Tannadice – what gives a football ground character?

IMG_6661.JPGWhen I made my list of the top 24 English football grounds back in December, I was asked about the criteria. Well, they are not clear-cut. If I should nail it down to just one word, I would say “character”, something that stands out from the rest. Of course, there are many ways of doing this. Dundee United’s Tannadice Park does so in a number of ways.

To start with, there is the name. “Tannadice”. Taste it. It is like a smoked malt. And compare it to “Bet365” or “Amex” or the “SportsDirect” or some other sponsor named ground. When I listened in on the BBC Saturday afternoons in the 1970’s and 1980’s, I was always fascinated by the sound of the name – especially when pronounced with a proper Scottish accent.

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Then, there is the place. Tannadice is not located outside town, next to a recycling station or a McDonalds by a ring road. You climb the steep Hilltown from the centre of Dundee and walk through residential areas before arriving at Tannadice Street to find that there is not just one football ground but two! They are – apparently with the exception of a couple of back-to-back grounds in Budapest – the two closest football grounds in Europe. A good goalkeeper will be able to kick the ball from one ground to the other. I am a big fan of Simon Inglis’ encyclopedic work on British football grounds, but I cannot share his lament that Dundee FC and Dundee United didn’t go ahead with plans of a shared ground in 1990. THIS is magic – and Inglis does admit that “all the while we are secretly captivated by the absurdity of it all”.

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Well, I don’t find it absurd. As I said. It is about character. And a ground that had to be the home of the tangerine side of a city one week, and then the home of their rivals from the blue side the following week just wouldn’t have as much character. I have not studied the early days of Dundee football properly, but whereas Dundee FC at Dens Park down the road proudly state that they are the oldest club in Dundee – from 1893 – Tannadice can, according to Simon Inglis –  lay claim to being the oldest ground, as football has been played here since 1891, although admittedly it was Dundee United’s predecessors Dundee Wanderers who made it their home that year, calling their ground Clepington Park. It was Dundee FC challenging an existing football club, when they moved to Tannadice Street in 1899 – despite laying claim to being the oldest club. At least, this is what Simon Inglis writes. I have had a look at maps of Dundee from 1891 to 1910 – and whereas Dens Park is clearly marked as a football ground from 1903, there is no marking of a football ground down Tannadice Street before 1910.

When the Irish community of Dundee set up Dundee Hibernian in 1909, they ousted Wanderers from Clepington, renaming the place Tannadice after the name of the street. But you could argue that it was a completely new ground, as Wanderers – much to the surprise of everybody – took stands and fences with them. As I said, I am not that much into the early history of Dundee football; but the story of rival clubs competing for a home in the farmland that was then on the outskirts of the town does tell of the importance of football club identities.

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Currently Dundee FC are discussing plans to move to a new ground. From my point of view, it will be a pity if they just throw away their heritage, having one of the remaining eight Archibald Leitch stands. But to me and other football ground enthusiasts, it will not just be Dundee FC losing their magical appeal; Tannadice will lose some of its attractive magic, if Dens Park is demolished. The proximity of the two grounds is compelling.

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On my first visit to Dundee, I went to watch a match from the Archibald Leitch stand at Dens Park. Therefore, my first view down Tannadice Street was from the Dens Park end. With the classical Leitch main stand in the foreground, Tannadice looked very much second best. But if you approach from the other end of the street, the tangerine of United and the façade of Tannadice’s main stand look the more appealing, with the blue of Dens Park looking more like a background curtain.

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I spend more than an hour in the afternoon, walking around the grounds, not being able to decide which is the most fascinating. Archibald Leitch’s Dens Park, or the tangerine Tannadice? It is a truly unique place. To add to it, the area behind the East Stand of Tannadice (named the Eddie Thomson Stand) are allotments. Or rather, the East Stand has been given an oddly irregular shape to be able to squeeze it in behind the allotments.

