The Great Dugout Innovator

For many the integration of artist and craft is symbolised by Bauhaus; a movement that emerged in 1919. Bauhaus almost always bridged the gap between art and industry.  Cube shaped, its identity was never complete without right angles and an overwhelming sense of symmetry to the expense of ornamentation.  Functional, plain and open Bauhaus would use the barest of essentials to shape its form.

The period that followed its emergence were of course, the 1920’s – an age of social, cultural and economic dynamism at home and abroad.  In English football game play changes were occurring on the field.  Innovative tactics were slowly being introduced and changes in the laws of the game became the norm.  But if Herbert Chapman was recognised as the architect in chief on the field, its rightful king off the field was Archibald Leitch.

Born in Glasgow, Leitch was a master of football stadium functionalism. He merged early industrial design with the need for usable rather than aesthetically elegant stands.  Typically Leitch’s work had two tiers and were ornate in a minimalist way. Regularly, distinctive cross crossed steel balustrades sat along the upper tier just as they do today at Ibrox.

Yet as the football stadium developed so the inside of the stadium would also advance – but not for the comfort of the average fan. The vast majority of football fans in the 1920’s stood with cloth cap on open expansive terracing areas. Comfortable seating and shelter, even at the front of a Leitch stand, would often be non-existent and what seating existed would be – in the best style of Leitch – functional and wooden.

As stadium space for the supporter developed and the demand for tactics to be assessed emerged so likewise there came a need for space for the two most ingrediants of the game – the players and coaches.

The idea for the pitch side dugout appeared at Aberdeen FC’s Pittodrie Park in the 1920’s and the innovative mind behind it was a man called Donald Colman.

Colman had been born Donald Cunningham in Renton, western Scotland during 1878.  After a period playing football at Motherwell he ended up at Aberdeen in 1907 at the age of 29 years.  By the age of 33 he was being hailed as the best right back in Scotland. This honour was sealed by winning international caps against England, Wales and Ireland twice in the British Home International Championships.

Like many men Colman fought in the First World War in France before returning to his football career at Aberdeen where he played until 1920 alongside his full back partner Jock Hume  At the age of 42 years his playing career at Aberdeen ended after nearly 325 appearances with a game against Kilmarnock.

After playing Colman went back to his roots in the west of Scotland becoming player-manager of Dumbarton. But during the 1920’s he began spending time in Norway where many football clubs were beginning to emerge.  In Norway 10 years past where he worked across the North Sea and back in Scotland depending on the football season.  He used his experience from the Scottish game to lecture Norwegian amateur clubs on football tactics and ‘open space’ possession football.  

Many of the Norwegian clubs of this period were those on its western seaboard that we know today – Molde, Viking and Rosenborg BK – yet football was regional.  Even in Oslo and its environs the nights could be long and the football pitches exposed to snow and ice.  

It was here in Norway that Colman first saw pitch shelters; sunken holes manually dug out near the pitch often covered in corrugated iron.  In these shelters coaches and managers would shelter from the elements whilst standing stationary in the midst of cold spells watching a game of football in front of them.

During these ten years in Norway Colman used his experience as a player to become an innovator and thinker – all he needed was a more advanced football landscape to test his ideas.

At 53 years of age the then Aberdeen manager Paddy Travers took Colman back to Pittodrie as a player coach.  He was well known being one of the clubs most experienced players and highly thought of as a person.  Using his experience from coaching and lecturing in Norway he became innovative; being credited with moulding heavy football boots to fit the feet and so encouraging two footed play.

He also attempted to patent headgear for goalkeepers, an idea that never got fully off the ground.

But it was those pitch shelters in Norway that gave Colman his greatest idea; the pitch side football dugout.  British football’s first dugout was introduced to Pittodrie Stadium. With its introduction one of Scottish football’s greatest ever coaches Paddy Travers was able to watch football on the field with a pitch eye view.

With the first pitch side dugout, meticulous dry notes could be scribbled, player footwork closely watched and shelter from the elements maintained.

Its hard to believe that the managerial spaces we see today known as ‘technical areas’ owe something to the innovative mind of Donald Colman.  Many clubs in modern stadium have abandoned the dugout whilst some coaches now feel the need to watch football from high up in the elevated stands or standing in the technical area.

Yet still the football dugout evolves in tandem to the changing rules of the game. The number of substitutes allowed have went from two to 6 thereby ensuring numerous seats are required.  At some clubs seating is based on the Recaro high performance car seat design – with thermostatically controlled heating thrown at many of the super clubs such as Real or Bayern.

Yes at many clubs – including at Pittodrie Stadium where the dugout was first introduced – the pitchside dugout remains as basic and functional in design as Colman saw it back in the 1920’s.  Right angles and roofed structures may have disappeared at many stadiums yet it remains largely functional, basic and with the same purpose.

Donald Colman received many accolades from his time at Aberdeen and remains to this day one of the clubs highest ever appearance makers.   In his later years of life he was coy of his innovative role preferring to talk only of missing few football matches and even then only after international games.  He also would talk fondly of his role in the development of Alex Jackson, the great Chelsea and Huddersfield Town forward.

Despite great fitness and a football playing career that lasted to 42 years of age Colman died before the start of the Second World War at only 63 years of age from tuberculosis.  In later years his daughter Edna and son Donald would speak fondly of a man with a love of football, coaching and ballroom dancing.

But at Pittodrie he is still remembered where the dugouts still stand at the front of Pittodrie’s Main Stand.  In structure the dugouts remain in much the same space as it did when it first appeared, still adhering to the barest of essentials to shape its form and function.

You can see some of our images of dugouts from around the world here.