A day in Dundee as United followers stare into the abyss

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Dundee United fans
Dundee United fans have been exasperated this season
Scottish Premiership: Dundee v Dundee United
Date: Monday, 2 May Venue: Dens Park Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland 810MW/DAB/online; live text commentary on BBC Sport website

Word had it that Blind Derek had all the answers.

If you wanted to know what was what in the on-going shambles at Dundee United then get yourself to the Phoenix in Nethergate, that was the message. The oracle would be there in his usual spot, left-hand side of the bar, stick, maybe a dog. You'll hear him before you see him; gushing with insight and invective on the downfall of his beloved Arabs.

On Thursday lunchtime we arrived at the Phoenix; a Derek-free zone. "He's not about," says the barman, who neither knows nor cares about the travails at Tannadice. All of it goes in one ear and out the other when Del is in full flight.

"He's away in Iceland," says a regular. "That's where he had his accident. Skied into a tree while dressed as Santa."

There's black comedy in the tale of the mysterious Blind Derek and that's fitting given why we're in town. United fans are beleaguered as never before, but they're not beyond a bit of dark humour. Theirs is a miserable plight, but they can laugh at it, too.

Walking down Nethergate there's a man who turns out to be a United fan waiting to cross the road. Is he going to Dens Park on Monday night to witness the possible humiliation of his team by their city rivals? "No," he says, deadpan. "I'm going into jail for the evening. I'll get more peace in there."

Dundee United players
It's been a season of dejection for Dundee United's players

Thursday was a dank day in Dundee; rain and a touch of sleet. Outside St Mary's parish church, there's a man herding people into his drop-in centre. A Dundee fan, as it turns out. A grandson of John Petrie who, as an 18-year-old, scored 13 goals in Arbroath's historic 36-0 Scottish Cup victory over Bon Accord in 1885.

"United could do with him," he smiles. "I'm half expecting to see some of them coming in for divine intervention. Maybe it's too late for them now. Ah, you don't like to see it. I mean that. I don't want United to be relegated."

'No tactics, no heart'

The fatalism is everywhere. There are no dreamers knocking around in the Tannadice support. Nobody has even the faintest hope of a great escape for Mixu Paatelainen's side, who will be relegated if they do not win on Monday.

Fans talk about the past, which was not always glorious, that's true, but it was better than the dreadful place the club is in now. There was a connection, a feeling of togetherness, but the bond has been lost.

As you go about the city and talk to the supporters the message of the shattered link between the club and its fans repeats over and over again.

There's refuge from the rain in the back of Groucho's Record Shop, owned by Alastair Brodie and managed by Frank Mills - a pair of United fans since they were kids.

Frank is just back in the door from Tannadice. He went to buy his early-bird season ticket and did so with a heavy heart. He's going on Monday, too. He fears he'll see his team relegated, but he's going anyway.

Dundee United head coach Mixu Paatelainen
Paatelainen replaced Jackie McNamara in October

He remembers his grandfather bringing him to watch United play back in 1962 and since the 1970s he reckons he's missed half-a-dozen home games, tops. "When you think about it; 54 years a fan," he says.

"What do I feel now? I felt real anger on Sunday when we lost to Hamilton. Today, it's just resignation. So many mistakes have been made, so many disgraceful performances.

"We were relegated in 1995, but it wasn't like this. That team was 10 times the side this lot are. I look at them and it's baffling. No tactics, no heart.

"Jackie McNamara had to go and Mixu's been a disaster after him. I've sat in the stand and thought, 'If only we'd paid the money for Tommy Wright'. Tommy Wright would have kept us up."

United fans can pin-point the moment it all started to go wrong - February 2015, when Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven were sold to Celtic. Their last game for United was a 2-1 victory over Aberdeen in the League Cup semi-final.

Celtic players Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong
Mackay-Steven and Armstrong moved to Celtic at a crucial stage of last season

They were sitting fourth in the Premiership at the time, three points behind Inverness but with a game in hand. They'd put 10 goals on Dundee in two games. No side, Celtic included, had scored as many in the league as United had at that point - 46 in 23 games then as opposed to 34 in 34 games now.

Everything unravelled quickly.

"From the minute the two boys walked out the door you could see it go down the way," says Frank in Groucho's. "Other players in that team raised their game when those two were in the side and when they weren't there anymore they just went back to being ordinary."

Disconnect with the fans

Jim Spence has been a beat reporter in Dundee for a quarter of a century and he agrees with the timeline. "Absolutely, that was the moment, that was the killer," he says. "When those two went, it ripped the heart out of the side."

