My Second Team: Dundee United
In this, the first My Second Team series post that we’ve published since December 2016, Matthew Graham makes his Two Unfortunates debut with an overview of the hows, whys and wherefores of his support for Dundee United.
For the best part of a decade now I’ve lived in cities far away from The Hawthorns, my spiritual footballing home. In these long periods away from Birmingham, the very thought of finding a team that would compete for my interests alongside West Bromwich Albion was, until recently, non-existent.
In October 1993, after my dad took me as an impressionable eight year old to watch West Brom beat Watford 4-1, in what turned out to be a rare win, in another abject season, I was hooked. With hindsight I’m not sure why. It was the start of a life sentence of hope, interspersed with large amounts of disappointment. My dad would cheerily tell me that following West Brom would set me up for life – you won’t always get what you want, so when success does come around, you’ll cherish it even more. Small mercies for a younger me to cling on to, given that for the first stages of my footballing education, the club was a terrible Division One (now Championship) side; for the best part of eight years we flirted between mid-table obscurity and relegation each season, playing in a dilapidated stadium, overseen by a plethora of awful managers guiding a group of misfit journeymen, playing what could be politely described as football.
Like so many other supporters, I cannot really explain what kick-started my lifetime passion for the club. Perhaps, it was the long illustrious history of FA cup wins, European adventures, and great footballing sides, which I heard so many stories about, and yearned, to experience. Maybe witnessing the fleeting glimpses of genuine talent that miraculously pitched up at the club, exemplified by players such as Andy Hunt, Bob Taylor, Richard Sneekes and Enzo Maresca, kept the hope of a revival going. Or in supporting West Brom I was provided with an alternative identity growing up, when most children at school in Birmingham chose to support almost anyone else. What I did know was that nothing would change my love for the club.
However, I think I’m in a similar position to plenty of football fans in that for as long as I can remember, I’ve ‘followed’ the progress of a number of other teams around the world, who you develop a soft spot for. In my case, my ‘other’ teams have been chosen through a mix of a wasted adolescence playing Championship Manager (I’m looking to you New England Revolution), looking out for the results of friends’ teams, combined with my efforts to take in games whenever travelling, including a variety of sides such as Hammarby, Fiorentina, Ajax, Porto, Kaiser Chiefs and Bidvest Wits. Although I regularly look out for these teams’ results, none come close to being labelled as my second team. I like to see how they’re doing, but I really don’t care, and certainly won’t lose sleep over their fortunes.
That was until Dundee United came into my life after I’d moved north to Scotland for work five years ago. In every city I’ve lived – Birmingham, Sheffield, London, and now Dundee – I have watched live football without ever getting the bug to actively support the local team. While living in Sheffield on and off for around seven years, I watched both United and Wednesday on a pretty frequent basis depending on the cheap student deals, and my friends’ allegiances, as well as taking in non-league Hallam FC and Sheffield FC. This love of watching live football has even seen me appear on QPR’s promotion winning (2003-04) official end of season DVD, much to the annoyance of the friends who I watched the game with, but don’t feature in it. And I probably shouldn’t admit it in public, but I’ve sat in every stand at Villa Park, with only one of those games actually involving West Brom. But none of these experiences ever made me think seriously about changing team.
Yet, my conversion from simply watching Dundee United to becoming a supporter was rapid and all encompassing. As a newbie in town, I asked people around the city about which of the two teams I should go and see first; the overwhelming majority suggested Dundee United, although there was little reasoning behind this – there is no major social or geographic divide between the two clubs as both stadiums are on the same street (a great footballing quirk). Taking on board the advice, Tannadice is where I went first, with every intention of going to Dens to see Dundee FC at a later date. Unbeknown to me then, the only time I’d visit Dens would be experiencing it from the away end, watching an abject United getting swept aside en-route to relegation from the Scottish Premier League.
When trying to now explain my now seemingly illogical fascination with Dundee United, the simple reason I can think of was glory supporting. When I first went to watch them at the start of the 2013-14 season they were playing some superb football. Under the stewardship of Jackie McNamara, that Dundee United squad was packed with a number of exciting youngsters, such as Gary Mackay-Stevens, Stuart Armstrong, John Souttar, Ryan Gauld, Andrew Robertson and Nadir Ciftci, who played in an anarchic, attacking style. My first game in August 2013 saw them demolish local rivals St Johnstone 4-0 with some scintillating football, based around this spine of young, exciting and technically-gifted players. This was not the stereotype of Scottish football that I was familiar with. It was supposed to be crap, with battle-hardened journeymen hoofing the ball round, kicking lumps out of each other. My initial experiences were therefore very different, and a refreshing change from my unfounded southern perceptions of what football north of the border was all about.
