Rab Douglas interview: Keeping up appearances

IN THE days when he combined part-time football with his job as a bricklayer, Rab Douglas could never have anticipated a career with Celtic. Neither did he believe, after winning two league titles, four Scottish Cups and 19 international caps with the Glasgow club, that his peak would be spent in the wilderness.

Neither did he believe, after winning two league titles, four Scottish Cups and 19 international caps with the Glasgow club, that his peak would be spent in the wilderness. Now, towards the end of a long and strange career in which he has been all or nothing, hero or zero, victim of the classic vagaries of high-profile goalkeeping, the 36-year-old is content to settle for something in between.

Since joining Dundee last summer, there has been none of the spotlight Douglas is used to, none of the pressure, prizes or politics he has experienced elsewhere, but plenty of first-team football, which, in the light of recent traumas, isn't to be sniffed at. Excited though he is by this Saturday's return to Celtic Park for a Scottish Cup fourth-round tie, it is a thrill to be playing at all after two-and-a-half years on the bench. "You enjoy it more when you're older because you never know when it might be your last game," he says.

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He thought that landmark had passed already. After leaving Celtic in 2005, he spent three ruinous years with Leicester City, where he dropped so far out of the picture that hardly a single club was interested in signing him when his contract expired at the end of last season. Until his father-in-law, Peter Marr, the former Dundee owner, alerted him to the possibility of a return to Dens Park, where he had spent three happy seasons in the late 1990s, he was preparing to retire and set up a goalkeeping course in Atlanta. All of which would have been a shocking way to round off a career that had taken him to the UEFA Cup final only five years earlier.

Leicester tested Douglas to the limit. Signed by Craig Levein, he was a regular in his first few months at the Walkers Stadium, but a match against Derby County in February 2006, during which he sustained a season-ending injury, proved to be his last for the club. By the time he had recovered his fitness, Levein had long gone, together with his prospects of a recall. As a succession of new managers – from Rob Kelly and Nigel Worthington to Martin Allen, Gary Megson and Ian Holloway – proceeded to ignore his claims, he had to settle for short loan spells with Millwall, Wycombe Wanderers and Plymouth Argyle.

Douglas says he trained like a trooper, and played well on loan, even winning the man-of-the-match award in his sole appearance for Plymouth, but not one Leicester manager was impressed. His only possible explanation is that the club's board wanted to sever all links with the Levein era. "It was soul-destroying," he says. "I trained all week, knocking my pan in, but I wasn't getting a look-in. No matter what I did, I was completely bombed. I had several managers, and some of them told me I could go before they had even seen me train or play. I found that astounding. I've spoken to a couple of people, and I'm sure it was coming from a higher level. Maybe I'm being cynical, but a few of the boys from Scotland got bombed. Mark De Vries, Alan Maybury, Stevie Hughes and myself were all shipped out.

"The one thing I'm proud of is that I remained professional through it all. The goalie coach never ever had to pull me in about my attitude. It's one thing if a manager or a chairman questions my ability as a goalkeeper, but they won't ever question my commitment. I would never give anyone the satisfaction of having to pull me for that."

Now, Douglas is putting it all behind him, revitalised by the role of elder statesman at Dundee. "I've got pants older than some of these boys," he says, admitting that the appointment of Jocky Scott was his idea. When Alex Rae departed in October, Douglas suggested to Dave McKinnon, then the club's chief executive, that they consider the manager he had played for at Dens a decade earlier. Scott duly arrived, and the team found their feet, not scoring many goals, but not losing many either, thanks in part to the man between the posts. Having been without a club only six months ago, Douglas is now hoping for a new contract, which Dundee would be well advised to offer him, given that Levein is lurking over the road at Tannadice. "With my family connections, I wouldn't go there, couldn't go there," he says. "I'd have to sleep in the spare bedroom."

Before he joined Celtic in 2000, Dundee were the making of Douglas, a late starter if ever there was one. He was part-time with Livingston before moving to Dens at the age of 25, helping his new club to promotion in his first season and earning them 1.5m two years later. He was 28 when he moved to Parkhead, 30 when he made his debut for Scotland. He admits that football didn't come naturally, and that he had to sweat for every step up the ladder, which serves only to underline the magnitude of his achievements. While not everyone at the highest level remembers him fondly, his only failure was to meet the standards he himself had raised.

He's not sure how he will be received in the east end of Glasgow on Saturday. He contributed in no small way to what was a glorious era under Martin O'Neill, but he wasn't a character, a showman in the Artur Boruc mould. And he made some of his biggest mistakes in the biggest matches, which is the nightmare combination for any goalkeeper, never mind one that plays for the Old Firm. Inevitably, he is remembered less for the highlight of his time at Parkhead, a breathtaking UEFA Cup performance against Valencia in the Mestalla, than for a series of Glasgow derbies in which he was found wanting.

The first of those came in only his third appearance for Celtic, a 5-1 defeat at Ibrox which gave him an early taste of the fixture's blame culture. The last was a 2-0 home defeat in which he was hung out to dry for his part in a goal by Gregory Vignal. Worst of all, though, was the 3-3 draw at Celtic Park in October 2002, when Mikel Arteta's shot trickled through his fingers. Later held accountable for all three goals, Douglas admits he considered quitting the game. "After that one, I really thought I'd had enough. That was me... finished. But then I spoke to big Terry (Gennoe, Celtic's goalkeeping coach], Martin (O'Neill] and Debbie (his wife], who were all brilliant. If I'd given up, and stopped being paid to play football, I'd probably still have played it on a park somewhere. That's how much I love it. So why give someone the satisfaction?

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"I hate seeing any goalie make a mistake, even if the boy is keeping me out of the team. People won't believe that, but I've been in that position and it's horrible. Speak to any goalie who has made a mistake in a big game and they will tell you it is the loneliest time. But with the Old Firm, it is magnified. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. Some of the stuff I had to put up with was unbelievable, getting analysed in the press by guys who didn't even know me. It was all wrong. Nobody makes mistakes deliberately.

"The one thing you can say about me is I am honest, but it hasn't always helped. At Celtic, there were times when I cost the team goals, and I was probably too honest in admitting it. There are guys who make mistakes and never admit to them. I held my hands up. Sometimes when nerves get to a guy, he doesn't play, he fakes an injury, but that's something you could never ever say about me. I always had the balls to stand up and be counted. I've never been one to hide."

He is proud of the seven consecutive clean sheets he racked up in his first season at Celtic. He also points out that, while O'Neill's faith in him later faltered when David Marshall and Magnus Hedman provided competition for the goalkeeper's jersey, the manager saw fit to play him 162 times in five years. Douglas was criticised all right, for country as well as club, but he was Scotland's first choice for a while, and not many can say that.

Last summer, he was among those invited to Chris Sutton's house for a reunion of the team that took Celtic to the UEFA Cup final in Seville. O'Neill was there, together with his assistant, John Robertson, and Paul Lambert, whom Douglas describes as his best friend in football. For all his troubles, it reminded Douglas of the company he has kept, and the standards he has reached. "I will never be everybody's cup of tea, but I can look back with huge pride on what I have achieved, not just for myself, but for my friends and family. Some guys play 10-15 years and don't win a thing. I played for Scotland. I won the Third Division, the First Division, a couple of SPLs, some Scottish Cups and played in the UEFA Cup final. For a daft goalie who came into the game late, it's not bad is it?"