Better than Kris Boyd? From THAT Hibs picture to goal King of the South, a tribute to Stephen Dobbie
As a portrayal of hyper, sinew-straining emotion, it’s hard to beat. The photograph of several floodlit figures, breaking away from the centre circle in joyous abandon, captures a flickering moment in time 17 years ago.
The setting is a rain-drenched Hampden, the occasion a League Cup semi-final between Hibs and Rangers. A Frank de Boer shootout penalty has just struck the post. Bobby Williamson’s young guns are through to the final.
It’s a poignant image too, and not only because Hibs then fluffed their lines against Livingston. While each player pictured went on to enjoy successful careers, some were more successful than others. The gang was quickly broken up. A couple, namely Garry O’Connor and Derek Riordan, flew too close to the sun and are long retired. Another, Kevin Thomson, made the best of himself but was cruelly cut down by injury.
One, Scott Brown, is still playing at the highest level and is due to begin a new chapter in his career with Aberdeen. Steven Whittaker, meanwhile, could help Dunfermline back into the Premiership – he is likely to feature in this afternoon’s play-off semi-final second leg against Raith Rovers.
And then there’s Stephen Dobbie who may or may not have just retired. One hopes not. But if so, what a career. What a turnaround. He left Hibs not long after scoring the equaliser in the above game to join St Johnstone, where he tipped the scales at 14 stones. And then came a loan move to Dumbarton. “I was going down the way while the others were going up,” he once told me, with reference to the likes of Riordan, O’Connor, Thomson and Brown.
The news agenda screeches along at such a pace that some significant stories can get slightly lost in the slipstream. It felt this way with Dobbie last Friday night, after he played his last game for Queen of the South against Dundee.
It was the last act in the fulfilment of a promise made to former chairman David Rae that he would return to the club. He didn’t come back overweight (that, by his own admission, was the case at the start of his first spell). He was not content simply to play out his days in the Scottish second tier. He reached new heights, created new records.
While recent months have proved a bit tougher, he scored 43 goals in one campaign as recently as two seasons ago. All in all, in two spells in Dumfries, he struck 166 goals – and then there are those big-match, play-off strikes for Swansea and Blackpool, where he’s also revered.
I wonder if there’s been a more admirable Scottish footballer in recent times. There’s certainly not been many better finishers. I’d put him in the top two in this millennium. Maybe only Kris Boyd can offer a reasonable claim to be placed above him after goal-laden years with Rangers and Kilmarnock.
But what do I know? Realising someone who once signed him – possibly not for the last time – might be better placed to offer an opinion, I gave Ian McCall a ring yesterday.
The Partick Thistle manager was tidying up his house – as you do a couple of days after lifting the League One trophy before lunch in an empty stadium. He was happy to break off from domestic chores to discuss Dobbie. I put my Boyd theory to him.
“Kris Boyd?” he queried. “I think he’s a better finisher than Kris Boyd. The only ones who I would say are close are Owen Coyle and Ally McCoist.”
McCall had extended the time frame to the last 30 years and still felt Dobbie merited a podium place. “In an age of sports nutritionists, diets and this, that and the next thing, it is great when a player comes along and all he relies upon is natural talent – and he had it in absolute f*cking abundance!” he said.
McCall was quoting from a speech he had given when the striker was inducted into the Queen of the South Hall of Fame a couple of years ago. Knowing McCall, it could well have been verbatim.
There’s been some speculation linking Dobbie – who admitted following the Dundee game that he has had offers, from Scotland as well as England – with a McCall reunion at Thistle. The manager would not be drawn although he did say that he was convinced the striker, now 38, has another season left in him. Take from that what you will.
But if last week really was his last game in Scotland – and it’s hard to imagine him playing against Queen of the South – then it was a particular privilege to be there to witness it.
It’s heart-breaking to think Queens fans were not in attendance inside the ground although they did of course make themselves heard outside when they lined the streets to welcome Dobbie as he arrived before kick-off. Then, with the early evening sun having sunk into the Solway firth, hundreds hailed him again as he left, praising him into the night, a legend to the very end.
The 90 minutes in between did not prove so momentous for Queens. They lost 2-0 and Dobbie, given a guard of honour by his teammates and Queen of the South staff, did not get on the scoresheet before being replaced after 72 minutes, with applause notably coming from the opposition manager, James McPake, as well as from the Queens bench and from the press seats.
He came, he saw, he returned, he even merited a statue. It’s Dumfries’ version of the Three Graces - though fortunately in this case, unlike the original currently on display in St Petersburg, the bodies depicted are clothed: Billy Houliston, Allan Ball and Dobbie.
From a floodlit figure frozen in time to one carved out of wood and etched into history – and he may not be done yet. Bravo, Dobs.