Ken Gall tries to unravel the preposterous chain of events that has turned the affairs of Dundee FC into something akin to the plot of a TV gangland fantasy
Of all the weird and wonderful tales associated with British football, can any boast a cast as varied and a storyline as fantastic as that of Dundee FC?
WSC readers may be familiar with the myriad characters, including the Balkan War Criminal, the Reformed Cocaine Abuser and the Millionaire Nightclub Owner, all of whom have turned the activities of a formerly mundane club into something akin to the novels of the late Mario Puzo.
And fans of this somewhat improbable melodrama will have been delighted by the latest plot twist, in which a previously minor character is allegedly violently assaulted, has his car stolen and ends up, quivering and afraid in his flat, speaking to reporters through the letterbox. Meanwhile, the son of the aforementioned millionaire ends up helping the police with their inquiries into the incident, which also provokes questions in the Italian parliament.
Some background will be necessary for new arrivals to the saga. Following an extremely fractious bust-up with the manager Ivano Bonetti, Italian midfielder Patrizio Billio and his compatriot Marco de Marchi have been denied any SPL action for many weeks, and have been reduced to solitary training sessions well away from the first-team squad. Billio studied the options Dundee offered him – a pay-off, a loan deal or a transfer – and decided that his best option was to sit tight and see out his lucrative contract. Some weeks later, after a bracing jog through the streets around Dens Park, Billio was approached by a man who, it is alleged, assaulted him. The police were called, Billio was taken to hospital for treatment to a head wound. Paul Marr, son of Dundee chairman Peter Marr – and holder of the always vague title “Director of Football” – was questioned by the police as a witness and subsequently charged, though the matter has not yet come to court.
Billio’s car then went missing, and was found nearby, either with its lock superglued or with new number plates, depending on which unconfirmed reports you choose to believe. Journalists keen to hear more about all this were given an impromptu press conference through the letterbox of Billio’s Dundee flat. Was the Italian star too afraid to venture beyond the threshold of his home, or were his injuries perhaps not as serious as we had been led to believe?
Suddenly, the action switched to Italy, with the intervention of a Forza Italia MP and the appearance of De Marchi on a popular Italian television show, which can be likened to The Premiership Parliament staffed entirely by supermodels. The sad tale of the players’ treatment at the hands of the faraway and unforgiving Scottish club led to questions being asked in the House. The broadsheet La Stampa took an interest in the goings-on at Dens Park, and even the prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was rumoured to have taken note of the players’ plight. Dundee’s response to De Marchi’s allegations was that they were consulting their solicitors.
At a press conference after the incident, chairman Marr gave his home town’s tourism drive a big boost by noting that “Dundee is a dangerous place… people in the Hilltown are assaulted every day”. Residents of the city’s bohemian Hilltown quarter might protest, but Marr had a point, as BBC journalist John Barnes could testify after another notorious incident a mere 150 yards away from the site of the alleged attack on Billio, following an interview with the former Dundee United chairman Jim McLean.
With bated breath, observers awaited Bonetti’s opinions on the affair. Sadly, these could not be gleaned, as the manager had been posted missing before, during and after the club’s heavy defeat at Motherwell. “A scouting trip,” said Bonetti and the club. “A midwinter dash to the Maldives to check out potential honeymoon destinations,” suggested one disgruntled player.
The unnamed player also claimed in the press that Bonetti’s training sessions tended to take place in the early afternoon because that suited the manager better. He went on to allege that the ten-year-old son of Claudio Caniggia had been permitted to train with the first team, and that the kit man often gave team talks in the absence of the Bonetti and his brother, and assistant, Dario. What could it all mean?
The club’s response, again, was that they would be consulting their legal advisers. By now it was not hard to imagine the Dundee FC solicitor sitting in his office with his head in his hands at the thought of any more legal work from the club. It seems a long time ago now that Dundee were, like most provincial Scottish sides, a rather anonymous bunch of under-achievers, permanently struggling on the cusp of poverty. That was before the disco and old people’s home owner Peter Marr and his brother Jimmy gained control of the club, took on the Bonettis and the fun began in earnest.
Again, readers with sharp memories may recall the appearance on the scene of one Giovanni di Stefano, an Italian businessman whose millions, we were told, would transform Dundee into “the third force” in Scotland. Sadly, a glitch appeared in this plan when it emerged that Di Stefano was a close friend of the Serbian gangster Arkan. Pictures of Di Stefano clasping the arm of the now-deceased Arkan – believed to have been involved in hundreds of deaths during the Balkan conflict – supposedly brought a swift end to negotiations between Di Stefano and the Marr brothers.
Di Stefano, who subsequently emerged as a potential investor in Norwich City, appears to remain connected to Dundee in an unspecified capacity, however. “We are having a little trouble with our Italians,” he told the press following the Billio incident, before denying that any “strong-arm tactics” had been used by the club. As to whether he himself was an investor in the club, Di Stefano was non-commital, saying only that “everything would become clear in time”.
This may even include an explanation as to why Di Stefano’s offer to invest heavily in Dundee was immediately followed by the biggest spending spree in the club’s history. Caniggia, his career revived after a spell in a drug clinic, was an undoubted success before deciding that life on the ever-popular Rangers substitutes’ bench was a better option. He has been followed this season by the erratic Georgian Temuri Ketsbaia and China’s World Cup captain Fan Zhiyi, both believed to be on salaries of around £10,000 a week.
All of the many fans of the Dundee story can only hope that the plot twists to come are every bit as unexpected and bewildering as those we have had so far. The advice is clear: stay tuned.
From WSC 182 April 2002. What was happening this month