By Colin Byiers
Playing for the team you support is a dream many of us have had, but very few can actually say they have done it. Graham Webster is one of the few people who can say they have done it.
The Montrose man shares openly about the story of his career so far as we chatted about his days as Dundee player and nearly 10 years at Links Park.
Starting with your days at Dundee, how older were you when you signed for the club?
I was 16 and had been plucked out of Sunday League football. I was with Carnoustie and had been with them for about 8 years then signed for a Dundee Sunday League team called West End Rovers, and that’s where I was scouted from. I played U’17’s and then went full time when I went into the U’19’s.
What was their coaches like?
John Holt was my coach when I was in the U’17’s and he was really great with me, pushed me forward. He was the one who gave me a full-time contract when I went into the U’19’s. Barry Smith was the U’19’s coach, and he’s been a good coach for me over the years. He gave me the opportunity to play first team football at Dundee when he was manager, but both guided me in the right direction early on.
The standard from Sunday League was much better and I had to adapt because you are training every day, and the standard they set you need to be good enough to play, all be it, a club in the Championship. It was a shock to begin with, but the more you train, the more it became easier to adapt.
Dundee went into administration for the second time during the 2010/11 season, meaning 9 players were released. This did, however, give youth players like yourself an opportunity to play in the first team.
It was a really sad time. I grew up as a Dundee fan, so had been through it the first time when all the Italian players were there. The players that were released, you ended up being good friends with them as the squad was really close, even though I was still a youth player at the time. I remember sitting in the away dressing room at Dens, thinking “what’s happening?”, because you see the administrators walking into the home dressing room and then players leaving with there stuff in bin bags. We weren’t sure what was happening with us, the youth team, either. It wasn’t until a local businessman pumped a bit of money into the club to help pay our wages, so we were lucky. It was sad times, but we got through it. Barry (Smith) took over, and that was a good thing for me because he knew what I could do, and he’s seen me play youth football for the past 2 or 3 years. Barry was great, not just with me, but with the whole squad. He was a really good manager, and he was thrown in at the deep end and he wasn’t used to having such a big job. Dundee is quite a big club and he was adapting as well.
You got your debut in April 2011. Do you remember much about it?
I grew up a Dundee fan, my dad and my family are all huge Dundee supporters, so it’s the old clique “it’s a dream come true” when it did happen. I didn’t get much sleep the night before. I always remember going out onto the pitch and thinking “what am I doing here?” I was 18 and it was a huge moment for me. I played centre midfield and was “safety Sam” around the pitch, just passing the ball sideways and backwards, just making sure I didn’t give the ball away! I came off after 80 minutes with cramp. I was struggling. Leighton McIntosh scored, who I came through the youth ranks with, and I remember celebrating with him. It was a special moment for me. I have a framed photo of myself on that day and I will always look back on that on a wonderful moment in my career.
The following season, you went on loan to Peterhead in the January window following a long injury lay-off.
Barry had said to me that I needed to get games, and experience and that’s what I had done. It didn’t really work out at Peterhead. The style of play when you go from the Championship to the lower leagues is so different. It’s so competitive, so much faster every minute of the game. I wasn’t expecting that. I expected to almost stroll it. I was expecting to be able to put my foot on the ball and spray a few passes about and be able to shoot from anywhere really. It didn’t happen like that, and I didn’t establish myself at Peterhead. I don’t think I was ready for that. The boys were great with me up there and I can look back on it now and see it was good for me to do it. It was valuable experience which has helped me now being at Montrose.
Dundee was promoted to the SPL following Rangers demotion to the bottom tier. Things didn’t go well for though for the club and Barry Smith lost his job.
I was hard one for him, yes it was great having Dundee back in the SPL again, but it was too much too soon for everyone. Barry didn’t have enough time to build his squad and on the finance side of things, we weren’t anywhere near the other clubs. When he lost his job, a lot of people were upset, because Barry had been at Dundee for a number of years, so people like the dinner ladies, people on the office were all quite sad about it, including the players and myself. Barry left with his head held high because he had done all he could, and I think the sacking was harsh considering where we had come from. We played Kilmarnock away on the opening day where we drew 0-0 and spirts were high, and we thought we would be ok. Things didn’t go well, and we were up against some really good players in the SPL. It was tough. I thought we did well, but it was just a case of delaying the inevitable.
Former Rangers player John Brown took charge. How were things after he took over?
He came from coaching the youth team at Rangers, so you would have thought he would try and feed through the young players at Dundee, but he never really took me on or any of the younger lads. Like Leighton, who was doing well and scoring goals and Celtic and Rangers were after him, and he never took him on for some reason. It was just a weird atmosphere. Nothing really happened, I played for the U’20’s, never got a chance under Bomber and things fizzled out. I didn’t have the best relationship with him. When I was told I wasn’t getting a new contract, he didn’t have the balls to say it himself, it was his assistant manager who told me. Ray Farningham was the assistant, and I don’t think even he wanted to be there because he was so loyal to Barry. I was sad to go, but I knew it was coming. I don’t have much to say about John Brown to be honest with you.
How difficult was it to leave the club you supported?