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That is another element in the “character” of a ground. That it is not a modern spaceship-like designed ground that has been constructed on a drawing board and could have been put up anywhere. It has taken shape from the surroundings – it has become an organic part of them. It is not just the north corner of the East Stand that has been sliced off to squeeze in behind the allotments. The western corner of the North (George Fox) Stand is also sliced off by the Sandeman Street, giving this otherwise fairly regular stand a characteristic look.

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In fact, all the stands seem to have irregular shapes. From the East Stand, you cannot help noticing the asymmetrical look of the West Stand – or the Shed as it is called. There are almost shades of Carlisle United’s Brunton Park, as it looks as though the builders have got it wrong and placed it way too far to the south. The southern end of the stand extends beyond the touchline and the South Stand – and probably therefore, this part of the stand is not in use. On the other side, the northern end of the Shed doesn’t even reach the touchline by the North Stand. Were they drunk when they build it? Maybe. But the reason for the asymmetrical look is probably the two-stepped construction of the South Stand – the main stand.

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The South Stand is probably the most irregular one of them all. It was built as the first cantilevered stand in Scotland and opened in 1962 – the third in Britain after Scunthorpe and Sheffield Wednesday. It doesn’t extent the entire length of the pitch, though. This isn’t unique. You can find plenty of old stands not spanning the entire length of the pitch, but the peculiar thing about this one is that rather than placing it centrally, it spans only the eastern half of the pitch – and then curves around the eastern corner in an L-shape and takes up a little bit of the East Stand. Just like Archibald Leitch’s main stand at Starks Park, by the way.

When the East Stand was built in 1994, it was linked to the L-shaped South Stand. But not much effort was put into unifying them. On the outside of the ground, an extension building – with club offices – was added with a glass façade that contrasts sharply to the profiled steel of the stands. On the inside, the roof is not quite the same height, and the top tier is much smaller in the East Stand, whereas the lower tier is much bigger than the one of the main stand.

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Similarly, an extension of the L-shaped cantilever stand side from 1997 stands out. In 1971, the lower tier of the stand was replaced by a glass-fronted sponsor lounge (the first one in Scotland). In contrast to this, the extension has a lower tier of ordinary seats. This lower tier takes up much more space than the lounge, almost encroaching on the pitch – and it is probably this extension that makes the Shed look misplaced. Almost to underline the difference between the L-shaped main stand and the extension, the roof is much bigger over the extension, trying to shelter all the seats in the lower tier.

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It doesn’t stop there. The pitch is visibly sloping from west to east, at least judging from the advertising boards along the North Stand.

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And the floodlights are also an odd mixture. I presume that four classical, identical corner pylons were put up in 1962. But in the 1990’ies, floodlights were fixed along the roof of the new North Stand, making the corner stands in the corners of the north side redundant. One of the pylons, though, remains in place, but in a strangely amputated version. And as the new East Stand was built and linked to the L-shaped South Stand, there was no longer room for the original pylon in the southeastern corner of the ground. A stubby new one has been placed on the roof of the stand instead.

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It is not just the appearance of the irregular shapes and features that make the ground so full of character. Each of them embodies a little piece of club history. According to Inglis, Dundee United became the first Scottish club to operate their own pools in 1956, raising the money for the Shed at the West End in this way. Then, promotion in 1959 gave a new cash injection that was invested in the L-shaped, cantilevered main stand. The erection of the sponsor lounges also marks a new development in Scottish football in 1971.

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Whereas these traces of history can still be seen, others have disappeared along the way. When Roy Stewart was sold to West Ham in 1979, the money was spent on a roof over the terraces on the north side of the ground. And in 1987, Dundee United’s fans won a prize from UEFA for their sporting behavior as they reached the final of the UEFA cup – a prize that paid for a roof over the northern terrace of the South Stand. Both these two new roofs were swept away by the changes in the 1990’s, once the plans of ground sharing had been abandoned. Incidentally, according to Simon Inglis, these changes were mainly financed by selling four players to Glasgow Rangers.

