Tannadice family values

GREETINGS HAVE hardly been exchanged before Stephen Thompson cautions that one subject off limits is Martin Bain.

Seconds later, with the Dundee United chairman barely having slid into a seat in the office formerly occupied by his late father Eddie, he voluntary brings up the little difficulty he has had with the Rangers chief executive this week.

Thompson can't help himself. If a question is asked, he will answer it. Honestly and expansively. His disarming openness results in him offering up professional and personal information of the most sensitive nature, almost with an innocence. And further extends to tossing out opinions not filtered for the potential offence they may cause to those triggering them. Which, whatever the portrayal of him in a press he perceives as increasingly hostile, is to be commended. "Maybe the difference between me and many of the other owners is that I'm willing to challenge people and take them on," he says. "The fans expect you to stand up for your own club. But maybe the ticketing issue with Rangers got a wee bit out of hand."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Just a bit, perhaps. The decision to charge reduced admission prices for Tuesday's rescheduled game with Rangers, instead of allowing tickets to be valid from the original, abandoned 1 November fixture, and the feud that has ensued, has cemented the perception of Thompson as an agitator. He has form on nipping at both Old Firm clubs. Not least when criticising their "demeaning of the Scottish football product" in pursuing a flit to England or elsewhere. Which he ramped up with comments to the effect that their followers were undesirables after a group of Rangers fans rioted in Bucharest, days before some Celtic supporters chanted outside the Falkirk Stadium during the Remembrance Sunday minute's silence. Yet, the reality is that Thompson is more agitated than agitator. He couldn't countenance having to fork out 23,000 in operational costs for Tuesday's game without recompense. Not when his family, following the demise of Setanta, have had to push up their financial commitment to the Tannadice club back towards the 5 million mark. Or just about two thirds of the 10m his late father Eddie made from the grocery business he spent 13 years growing. And he felt he couldn't do other than speak out after the bellicose language used by the Rangers chief executive over the issue at the club's AGM on Monday.

"I don't know if my relationship with Martin will recover and that's a pity, because I've got on well with him," he says. "I just thought for him to use a word like 'disgusting' to describe our charging was a cheap shot to deflect attention from their own issues. It was pretty disgraceful when you consider he didn't say that sort of thing about the way his supporters behaved in Bucharest. But listen, he's trying to do the best for his club and supporters, and I'm trying to do the best for mine. I wasn't on the make with the half-price tickets for Tuesday. I think we have shown that by the fact any money made will go to the United for Kids charity, a body working with underprivileged kids.

"I just felt in this climate, we couldn't afford to take a hit. Though we still might, with Rangers having sold only 277 tickets up to last week, and the full number of their fans attending likely to be under a thousand. But if I hadn't tried to cover our costs the bank would have been on my back; they would have slaughtered me for that. Rangers have a bank member of their board. They know how difficult the financial world we are living in is. It would have been better if there had been an SPL rule in place covering the postponement, and maybe that will be something good to come of it."

Perhaps, in a personal sense, one good thing to come from his recent willingness to wade in to all topics – which include the formation of a ten-club SPL 2 and, incidentally, giving the Old Firm more power within SFA structures he considers not fit for purpose – is that he is now seen as Stephen Thompson, United chairman. Not Eddie's son, who inherited the role because there was no-one else. The 43-year-old lets slip at one point during our two-hour conversation that he "wanted to prove he could run the family business" before it was sold when his father was first diagnosed with cancer. Deep down it seems it still might niggle that when the severity of his illness became known in February of 2008 – nine months before he passed away – his father would not designate him natural successor at United over sister Justine, who had no interest in being that. "My father didn't want to know about earmarking the next chairperson," he says, despite his having served on the United board throughout the seven-and-a-bit years of the Thompson's club ownership. "His only words would be 'I haven't much choice, but he was like that because if he admitted he wasn't going to be in the world it was as if he was giving up the fight. He was also so determined to see us as equals. I will always live a wee bit in his shadow. Fans will either take to me or not. But, because of my age and my father's character, I will never be held in the same esteem as him."

Stephen Thompson has a different personality but also a different set of priorities from his father. And should be admired for how he has coped since being thrust into a role that patently causes him to be fraught and fearful – "I worry, that's me, I can't do anything about it," he says. It would have been acceptable were running a football club the last thing he could stomach come October 2008. Even more than a year on, it is horrific to consider the double tragedy that struck the Thompson family 13 months ago, with Justine's husband Ken, "my best friend", he says, and her "inseparable soul mate" and father to their one-year-old boy, killed in a motorcycle accident three days before Eddie died. They were buried a day apart. His sister, he says, "has not recovered".

Within a week of the funerals, Stephen Thompson found himself in Court of Session, finalising his divorce as he took sole custody of a 14-year-old daughter who didn't see her mother. The same child he nursed at home during an illness this week as he also looked after the 16-week-old he has with his new fiance, who was "over the in States". He's different from Eddie, alright. "I think it was part of the grieving process, but I felt a certain amount of anger when he died. For the last six or seven months, when he was riddled with cancer, he would come in here when he shouldn't have and he wasn't able to always make clear decisions, yet he wanted to do everything. Some things came out of the woodwork after he was gone, agents' fees unpaid and such like, and towards the end I think he regretted putting United before his family. When Justine's child was born it was a Saturday that United were at home and he didn't have the time to see his grandchild in Edinburgh for a week. My sister was very close to dad and took a while to forgive him for that. My dad only ever wanted the best for the club, but I can't be like he was with family. They deserve to be in my thoughts as much as United. I love them both, but football can't come before all else for me."

Yet, it must be hard for Thompson not to be consumed with the Tannadice club for the best of all reasons right now. There are glorious possibilities as much as onerous problems in his role right now. Under Craig Levein, United have become genuine title challengers, they are revolutionising their youth structure and are developing training facilities at St Andrew's. Yet, with the feeling growing that Levein will be unable to resist the offer of the vacant Scotland job, the cornerstone of the new United Thompson is helping construct may about to be removed.

"He is the best manager we have had at this club since Jim McLean, of that there is no doubt," Thompson says. "People ask what happens when he's not here. But he has put in place foundations that still will be: the squad, the youth set-up, the training centre. Craig is ambitious, and there is nothing wrong with that. And if he moves on because he is successful, then it means we will have been successful and made massive progress. He is driven and that could drive us on to third, second, or whatever in the league. We don't want to lose him."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Thompson, meanwhile, won't worry about losing friends in the Scottish game. "I am entitled to my opinions because the buck stops with my family over what happens with United, and that means me, the family member in charge. There is huge pressure on the chief execs of Rangers and Celtic, but they are well paid for what they do. I'll still be here in five or six years time, the custodian for the Thompsons who give financial support to Dundee United. But by then various football chief execs might not be."