I went home, I looked my mum and dad in the eyes and my dad just knew. He knew the day was coming too. It was a sad day, but I am always grateful for the times at Dundee. I learned so much there and I’m still friends with people who are still there. I’m good friends with Cammy Kerr and I still look out for their results, and I’ll watch them when they are on the TV. There is no bitterness there, I just wish it had worked out better for me.
You joined Montrose in League 2. What was the expectation going into that season?
For a club like Montrose back then, mid table or sneaking into the play-offs was where we were at. I don’t think the club was forward thinking back then. It was a case of settling for 6th or 7th. We just wanted to stay away from the bottom, because you don’t want to be known as the club that finishes bottom of the Scottish League. The expectations were so low, things are completely different now, which was helped with the new directors that have come in. The budget wasn’t that big, and we relied on a lot of loan players. Finishing 6th that season was probably our level back then.
On a personal note, playing 35 games in a season was good for me, knowing that I was going to play ever Saturday and be involved with the team. It was vital for me as a player as I was still a young lad making my way in the game. It was massive to play a full season with no injuries or anything like that.
Montrose finished bottom in your second season and faced Brora Rangers in a play-off. How catastrophic would it have been for the club had they got relegated?
That would have been it for Montrose. I didn’t see anyway back for them. They would have gone into the Highland League based on the geographics, and can you imagine the financial loses. The club wasn’t doing well at the time financially and I honestly think it would have curtains for them. We knew that as players going it the game, it was massive for us. We had a few chances in the first leg and probably should have beaten them but we lost 1-0 up there. The pressure going into the second game was a whole new level. The hopes of a whole town are on your back. I’m just thankful we made it in the end. After that, there was a whole new outlook from the club. Us as players, the fans, the staff, we all thought we can’t go through that again and it galvanised the club. From then on, we were only looking up the way. There was a change in directors in the background and the gaffer now had this vision of what we would be achieving, and I certainly think he as have done that. I was the kick up the ass we needed as players, and we certainly didn’t want to go through that again.
2 years later, Montrose achieved a promotion play-off spot in 2016/17. Was that perhaps a year to early in terms of where you wanted to be?
I think we overachieved that year. A lot of the guys who played in that Peterhead play-off are still at the club, but we massively overachieved. That season, Peterhead had a really strong squad, and they had a lot of really good players. It was too much for us too soon, but the experienced proved good for us for the future.
In the following season, you pipped Peterhead to the League 2 championship. It was quite nip and tuck all season.
For me personally, it was a bad season because I wasn’t playing and wasn’t scoring, but I was still jubilant when we done it. On the day we won the title, I was I the stand with 5 other people and I was devastated not to be involved, but I knew I needed to cheer the boys on and support them. Shane Sutherland scored, and you start to think that it’s not going to happen because Peterhead were also winning their game. At half time, I could sense the nerves around the stadium. I went downstairs to listen to the gaffer’s team talk, and he was urging them on to do it. Jamie (Redman) scored the goal and we in a sense saw it out. It was so nerve racking! I think we deserved to win the league that year and it’s great memories that year to.
From leaving Dundee, to almost getting relegated out of the league, to winning a championship, how was the journey as a whole?
I had been at Montrose for 4 or 5 years by then and I had grown a real love for the club, the fans, the staff and everyone involved, and looking back, I have come a long way from being told I wasn’t good enough to be at Dundee to then having a winner’s medal. Not a lot of people can say to their grandchildren that they have a winner’s medal in their cabinet. I am very proud of mine and it’s something to look back on and be proud of.
Winning the league and getting promoted saw you now in League 1. Was survival the target?
Before the season started, the gaffer said, “stay up and we’ll consolidate for next season.” Publicly, that was what he said, but secretly we thought we were good enough to pack a punch in this league, but we quietly went about our business. We ended up having a very good year. We made it to the play-off against Queen of the South and ended up beating them 2-1 at home so we felt we had a chance. On the bus on the Saturday down to the second leg, we all thought that we could do it. Then the game happened! Stephen Dobbie was a class above. We had Sean Dillon playing for us at the back and he’s played over 300 games for Dundee United and played at a high level, and he struggled. He scored a hattrick that day and was hooked after 60 minutes, to rest for the next game. I think we were good enough, but the gulf in class was quite a step up, even though we beat them on the Tuesday night. We were disappointed but we didn’t want to get too disheartened because Montrose were overachieving again. As a club, from where we came from, the Brora days to a Championship play-off was incredible.
What does the future hold for you now then?
I can’t see much else than staying at Montrose to be honest. I’m enjoying my time at Montrose and I enjoy the time with the boys that are there, the fans, the staff, the directors, I feel like I have a really good relationship with them all now. The next step as probably a testimonial. I’ve signed a new extension which takes me to 2023, so that would be the next stage for me. I just want to do well for Montrose. I think I’ve established myself as a League 1 player and if we get Montrose to the Championship then why not, I think we are good enough to do it.
In terms of after my playing days are over, I can’t really see myself being a coach because I think coaching is so different nowadays. All the sport science, personal programmes for players and things, I have no interest in that. I would like to stay in football and maybe be a scout for someone. I would miss the Saturday’s because the Saturday’s just now are terrible! I definitely wouldn’t go into coaching but still be involved in some capacity.