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Locked out: Dundee, United and St Johnstone supporters share poignant stories of fandom compromised in Scottish football’s shutdown

Clockwise, from top left: Craig David, Kieran Clark, Danielle Ormond, Arran Hill, Ben MacDonald and Gary Cocker.
Clockwise, from top left: Craig David, Kieran Clark, Danielle Ormond, Arran Hill, Ben MacDonald and Gary Cocker.

When going to the football is part of the fabric of your life, having the rug swiftly pulled from underneath you can be a jarring experience.

Pre-March last year, it was a feeling few could claim to have known first-hand.

Now, however, it is something every fan can empathise with.

For some, going to the football has been a comfort blanket ripped from their hands while others simply lost an escape from the troubles of the working week gone or even a chance to reacquaint with friends and family.

The locked gates at Tannadice have become a familiar sight for fans across the country.

Football can be the bedrock of lives and habits – a way of viewing the world through the prism of being a ‘punter’.

Come rain or shine, fans are devoted to following their team up and down the country and there is a love and a care present for an entity in which the stake, for most, is purely emotional.

In one beautiful form, football embodies the nuance of the human experience. For fanatics of our teams on Tayside, it’s been snatched from them.

Lack of routine leaves Gary with Dens withdrawal

What exactly does that mean for Arabs, Dees and Saintees, though? Dundee fan, and co-host of the Walking Down the Provie Road podcast, Gary Cocker, sums it up well.

“I always park in the same place, walk the same way, go in the same gate – I’m a man of routine,” he said.

“What I definitely don’t miss is a couple of guys in the stand who shout and scream the whole time!

“It’s just nice to have 90 minutes at the weekend to sit, watch the football and switch my brain off.

“It’s familiarity and something I’ve been doing most of my life.

“It’s about keeping that connection to Dundee as well because I’ve been in Edinburgh since 2012.

“Although there’s Hearts and Hibs nearby, it’s not the same as watching Dundee at Dens.

“The thing I miss the most is the anticipation before the start of the half Dundee are shooting towards the Bobby Cox Stand.

“That thought of maybe seeing a goal and the players celebrating right in front of me is the best feeling.”

Dundee fan and Walking Down the Provie Road podcast co-host Gary Cocker.

Gary, originally from Birkhill but now living and working in Scotland’s capital, has followed the Dark Blues since 1998 after his brother, Craig, introduced him to the club.

A season ticket holder, he travelled through on matchdays pre-Covid, using it as an opportunity to catch up with loved ones as well as sample the unique Dens atmosphere.

The 31-year-old added: “It tied in with me being able to see my folks every two weeks. I can’t do that at the moment with all the restrictions.

“The game is, obviously, a part of it but it’s not the whole story.

“I’ll try watching them playing away – I’ve been to 31 of the 42 stadiums and was making good progress up until the pandemic!

“All the Lego stadiums – I hate Accies’ ground but I think it’s the away ground I’ve been to most because my wife’s family are from Milngavie.

“All the games are away for me but Dens holds that familiarity – when I go elsewhere I’m all over the place.

“If we ever get a new stadium they’ll have to think carefully about how to stop it from becoming a soulless shell of a place.

“I’m not saying I want them to recreate the steps on the South Enclosure or leave fox corpses hanging about but I’d like to see Dens incorporated into it.

“I would definitely miss it. It’s a pretty costly stadium to run compared to others but it’s still home.”

Islander Kieran fell in love with Saints

It’s a similar story for St Johnstone fan Kieran Clark. Born in Perth but raised on the Isle of Bute, he now lives and works in St Andrews with football an ever-lasting connection to the Fair City.

St Johnstone supporter Kieran Clark pictured with the Scottish Cup after the club’s historic win in 2014.

The 28-year-old explained: “We went on holiday to Perth – that’s the quality of my childhood, some go to Disneyland, I go to Perth.

“We went to a game in 2003 – a top-of-the-table clash against Falkirk in the First Division.

“There was quite a big crowd there, it was a sunny day and I’d never been to a game before.

“We had to walk all the way from Perth city centre out to McDiarmid Park, we went the wrong way and it ended up about four miles in the end.

“When we got there I was blown away by it. The pitch was glowing, it was a decent atmosphere and I’d never seen that many people in the one place before being from a small island.

“From that point I became absolutely obsessed.”