Drawn in by the entertainment on offer (think Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, or my own reference point of Tony Mowbray’s Albion), I wanted more of it. The next home game I went to, United won 4-0 against St Mirren, which prompted me to visit Tannadice once again, where they thumped Partick Thistle 4-1, a result that was immediately followed up by another 4-1 home win over Hearts. In the space of a few months, I’d gone to four games at Tannadice, seen 12 goals scored, and only two conceded. It all seemed too good to be true. Dundee United had caught my imagination. By the Christmas of 2013 I was going regularly, I’d bought my tangerine and black scarf, as well as an obligatory desert scarf (their nickname, in very un-PC fashion, is the Arabs as they once played in white, on a very sandy pitch, and were termed desert rats by a newspaper). Within half a season I’d nailed my colours to the mast. However, it was last summer when it really hit home to me just how much I cared. On a Sunday afternoon in August 2016, sitting in a bar in Johannesburg, I managed to locate a dodgy internet stream to watch their Betfred Cup tie against Dunfermline; these were not the actions of someone with just a passing interest in United’s fortunes.
Unfortunately for me, those all too brief days of free-flowing attacking football were a relative anomaly in Dundee United’s recent history. As a professional historian, I should probably have checked their past record more closely, but I was seduced by what was in front of me, which appeared to be a bright future. The history of the club also added to the allure. This is the team that has a 100% home and away record against Barcelona in European competition and has won several Scottish Cups. Moderate, but not outlandish successes, of which I’d experienced none of, so nicely in keeping with my life of supporting West Brom. Yet since the millennium Dundee United has in reality been a pretty average side, finishing in the bottom half of the SPL 7 times. My rollercoaster journey quickly went from high to low in spectacular fashion.
Since those exhilarating early days a lot has been crammed into only three and half seasons of watching United. In the plus column, I have been fortunate enough to watch Dundee United play some fantastic and genuinely scintillating attacking football. There was even a brief period when they looked like they might offer an effective challenge to Celtic and Aberdeen at the top of the SPL, based around a technically-gifted young spine of players. I also witnessed the club reach two cup finals in a row (more than I’ve ever experienced with Albion), yet agonisingly falling short in both, contriving to lose to St. Johnstone (2013-14), followed by a humbling by Celtic (2014-15).
The good times have certainly been offset by some major lows, which would have put off even the most casual supporter. First, in my naivety, I believed the club would seek to establish a top three side that might, in exceptional circumstances, challenge Celtic, centred on the nucleus of excellent young players they had. It was very disappointing, then, when all of them were sold off in quick succession. Unsurprisingly, the strategy of selling the best players that formed the spine of the team, most at ridiculously low prices and often to Celtic, failed spectacularly. From challenging for cups and titles, Dundee United were relegated to the Scottish Championship in 2016, playing some of the worst football I’ve ever witnessed (including the lost decade for the Albion circa much of the 1990s), yet I still continued to go. Even in the dark days of February and March 2016, when relegation was all but guaranteed, I went. I felt the hope when it looked like United might just pull off the escape of reaching the relegation play-off, and the disappointment when they were officially relegated.
However, I am used to the experience of relegation with West Brom, after a yo-yo status of the early 2000s, and I’ll freely admit United’s demise was nowhere near as painful. Despite being one of the ‘big’ clubs in the Scottish Championship, the expectations of an immediate return to the SPL were tempered by a growing sense of reality as the year progressed; a fine few months up until Christmas saw United fulfil some of the early promise, but a disastrous run of form in the spring allowed for Falkirk and Hibs to set the pace for the rest of the 2016-17 season, leaving us to finish third. The sense that I support teams that seemingly always fall just short was reinforced by United heroically battling through 6 games of the Premiership play-offs, only to succumb to a 1-0 aggregate loss to Hamilton Academical, which sealed another season in the championship.
Having a second team has been a revelation and a great experience, which I’ve enjoyed immensely. My support of Dundee United has not surpassed my love of West Brom, and I don’t think I’ll ever feel the excitement as keenly as the fortunes of the Baggies, who I continue to follow avidly from afar. Yet, I do think that deep down after uprooting my life to Dundee, I wanted to make this city my long term home; following United was one route towards a greater sense of belonging, providing an easy way to meet new people and ingratiate myself into the city beyond the bubble of university life. Everywhere else I’d lived away from Birmingham, no matter for how long, had always seemed temporary and always within a relatively short train or car journey to the Hawthorns. Moving to Dundee changed this. As my second team United have been new, yet not too dissimilar to my previous footballing experiences – good enough to spark the interest, but also comfortingly average so not to be a true glory supporter; if I’d wanted success I’d have picked Celtic. In the guise of Dundee United, the club has helped to fill the void of regular live football and build genuine affection for my adopted hometown. I can’t really ask for much more than that from a second team, can I?