats and dogs in cages outside the restaurants. If something tasted all right I’d eat it.”

Forfar was the last hurrah for this serial tackler and frustrations often boiled over. “I knew I was coming to the end. Wee clubs are brilliant but at that level guys would train pre-season then go on holiday for a fortnight. They’d lose four-nil then fret about their coupons. They’d be brickies who, understandably, couldn’t afford to be off work if they got injured so wouldn’t tackle hard.” Bowman still tackled hard, the only way he knew how. The four-red card game was against Berwick Rangers. Some dismissals were completely justified; other times his thundering reputation went before him. “I was told by [Dundee-based referee] Bob Valentine that my name would already be written down in most books before games with only the time of my offences needing added. I don’t know if he was joking!”

The five reds came against Stranraer in 2001 and followed a professional foul where he wasn’t even the culprit. “I protested, got a card, flicked it with a finger, got another. This went on and on. The fifth, for kicking the ref’s door, was on behalf of all officials everywhere: ‘We’d like you to retire now!’

“Listen, I wasn’t proud of some of my tackles. Two of my girls came to see me play for United and were a minute late in getting to their seats, by which time I’d already been sent off for kicking [Hibs’] Keith Wright. My wife used to tell me off for embarrassing my daughters when they were old enough to read about my red cards in the papers, but what can I say? At the time I thought all those tackles had to be made. The fund for a statue for wee Jim needs £70,000. Didn’t I fork out that in fines? And here’s a funny thing: my eldest girl Jemma has gone and married a ref – Craig Hicks – who’s in the English Championship. Lovely chap, but I’d much rather he was a bloody traffic warden!”