Gary Irvine has revealed a karaoke bar heart-to-heart on a Christmas night out transformed Dundee’s underdogs into Deefiant heroes, cementing their place in club folklore forever.
Speaking exclusively to Tele Sport, the Dark Blues youth coach admits the day administration hit Dens Park in 2010 was his “toughest day in football”, but rates survival against all the odds that campaign as his top achievement in a career that boasts three league successes and two cup wins.
Incredibly, despite being hit with a 25-point deduction from the SPFL in November due to their financial troubles and a playing squad and staff decimated by redundancies, they stormed to safety in the First Division, finishing in sixth spot.
Through the crisis of administration came glory for the players left to battle on under boss and former player Barry Smith.
However, Irvine – a right-back signed by Gordon Chisholm from St Johnstone in the summer of 2010 – reveals how difficult a time it was for everybody associated with the club.
He said: “The cost-cutting was brutal, people you know were losing their jobs and the club was in real, real trouble.
“It was really tough, I hadn’t experienced anything like that before. It was a real shock because I hadn’t long signed for Dundee.
“I was just getting bedded into a new changing-room and then before we know it we’re hearing the trouble that’s brewing at the club. The day of administration was something I’ll never forget.
“I’ve never experienced anything so hard. We all had to wait in the changing-room and then get called in for one-to-one meetings with the chairman and administrator.
“Either it was a yes and you stayed or you were given a purple folder which was a redundancy package with advice on what happens next.
“So, you’re in the position where you have to come out and tell boys who are leaving that you’ve been kept on, it was horrible. It was my toughest day in football.”
Boss Chisholm and assistant Billy Dodds were among a raft of club employees who lost their jobs with U/18 coach and former club skipper Barry Smith taking the reigns as manager.
Despite being parachuted in on October 15 amid the crisis, Smith led a team that included Rab Douglas, Matt Lockwood, Neil McCann, Gary Harkins, Stephen O’Donnell, Craig Forsyth and Leigh Griffiths as well as a host of academy players on an incredible unbeaten league streak of 23 matches.
Right in the middle of that was the club’s Christmas night out. Dundee were still sitting on just four points at that stage of the season, 10 points adrift at the bottom of the First Division.
Despite not being the usual boozy team bonding night, Irvine reveals it was one that made all the difference.
“I think Barry Smith was in a similar position to us players, he was brought up from the U/18s, which was a big jump for him, and then Matt Lockwood and Rab Douglas helped him,” added Irvine.
“We tried to do a lot together as a team and Baz and the older heads were a big part of that.
“We met for a Christmas night out and it turned into a real bonding session, not the usual ‘get the beers in and go mental’.
“We all ended up having real heart-to-hearts. We were in a karaoke place and had a private room but, instead of singing, we all ended up pouring our hearts out when we got on the mike.
“We talked about what we needed from each other and how we had to stick together. It was a surreal night but one I will always remember.”
The players were also pushed on by a vociferous fan base that had rallied behind the club in its time of need, eventually taking ownership of the club the following May.
Irvine, who spent five and a half years as a player at Dens Park before returning as a coach, added: “The fans played a massive part in it all. I think that’s why I have such a strong bond with Dundee.
“I was actually a Dundee fan when I was young, too, through my uncle Brian being a player there but my real love for the club came from that season and the experiences we had with the fans.
“It’s probably how I’ve ended up at the club for such a long time.
“I was at the peak of my career at Dundee. I played some good stuff there and probably experienced everything you can – promotion, relegation, player of the year, bad seasons, administration!”
And he rates the Deefiant squad – that also included the likes of Craig McKeown, Rhys Weston, Kyle Benedictus, Jamie Adams, Jonny Stewart, Nicky Riley, Colin McMenamin, Sean Higgins and Leighton McIntosh – as the best he was part of in over five seasons at Dens Park.
“Deefiant is hard to look past,” he said.
“Just look at the team – you had Leigh Griffiths who has gone on to be one of Scotland’s best strikers, Fozzy Forsyth who went down south and has had a great career with Derby, Rhys Weston and Matty Lockwood had already had good times down there, then there were boys like Gary Harkins and Stephen O’Donnell and a Scotland international in goal with big Rab Douglas.
“As much as getting the top six was a great achievement, the Deefiant just stands above the rest.
“And getting top six (in the Premiership) doesn’t happen often either – most teams find it really tough in the first season.
“To give Paul Hartley his due, he strengthened really well and built a really competitive squad but still the Deefiant season was the best I played in.”