St Mirren’s Cup Winner Winnie Takes Charge

St Mirren’s Cup Winner Winnie Takes Charge

By the summer of 2003, David Winnie was a 36-year-old footballer standing at the crossroads. His first management job at League Two Dumbarton had ended after 11 wins in 34 games.

His playing days were done and the prospect of bouncing from one coaching job to another held all the appeal of a one-way ticket to the Siberian Steppes. It was time for something else.

‘Dumbarton didn’t finish well for me,’ he tells Mail Sport. ‘I just lost my enjoyment of football. I had become increasingly disillusioned with the game.’

A battle-hardened defender with St Mirren, Aberdeen and Hearts, Winnie raked around for his old SQA certificate, complete with a clutch of Highers, and enrolled for a degree in law and economics in Paisley.

‘I didn’t know what to do with it,’ he admits bluntly.

‘Before Dumbarton I was in Iceland as a player and as a coach where I met my wife-to-be. She got a job in London and I thought to myself, “What do you have to lose?”

Winnie now practises law after hanging up his boots in 2000

Winnie was part of the St Mirren Scottish Cup-winning squad of 1987

Winnie was part of the St Mirren Scottish Cup-winning squad of 1987

‘I sold up everything I had in Scotland and took a chance in London.’

Naively, he hoped legal jobs in the big smoke would be ten a penny. Trained in Scots Law, he crammed a three year conversion degree in English law into eight months. By 2008 he had landed a training contract with an English firm where, by happy coincidence, money was starting to flow from the richest football league on the planet.

The opportunity to work with players and clubs from the English Premier League and Europe proved too good to pass up, and gave Winnie a chance to merge his two careers.

More recently, as a judicial panel member with the Football Association and the SFA, he has adjudicated on high-profile cases in both the Scottish Premiership and the English Premier League.

Joining Scottish law firm Gilson Gray recently as head of sports law and immigration, he’s now back amongst some old Scottish football faces after two decades away.

‘I have re-engaged with all my contacts in Scottish football at Premiership clubs and I’ll be up and down the road a lot,’ says Winnie.

‘In a recent case I chaired as a panel member in Scotland, it just hit me that clubs were engaging counsel from law firms in England and it made me think, “We have the talent in Scotland, why are we not using it?”

A question more commonly applied to footballers than lawyers, Winnie returns to a league different to the one he played in when he lifted the Scottish Cup with St Mirren in 1987.

Two years later he was Buddies captain as a 21-year-old when they went to Ibrox and won 1-0 against the Premier League champions on the opening game of the season. His world fell apart the following day when he was told by the doctor that his mother had only a few months left to live.

Winnie left Paisley in a move to Aberdeen, where he spent four seasons

Winnie left Paisley in a move to Aberdeen, where he spent four seasons

‘One minute you think you’re the best thing since sliced bread and the world is at your feet.

‘Then 24 hours later your whole world collapses. I’ll be honest and say that it took me a long time to recover from that.

‘I was living at home with my mum at the time because I was only 21 and I had to look after her along with my sister, in the knowledge that she had six months left. She was dying.

‘She had to go through chemotherapy, which was horrendous.

‘I wanted to be fair to St Mirren at the time about my situation, so I approached manager Tony Fitzpatrick and said to him that I should maybe step away from football for a few months.

‘And Tony said, “No I’ll support you. I’ll help you.”

‘The one place he couldn’t help me though was on the park where you really have to help yourself. It was the worst eight months of my life and I lost a stone and a half in weight as a result of the stress and anxiety.

‘When my mother passed away, football become inconsequential.’

By June 1990 his St Mirren contract had lapsed and, feeling no inclination to sign a new one, he stumbled on, signing month-to-month contracts until Alex Smith took him to Aberdeen in November.

‘I was in a terrible state mentally and physically when I arrived at Pittodrie,’ says Winnie. ‘And, to be fair to Alex, he knew that when he signed me. He gave me until the end of the season to get my head, body and self together.’

Aberdeen went to Ibrox on the final day of the season needing a point to win the league. These days the merest sniff of a challenge to Rangers and Celtic is due cause for an open-top bus down Union Street.

‘The standards at Pittodrie had been set by Alex Ferguson and passed down through his players like Willie Miller, Alex McLeish, Jim Bett and Stuart McKimmie — who were all still at the club in a playing or coaching capacity,’ explains Winnie.

‘The belief in the squad was that any team that beat Aberdeen had to be a fantastic side.

‘Football in Scotland is quite different now to the game I left. I think our proximity to the Premier League stifled the development and opportunities for clubs and players in Scotland to a large extent for a long time.

‘I’m actually an optimist. I think Scottish football has undergone a period of recalibration and adjustment over a number of years that has seen it find its feet, purpose and drive again.’

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