This is about the closest Saints fans can get to seeing their team play at McDiarmid Park right now.

Kieran, who works in the golf industry and has a season ticket in the main stand, says he “fell in love” with Saints and is itching to get back when possible.

“There’s no real family link to supporting St Johnstone – it was really just a day out,” he continued.

“Johnny English was on at the cinema at the time so I think McDiarmid Park was better than that!

“I fell in love with it and from that point my dad became a St Johnstone fan – he’s a season ticket holder as well.

“We actually got beat that day but it’s been a big part of my life ever since.”

Kieran added: “I’m a bit of a wannabe hipster. Everyone in my primary school was Celtic or Rangers apart from one Sunderland fan, one Partick Thistle fan and then there was me.

“I’d turn up with my St Johnstone programme, sit it on my desk and that was my thing.

“We’d travel all the way there for games the following season and the year after when I turned 12 we actually moved to Perth and that’s when I got a season ticket.

“I’ve had one ever since, been to almost every home game and a fair number away, too, all the ups and downs.

“It means a lot to me and I’ve had some great moments in the last 16 years.

“I’m itching to get back. My enthusiasm for it hasn’t diminished, arguably it’s even stronger because I’ve realised how much I actually enjoy it and what a void not being able to go leaves.”

Distance was never a barrier for Taysiders

Although both Gary and Kieran are used to having some distance between them and their first loves, watching from home on live streams doesn’t replicate attending matches.

Gary celebrates Dundee’s Championship title win in 2014 on the Dens Park pitch.

Dee fan Gary commented: “I think, generally, the fans are maybe more disengaged. There is a wee bit of a feeling of distance.

“It feels like we are all supporters in name only – like one of those cardboard cut-out fans or like you’re playing a game of Football Manager because you’re not actually seeing it happen.

“It’s like collective group therapy and I feel like the mere act of going to a game makes you feel like you’ve done your bit.

“Tuning into the stream still doesn’t feel like making the effort. You don’t feel your impact or input.

“For the players, they’re not getting that immediate feedback, if I can put it that way.

“Like when Jordan Marshall dithers on the ball turns back and gives it to Jack Hamilton, he’s not getting anyone going: ‘**** sake!’”

Kieran agreed, saying: “It’s a day out. People go on away days but for me the home games are equally like that.

“It’s a big part of the routine because you have that at the end of the week to look forward to.

“I’ve not been able to go nor have I even been in Perth since or seen my friend Shaun.

“I’ve barely seen my dad, which isn’t always a bad thing! But I miss that side of it, too.

“It’s not just the game. For me, it’s the whole experience. What I love about the football is it’s the purest form of theatre.

“It’s pantomime for adults – you’ve got everything in there. Thrills, spills, excitement, drama and there’s a fair degree of tragedy, too, at times!

“There’s also absurdity and humour. All of that comes together and it makes a package that I just love and always have.

“For all people criticise the Scottish game, I love the rawness of it and being part of a live game. The atmosphere never gets old.”

Football is family for Arabs and Dees

For most, it boils down to missing the game. For others, it is a personal and heart-rending loss.

While those inside the football bubble are caught up in the maelstrom of results, storylines and the minutiae of the game, it is easy to forget what it all actually means.

Speaking to supporters brings it home – their passion jumps out.

For loyal Arab Craig David, distance was no obstacle pre-Covid either, with him and his Dundonian dad Bryan happily travelling up from Lowestoft, East Anglia, to get back to their roots.

Dundee United legend Craig Brewster with the 1994 Scottish Cup.

In trying times financially for teams across the board, they both bought season tickets for the club’s first campaign back in the Premiership in four years.

For the 33-year-old engineer, whose earliest memories of the Terrors is the 1994 Scottish Cup win, it’s the least they could do.

“My dad’s from Dundee so I’ve been supporting Dundee United since Craig Brewster famously put the ball in the net against Rangers in 1994,” he said.

“We used to try to get up three or four times a season, on average.

“We’d make a day of it with hospitality but this year my dad and I got season tickets to help the club even if we couldn’t go.

“Nothing beats being under the lights and in the stadium, though.

“We usually visit family and because I run the Arabs United fans’ group on Facebook, I put it in there that we’re up as well.

“We’d go into The Troll and then The Heggie Suite. We try to do everything we can near the ground and get involved with everyone. It’s always a nice day out, no matter what.

