Untimely exit

Tribute to a man who has given Dundee United his all, by Neil Forsyth

In a season that has already seen the hopeless tragedy of Motherwell captain Phil O’Donnell’s death, Scottish football has another event approaching that will be markedly tinged with sadness. When Dundee United face Rangers in the CIS League Cup final at Hampden on Sunday March 16, they will do so with a chairman in Eddie Thompson who is openly suffering from the latter stages of terminal cancer. Football looks desperately flimsy against such issues, yet it is in his dedication to United that Thompson has spoken of finding salvation in recent months.

Following the semi-final win over Aberdeen, Thompson wept with pleasure and told the press: “I have not had much pleasure in football and if I get a wee bit out of it now at my stage, I will be happy.” That reference to the late arrival of satisfaction in a chairmanship that began in 2002 demonstrates the reality for a man who made a fortune in the retail industry but bought and has run the club in a manner much closer to his other identity – as a United fan of more than 40 years’ standing.

After those decades of support, and time as a club sponsor, it took Thompson years to persuade legendary former manager Jim McLean to sell him his controlling stake in United. McLean, the irascible architect of United’s unlikely elevation to a genuine force in European football in the 1980s, had been in no rush finally to cut his connection with the club. The moment the deal finally went though, Thompson wasted no time. When I interviewed him not long after his eventual installation, he was running on a childlike delight – dropping hints of signings, recalling those famous European nights under McLean and joking with the photographer as he was shot smiling out over the River Tay, the happiest man in Dundee.

This eagerness was reflected in his transfer dealings. Such was Thompson’s largesse in the early years of his reign that he was often depicted as naive within Scottish football, as he backed one manager after another in the transfer market with only a yearly concern about relegation to show for it (with the exception of an unsuccessful 2005 Scottish Cup final appearance). Five managers were jettisoned before Thompson turned in October 2006 to former Hearts and Leicester boss Craig Levein.

By then United’s spending was already reined in, with previous manager Craig Brewster overseeing a savage cut in the wage bill and shipping out the club’s highest earners – arguably costing him his job in the long run. Levein has proven similarly prudent. At Hampden against Rangers the team will feature signings from the Irish League, two from the Scottish Second Division and a 19‑year-old Ghanaian who was recently turning out in Manchester college football.

However, this season has finally seen the side operating nearer the top of the table and they remain very much in the hunt for that much coveted third position, or “best of the rest” in a league not won by a team outwith the Old Firm since 1985.

Unfortunately the upturn in the club’s fortunes has coincided with Thompson’s failing health. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003, but when this filtered through to public knowledge he was quick to dismiss its significance. The physical changes in him have become obvious, however, and the progression of his illness has seen Thompson react pragmatically. The 67-year-old has spent recent months installing his family – wife, daughter and son – in senior roles at the club in recognition of the fact his direct involvement will not last much longer. He has also spoken of having put some money aside for United, “if it’s needed”. Not that this is immediately likely with the recent sale of club captain Barry Robson to Celtic, coupled with the new financial reality in the club’s dealings that means United are now operating at an easily sustainable level.

Thompson’s enforced exit from a position he coveted for so long has been a tragic, and uncomfortably public, process that has provoked warmth and empathy throughout Scottish football. United will take to the field for the CIS League Cup final with 17,000 followers and a team genuinely capable of adding another famous day to those that Thompson enjoyed in his years as a supporter. Against the universal tragedy of a husband, father and grandfather’s failing health, it must be hoped that such an occasion will bring pride and a sense of achievement to a man who deserves both.

From WSC 254 April 2008