With Jamie McCunnie there is no such thing as a stiff upper lip – absolutely everything is delivered with the brutal honesty that comes from having taken a few knocks in football.
The former Dundee United protégé could be forgiven for being bitter about how his time at the club ended and the way his career proceeded to go.
However, phoney indignation is just not in McCunnie’s make-up. The 37-year-old openly regrets his exit from Tannadice in 2003 and admits, largely, he is to blame.
Barely 20, he was shown the door by then-boss Ian McCall, purportedly peeved by the Blantyre boy’s professionalism (or lack of it, more to the point).
It was a sharp turnaround for McCunnie, who made his Tangerines debut 20 years ago this month aged just 17; from hot prospect to joining up with mentor Alex Smith at First Division Ross County less than three years later.
Spells at Dunfermline, Hartlepool United, East Fife, Stirling Albion and in Iceland followed before ending up back in the City of Discovery with Broughty Athletic, currently as manager.
It’s not a career path he, nor many others, envisaged two decades ago when he burst onto the scene as a combative midfielder, who often turned out as an attacking right-back.
He was a key component in Smith’s Dundee United side back then and a 20-times capped Scotland U/21 skipper – seen by many as ‘the next big thing’.
You get the sense, when he talks, that McCunnie is all too aware of the opportunity missed but he is honest enough to admit he didn’t apply himself to the level required to ‘make it’.
“I don’t know where all the hype came from about me because there were a lot of us coming through,” he said.
“I honestly don’t know. I think Dundee United just have a reputation for bringing young boys through, they always have.
“I never believed the hype, I was just enjoying playing first-team football at such a young age when a lot of my other mates were still playing in the youth team.
“I was fortunate that I was the one in my age group that broke through first.
“Hindsight is a great thing. If I knew then what I know now…
“It’s not to make excuses, but the culture of football is completely different now.
“When I went in, I’d work so hard to get to first-team level and when I got there I just kind of stopped doing a lot of the stuff I did to get there in the first place.
“You definitely don’t do it deliberately but I maybe just took my foot off the gas and, in all honestly, didn’t dedicate myself to it.
“It was a very competitive youth team we had at Dundee United to get a full-time contract.
“When we were 15 we got told who was going up to full-time and just through sheer hard work and determination, I don’t think I was a particularly gifted player, I got there.
“I wasn’t a silky midfield player or a blessed with pace or anything like that.
“I moved up into digs, got a taste for it and did really well but when I made it to the first team things changed.
“Looking back, I never dedicated myself to the profession. That’s maybe just youthfulness and being stupid or naïve.
“It’s only recently I’ve realised that.”
Rejection spurred McCunnie on to make Terrors debut
Despite his reflections on how things went with United, McCunnie admits he was just happy to have played professionally.
It was a feeling that hit home when he made his debut away to Hibs on December 30, 2000 – a club that had rejected him as a youngster.
“My thing was just to make it as a professional footballer and I never reset my goals once I’d accomplished that first one,” he added.
“I probably, to a certain extent, was happy with that.
“Growing up I got rejection at a young age and that kind of fuelled my fire to say: ‘I’m going to make it.’
“At my boys club in Blantyre, a certain amount got picked up by senior clubs and I wasn’t one of them.
“That hit me hard and it was like: ‘What am I going to do?’
“Hibs came calling for a lot of the boys and it got to me. I just thought: ‘This can’t happen to me again and I’ll do whatever I need to do to get back on level terms with those boys.’
“Fortunately, I worked really hard and got picked up by Dundee United via Graeme Liveston down in the west.”
After joining the Terrors youth set up on a full-time contract in 1999, McCunnie would go on to make 75 appearances for the then-SPL side.
Although he wishes things had panned out differently, and admits he got complacent, the Broughty boss loved his time at Tannadice playing alongside the likes of Charlie Miller and Craig Easton.
He continued: “When I made my debut the club weren’t in a particularly great place, we were rooted at the bottom of the Premier League.
“There was a lot of mediocre foreign players and that was probably why I got my opportunity. I don’t think it was the club’s intent to play a 17-year-old.
“For me and the club, it would’ve been better if I’d had more reserve games and built up a wee bit but the way Dundee United was at that moment in time they decided to clear the decks.
“Alex Smith came in and got rid of a lot of the boys that were the reason why the club were at the bottom of the table.
“He brought in a lot of British and Scottish players and gave younger ones a chance as well.
“Within the space of a couple of months, it was a completely different environment with a massive change to the first-team squad.
You definitely don’t do it deliberately but I maybe just took my foot off the gas and, in all honestly, didn’t dedicate myself to it.”
Jamie McCunnie on why he failed to make the grade at United.
“That’s probably why I got my opportunity and, thankfully, the experienced ones that came in really helped the younger ones.
“There was a real togetherness at the club. The older players were absolutely brilliant; I couldn’t speak highly enough of them.
“The ones that came through the academy really took us under their wing like Craig Easton, Jim Paterson and Paul Gallacher.
