Scottish soccer is in crisis this week, with Rangers’ demotion to the depths leaving the nation with an unwanted distinction: Scotland is the only nation to have two 50,000-seat stadiums that are home to fourth division sides.
The financial implications of Rangers’ collapse has yet to be fully felt. It is believed that the league will lose massive amounts of money from commercial deals that will certainly be re-negotiated; St. Mirren chair Stewart Gilmour said on the weekend that as many as five clubs could be in bankruptcy as soon as tomorrow.
But you might not have known that if you showed up this weekend here on Tayside, where over ten thousand fans packed tiny Dens Park on that rarest of things: a sunny day in Scotland.
The Tayside derby is a rarity: Dundee’s two teams, Dundee FC and Dundee United, had not met since a 2009 friendly and have not played a competitive fixture since 2005. The teams enjoy one of the most unique rivalries in soccer: their stadiums are the closest in the game, situated right across Tannadice Road from one another. While it is an exaggeration to say that you can lean out of one stadium and touch the other, you certainly can punt a ball from the Jim McLean End into the Bob Shankly Stand.
Both teams’ glory days have long since passed: Dundee celebrated the 50th anniversary of their First Division title last year (never repeated since;) Dundee United were powerful in the early 1980s and have been in steady decline since. In fact, while Dundee United are are tipped to finish second in next year’s SPL, they were named as one of the five clubs who are expected to go bust. (The other clubs in straits are Motherwell, Inverness, St. Mirren and Kilmarnock.) Many others are in severe financial difficulty.
Those financial issues were a large reason last Saturday’s game took place: it was baldly advertised as a “transfer kitty special” – a way for both teams to raise the cash they need to buy players. The game’s significance was magnified by the fact that Dundee didn’t even know what division it would be playing in next season. Dundee finished second in the First Division last season and was expected to be named as Rangers’ replacement, but that left them in a weird sort of limbo. If they went up, they would have to buy SPL caliber players; if they were to remain down, they wouldn’t.
The game had special significance for me: I grew up just across the river from Dundee, on the border of St. Andrews. I am a fervent Dundee United fan.
Fans of the club are called “Arabs” (because of a fixture we once played on sand put down to fix a frozen pitch) and once, about thirty years ago, we were pretty good for a provincial side. We won the league, we played in Europe and played well, and hosted a lot of Scotland’s biggest names of the era.
I also saw the Dees play every other weekend – part and parcel of having a father who covered the game for a living — and while I have nothing against them, let’s face it, you can only have one team. This had nothing to do with my support of the team, but you should also know that Dundee United have an odd American tie-in: in the 1960s, the old NASL imported the team whole cloth to play as the “Dallas Tornado.” In the process, Dundee United picked up its famous orange strip.
When I was growing up, the games were famous for their nastiness. You could not walk through the center of town wearing colors on gamedays, and wandering into the wrong pub with the wrong scarf could lead you with serious injuries. That violence has long since dissipated, thankfully — and yet, I was still shocked to see fans of both teams mingling peacefully on gameday. Why? Well, I was once told to take a scarf off before I entered a shopping mall on a Saturday morning for safety reasons — and I was nine at the time.
Part of that is due to Dundee’s character – it is pretty tough. The city is one of the poorer ones in Britain, and the historic industries — jute, jam and journalism – have receded. That allowed, Dundee is also pretty resilient — the city is undergoing an ambitious waterfront revival and the town that once was best known for marmalade has birthed some very modern companies: Grand Theft Auto is straight out of Hilltown.
There’s no denying the passion at this derby, however: I was stuck in the Dundee end and so when Dundee United scored only three minutes in, I had to mute my celebrations. (They will punch you even if you are wearing glasses.) Jon Daly would go on to score a hat trick, and my Arabs walked away 3-0 winners.
No, it was not the greatest game from a technical standpoint. Dundee tried hard, but they are slow and lack a scorer. Dundee United are slicker but a decent team would eat them alive. But they are also both pretty entertaining teams to watch, and frankly, if MLS’ crowds had half the passion, they’d be four times as good.
Dundee will get a chance for revenge: they will face Dundee United at least four more times this season in the SPL, and they will try to make the Arabs choke on their taunts. (“SPL you’re having a laugh” is the only one I can print.) Those games may not be as friendly.
You can find out for yourself. The SPL will be on FOX Soccer Plus all year long. The Tayside derby may not be the most famous — it may well be the weirdest, come to think of it — but it is a lot of fun.