United sell, as most clubs sell. John Souttar and Nadir Ciftci; Ryan Gauld and Andrew Robertson; Armstrong and Mackay-Steven; Johnny Russell, Scott Allan and David Goodwillie.

There comes a time, though, when you've got little left to sell, when you burgle your bank of youth once too often.

The more people you talk to about United's demise the more one name pops up. It's not McNamara or any of his players. It's not Paatelainen or any of his. It's not the failed, almost slapstick, signings of recent times, though many of them come in for heavy flak, not so much for their lack of ability but their lack of spirit.

No. Stephen Thompson, the chairman, is very much at the centre of the cross-hairs.

Dundee United chairman Stephen Thompson
Thompson is willing to listen to offers for his majority shareholding

We have to be balanced about Thompson, but you'll struggle to find anybody in Dundee who'll provide it. There's been some heady times on his watch, some wonderful football, some footballers that were the envy of the country, some cup finals.

Thompson reduced the debt from around £7m to just a shade over £1m now - a soft loan. He has done good work, but perception is reality and the perception of the United fans is that Thompson has fallen asleep at the wheel and has to go.

There's unanimity on this. Whether it's fair or unfair is a moot point, but the United fans see no future with him. Thompson has been in America this week, looking for investors, maybe even a buyer. He's prepared to sell up, but here again there is cynicism among the support.

"Up to now I've been sat on the fence a wee bit on Thompson," says Frank at Groucho's. "But the last few weeks have been so dire that you have to question everything. We need change now. The impression we get is that he's lost interest in the club. He wants to sell? He'll not get the money he's looking for. No chance."

'It's totally beyond redemption'

Frank says a trip to Tannadice is in order. Go to the club shop, he says.

A disabled fan called Andy arrives in the shop, hands over his £150 for his season book and starts talking. "Stephen doesn't communicate with us," says Andy. "The board of the club don't know us. The link that was there is broken. It was never like this before."

Mike Barile, of the ArabTRUST, is also in the shop, collecting tickets for Monday night. Barile says his mates are reluctant to go to the game for fear of witnessing the ultimate embarrassment. He'll be there, though, and, with a laugh, he says he'll be singing the anniversary song, the ditty about the Dens Park massacre of 1965 - the 5-0 drubbing that United inflicted on their city rivals when Mike was only a kid.

Barile is one of Thompson's biggest critics. He, and many others, want the entire board to go.

"It's totally beyond redemption," he says. "I'm critical of him because I helped get Stephen's father [Eddie] in the door and I know what a decent man his father was. The support was split then between Eddie and wee Jim McLean, but they're not split now. Nobody is backing Stephen or [director] Mike Martin or any of them.

"Look at the wall there. That's a picture of Finn Dossing. He scored the hat-trick when we beat Dundee 5-0. September 11, 1965. I was only eight. That was a lifetime ago. I've never known an atmosphere as bad as we have now. Even when we didn't have a particularly good team we still had a spirit.

Dundee and Dundee United players
United need to win Monday's derby to stave off relegation

"Everybody was in it together back then and that spirit took us through the 1960s and into the 1970s when we had wee Jim's ambition and he made us believe that we could take anybody on. And that's gone now. Gone in the last couple of years under Stephen's custodianship. Since the Celtic two went, it's been one mistake after another."

Barile picks his phone out of his pocket and dials a number, hands over the mobile and tells me to talk to the woman at the other end. It's a lady called Sundie Cabrelli, wife of the late Peter Cabrelli, a one-time United player of the 1940s.

Sundie is 93 years young and is still a season-ticket holder. She's going on Monday. "Oh yes, you have to go," she says. She was a fan of Eddie Thompson - "a gentleman" - but not a supporter of Stephen - "I just find him distant".

Sundie doesn't like to say a bad word about anybody, but she thinks that Stephen should move on for the good of the club.

"It's as bad as it's been in my time," says Jim Spence. "You have a chairman who has lost the faith of the fans and you have directors who are now coming under scrutiny and they don't like it.

"I know the chairman well, I knew his father well. I told Stephen what I'm telling you. He's got a war on his hands with the fans. A deep dark hole exists.

"There are constant rumours about people who are interested in buying the club, but there's always a Walter Mitty-type living in a caravan in Penicuik who claims to be putting together a consortium.

"Stephen wants money to get out, but I can't imagine that any big hitter will give it to him. The club has operating losses of nearly £1m and probably more than £1m next season. Where does it go from there?"

It's a question that occupies the mind of every United fan.

They know how it all went wrong. What they don't know is how and when - and if - it's all going to come right again.

In the meantime, for some of them, there's the slow walk to Dens, like folk heading to the footballing gallows.

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