“A lot of my friends down here have bought into Dundee United so when I come up next they’re going to come with me.”

Craig set up the Arabs United fans’ group on Facebook to maintain a connection with the club from afar after the passing of his uncle Murray five years ago.

Dundee United fans and brothers Murray and Bryan David.

They honour his life and love of all things United every time they are at Tannadice.

Craig explained: “The group, mainly, was to get my dad and I connected with people.

“My dad has his friends up there, we used to go on the buses with my uncle Murray but sadly he passed away so there was a big gap there.

“We’ve got a plaque for him at Tannadice. We do a little ritual where we go and speak to it or tap it as we’re going down to the ground just to remember him.

“He was as hardcore as they come. He used to go to all of the end-of-season dinners and he was very much involved with the club.

“My dad and I have kept his name going and taken on the same role to try progress it further with this fans’ group.

“When he was ill was just around the relegation year (2015/16) but he was alive for all the good moments.

“I’m sure he’d have been happy to see us win the Championship and go back into the big time.”

Asked what he misses most about the football, Craig added: “Just the atmosphere and father-son connection my dad and I have sitting there watching our team.

“He must be proud cheering for his team and then looking over to me and seeing a new generation, passing it down.

“As soon as we’re able to, we will 100% be back, but I don’t mind the streams. Any way of seeing Dundee United is good.

“The routine is just making the best of it, seeing your team or listening to them, the main thing is having a team to support.

“With Covid and the financial restrictions, I’m just happy to still have Dundee United.”

Remembering absent friends and relatives is a feeling also felt across the street at Dens for life-long fan Arran Hill.

The 35-year-old from Charleston, who normally sits in the Bobby Cox Stand with son Oliver, lost his gran, Elizabeth, and mum, Freda, a few years ago and always takes a moment to think about them as he roars on their beloved team.

Dundee fan Arran Hill (right) with son Oliver.

For the Hills, Dundee is a part of the family.

Arran said: “When my gran and grandad used to go to the football, everybody on the bus knew them because she’d be sitting there with a flask filled with whisky or vodka.

“I get my shouting at the referee from my gran and my mum because they were lunatics at games.

“In the days when you could change ends in football, my gran would chase the linesman right up to the halfway line if she didn’t agree with a decision.

“Even now my pals are like: ‘You’re not coming to a match again with me, you’re too loud!’

“I always say: ‘If you think I’m bad, you should’ve heard my gran!’

“Dundee is a part of the family for me. My mum and I were stewards at the club for many, many years and when I was younger I worked in the canteen and sold the programmes, too.

“Gran just loved her football. They stayed directly across from Dens on Provost Road so even when she got older and stopped going to games she could tell by the roar what was going on.

“They knew what mood my mum and I would be in when she phoned!”

Taking his seat in the Bobby Cox, Arran thinks of late mum Freda

Of his mum’s passing, which occurred shortly after the Dark Blues winning the Championship in 2014, Arran recounted a tale that rams home the importance of football in their lives.

He continued: “She passed away suddenly in 2014 from a clot on her lungs. We’d won the league the weekend before at Dens and then the Player of the Year was the following night.

“I couldn’t get tickets for love nor money but I managed to scramble and get one and offered it to my mum.

“Knowing she was in pain she told me to go. She passed away suddenly the following week.

“I had to go and get my dad from Ninewells because he was beside himself, obviously, but it was the trophy parade and presentation at City Chambers that night.

“I thought: ‘I’m not going’. My dad, even though he was still hurting, said: ‘If you don’t go, your mum would be mad’.

“She’d have told me to go regardless.

“Her ashes were scattered at Dens and whenever I go I think of her.”

Dens Park is empty week-in, week-out.

Football is a family affair for Arran and Oliver, with father passing down his passion for the Dee to son.

Arran added: “It’s not for me anymore, it’s for the wee man. He’s into it now as much as I was at his age.

“After the games he’d always go to the players’ entrance to wait and get photos.

“Especially now, I’m a massive Charlie Adam fan, so I’d have loved to meet him with the wee man.

“He knows all the players but all the new ones he just knows them from the TV and not actually seeing them. It’s really hard for him – usually he’d be the one telling me who they are and he’s 11!

“He still asks me what time the game’s on and wants to go down.

“Usually we’d go to the Penman Lounge but if it’s getting used for hospitality then any of the pubs near the ground – the Social Club, Whites Bar or the Clep.

