Dundee Football Club were delighted yesterday to name former player Neil McCann as interim manager until the end of the season and welcome a Dark Blue legend back home to Dens.
The new manager really needs no introduction to the Dundee support as he is a former player of the year, a Dee-Fiant hero and an inductee into the club’s Hall of Fame. He came through the youth ranks at Dens and burst onto the scene in the early Nineties where he became the first winner of the Andy De Vries Memorial Trophy as Dundee player of the year in 1994. He scored the goal which took Dundee to the 1995 League Cup Final and came out of retirement in 2011 in the club’s hour of need to score another sensational goal as a Dee-Fiant hero and last year was inducted in the Dundee FC Hall of Fame as the first Modern Heroes Award winner, to the biggest cheer of the night.
“It’s a flash of genius from the Dundee youngster which looks like earning his team a cup final place”, proclaimed BBC commentator Jock Brown after Neil McCann scored a sensational goal against Airdrieonians in the last few minutes in the 1995 Coca-Cola League Cup semi-final. It was a goal which meant so much to everyone connected with Dundee as it not only sent The Dee into their first major cup final in fifteen years but also gave the club a much needed financial lifeline and gave the fans a night to remember after being in the doldrums in recent times.
Neil McCann therefore was already a hero to the Dundee support before coming out of retirement in 2011 to help the Dark Blues out in their hour of need during the transfer embargo of the second administration. McCann hadn’t played competitively for 21 months but offered his services for free to his former Dundee captain Barry Smith, then manager at Dens Park and scored a dramatic and vital late winner against Raith Rovers as The Dee looked to overturn the draconian Scottish League 25 point penalty.
In a surreal moment of déjà vu that would have been dismissed if you had read it in Roy of the Rovers, Neil once again lifted a beleaguered Dundee support with a fantastic chipped effort that goes down as one of Dens Park’s greatest moments.
There’s a lot more however to Neil McCann’s Dundee career than these two sensational strikes and by the time ‘Terry’ scored that semi-final goal, he had been in the first team for two years and was a key man in the Dark Blues’ side. Born in Greenock on August 11th 1974, Neil Doherty McCann broke into the Dundee side while still in the Premier Division and made his debut at home to Airdrieonians in a 1-1 draw on March 13th 1993.
By the end of that season Neil had established himself on the left wing and had all the skills of a traditional winger. He repeatedly demonstrated his electrifying pace in beating full backs before putting in a telling ball and at the end of his first season he was chosen as Dundee’s player of the year as the first recipient of the of the Andrew De Vries Memorial Trophy.
Despite Dundee’s relegation McCann had quickly made a name for himself in the Premier Division and at the end of the season, he was called up for the Scotland Under-21 side who were taking part in the prestigious Toulon Tournament in the south of France.
Neil played particularly well where a number of top clubs had expressed an interest but Dundee managed to keep hold of their starlet as they started their assault on the First Division. They started their promotion campaign well and McCann was influential as Dundee won their first four games but when Neil had to miss a number of games through injury, Dundee started to drop points with a defeat to Ayr and draws with Dunfermline and Raith Rovers.
Neil was back in the starting line-up on October 18th for the B&Q Challenge Cup semi-final against league leaders Dunfermline at East End Park and he marked his return to the side with the winner in a 2-1 floodlit thriller.
The final at McDiarmid Park three weeks later was a big disappointment as Dundee lost 3-2 to Airdrieonians after extra time and there was an even bigger disappointment at the end of the season when Dundee missed out on the title by just one point and the play-offs with the second bottom side in the Premier Division on goal difference.
In the third last game of the campaign, Dundee handed their rivals from Fife the momentum when they lost 1-0 in Paisley to St Mirren and it was a match which McCann had missed due to a virus he had contracted while away with the Scotland Under-21s in San Marino in midweek. It was more points dropped in Neil’s absence and it was to prove vital as Dundee missed out on promotion by the narrowest of margins.
Jim Duffy had built a good attacking side in which McCann was pivotal and they now faced a tough challenge for promotion with newly relegated Dundee United as well as Dunfermline who had lost out to Aberdeen in the play-offs.
