‘Barry Smith asked me where I wanted to play!’: Die-hard Dee Craig Robertson’s Dundee story

Life-long Dark Blue and Dee4Life member Craig Robertson recalls some of his favourite moments following Dundee, the time he turned down Jim McLean’s offer to join United and when Barry Smith made his dreams come true by asking him to play for The Dee…

All my family are Dundee fanatics so there was never any doubt about who I would support. My first game was a resounding 4-0 defeat at home to Aberdeen in March 1985 when I was four (the programme is in a frame at home), so I suppose you could say it set the tone for the years that followed.  Luckily I don’t remember anything about the game other than snow being piled at the side of the pitch, but it was the whole experience of going to a game at Dens – the walk from the car, climbing the stairs in the main stand, the smells of pipe smoke, seeing so many blue and white scarfs  – that meant I was hooked evermore.

The walk to Dens from whatever direction, especially when the floodlights are on, still gives me that childlike buzz of excitement. Being able to play under the floodlights at Dens is a moment that will live with me forever and I still feel incredibly fortunate to be given that opportunity.  My favourite player around those early years was Jim Duffy. He always seemed to have loads of time on the ball and the way he headed the ball back to Geddes or Carson is a very vivid early memory.  I then graduated to Keith Wright, mainly because he was left footed, but also as he always seemed to give United defenders a hard time, no more evident with his hat-trick in the 4-3 home win in 1989. Other favourite games include the Hearts League Cup game in 1995 and vaulting the greyhound fence onto the pitch after the penalties, the title win at Raith in 1998 and being in the Derry melee after Adamczyk’s late equaliser v United the season after.  The noise in the main stand when Wighton’s winner went in is also a highlight. 

I didn’t miss many games throughout the 90s, home or away, and at that point and climbing the 44 steps of the Derry was just as important to me as the actual result.  Maybe that’s because we spent most of that period in the second tier, but results are sometimes the least important thing about supporting a club like Dundee. It’s getting stories passed down from your Dad, who had the same from his Dad. It’s going to the game with family and friends, sharing experiences good or bad. A lifetime ambition was to see Dundee away in Europe and that is my standout supporter memory.  Along with five friends we made the trip to Vllaznia, 20 years ago this month, with a memorable planes/trains/automobiles experience. The trip was built around a week’s 18-30s holiday in Kavos. We got in at 4.30am ahead of a 5am taxi to the port for a ferry to Sarande in the south of Albania. We then needed to barter with the local taxi drivers to get our best price for a 6-man taxi to Tirana in the North, a journey which took 10+ hours on roads best described as cliff-hanging dirt tracks. When we finally got to the 5-star Sheraton hotel (a far cry from our horrific digs in Kavos) we were greeted by Jimmy Marr and Di Stefano before meeting up with fellow Dees who had travelled a little easier on the chartered trip!  Shout out to Blair Morrison who was our logistics man and who I’m still thank to this day for making that trip possible. 

Craig with a young Albanian he managed to convert while on his Vllaznia trip.

By that point I wasn’t making as many Dundee games as I would have liked as I was playing most Saturdays. I had been ‘S’ form with Rangers and United wanted to sign me, but I wasn’t keen for obvious reasons. I would train with their youths and play in friendlies, but I always wore a Dundee top underneath the United shirt. My brother used to say ‘never let that badge touch your skin’. Even at summer tournaments on the hottest day of the year I’d still have two layers on. Eventually Jim McLean cornered me in the dressing room and told me I had to make up my mind. He was swinging this golf umbrella about and looking as menacing as you’d imagine. When I said I didn’t want to sign he walked out without saying a word.  I think I was lucky not to be chinned!

After that I played for Forfar’s youth team for a few seasons and was about to sign for Lochee United when I went down to Grimsby for a pre-season friendly. We had just signed the likes of Caballero and Nemsadze and about 800 fans made the trip because of the sense of excitement about the club. I came home, apologised to Lochee and got a season ticket for Dens.

When I did eventually sign for Lochee, I still took every opportunity to go to Dundee games when I could. It just so happened that my testimonial year with Lochee was coming up when Dundee went into administration for the second time. We’d talked about getting a game between Dundee and Lochee at the end of the season but it was my mate Paul McMillan who came up with the idea of using it to raise money.

I think we raised something like £14,000 in the end with more than 2,000 turning up and Artero and others taking a game for Dundee. Someone had asked earlier that day if I fancied taking a game for Dundee in the second half and I was delighted. At that point that was living the dream for me and I really didn’t expect what came next.

