A TRIBUTE TO DUNCAN GRAY
Click here for a selection of pictures of Duncan
By Michael Gray - I often find myself wondering what the old fella makes of all the fuss his departing has caused; can't imagine he would approve. I was looking back through the old history books there short ago and found my debut back in 1989, I think I got on for the last 7-8 minutes v Keiss in a Rural league game in Dunnet. I remember trying to shoulder barge Gordon Robertson, who was then the Brora Rangers central midfielder, and nearly landed in the fence behind the bottom goals. But you always had to try and impress the manager to get involved in the following game.
Things certainly changed throughout Dunc's tenure in charge; when I started playing for PU, winter football really was only for the elite and the summer season was longer with pre-season and post-season trips often organised. I know the Skye trip remains in folklore amongst the older players. This social aspect of the game is something that Dunc thrived on and he loved to be right in the thick of it and that could be amongst some of the older players like Kev, Terry, Andy or Beggy or the opposite end of the spectrum with Ryan, Grant and Ross etc. He always made time for it and recognised the importance of team spirit; knowing that no matter how good individually, if they couldn't gel as a group then failure was inevitable.
I don't think we could ever describe him as an optimist; at the start of every season, as the search for players began, there would be the regular 'this could be our last season in the first division you know' speech. So we would be dispatched with a list of targets. In the late 90's and early 00's attracting players was never an issue but it has become more of a challenge in recent times. With changes in aspirations/ambitions of younger players sadly it used to be they wanted to play at a higher standard to improve now any old game will do. However getting the right player was a canny knack he had. Daffy is a prime example, with all due respect I don't think Daffy really rated himself as a player for the top teams in the County, and it took a number of efforts to persuade but he did and now look at him within 4 seasons he has picked up all the trophies available as a County player something many can only envy. I think Brian touched on 2008 and it was a tremendous season but I never got round to asking him what he would consider to be his greatest achievement; be it his first Highland Cup, the first league title, the grand slam in 2000? But given the departures in 2007 he literally had two teams running that season, one for the county and one for the Highland Cup, due to player availability. To come within one game of another grand slam was quite something considering we stood 15 minutes before kick off in Keiss with only 10 players after one car was pulled over for speeding. This is not the forum for repeating what was said before that game but suffice to say the new players, 5 players in the starting line-up made their debut that night, were informed of the obligations that they assumed as one of his players and more importantly a Pentland United player. A 4-1 win later we all could have a laugh in the Sinclair Bay Hotel but the new boys who started that season were left in no doubt what was expected of them in the future.
I have been fortunate enough to represent the club in every season since 1989 winning countless trophies, which I wouldn't change for the world, but if the manager had not been my Dad I almost certainly would have signed a semi-pro form to give myself a 'rest'. But he was and there was no way I wouldn't even have bothered raising that subject. I recall a conversation back in 92, I was not playing as much football as I had thought I deserved to be, bearing in mind I was still at school, probably a bit ambitious to say the least but my mates were getting ahead with some of the poorer sides and I made the suggestion that I may try the same. The furrows on the forehead are all I really remember but the conversation ran something along the lines of 'Don't be silly old boy; I think perhaps you are being a little impatient just take some time to consider your age, you will get your chance all in good time'. He took a big chance on me in 93, allowing the then top keeper in the County, Alastair Budge, to move on and it was a risk that looked like backfiring after the David Allan Shield Final when I blundered badly to allow Holborn to equalise and subsequently win the final on penalties. It took a while for me to get over that but was told straight, the game was gone and there was nothing to do but pull the gloves back on at the first opportunity and get on with it. I would like to think he had a keen eye for who needed a cuddle and who required a kick up the backside but for both me and my brothers it was definitely the latter regardless of the situation. Anyone that saw us in action would recognise it could be a fairly strained relationship and there were often pretty frank exchanges from dugout to goal as he vented his frustration. But he had a desire to win that was unsurpassed in my experience within football, yes he did cross the line at times but not through anything malicious, he just wanted his team to win EVERY game and demanded they show the same desire and it frustrated him when there shortfalls. His love-hate relationship with the county officials were legendary, and the one in the Eann Macintosh Cup Final really summed him up 3-0 up with less than 10 minutes left he got sent off for disputing a throw in award in front of his dug out. It was madness; and afterwards he asked me “was I out of order?” I told him he was and that he should apologise to the referee, whether he did, I do not know but believe it or not he actually was remorseful.