However Dundee made a good start with a 2-0 win over St Johnstone and in the second match of the 1995/96 season, McCann hit the headlines when he scored four in a 6-0 rout of East Stirlingshire in their opening match of the League Cup.
Now sponsored by Coca-Cola, it was Dundee’s first match on the ‘Road to Hampden’ which would take them all the way to the League Cup Final. In the quarter-final at home to Hearts, Dundee won a pulsating match 5-4 on penalties after an extraordinary 4-4 draw and McCann was one of the heroes when he netted one of the pens.
In the semi-final Dundee were fortunate to be paired with fellow First Division side Airdrie while Rangers faced Aberdeen in the other tie and Dundee had the chance to exact revenge on The Diamonds for the B&Q Cup Final defeat at the same venue twelve months before.
Of greater concern was the current financial plight of The Dee and on the eve of the match in Perth, manager Jim Duffy was privately told that had to simply reach the final to survive. With so much at stake on a windy night, the Dark Blues enjoyed over three quarters of the crowd and they started well with a number of chances, eventually braking the deadlock just before the interval when Paul Tosh rammed home a Tommy McQueen cross.
With only seven minutes left Dundee looked like they might be home and dry but they received a stunning blow when Paul Duffield stooped to head home the equaliser. The Diamonds then looked the stronger side and more likely to score but then enter Neil McCann who was about to write himself into Dundee folklore.
With just two minutes remaining George Shaw sent the ball wide to McCann and the 5ft 10in winger sped the ball into the box with everyone expecting a cross. However he lobbed the ball over John Martin’s head before it dipped into the net off the inside of the far post and after a moment’s hesitation, the Dundee fans went wild as they realised what McCann had just done with his audacious effort.
Dundee were in their first final since 1980 and their first final at Hampden since the year before McCann was born but it was to be an ultimately frustrating occasion against Aberdeen who cruised to a 2-0 win. Too many of the Dundee players did not perform while McCann had declared himself fit on the morning of the match having suffered a thigh strain three days before but he was clearly not at his penetrating best.
For the rest of the season McCann was dogged with injury as Dundee again failed to return to the Premier Division. Towards the end of the season he was the subject of an unsuccessful £500,000 bid by Dundee United but failure to achieve promotion meant that they had to sell him for a cut price fee of £250,000 to Hearts before he could join Sturm Graz under freedom of contract. It was clearly only a fraction of what the tricky winger was worth but when he joined Rangers two years later for £1.8 million, Dundee received another £350,000 thanks to a sell on clause inserted by Jim Duffy.
At Tynecastle McCann scored 26 goals in 129 appearances and joined their legendary ranks when he was part of the Hearts side to win the Scottish Cup in 1998 with a 2-1 win over Rangers at Celtic Park after scoring in the semi-final win over Falkirk.
In six years at Ibrox McCann would win three SPL titles, two League Cups, and four Scottish Cups including a winner’s medal against Dundee in 2003 and he would establish himself as a full international, winning 26 caps for Scotland.
At Dens McCann would be remembered for a host of terrific, exciting displays and when he left Dundee to join Hearts he told the press “I signed for Dundee when I was thirteen and I would like to thank everyone at Dens for what they did for me.”
It was clear how much Dundee FC meant to McCann and it was clear again in 2011 when he agreed to turn out for The Dee for free as a trialist to help the club in their moment of need. The imposition of the transfer embargo had not only pushed the resources of the ten first team players to the limit in the Dee-Fiant season, it also stretched the resourcefulness of manager Barry Smith to put out a team every week. Smith was forced to work within the confines of the trialist rules to bring in players which made some dreams come true for both players and supporters.
The youthful McCann was a hero to many of the club’s supporters in the Nineties but after his departure to Hearts they never believed they would see him in the dark blue again. Having not played since the 2009 Scottish Cup Final for Falkirk, McCann, who had successfully carved himself a television punditry career with Sky Sports, agreed to pull on that dark blue shirt once again on February 12th 2011 against Raith Rovers and cemented his legendary status by coming off the bench to score the winner five minutes into injury time to give Dundee a priceless 2-1 win.