“On top of that there were experienced guys like Jason de Vos, Jim Lauchlin, Derek Lilley, Jim McIntyre, Charlie Miller, Stephen Wright, Jim Hamilton, Alan Combe and Hasney Aljofree.
“It was a good squad of boys and it wasn’t just the football side of things. We used to go out a lot and it was probably the best time I had in football.
“You just take it for granted and think it’s always going to be like that.”
Now gaffer with junior side Broughty, McCunnie takes lessons learned and passes them on to his young squad in the hope they don’t make the same mistakes.
Not just at United, but throughout his career, McCunnie says he was kidding himself that he was fully dedicated to becoming the best he could be.
Asked if he has regrets, he responded: “Yeah, of course, but at the time I didn’t.
“I look at it now and the way football is and I should’ve been doing a lot in my free time that I wasn’t doing.
“I just wasn’t properly dedicating myself to the profession and taking my foot off the gas, not deliberately though.
“I’d go in, train and then go home and play a game of golf or socialise with mates when I should’ve been in doing extra training and at the gym.
“All that would’ve definitely helped me but, at the time, you just think: ‘That’s me finished for the day.’
“You’re young and naïve but when I look at it now you realise you’ve got so much space in your week to make yourself better.
“It’s not something that until you finish playing you look back and reflect.
“As a manager, I look at some of the younger boys we’ve got and hope they don’t make the same mistakes.
“I always thought, throughout my career, I was doing enough but I was kidding myself on.”
No credit taken for the rise of United star Louis Appere
Dundee United youngster Louis Appere’s rise best illustrates McCunnie’s impact on the next generation of young Scottish players.
In a poetic twist of fate, a struggling Appere landed in McCunnie’s lap on loan from a club that had once cast him out, too.
The 21-year-old attacker would go on to score a glut of goals in the six months that followed before returning to establish himself as a crucial member of Robbie Neilson’s Championship title-winning Tangerines side.
Modest as he is, McCunnie tries to distance himself from the role he, undoubtedly, played in Appere’s progression.
He commented: “He’s done absolutely brilliantly and he is definitely a young guy with his head on properly.
“He’s very sensible in terms of his approach to the game and very professional with how he lives away from football so I didn’t really have to do much with Louis, to be honest.
“I’d be lying if I said I guided him and stuff like that. He’s just a really nice kid, it was great to work with him for six months and I’m delighted for him.
“All he needed was a wee confidence boost, I’d say.
“He came to us a wee bit low on confidence because things weren’t going particularly well but he absolutely ripped it up in terms of his goalscoring.
“He went back to Dundee United a much more confident player, dedicated himself over the summer and came back flying.
“He’s taken his opportunity with the first team now. It was a good fit for us.
“He’s such a level-headed guy and it’s good to see a young boy doing well at a local club.”
Broughty is a great fit for burgeoning boss McCunnie
Initially signing with the Whitton Park side in 2014, three years later McCunnie took the reins as player-manager.
This season, his focus is solely on being a boss after hanging up his boots following a 20-year-playing career, saying the club and he are still as a good fit as they were when he joined.
“My partner at the time was from Dundee so the plan was always to settle back down here when football came to an end,” he added.
“It was time for me to play part-time and actually look for a job because professional football doesn’t go on forever.
“I was weighing up the coaching route but I thought, and I still do, there’s not enough jobs in football management for the amount of ex-players.
“I decided to look for a career, if you will, instead. I work for Street League, ever since stopping full-time football I’ve been in employability.
“It’s still sport and it helps young people get into work.
“Unfortunately, football doesn’t go on forever. I was in my early 30s at the time and I knew it was coming to an end.
“Do you keep trying to chase a year’s contract here or a six month contract there?
“Becoming manager wasn’t something I’d particularly planned or thought of. I’d been playing at Broughty for a couple of years and then the chairman, Gordon Deuchars, asked me to take the job.
“I said I’d take it until he found somebody else but it kind of went all right!
“He asked me to do it permanently and I’ve got a good relationship with Gordon – it’s a well-run club behind the scenes.
“I’ve been fortunate that the boys I’ve got are a good bunch. That makes it a wee bit easier because we only train on a Tuesday and Thursday night.
“We’ve got a decent young squad, guys that have been senior or ones that have played up a few levels.
“The facilities are good, too, and it’s a great fit for me – I really enjoy it.”
With the new East Region Premiership North season having just kicked off, McCunnie’s Fed side hope to build on what’s been a successful few campaigns for the club.
He’s doing a good job, applying himself in a way he perhaps didn’t as a kid, but McCunnie insists he is happy in the Ferry… for now.
He continued: “We played our first league game back in November so it’s only really just kicked off but it’s going well.
“We were in the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup last season, the furthest the club has ever been, before Covid cancelled the campaign.
“The season before we won silverware so we’re a club that’s improving gradually.
“If there were opportunities for me to impress I’d have to look at them but at this minute the club has been really good with me and I’m happy here.
“This is the first season where I’ve completely stepped back from playing and will just be managing. I don’t know where I see myself going but if it ain’t broken don’t fix it. I’m enjoying it so I’ll just keep going at the minute.”