I still laugh at his nervous energy; I would saunter round to the pavilion 45 minutes before kick off he would have been there for at least 15 minutes before that and usually more. He would be putting the flags out, writing the team sheets pumping the balls up, basically he was in the zone and kick off couldn't come quick enough. Games did genuinely take a lot out of him you could see it after a tense affair or an important game, the can of cider wouldn't stand a chance, then it was getting the strips sorted as quickly as possible for the girls to get off home and away home he would trot in either a foul mood where he could go days without speaking properly or like a school boy clicking his heels. The highs and lows of Duncan Gray, thankfully for Mum he had more highs than lows. He did take defeat personally; constantly analysing both the team's and his own performance meticulously and also studying football, to try to find different formations that would perhaps suit the players he had at his disposal better, change was something he was always willing to embrace. Maybe it is my imagination but he definitely seemed to take the game a lot more seriously as he got older, he was more professional in his outlook, preparation for games and also his overview of the club as a wider project. There was the mention of the trip to Orkney before the HA semi in 2010 but that was common practice and if PU were not playing and there was a game in the locality he was going, me I couldn't be bothered but not Dunc he wanted to prepare thoroughly for every eventuality.
I remember when he came home from Australia earlier this year and I was lambasted for not having taken down the nets and sent round at the first opportunity to take them down so they would not rot over the winter. This was perhaps his last football related instruction he gave me; but he was at the time planning for the new season and had not finalised his squad but was well on the way. That was him; constantly thinking about the club and how he could improve things both on and off the park, as he maintained happiness off the park leads to results on it. So anything he could do that would make the club more appealing you can guarantee it would be done. I think I mentioned earlier about the learning curve we are all on as we are not just taking up his mantle running the club we also have the other aspect and that is the non-footballing issues, which he dealt with I was going to say with minimum fuss but that wouldn't be strictly true as we would be blasted regularly as he HAD to everything. Sadly we never truly appreciated everything he did when he was with us and I am afraid at the moment we are still rattling around in his boots.
I am still struggling really to come to terms with the fact I will never see or speak with him again it just seems so surreal. I still am waiting for the phone call 'What like the day check', on match days there would 2-3 and double that in texts. He was more than just a manager and committee member, he lived and breathed the club through the summer especially, and come Christmas time he would be back plotting his next campaign. I think I mentioned at his funeral he had slipped into Alastair Ham's role of Mr PU effortlessly.
It will take a long time for the rawness to come away from this wound but we have to try if for nothing else just to maintain the standards the man has set over the years.
He is, and will continue to be, sorely missed by everyone at PU.
By Neil Gray - On the 15th February 2011 Pentland United Manager, Duncan Gray, suddenly, and tragically, passed away at his home, in Dunnet, aged just 59. With his passing amateur football in Caithness, and the wider Highland Region, lost a manager whose record, of 14 County League Titles, 7 Highland Amateur Cup wins and more than 20 County Cup wins, is unlikely to ever be surpassed. However, as a club, Pentland United have lost someone whose dedication & commitment far exceeded simply striving for success on the field.
Duncan brought a professional attitude to the running of the club and would be actively involved in everything from club finances to merchandise, from travel arrangements to pitch preparation. Duncan recognised the value community spirit played in a local team's success. He would ensure that stalwart supporters were always looked after and that player's wives and girlfriends (now somewhat tastelessly referred to in the media as WAGs) were also included in the various social events throughout the season.
Although a fierce competitor, Duncan understood the spirit of the game and would ensure that visiting sides in the Highland Cup, in victory or defeat, were treated to a meal and a hospitable welcome after the game to toast them on their way.
Duncan also performed the role of mentor & confidant to many of the team's players and as such forged close relationships which lasted far beyond the playing days for a lot of United's players. The special bond he had with his players was basically down to his ability to relate to people across social groups and ages. Whilst he demanded respect in the dressing room he never objected if occasionally he was the butt of the banter but he usually managed to turn the tables pretty quickly.
Duncan's footballing career began with Pentland United's Thurso namesake Thurso Pentland. He would represent the club over a number of years, operating at various times as either a goalkeeper or a centre half. It may simply be a coincidence that the team would enter its most successful period, including winning two Highland Cups, after Duncan's departure.
Duncan joined Pentland United in 1972. Legend has it that his signing was not without controversy. At the time, as a club competing in the Rural association, player registration was restricted to those who were born or lived within the Parish boundary. To meet this requirement, Duncan, officially at least, moved to stay with his future mother-in-law and so was eligible to join Pentland United. To be fair, if we compare this to the present day situation, people are handed Scotland caps without ever having set foot in the country. His time spent “living” with Nan Robertson obviously had a profound effect on Duncan as he would later move to Seaview Cottages, Dunnet where he would spend the rest of his days. Even then Duncan showed a shrewd ability to negotiate the hurdles of dealing with officialdom and this was something that would be in evidence throughout his time with the club. One wonders what direction the club would have taken had his attempts to join the club been unsuccessful! Unsurprisingly, Duncan was a very committed footballer but I think it is fair to say he enjoyed greater success as a manager than he did as a player. Although it should be noted that during Duncan's playing days United won a few rural trophies and, after the amalgamation of the County & Rural associations in 1975, United won the County League Division 2 in 1977 to gain promotion to Division 1, where they have remained ever since.
