The 1960s: A Decade of Footballing Transformation in the City of Dundee

DUFC Archive team member Ben Nicholson discusses the changing landscape of football in the City of Dundee during the 1960s and argues that even before the arrival of Jim McLean in 1971, the tide was already turning in favour of United.

tannadice-park-and-dens-park-1970s-1Above: Overhead shot of Dens Park (foreground) and Tannadice Park during the 1970’s. 

The City of Dundee has a proud footballing history. In the whole of the United Kingdom, only three other cities – London, Manchester and Glasgow – have produced two different European Cup Semi-Finalists, and Dundee is by far the smallest of the four. It has also been the scene of a unique rivalry between two clubs which originated in very different circumstances and yet have shared the same street for over a century.

The Dundee Derby fixture has been one of Scotland’s most exciting for decades and the balance of power in the city has changed hands on several occasions, but there was one major transition which took place during the 1970s. Season 1973/74 was a landmark season in the history of football in Dundee. In December ’73, Dundee defeated Celtic 1-0 to lift the Scottish League Cup for a third time, their fifth major trophy and later than season in May ’74, Dundee United reached their first ever major cup final but were defeated by that same Celtic side. At the time the balance of power still rested with the Dark Blue half of the city but over the next few years Dundee would go into a period of decline, marred by relegation and financial difficulty. Their rivals on the other hand would go from strength to strength under the management of Jim McLean, winning back-to-back League Cups in 1979 and ’80 before being crowned League Champions in 1983. Those ten or so years saw the Tangerines become by far the most dominant footballing force in the city, something which would have seemed unbelievable at the formation of the club in 1909. However, although the ’70s was the turning point, the pendulum had already began to swing in favour of the Terrors during the 1960s, a decade of great success at home and abroad for Dundee FC but also a decade which saw the transformation of Dundee United from a small, Second Division club to one of Scotland’s established top flight sides.

For many years, Dundee FC were the biggest and most successful club on Tayside. The city’s ‘establishment’ club, Dundee were formed in 1893 through the merger of local sides East End and Our Boys and started life at West Craigie Park before moving to Carolina Port, a ground near the city’s docks. Expansion of the docks forced Dundee to locate a new home and they moved to their current home Dens Park in 1899. Further down Sandeman Street was Clepington Park, then home to Dundee Wanderers, but in 1909 ‘the Forkies’ (as they were known) were evicted in favour of a newly formed outfit, Dundee Hibernian Football and Athletic Club, who immediately renamed the ground Tannadice Park. Formed by a group of local businessmen with strong Irish connections – most notably bicycle salesman Pat Reilly – the club was intended to represent the large Irish-Catholic population who lived in Dundee at the time, having left their homeland seeking work in the city’s jute mills over the course of the 19th century. The stage was now set, but the rivalry did not really begin until the Tannadice club were promoted in 1925.

With Dundee Hibernian now known as Dundee United Football Club, the first competitive meeting between Dundee’s only two senior clubs took place in front of 18,000 fans at Dens Park on November, 21st 1925, and finished goalless. From then until the 1960s, the Dundee Derby fixture was contested sparingly due to United spending most of their time in Scotland’s second tier. When they did meet, it was Dundee who came out on top more often than not with the Dark Blues recording 18 wins out of 30 games. The ’60s however were a very different story. 1960-61-dundee-united-3-1-dundee-league-1Above: Dennis Gillespie in action for United against Dundee in September 1960.

The post-war years had been greatly successful for Dundee. With names such as Doug Cowie, Bobby Flavell and Billy Steel, they had become the first club ever to win the League Cup two years in a row, in 1951 and ’52 and had finished league runners-up in 1949. United on the other hand were stuck in the old ‘B Division’. Despite the presence of legendary players such as Peter Mckay, Frank Quinn and Johnny Coyle, the ‘Barrel-Hoops’ had been unable to secure promotion and in season 1958-59 they finished as low as 17th in the second tier. The arrival of Jerry Kerr at Tannadice at the beginning of the following season changed everything and at the dawn of a new decade Dundee United were back in the top flight.

