Among the 4000 Dundee United supporters inside Dens Park tomorrow some will wear t-shirts honouring the most iconic goal ever scored in the city's derby. It features a graphic showing the flow of the ball from David Narey to Paul Sturrock to Ralphie Milne, and the delicious chip which floated the ball into Dundee's net and won the Premier Division for United. The footage shows a ground packed to the seams. Just over 29,000 squeezed into Dens on that fateful day when Dundee was the place to be.
That was a lifetime ago, on the final day of the 1982-83 season. The city's two grounds are famously only 300 yards apart but recently United have been denied the chance to make a proper pilgrimage to Dens. It is nearly eight years since they last played a league game there and such is the appetite for Dundee derbies that more than 10,000 fans turned out when the clubs played a pre-season friendly there in July. Tomorrow the United section will be full and so will Dundee's 8000 seats, a fine turnout given that the game is also being shown live on Sky Sports.
Any joy that United took from Dundee spending years in the first division was tempered by genuine regret about all those lost derbies. "There is a real sense of excitement around; people can't wait for it," said veteran United supporter Alistair Brodie, who runs Groucho's Records in the city centre. "And it's live on the telly so folk can set the Sky+, get back home and watch the controversial incidents again . . . and the United goals."
The Dundee rivalry is characterised by a sensible level of mutual tormenting. There is not the violent malevolence so evident between the Glasgow and even Edinburgh clubs, partly because there are not really any defined "areas" of Dundee where one support is more prevalent. United and Dundee fans live and work side-by-side. "You are in each others' pockets in Dundee," said Brodie.
United clinched their first three major trophies at Dens Park: the 1980 and 1981 League Cups and then that league in 1983. "As far as we're concerned, Dens is a lucky ground and we're delighted to get back there," Brodie said. "There's no doubt that we've missed the derby so it's good to see Dundee back. I feel sorry for them because they didn't know they were being promoted until the last minute and they were obviously unprepared. They didn't have the squad for it, but they're stringing a few results together. We do hope they stay up because of the derbies.
"If you look at Dundee's glory moments on video they're all in black and white. But they did have a magnificent team in the early '60s. If Dundee were in a cup final against the Old Firm we would certainly support Dundee. We would support the city. I don't think the rivalry doesn't lose anything because of that."
In the Snug Bar, Whites and the Clep Bar the two sets of supporters will mingle before the game and for many hours after. Dundee lost 3-0 to United in the July friendly and in the league at Tannadice in August. Things should be different this time. After a run with only one win in 12 they have lost only one of their last five. They are five places, and nine points, lower than United in the table but there is no longer the sense that they are adrift.
Fifty years ago, Dundee were defending Scottish champions and reached the European Cup semi-finals. United emulated them in 1983-84. To outsiders, Dundee represent old glory, while United have been a modern success story. That has made life difficult for those supporters too young to know Alan Gilzean, Bobby Cox and others from the legendary early 1960s team from anything other than the history books. Yet their appeal endures. Dundee have always enjoyed their fair share of supporters from around Tayside. Their support has held up well. This season the average crowds at Dens Park are the sixth highest in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, with United, Celtic and Aberdeen still to visit.
"What's the difference between Dundee compared to Glasgow and Edinburgh?" asked Robin Grimmond from the Dee 4 Life fans' group. "It's wee. There's no hiding place after a defeat. Regardless of the result folk will go out for a pint and will try to hide away from their mates who support the other side, but there's no getting away from them. You just have to take it. Dundee is really a big village. So many people work with each other. A lot of Dundee workplaces are split down the middle.
"The vast majority of it is good-natured stuff. Although all supporters have the potential to go off on one, generally the worst you ever get in a Dundee derby is the odd guy going on the pitch. You never get assaults or violence, nothing like that, it's just a celebratory sort of thing."
Doug Smith died earlier this week. To United fans he was their former captain and chairman, a club legend who played 628 games without ever being booked. Doug's city really can seem like a village where everyone knows everyone else and a loss is mourned by all. "He was a great, great player and a really nice guy," said Grimmond. "He had a pub and a lot of Dundee fans had a lot of time for him. He was an absolute gentleman."
Dundee's is the smallest of Scotland's three city derbies. When it comes to having the sense to draw a line between rivalry and respect, though, it is second to none.
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