Former Dundee chairman Bill Colvin shares his remarkable DFC journey with us and why he thinks being a member of Dee4Life is important…
Bill Colvin never intended to become involved with Dundee. He was a lifelong Dunfermline fan who had lived in the south of England for many years. He was approaching a point in his life when, after a highly successful career in the care industry, most would look to wind down their commitments.
Taking on a stressful and time-consuming new interest wasn’t part of the plan, and sinking several hundred thousand pounds of his own money into a football club he didn’t even support certainly wasn’t on the agenda.
But then tragedy and opportunity combined to change Bill and his wife’s Pam’s life and bring them into the orbit of a fanbase who will forever remain grateful or the role he played in saving their club.
Investing in Dundee
The history of Dundee FC is commonly told through football grounds across Scotland – West Craigie Park, Caroline Port and Dens, Ibrox, Hampden and Muirton – but the role that the 2010 Scottish Care Home Awards ceremony played in the club’s story is less well-known. It was at this event that current Dee4Life director Kenny Valentine sought out Bill, his friend and former colleague, to ask if he might be able to help Dundee out of the financial mess they had found themselves in. As it turned out, Bill had been thinking along similar lines and the conversation they had at the bar of the Glasgow Hilton would have far-reaching consequences for the Dark Blues.
“My father-in-law, Bill Gordon, was a big Dundee supporter,” explained Bill. “He was there when they won back-to-back League Cups at Hampden and he would take great pleasure in reminding me that Dundee’s record victory [10-0 in 1947] was against the Pars. Pam and I had bought her parents a house down here in Surrey so he hadn’t been to watch the team for a lot of years but I had a friend who was a business associate of Peter and Jimmy Marr. They very kindly arranged for me and my father-in-law to go to a game at Dens. Peter arranged for Bobby Cox to spend time with us and that meant so much to Bill. Bobby presented him with a Dundee tie and you would have thought it was made of gold he was so delighted.
That was my first experience with Dundee and it left me with a really positive impression of the club.
“Very sadly Bill died when he was on holiday with us up in Scotland a few years later. The following day, the club went into administration for the second time. We used to get the Courier delivered down here every day and it helped build the banter between Bill and I when Dundee were playing the Pars. We would read about how the club might not survive and think about how Bill would have felt about that. That got us thinking about using some of the money from his house to help his club live on. But it was just an idea at that stage and that’s where Kenny came in. I’ve known him for a long time through the care industry and he knew Pam’s dad had been a Dundee fan. I was asking him ‘how the hell do I get into Dundee to offer some help?’”
Kenny, who was volunteering with Dundee FC Supporters Society – as Dee4Life was then known – promised to connect Bill with club chief executive Harry MacLean. A follow-up call took place while Bill was on holiday on Bermuda. Kenny claims the money his friend was willing to pledge grew with every bottle of beer he sunk. By January 2011, when Bill flew up to Scotland to meet with Harry, his donation had ballooned into a very substantial sum.
‘Crazy’ Dee-fiant memories
Aside from the finances involved, news of Bill and Pam’s generosity helped fuel the ‘Dee-fiant’ spirit that was driving the club to defy the odds by surviving the 25-point penalty designed to ensure relegation. At a time when those involved with the club felt under attack from all sides, the Colvins showed that not only did Dundee still have friends out there, but also ones willing to fight for its existence.
“You have my wife to thank for all this, she’s the one who had been brought up a Dundee fan and who kept encouraging me as we got deeper and deeper in,” laughed Bill. “It was unbelievable that we survived the points deduction. What Barry Smith – one of the nicest men I’ve ever met – did was incredible. Then you had Steve Martin’s son-in-law [Craig Robertson] being called up from the juniors, Neil McCann scoring that goal against Raith and Sean Higgins playing with steak in his boots. It was crazy.
“The longer the unbeaten run went on, the more addicted we got. It really is like a drug, isn’t it? We were following every minute of it. If we couldn’t be at the games, we were following them on the television or the radio and Pam used to run around the coffee table every time we scored. She was already a fan but got deeper into it and I got hooked as well.
“I have so much respect for every one of those players who got us through. When Sparky went to Wolves and when Craig Forsyth went down south they waived their fee so the club could keep the cash. That was young guys giving up a substantial amount of money and I don’t think a lot of people know that. And there was everything that the supporters were doing. It was a real team effort to keep the club alive.”
The highs of the Deefiant season would prove impossible to maintain. Two unhappy years of fan ownership included an unexpected elevation to the top flight in the place of the imploding Rangers followed by a humbling relegation as the club struggled to find any kind of security. Throughout this period, Bill continued to support the club financially, helping to stave off disaster by ensuring wages were paid on one occasion. Originally Bill and Pam had envisaged making a single donation and stepping away when the club exited administration. Instead, Bill was elected to the club’s board of directors in April 2013 and was destined to become part-owner shortly afterwards.