Promotion to the First Division for the Terrors meant the return of the Dundee Derby and the first fixture between the two sides was played at Tannadice on 17th September 1960. Going into the game, Dundee would have been strong favourites, but in front of a large crowd of over 20,000, it was United who ran out winners with a 3-1 win thanks to a first half Jimmy Briggs penalty and goals either side of half time from Tommy Campbell. This was a sign of things to come in terms of the Dundee Derby fixture, although the Dark Blues did enjoy a spell of mini-dominance in the run-up to their League Championship win in 1962, winning the next three meetings between the sides. United did defeat the reigning champions in a League Cup tie at Tannadice in August ’62, but there was still one Derby hurdle left to jump for the Terrors; they had still never defeated their rivals at Dens Park.

1962-63-dundee-2-1-dundee-united-league-cup-1Above: Derby-day action at Dens Park in August 1962.

That particular hoodoo was broken in April 1963 when United took both points from a league encounter at Dens thanks to goals from Neil Mochan and Ian Mitchell. It was landmark result in the history of Dundee United Football Club, not only because it was their first win away to their rivals but also because it marked the beginning of an incredible run of form at Dens which would see the Terrors go unbeaten in their next 14 games on the ground, winning nine, a run which lasted the rest of the decade and into the next. Jerry Kerr’s side had a respectable record against the Dark Blues at Tannadice as well, winning eight out of 15 of the Derbies played there during the 1960s. One of the main reasons for United’s success both in the Derby fixture and the league in general was arguably the suddenly influx of foreign players during the mid-60s.

The arrival of several Scandinavians to Tannadice had transformed the fortunes of United who, after several successful seasons, had started the 1964/65 season in dire form. Danish duo Mogens Berg and Finn Døssing as well as Swedish international Örjan Persson signed for the club in December and had an immediate impact, with the goals of Døssing in particular carrying United away from the bottom of the table. Persson was joined by Swedish teammate Lennart Wing in January ’65 and the club ended up finishing in a respectable 9th place out of 20 at the end of the season. The Scandinavians also had an immediate impact on the Dundee Derby fixture. In their first ever games against Dundee, Døssing and Persson both found the net with the latter grabbing a brace in a 4-2 win at Dens. Døssing then scored a brace himself in the next Derby match, a Summer Cup tie, again at Dens Park, which United won 4-1. Berg soon got in on the act, scoring twice in the 3-2 Summer Cup win over the Dees at Tannadice. Their finest hour however was yet to come.

11th September 1965 saw Jerry Kerr’s Dundee United inflict a truly humiliating defeat on their city-rivals. The venue was Dens Park, which had now become a happy hunting ground for the Terrors, and the score was 5-0 in favour of the Tannadice side. The star of the show was that man Finn Døssing who scored a glorious hat-trick with Dennis Gillespie and Lennart Wing also on the score-sheet, the latter scoring his first goal for the club. The enormity of this win is easily recognised to this day due to the legacy it has left. It is known amongst Arabs as, ‘the Dens Park Massacre of ‘65’ and has been immortalised in a song which can still be heard sung at matches occasionally. This remains United’s biggest win in the fixture to this date and was, at the time, a massive statement. The club who had for so long been in the shadows of their bigger and more successful neighbours were no longer Dundee’s poorer relations.

1965-66-dundee-0-5-dundee-united-league-1Above: Finn Døssing celebrates one of his three goals during United’s 5-0 win over Dundee at Dens Park in September 1965.

Although major honours would not come to Tannadice until the late ’70s, the 1960s was the beginning of a revolution in terms of the footballing landscape in the City of Dundee.  The 1980s is often the place Arabs will go when seeking for their fix of demolition derby memories and it is often forgotten that during the ’60s (which is often reputed to be Dundee’s golden decade) United were dominant in matches against Dundee – winning over half of the meetings between the sides. The age of uncontested Dark Blue supremecy was well and truly over and from the mid-70s onwards Dundee United became the city’s unquestionable top club until the turn of the century.

Written by Ben Nicholson


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