Outside of football, Duncan also played for the Caithness rugby team. A talented fullback, Duncan played for the county side between the years 1968 and 1980, earning 183 caps. He became the first player to break the 1,000 point barrier, amassing 1,005 points over his career (which would equate to 1,055 points in today's money), and his record still stands as the clubs highest ever points scorer.
Duncan's initial transition from player to manager, in 1983, was as part of a co-management team with Dennis Manson and latterly he would be assisted by Martin Nicolson. Duncan & Dennis lead United to their first major honour in 1987, winning the Highland Cup. From there, United began to establish themselves as a real force in the County.
The Highland Cup triumph was followed by success in the David Allan Shield in that same summer, and in 1988 United became champions of Caithness for the first time while also retaining the David Allan Shield to make it a league & cup double.
Another league & cup double followed in 1990 with the league being retained again in 1991 and this being followed up with a further triumph in 1993. Caithness football was extremely competitive at this time, with the likes of Halkirk, Castletown, Wick Thistle, Thurso Holborn & Wick Groats all winning the title during a ten year period. Although United's 4 titles in the 6 seasons following their Highland Cup win would mark them out as becoming the dominant side in the County at this time.
1994 stands out as a watershed moment in the history of Pentland United. Following the stunning league & Highland Cup double in 1993, Duncan decided to step down as manager of the side due to work commitments. However, the team toiled during the subsequent season and Duncan would return to the side lines as their 17 year stay in the top flight came under real threat, and he would guide them to a last day relegation escape act. Despite their league woes, United also captured the Rosebank Cup that season, so did not end the season empty handed. This was followed up by a David Allan Shield win in 1995.
If United's success in the late 80's & early 90's made them the leading force in Caithness football, then their success during the latter part of the 90s and into the new millennium, can only be described as a stranglehold, a stranglehold that would extend beyond Caithness football and into the wider Highland region as well. 1996 saw the first of 6 successive titles for United. A number of the early triumphs were achieved at a canter, but towards the end of the decade Thurso Academicals (Acks) would become regular challengers which created some epic title run-ins. The competitive nature of the league also aided United in their quest to once more conquer the Highland Cup, as the mental qualities of focus and determination became second nature and complimented the footballing talent of the squad.
A streamlining of the fixture calendar meant that only two county cups (David Allan Shield and Eann Mackintosh Cup) would survive to compliment the CAFA Division One Trophy. This would lay down the gauntlet of potential Domestic Trebles or even clean sweep Quadruples with consideration of the Highland Amateur Cup.
Over the last 25 years United would be regular winners/finalists in County Cups but the success enjoyed between 1998 and 2000 really does stand out. 1998 brought a treble of League, Mackintosh Cup & Highland Cup. In 1999 the Domestic Treble was achieved, the only blemish being defeat in the Highland Cup Final. Whereas an unprecedented clean sweep was delivered in 2000, meaning United had, remarkably, won 10 of the 12 available trophies during that 3 year period. To give a flavour of the competitive nature of the league at this time, the title in 2000 was achieved with a final day draw against an Acks side, unbeaten for the entire campaign.
In 2001 United were once again champions in the last of their 6 titles in a row before Wick Thistle edged United in a last day decider in 2002. The blow of the end of their reign as County champions was cushioned by a record breaking 5th Highland Cup win.
In 2003, United returned to the pinnacle of Caithness football with a domestic treble. Two more trophies followed in 2004 as United retained the league title and David Allan Shield. In 2005, United won both County Cups but were pipped to the league in another last day decider as Acks ended their long wait to be crowned County Champions. Their reign was short lived as United would once again be crowned champions in 2006 and also retained the Eann Mackintosh Cup.
This completed a truly astonishing period for United who had won 9 out of the last 11 titles, only being beaten in last day deciders for the other two. This would also be seen as the end of the road for a few members of the team as a new generation would start to emerge.
The young team would only, relatively speaking, achieve the Eann Mackintosh Cup in 2007. However 2008 saw the league title once more reside in Dunnet, as well as the David Allan Shield and a 6th Highland Cup.