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The closer you look at Tannadice, the more fascinated you get by all the irregularities and the stories behind them. Simon Inglis labels it “an odd assortment of angles and awkward corners, but at least now partially unified by external styling, orange seating and plain grey roof fascia”. Once again, I don’t share Inglis’ view. To me, it is precisely the assortment of angles and odd features that gives the ground character, making me increasingly fond of it, whereas the external styling at first made the ground look a somewhat pale background to Dens Park.

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Still, there are more stories to be discovered. As she kindly allows me pitch side to take some photos of the stands during my afternoon walk around the ground,  Dundee United communications manager Riki Dauer tells me that over the years fans have had their ashes scattered inside the ground, and in fact, former Dundee United hero Ralph Milne, who tragically died at an early age a few years ago, has had his ashes interred by the Shed. Many modern, anonymous grounds derive their character from memorial gardens and statues erected around the ground; Tannadice doesn’t need that.

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I go back to my hotel to rest my weary legs before the evening’s match – Dundee United against Inverness. I have asked for a ticket for the part of the ground with the best atmosphere – and the lady at the ticket office doesn’t hesitate. The East Stand. Before the transformation of the ground in the 1990’s, the Shed used to be the most stronghold of the Dundee United supporters. From 1957 to 1979, it was the only covered terrace, so that was where the home fans preferred to go. But now the Shed alternates between holding the away support and home support, depending on the crowd and the number of away fans anticipated.

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For this match, there are about 150 Inverness supporters in the Shed. But I am told that when the two clubs meet again the following Sunday in the FA Cup, a much bigger crowd and away support is expected – and the away support will be transferred to the main stand, with Dundee United fans able to take over the Shed.

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As the main stand in this way also alternates between holding home and away support, it is no surprise that it is almost empty. Only a tiny section in the middle of it is completely full – presumably the director’s box. Quite strange, as they seem lost in the emptiness of the surrounding stand. Whereas the Shed and the main stand are almost empty, the East and the North stands are pretty full. It underlines the irregular shapes of the ground and makes the atmosphere a bit surreal.

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I had bought a ticket in advance, but it turns out that you can also pay at the turnstile. Not really thinking about that, I try to find my allocated seat, only to find it occupied, of course. You just have to find a free seat. Which is great, because it enables supporters to group together as they like. With mates going in groups, there is constant din of talking around the stand – a sharp contrast to what I experience at Aberdeen the following day. But whenever there is a chance of a promising Dundee United attack, ooohhhs and aaaahhhs take over. There is very little chanting – but the constant mumble and the engaged oooohhhs and aaaahhs make it a great atmosphere.

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The most disappointing feature is probably the Scotch Pie I have on the concourse during half-time. Somehow, it is unusually greasy and dry at the same time. And I must admit that the concourse doesn’t have the same charm as the narrow corridors of Archibald Leitch’s main stand down the road at Dens Park.

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Dundee United play some very good attacking football in the opening stages of the game and ought to have taken the lead. But as they don’t, Inverness gradually gets a foothold, and it becomes a fairly even contest. And gradually the crowd seems to become more engaged in pushing their team forward to score. They eventually do from the penalty spot in the middle of the second half. But the relief of getting the breakthrough is almost immediately followed by a second yellow card to a United player for a reckless challenge.

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That makes for a tense final 20 minutes. If  Inverness’ former Dundee United player, Donaldson, who was involved in the sending-off incidence, wasn’t already the pantomime villain, he certainly becomes that as he shortly afterwards lashes out at a Dundee United player in an off-the-ball incidence that neither referee nor linesmen spot. It adds to the tense atmosphere – and the United crowd delights, when Donaldson sees a deflected shot just being tipped over the top by United’s keeper in injury time. He buries his head in his shirt, accompanied by triumphant jeering from the East Stand.

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The match ends with a 1-0 win for Dundee United. Exiting the ground, the surrounding streets are lit up by the floodlights. And the two functioning pylons can be seen from afar, whenever I turn to have a look back, as I make my way back to the city centre. I look forward to being back in Dundee for football – and hope and pray that there still will be two football grounds in Tannadice Street.

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