St Andrews is not really a football town. It is reasonably affluent and in the countryside: it has no reason to be. Despite the success of our male and female football teams and the occasional large gathering for a Champions League or English Premier League game of some kind, you don’t get the compulsive hysteria which can perhaps grasp some places across the United Kingdom.
Therefore it is probably the best place for a team to train together, get to know each other and articulate its winning plan. Dundee United Football Club, of the recently rebranded Scottish Premiership, travel across the Tay to train at the University Sports Centre. It was here that I spoke to their manager, the former Celtic captain and Scotland fullback Jackie McNamara, about his plans for the team and how training in St Andrews is a vital part of his winning formula for the men in tangerine and black.
“I like training for a full ninety minutes, I think that prepares a team as best as possible for a match at the weekend. So we have the boys in for an hour and a half on a Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, though we’ll mix that up if we have a midweek game,” McNamara said as he watched his team go through their paces from the side of the University playing fields.
The Sports Centre, for all the recent investment in it, still endures the occasional withering attack from the odd dissatisfied student.
McNamara, however, who honed his career first at Dunfermline then on the pitches of Celtic’s rather ramshackle Barrowfield training ground is a strong fan of the facility.
“Everything is really top drawer here,” he said, “we’re spoiled by the facilities we’ve got here. It’s absolutely night and day compared to some of the pitches I’ve trained on in my career. It has all the facilities you could ask for in terms of strength and conditioning and all of the equipment in the gym is first class. From an injury rehabilitation point of view a pool would be helpful but really, I can’t fault what we’ve got here”.
I even joked with him that my school used to train where his former club Partick Thistle get put through their paces. My recollections of freezing cold showers, murderously foul red ash pitches and being heckled by local hoodlums through the fence makes me sympathise with McNamara’s belief that as far as facilities go we are, as he says, “spoiled” here.
Hearing McNamara’s thoughts on football was an enlightening experience. Very much an understated cog in Martin O’Neil’s Celtic side which dominated Scottish football a decade ago, he has started carving himself out an impressive career in management.
He revitalised Partick Thistle and has taken on a big job at Dundee United. Many would no doubt be envious of his getting the United job.
As the collapse of Rangers and Heart of Midlothian’s current financial issues have shown no club in Scotland is immune from crisis. United however are lucky in that they have consistently been run on a sound financial footing.
Local businessman Eddie Thompson built up a sound base which his son Stephen is now in charge of. “It’s an excellent, well run family club,” says McNamara, “and the chairman has always backed me.” Evidence of this is apparent in new signing Morgaro Gomis training in the distance, although United have always had a strong tie to bringing up their own youth, some of whom were training with the first team on that day. It was a strong youth set-up and eclectic scouting network under former manager Jim McLean which saw United defeat Barcelona in the UEFA Cup.
As a former Scottish Young Player of the Year, McNamara puts great store by investing in youth, saying “we’ve got excellent youth facilities here. It has been a consistently strong set up at United over the years. We’ve put a lot of investment in it; we’ve got digs in Dundee where the young players are not only taught the basics of the game but how to live properly and also to prepare them for life after football.
“A club like us can’t go out and spend heavily; we’ve got to be inventive in our planning. So, combined with the youth system, we also have scouts involved in junior football and even university football. We’ve actually found two boys at university in England and they’re training here today.”
Evidence of another avenue which can lure talent to United’s Tannadice Stadium is contacts in the game, although McNamara is keen to play down how important that side of the game is.
“My old team-mate at Celtic, (former Holland striker) Pierre Van Hooijdonk recommended Nader Ciftci. So we went over to Holland, liked what we saw and took it from there. That’s not a regular thing though; as much as I’d like to I can’t watch games all over the place so you need a good scouting system at all levels of the game.”
Organic growth is very much the approach taken by McNamara at United and their comfortable start to the season acts as a vindication of that stance.
It is good to know that there is some field in St Andrews which will always be dedicated to football, and very professional football at that.
The Saint would like to thank Dundee United Football Club for allowing us to cover their training session, in particular Jackie McNamara for giving some of his time to speak to us. The Saint will be at an upcoming United home match as part of our new “Local Heroes” series.