2009 was a barren season for United, something they had not suffered for nearly two decades previous, but they were to bounce back in sensational fashion last year winning both the Eann Mackintosh Cup and another, memorable, Highland Cup triumph.
It was in the Highland Cup that Duncan's talents as a manager really shone through and it was a competition he thoroughly enjoyed competing in. There is a special atmosphere to this competition, be it the chance to play against new opponents, the chance to represent your County, the many memorable away days…whatever it is, it often brought the best out of Duncan's teams. Pentland United are the most successful club in the tournament's history, winning it an incredible 7 times and Duncan was at the helm for all 7 victories.
The first of these victories was achieved in an all Caithness clash as United overcame Wick Groats at Sir George's Park, Thurso. United won the match 1-0 with, Scarfskerry boy, Neil Rollinson scoring the game's solitary goal. This win was looked upon as the springboard for further success for this side.
During an 8 year period (1993 – 2000), Pentland United won the cup 3 times and on the 5 other occasions were only beaten by the eventual winners, including in the final against Contin in 1999. Duncan was unable to attend that final as its scheduling clashed with a pre-arranged holiday. A few players faced similar problems and had to cut short their holidays to play in the match. Duncan would never have suggested that his being in attendance would have altered the result, but in truth we will never know.
After a six year absence, United travelled to Victoria Park, Dingwall, in 1993, to face Western Isle's outfit South End for their second final. United were ahead early through goal-poacher Terry Mackay. The game burst in to life with a stunning 30 yard equalizer from South End's MacInnes. This brought an immediate response from United with Kevin Morris finishing an Andy Mackay cross with unerring accuracy, and in doing so ensured he scored in every round of the competition. Terry Mackay added another before MacInnes struck again to keep the tie alive. United eventually ran out winners through further goals from Morris and a late Willie Sinclair strike. Morris' goals gave him a hat-trick of headers in the match; the last two were put away by his bandaged head after an earlier injury. The late blitz provided a winning margin, 6-2, which did not accurately reflect the high quality and close nature of this final.
In 1998 Dudgeon Park, Brora, played host to a battle between the champions of Caithness and Inverness as United took on British Legion, the first team from Inverness to reach the final. A first minute own goal from Eann Swanson set the scene for a shaky start for United as they battled into a strong wind. During this opening period a quip from Duncan to his son, Brian, was reported in the “Things People Say” section of the Ross-Shire Journal. “Concentrate, concentrate or you're off!” was the warning, although this may have been an edited version of what Duncan actually said.
United levelled late in the first half through, Dunnet lad, Tony Farquhar and Duncan used the half time break to galvanise his troops. Duncan was an extremely committed manager and expected the same from his players. While he would never suffer fools gladly, his motivational skills far exceeded the “hairdryer” approach. After a lacklustre first half, Duncan was quick to point out to the side that they could not afford to repeat that showing in the second half, but rather than labour on that point, he instead put the focus on the mind-set of the opposition claiming, by being level and now having the wind behind PU, “They are sitting in there thinking their chance is gone, let's not give them any reason to feel they may get a reprieve.”. Farquhar added two further goals, in the second half, to complete his hat-trick and secure a 3-1 win. It really was one of Duncan's skills to know when his team needed a kick up the backside and when they needed to be picked up. Sometimes his choice of motivational tool would come at, what would appear to be, the strangest times, lambasting his players for a poor second half showing in a 4-0 win over title rivals but offering calm words of encouragement when trailing 3-0 at half time against local rivals that would inspire a second half fight back. It is fair to say his technique usually got the desired effect.
After the disappointment of the 1999 defeat in Dingwall, Brora once again welcomed United, for their 3rd final in a row, when they faced Cromarty in 2000. Met by opposition all sporting dyed-blonde hair and wearing shirts without numbers, in an attempt to confuse the opposition and officials alike, United came through 4-0, with goals from Kevin Morris (2), Ross Sutherland & Jocky Begg. While the antics of the opposition were surely meant to antagonise United, Duncan used this to his advantage telling his team “They are here for a day out; we are here to win a cup final!” United ended the match with all three of Duncan's sons on the park, undoubtedly a proud moment for the manager. In fairness, the score line suggests an easier match than was actually the case, although the ruthless nature of the performance can maybe be explained by Duncan's motivational strategy. United had just overcome Portree in a very competitive semi-final and Duncan, having travelled to watch Cromarty prior to the final, was keen to point out that they would represent a step up in class from Portree. After the final, when asked by his son, Pentland United goalkeeper Michael, if he really felt that Cromarty were a better side than Portree, he responded with a knowing smile!