I was in the office one day and I got a call from my Lochee manager, Paul Ritchie, who asked if I fancied playing for Dundee. Obviously I was stunned but I thought it could be a wind up so I wasn’t totally committing in case the call was being recorded or something. He told me to keep the line free as Barry Smith was about to phone me.

I was standing outside the office with my heart thumping but until I heard Barry’s voice I was still half-thinking it was a joke. I phoned my mum and dad and then my brothers. Once he got over the shock, my older brother started giving me lifestyle advice, telling me to start stretching immediately and get out for a run that night then go straight to bed.

At the pre-match meal, Barry asked if I wanted to start on the left wing or in the middle? I was being asked to pick where I played for Dundee! I think he just wanted me to feel as comfortable as possible and not to make a fuss over me. He told me to go out and do what I’d been doing all season. Then when we got to Starks Park, I was handed the number 9 shirt. It was absolutely crazy! It had all happened so fast I didn’t have much time to get worried. I just floated through on adrenaline but then I was watching the away end fill up during the warm-up and I was suddenly like, ‘shit, I’m actually away to play here.’

My wife and her family, my parents, both my brothers and a couple of car-fulls of mates were there. They’ve told me on numerous occasions since that it was the proudest moment of their time supporting Dundee, which means a lot. You think guys don’t talk about their emotions. Then it comes to football!

I can’t remember much about the game. It went by in a blur. All I was thinking was ‘don’t give the ball away’. Going back into work the next day was surreal. Some guys I worked with had been at the game and everyone wanted to talk about it. I didn’t do a scrap of work that day. I just hid behind my computer screen reading match reports and trying to find my rating out of 10!

The Morton game the following Saturday was different. There was a four-day build up. The adrenaline had worn off and I was thinking about all kinds of stuff – I would be playing for Dundee at Dens. I’d be wearing the dark blue this time rather than the away strip. I kept thinking about all the great number 9s who’ve played at Dens. All these stupid things were going through my head and I didn’t play nearly as well.

Craig in his final appearance for Dundee at Dens Park against Dunfermline. Image: Sean Dee Photography.

Barry told me I could play another game as a trialist and ‘not to do anything stupid at weekends’. I was about to go on my stag do a few weeks later when I got a call saying I was needed to play against Dunfermline in a couple of days. There were about 30-40 boys meeting up but I ended having two pints and going up the road early. My mates had my stag do for me.

It was 1-1 and I came on as a sub. In the last couple of minutes the ball fell to me nicely on the edge of the box and I immediately played it out wide. The first thing my wife said after wards was ‘why didn’t you just shoot?’. I’ve thought about it a lot over the years but in the moment I wasn’t thinking about grabbing the winner or anything like that. Since then I must have had 50 people tell me I should have just hit it but for every single minute I played it was in my head not to do anything stupid. I didn’t want to be in any way responsible for ending that run. I was asked to keep things simple and that’s what I did. Since then a lot of people have told me that I was living their dream for them and that always makes me think about how lucky I am to have had that experience.

I’m still a season ticket holder at Dens. My girls both enjoy coming along to games with me and have been season ticket holders since birth, although they prefer “the seats with a back” in the main stand to the Derry buckets.  And I think the younger one enjoys the hot dogs more than the actual game.  However it’s my duty as a father to pass the Dundee experience on, there is no option in our family to support anybody else.  My older daughter was just one when the Championship was won in 2013 and it’s a great family memory having her in between my wife and I at the final whistle, with her uncle [Declan Gallagher] on the pitch and her grandfather [Steve Martin] in the stand as he was a director at the time.

Craig’s daughters – he has made sure they follow the team in dark blue.

I joined Dee4Life for the same reason I go to Dens every week. Whoever the custodians are, their job should be to steer the club to the best of their ability but never forget why the club exists in the first place. Fans are the biggest stakeholders in every club in the world and as such deserve to have some sort of representation.  It’s logical to me that the more involvement you give a group like Dee4Life, the more invested they become and organic growth of the fan base comes from that. By that I don’t mean involvement as in making decisions, but in the way of ideas/suggestions. 

On paper, Tony Doc looks to have done a decent job of re-assembling a depleted squad so I’m cautiously optimistic of making it to 10th spot which really should be the only ambition this season. Top league consolidation obviously isn’t an option open to my brother-in-law’s new team this season! To be fair to Declan, it’s a great move at this stage of his career, offering security and gets rid of the three-hour daily round trip. That said, I never feel more like singing the blues than when Dundee win and United lose, and I won’t be slow to remind him of that!

To join Craig as a Dee4Life member, sign up here for just £10 a year.

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