“We’d get to Dens in time to watch the teams warm-up. The young lad likes to get there early to chase Cammy Kerr, his favourite player, to get an extra photo with him!

“It was me chasing my heroes when I was younger – like Claudio Caniggia and Fabian Caballero. I miss him being able to get that interaction.”

Despite everything going on, Arran praised the club and manager James McPake for taking time out of their busy schedule to send Oliver a well-received birthday message.

Dundee manager James McPake has reached out to fans many times since the pandemic struck.

Arran added: “I follow Cammy on Instagram and when I left it late for Oliver’s birthday, I asked if he could do a wee message for him.

“He did and Tommy Young (Dundee’s head of media) arranged for the manager to do the same.

“The fact they did something to wish him a happy birthday, I was over the moon for him.

“His face was beaming when he got the messages! I’ve never seen anybody smile so much from cheek to cheek.

“When you see those wee eyes light up and he asks you: ‘How did you manage that, dad?’ there’s nothing better.”

Danielle has broken the bank to keep kids happy

Keeping the kids entertained is a problem fellow Dee Danielle Ormond knows all too well.

Dark Blues Danielle Ormond (right) and daughter Elsie.

And with three Dundee-daft daughters – Lola, Yvie and Elsie – the pandemic has cost her a fortune.

“That’s been the hardest thing to adapt to, explaining to the younger generation that we can’t go and see these people,” the 39-year-old Montrose native said.

“It’s really difficult. Yvie’s had her picture taken with James McPake and Cammy Kerr.

“She absolute loves Cammy! They miss it loads and are always asking when they can get back but you just don’t have the answers.

“They cost me a fortune. Nearly every Saturday I was going through and taking them into the shop, buying something and then taking them for tea.

“They can’t stand being in the house all Saturday because it’s just not normal routine.

“They ask me if we can just go and drive past Dens because they miss it so much or go by the training ground and see if they can see anybody.

“I’m totally demented – I’ve got the whole Dundee shop in my house!”

Cammy Kerr is clearly a fans’ favourite at Dens Park.

Danielle, who runs a cleaning business and a laundrette in the Angus town, has struggled with not being able to take her regular seat in the main stand as she makes do with PPV games.

She added: “I get my Dundee top on but I don’t like it. I’d much rather be going to Dens, your Saturdays feel flat without it.

“I sit with Twitter open and blether to all the people I usually see at the game. It’s not the same but it’s just what you would do at the match.

“I’d like to get back as soon as possible because you get that support from your fellow-supporters if it’s a bad game and you can go for a pint afterwards.

“It’s quite stressful and it’s had a massive impact on my life. I feel lost.”

No Tangerines title party left Ben reeling

For United supporter Ben MacDonald, a season ticket holder in the Eddie Thompson Lower, special moments missed hit home hardest.

The 31-year-old student was gutted Arabs weren’t able to witness the Tangerines lifting the Championship title last season and laments the likelihood of the rest of this term passing without their return.

Ben said: “It just came all of a sudden and my immediate thought was: ‘We’ve got to be declared winners, there’s no way they can take it away from us’.

“We didn’t get to celebrate and were hearing things like ‘fans may not be able to get in until 2021’ and I was thinking: ‘come on, we’ll be in by October!’

“Then as the days pass and you realise we’re really not getting in until 2021.”

Ben MacDonald outside Tannadice with Dundee United striker Lawrence Shankland.

Watching United virtually has been of some solace for Ben in tough times but admits he is still eagerly awaiting the day they get the green light to head for Tannadice en masse.

“The online streams have been a saving grace, to be honest,” he added.

“You’ve got Twitter and group chats as well – folk are still communicating with each other about games so, although we’re not physically there, I don’t think it’s been too bad.

“The news of vaccines has given everyone that bit of hope – surely it shouldn’t be that long before we’re finally back in?

“Some folk don’t want to risk it but most are chomping at the bit waiting to get the message.

“That day will be amazing.”

Dundee United raised the Championship flag in front of an empty Tannadice back in August.

With restrictions across the country only tightening and action below Championship level suspended, it appears that glorious moment could still be some way off.

However, when that day comes, it’s clear fans will answer the call and soon be armed with scarves, songs, pies and putdowns. Football and family will emerge victorious.

That way of life is all those that truly love the game know.