Dundee had clawed themselves back into the game with just four minutes left when Gary Harkins equalised with a fabulous free kick after McCann had been fouled and urged on by the crowd they went for the winner.
As the match moved into injury time, Dundee were camped in the Rovers’ box and they were gifted a golden opportunity when Raith keeper Andrew McNeil lost concentration and picked up a back pass on his six-yard line. As they argued the point McCann took the free kick and rolled it to Stephen O’Donnell, but when he tapped it into the empty net the referee called it back and asked Dundee to take it again.
This time the ball was laid back to Harkins but his shot was deflected for a corner and with ninety-two minutes on the clock, it looked like time would run out on The Dee. The Dundee fans still believed however and gave Craig Forsyth a huge cheer as he went to the stand side at the Shankly Stand end to take the kick.
When the corner came in, it was cleared by a Raith defender but when it fell to Matt Lockwood outside the box, he lofted it back in where it was met by Forsyth who headed the ball down. It landed at the feet of McCann twelve yards out and as he spun and fell to the ground, he lifted the ball gently into the air and watched it float over the Rovers keeper and into the net, to produce a moment no Dee who was there will ever forget.
McCann’s sprint towards the South Enclosure belied his thirty-six years and his team mates didn’t catch him till he reached the touchline. When they got there, they buried him in dark blue bodies in front of a frenzied Dundee support which had bounced to the front of the South Enclosure to celebrate with their heroes. It was simply magnificent.
Dens Park reverberated with joy and with barely time to restart, the goal celebrations merged seamlessly into victory ones. No one had a bigger grin than Neil McCann who ran off the pitch to hug Barry Smith as the Dundee support stayed behind to cheer every last man off the park.
It was an amazing turnaround, a fantastic finale and a fairytale ending where the returning hero turned back the years, but McCann was keen that the focus should not be on him. He emphasised on DFCTV that it was a team effort which continued the magnificent work of recent weeks and expressed his admiration of what the players had achieved before he had arrived. There was no doubt however that a sprinkling of McCann magic had made the day.
McCann played twice more against away at Stirling and at home to Queen of the South on the day that the Dee-Fiant heroes over took the 1962 Championship side’s 19 game unbeaten league record. It was the maximum number of games allowed as a trialist but McCann efforts would embody much of what the Dee-Fiant season was about. The image of him running away as he scores against Raith is an iconic Dark Blue image.
Sixteen years, eleven months after scoring his first goal against Kilmarnock on March 12th 1994, McCann scored his twelfth for The Dee and seldom has Dens Park gone so crazy.
“To come back and be able to give something back, the feeling I got was something that I’ll remember and it’s a sweet memory”, said Neil post match and for the fans it was also a sweet memory that will linger for a long, long time.
Neil McCann is a true modern day hero of Dundee Football Club and in recognition of everything he achieved with and did for the club, the club were honoured to induct him into the 2016 Hall of Fame.
Now he has returned to Dens for a third spell, this time as manager when he will look to sprinkle some of that McCann magic and once again lift a beleaguered support which he has excelled in on more than one occasion
Full Name: Neil Doherty McCann
Playing Position: Winger / Forward
Date of Birth: August 11th 1974
Club Career: Port Glasgow BC, Dundee, Heart of Midlothian, Rangers, Southampton, Heart of Midlothian, Falkirk, Dundee
Signed: May 1992
Debut: Airdrieonians 13/03/1993 (h) League
Left Club: March 2016
Last Game: Queen of the South 12/03/2011 (h) League
Honours at Dundee:
Coca-Cola League Cup runners-up: 1995/96
B&Q Challenge Cup runners-up: 1994/95
Scotland Under-21 caps: 10
DSA Player of the Year: 1994
Dundee FC Hall of Fame: 2016 Modern Heroes Award
League: 75 + 5 subs, 6 goals
Scottish Cup: 6
League Cup: 7, 5 goals
SFL Challenge Cup: 4, 1 goal
Totals: 97, 12 goals