“There were a lot of really good people doing their best, but the club needed money to get back on its feet again,” he said. “I was busy with work so didn’t really have time to get involved but as I was putting more and more money in, I felt I should maybe be having more of an influence over how it was spent.
“After I joined the board, [former CEO] Scot Gardiner called me out of the blue and said, ‘I’ve got these Americans who are really keen on putting money into the club’. Back in those days I was going back and forward to Houston every two or three months on business, so Scot and Steve Martin flew over to Houston with me to meet Tim Keyes and John Nelms. My company had a box at Houston Dynamo so we took them to the game. It was something of a validation that all the Dynamo guys I introduced them to already knew them through John’s involvement with youth football there and Tim’s business background.
“I talked to banks, people that worked with them, advisors, accountants. It was clear they had money behind them and, to be honest with you, the prospect of having someone to share the load was appealing to me.
“Dundee fans had been absolutely unbelievable. They had put a lot of money in but when money is required overnight, you can’t just go and arrange a fundraiser so I was quite happy to see another investor in there.”
Relationships were strained as the newly formed Football Partners Scotland sought to buy a controlling stake in Dundee while DFCSS directors held out for assurances how the deal would protect the club and to allow rank-and-file members to vote on whether to give up their hard-fought ownership. Tired of what they saw as delaying tactics, Bill, Steve Martin and finance director Iain Crichton resigned from the board, only to retake their positions once the sale was completed. Bill was the now the chairman of a club he had never imagined becoming involved with.
“Things did turn ugly in that period, but I certainly understood why they were cautious,” admitted Bill. “They had had to endure some fairly unusual owners, shall we say, who had made bold promises that didn’t materialise. Now they had people saying ‘we’re going to put all this money in’ and it was understandable they were wondering what the catch was.
“When John, Steve and I held meetings to appease fans who might have concerns about us, I was shocked at the number of people that turned up. The places were packed and there was a whole cross section of the city there. It showed the passion that people feel for the club and that’s what drove Pam and I on to keep supporting the club financially. We would look around the ground and see little kids at the games with their grandparents and such a diverse range of people and it was wonderful. At any club the fans keep it going and should be an integral part of it. I think it is important there are supporters’ organisations like Dee4Life looking out for fans and asking questions. I know from speaking to Kenny how hard he and the current Dee4Life board are working to ensure Dundee fans have a voice so I would encourage as many as possible to join up.”
Bill stood down as Chairman in May 2015, with the club having won promotion and achieved a top 6 Premiership finish since FPS had taken over. He had been instrumental in appointing Paul Hartley to the manager’s post and the two enjoyed a strong relationship for the rest of Bill’s time on the board.
“John Brown had done a brilliant job in nearly avoiding relegation the previous year but it was becoming obvious that we had to look elsewhere to ensure we got promoted,” recalled Bill. “Paul had done a great job at Alloa and he carried us over the line, thank God. There are two things that really stick in my mind about that time. The first was watching the game against Cowdenbeath the year we got promoted when Greg Stewart and Kane Hemmings tore us to bits. I ran downstairs after the game and said, ‘We’ve got to sign Greg Stewart’ and Paul looked at me and said, ‘it’s already in motion, Chairman’.
“The other was when we played Aberdeen in the cup and we were sitting next to Alex Ferguson at the game. He couldn’t understand why I was praying for a draw but it was because I wanted the replay money. And then David Clarkson came on and scored the winner in injury time!
“It was an exciting time. I tried to buy the stadium off John Bennett several times, but we never got it over the line. I never felt it was an absolute essential to own the ground and thought it was more important that we found money to keep it in good shape for the fans.
“It was an honour to be Chairman of the club and to have done something for the supporters, to have worked with the people I did and get to know so many fantastic players – guys like Peaso, Jimmy McAllister and Gary Harkins. Jesus, what a player Harkins was!”
So, given all that, does he ever regret stepping away?
“No. I think it was the right time for me to step back but we still follow Dundee to this day. Not as closely as we used to because it’s quite a trek from Surrey to Dundee. For a couple of seasons we were flying up for games every two or three weeks but we uncoupled ourselves a bit over the years. I’ve not been up to Dundee for a while, but we’ll hopefully be at Dens later this year.
“Everything we did was great fun. There are some great people around the club, and it’s such an important part of the fabric of the city. We got hooked and don’t regret a single thing. In fact, I’d do it all again. If it the worst ever comes to the worst again, I’ll be there for Dundee.”
To join Bill in the Dee4Life ranks, sign up today for just £10 a year.