Michael Alexander speaks to Perth-born Dundee United supporter, former football referee and advertising sales consultant John Gunn who lifts the lid on football politics around Tannadice in his new book, Tales from the Touchline.
He was described by former Aberdeen and Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson as the toughest opponent he ever faced in the opposite dugout and “one of the greatest coaches to come out of Scotland”.
In his new book, Tales from the Touchline: Football Memories from a Referee and Fan, Perth-born Dundee United supporter and former senior football referee John Gunn controversially suggests the answer is no.
While John says there’s no doubt that McLean was Dundee United’s “greatest ever coach” –pointing to the two league cup wins, a premier league title and legendary European football runs – he says Jim’s problem was he couldn’t manage people.
John maintains that if Dundee United had had Alex Ferguson as manager, for example, the Tannadice club would have won far more in the 1980s than it did.
“There will be people who criticise me because I do have a pop at Wee Jim,” says John in an interview with The Courier.
“The timing could have been a bit better! But that’s the way it goes. It doesn’t matter if the man’s dead or alive, I would still have the same opinion.
“I still get annoyed when people say he was United’s greatest ever manager.
“If you want to use the term manager that’s fine. But I tend to say no he’s not. He’s our greatest ever coach.
“Jim’s problem was he couldn’t manage, he couldn’t manage people. I maintain, and I say this in the book, that we would have won a lot more if we’d had Alex Ferguson as our manager.
“We’d have won what they (Aberdeen) had won, and vice versa, because of Ferguson’s ability to get the best out of his players. Jim couldn’t do that.
“It’s no coincidence in my opinion that Jim took us to six Scottish Cup Finals and we lost every single one of them. That shouldn’t happen.”
‘Born to write’
Born in Perth, John Gunn, 64, grew up outside Crieff. Having won writing competitions at school, his English teacher Mr Reid encouraged him to stay on to take his Higher English with a view to a journalistic career.
However, John was desperate to get out to work and earn some money and at the age of 16 he moved to Dundee to start work with Courier publisher DC Thomson & Co Ltd as an apprentice compositor.
Regarding himself as an adopted Dundonian ever since, he has been in and out of the newspaper industry all of his working life, moving briefly to Elgin and then to Aberdeen where he lived for 32 years.
In 2017 he relocated to Glasgow where he has gone full circle, returning to DC Thomson, now known as DCT Media, as an advertising sales consultant with The Sunday Post.
In his book, however, John, whose own playing career was limited to schoolboy level, has struck a unique balance between recording his lifelong love of Dundee United and his refereeing journey, which took him from amateur levels to the Scottish Football Association’s Senior List.
Ten seasons at the very top of Scottish football saw John encounter the game’s real characters, plenty of “daft decisions” and a “whole raft of humorous incidents”.
His refereeing career started when he was 23 and he was working as a type setter with the Northern Scot in Elgin.
A piece of copy came in from the local referees association looking for referees to start a course that September.
With his uncle Ally being a prominent amateur ref on Tayside, and having worked with legendary Dundee referee Bob Valentine in Dundee, John, then 23, thought he’d give it a go to keep fit and keep his interest in football going.
He spent the next 22 years as a referee – including 10 of those on the senior list.
He ran the line everywhere from the Highland League to the biggest game of his career – a European Cup tie in East Berlin in 1987 when he was linesman to Bob Valentine in the first round second leg match between Dynamo Berlin and Bordeaux.
Being politically motivated with an interest in history, he found that whole experience behind the then Iron Curtain fascinating with the smoking chimneys and red bricked buildings reminding him of the industrial era in the UK during the 1960s.
When he hung up his whistle and returned to the stands as a supporter of Dundee United, however, John will never forget the day he unexpectedly found his refereeing skills were still in demand.
Whistle blowing skills still in demand!
For football anoraks, September 13 1997 is the long forgotten day that Dundee United lost a league game 1-2 to Kilmarnock in front of 6,883 fans at Tannadice.
But for John, it’s etched in the mind as the day he was unexpectedly called out of football referee retirement to run the line during the second half.
“The referee took an injury in the first half,” he recalls.
“Obviously when that happens the senior linesman takes over – or at least did at that time.
“I was in the George Fox Stand. It was half time and I was having a cup of tea and a blether with some guys on the concourse. There was a tannoy announcement: ‘Are there any qualified referees blah blah blah?’ I ignored it. By that time I was retired.
“Usually someone who is no longer on the senior list would be in attendance at the game.
“However, another 10 minutes went and there was another announcement – obviously they couldn’t find anyone.
“It was my mate Shuggy Falconer who sat next to me – he said: ‘For God’s sake Gunner get you’re a*se down there, you can do this’.
“Sure enough I went down from the George Fox stand – a steward followed me to see if I was for real – and along in front of the East Stand to a roar of approval. A lot of guys in the stand knew me!
“The referee supervisor George Smith – who passed away last year – was a former referee. In my first senior game in running the line in the Scottish Football League v Forfar in 1984, George was the referee. He recognised me.
“I said I’d been away two/three years. He said ‘get stripped. Get on with it’! He probably knew me well enough that I’d had a couple of pints before the game! But in fairness, joking apart, if I didn’t feel I was fit enough to do it I wouldn’t have done it!”
Politics of football
Written from memory, and inspired by friends and his wife Sheila who had listened to his countless football memories over the years, Tales from the Touchline features a mix of football’s politics, characters, blunders and a good dose of humour thrown in for good measure.
When it comes to modern day refereeing, John doesn’t hold back. In his opinion, “standards nowadays have dropped dramatically”.
In his day, referees were allowed to “exude their own personalities on the game”, he says, and today the SFA exudes “far too many edicts”.
As far as spectating is concerned, however, most of his Dundee United stories from a fans’ perspective relate to the period after he finished his refereeing career.
The book includes a sizeable in-depth and illuminating chapter from the time when self-made millionaire businessman Eddie Thompson took over from legendary ex-manager Jim McLean as chairman of Dundee United.
It lifts the lid on internal politics amongst fans’ groups at the time.
“Eddie was a personal friend of mine,” says John. “I was part of the United for Change steering group that was trying to get Wee Jim to relinquish his shares in the late 1990s. I was approached by Mike Watson and Neil Glen who sadly is no longer with us.
“At that time I was vice chair of the Federation of Dundee United Supporters Clubs. They wanted someone on the ‘inside’. But I shared their views.
“Probably the longest chapter in the book is that chapter about Eddie taking over Jim’s shares, from the fans’ side as well. Because of that Shuggy and I were close to Eddie.”
Missing the camaraderie
In these Covid times, John still manages to watch United games through his virtual season ticket.
However, like so many, he desperately misses the camaraderie of going to games with his pals, and going for a few beers before and after.
“It’s all part of the build-up,” he says. “Then going back to the pub after the game for an hour and a half or two hours and discussing what happened.
“I’ve got a digital season ticket for Tannadice and watch every game. But at this moment in time I seriously miss going to the football. I really do. Digital is not the same!”
* Tales from the Touchline: Football Memories from a referee and fan, by John Gunn, is released by Pitch Publishing on January 25, 2021.