A further triumph was achieved in 2002, again in Brora, as United beat Portree 2-1. Portree had been United's semi-final opponents in 2000 and once again another tense battle ensued. As in 1998, United had to recover from losing an early goal. After a Willie Inrig equaliser, the winner came by way of a late free-kick from stalwart Kevin Morris, who had only just returned to these shores after living in Australia for a period. This win made United officially the most successful team in the competition's history.
A period of, relatively, barren years followed until United reached the final again in 2008, where they faced local rivals Castletown at Harmsworth Park, Wick. A dreich Caithness day did not bode well for good football but United took a grip of the game early doors and eventually ran out comfortable 3-0 winners, the goals scored by Tony Farquhar, Lee Sutherland and Grant Budge with the pick of the bunch, scoring a fine individual goal. Duncan used the pre-match team talk to inform his players that he “KNEW that Castletown would set up with only 1 upfront because they are worried by us. They are scared of you”. The talk delivered at such a volume as designed to also be heard by the Castletown players in the neighbouring dressing room.
Prior to the semi-final in the 2010 campaign, Duncan and Martin Nicolson travelled to Orkney to watch opponents Kirkwall Thorfinn. This required taking 2 days annual leave and is a great example of the meticulous preparation Duncan employed, not to mention his commitment to the club and the support he received from Martin. Duncan returned from the spying mission impressed by his opponents, but had noticed a potential weakness, with the team seeming to tire badly in the second half. To take advantage of this Duncan left Ross Allan on the bench, a decision that was questioned by a few, so that he could be utilised as a substitute against tiring opposition. Upon Ross' introduction in the second half he turned the game by scoring two goals, setting up another as well as winning a penalty (which unfortunately Ross failed to convert) and tormenting a beleaguered opponent to the extent that he induced a red card after a crude challenge en-route to a 4-1 (A.E.T) victory.
United would go on to beat Golspie Stafford 1-0 in the final, once again being played at United's happy hunting ground in Brora. Garry Macleod scored the only goal with a free kick, late in the game.
This was to turn out to be Duncan's final season in charge of Pentland United, and is fitting that the team got their hands on a trophy Duncan cherished so much. He had always enjoyed the challenge of pitting his wits against opponents from across the region. It is fair to say he was not often found wanting in these battles.
George Patience, manager of Avoch, commented “Duncan was the same in victory or defeat, offering a handshake and the ability to discuss the game in an impartial manner. Something I could learn a lot from.”
The most recent successes likely ranked high up in Duncan's personal list of achievements. Success in the late 90's and early part of this century was delivered by an undeniably strong team at the height of its powers. Whereas more recently a younger team has emerged, and despite external predictions, has still managed to maintain United's winning traditions.
Sir Alex Ferguson is often revered for his ability to build successful teams, identify when they are on the wane and begin to rebuild to enter a new successful era and it is fair to say Duncan did likewise. Teams of Alastair Budge, Willie Sinclair, Gerald “Monkee” Davidson & Terry Mackay replaced by the likes of Brian Gray, Ross Sutherland & Tony Farquhar, in turn making way for the next generation including Michael “Joe” Steven, Grant Steven, Ryan Begg, Ross Allan & James Murray.
A particularly pleasing aspect of the current team, and tribute to Duncan's lasting impact on his players, is the amount of current players whose names illicit a link to teams of days gone by ….Mackay, Begg, Manson, Steven & Morris. It would be fitting if this current young team can stay together for a number of seasons and build upon the foundations that have already been laid down.
Away from Pentland United, Duncan also had two spells in charge of Thurso FC in the North Caledonian League winning the treble in 2002-03 as well as several other trophies.
In recognition of his success, Duncan was also invited to manage the Caithness County select side on several occasions for their annual matches against their Sutherland & Orkney counterparts. Under his guidance, Caithness enjoyed a few triumphs including the double of the Archer Shield (Orkney) and the Portland Bowl (Sutherland) in 2004.
Despite the haul outlined above, Duncan was very modest with regards to his personal contribution to the success of the teams he managed, preferring to push praise on to the players at all times and conversely would view defeat as a personal insult, shouldering the blame and would defiantly attempt to right any wrongs at the earliest opportunity. In 2000, after winning every trophy available, local photographer John Baikie tried to persuade him to pose in front of the trophy collection in recognition of his achievements but, in keeping with his character, he steadfastly refused, preferring the focus to remain on the team's achievements rather than his own.
Duncan's death will undoubtedly cast a shadow over Pentland United's preparations for the upcoming season and his influence both on the field and in the general running of the club will be sorely missed.
Former Pentland United player and current Chairman, Terry Mackay, said of Duncan's death, “With Duncan's passing, all we are left with are our memories of him….but they are bloody good ones!”
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