Because Paul Hartley decided to rip up Dundee’s title-winning squad, nobody knew what to really expect from the Dees coming into last season. Everyone presumed they’d be better than Hamilton, having finished ahead of them in the Scottish Championship and spent more money on wages, though few stuck the neck out enough to suggest a top six berth. Dundee’s finish among the top flight elite was a tremendous achievement and highlighted Hartley as one of the country’s brightest young managers.
Helping them to achieve such a lofty position was Greg Stewart, a player who went from part-time football with Cowdenbeath to a Player of the Year nomination in less than 12 months, while Gary Harkins’ renaissance from derisive figure to one of the league’s best creative midfielders (on his day) characterised the rise of a club who should consider themselves a sleeping giant – in non-Old Firm, Scottish football terms.
One of the more impressive aspects of last season’s success was that it was achieved despite Hartley signing a few duds. If Stewart was a masterstroke, the likes of Luka Tankulic, Phil Roberts and Simon Ferry were blunders of epic proportion, particularly when all three have contracts that run for another year.
This trend will likely continue. Looking at the crop of players he’s signed this term, all but two of them are from the lower leagues and even his top flight recruits, Nick Ross and Nicky Low, weren’t regular starters on their clubs last season.
The players with particularly high ceilings are strikers Kane Hemmings and Rory Loy, both who’ve been excellent in the second tier and ran rings around Kilmarnock on Saturday. Hemmings can be a prolific scorer with great pace, while Loy, as well as being proficient in front of goal himself, offers intelligent movement and link-up play around the penalty area. If only one of them proves to be a success then the smart money is on the latter, who could interchange with Stewart on the left of Dundee’s attacking trident if they revert back to last year’s 4-2-3-1 for tougher encounters.
With Thomas Konrad proving himself to be a little error-prone in big matches, i.e. against United, fans would have been hoping for an obvious improvement at centre back. Instead Julen Etxabeguren Leanizbarrutia, a man with a preposterously long name, arrives from East Fife. It shall be interesting to see if he’s considered first choice once James McPake returns from injury.
Left-back became a problem area last year, which Hartley has addressed by signings two from the second tier – Kevin Holt from Queen of the South and Darryll Meggat of Alloa Athletic. He gambled on one of them being able to handle the step up and Holt certainly looked at home in the top flight against Killie.
A strikingly high number of players left in the summer, though with the exception of Stephen McGinn and Jim McAlister, few are likely to be missed.
The opportunity is there for Hartley to advance his burgeoning reputation so much further in the 2015/16 season. While there was little chance of him advancing above the likes of Dundee United and St Johnstone last term, going into this campaign the teams immediately above Dundee appear to be getting weaker, opening up a route that could take them to third in the league table and advanced stages of the cup competitions.
It would represent an incredible turnaround for a club who, when Hartley took over, looked set to fall out of the top two in the Scottish Championship title race. He’s also helped reverse the career fortunes of many players under his supervision. Kevin Thomson, James McPake and Gary Harkins all looked finished as top flight players before their arrival last summer, and if anyone can get Paul McGowan to curb is off-field, erm, indiscretions, it’s his current manager.
To achieve the dream of European qualification he’ll need another one of his summer recruits to become the next Greg Stewart. His history as a manager, with Alloa as well as Dundee, would suggest it’s a distinct possibility.
Key Player – Paul McGowan
Ok, we’ll hold our hands up and admit this player was selected before the weekend’s fixture, where McGowan didn’t even start. But as much as it would be great to see the Harkins-Thomson double pivot for the rest of the season, there will be some opponents who’ll seriously take advantage of their lack of dynamism off the ball.
McGowan’s value to Dundee was often glaring whenever he missed time last season through injury or being unavailable due to the electronic tag on his leg. Not only do the side miss creativity in the final third, they often fail to inspire the kind of drive and determination that’s always evident in the midfielder’s play. His tenacity will be of even greater importance this term without Jim McAlister in the squad.
Having stalled at St Mirren he’s another who’s had new life breathed into his career by Hartley, and having had more last chances than you’ve had hot dinners, it’s high time he focused purely on his football and helped the club do something special this year.
Six reasons Dens Park will be a bastion of entertainment this season
1) The attack
When you’ve already got one of the league’s best forward players and then you go pick-up two of the best lower league strikers in recent years, it’s safe to say you’re making a statement of intent. There was a fear Loy and Hemmings would battle it out for one spot, but Hartley treated us to an attacking spectacle by having all three playing. Against some sides it might make them a bit too attack-heavy, but man that’s a lot of firepower.
2) The defence
They’ll score goals and they will concede them. Our one criticism of Hartley this summer was his failure to properly reinforce the defence. Even if Konrad does improve in his second season, you’re still betting on McPake posting another solid year, something he didn’t manage at Hibs as he regressed after his initial loan spell. There’s also question marks over the left-side of defence since both players are coming up from a lower level, and Paul McGinn and Gary Irvine at right back are ok, but not great enough to bring the overall quality of the back four up a notch. Expect plenty of 3-2 scorelines this coming campaign. Kilmarnock failing to score against them tells us nothing.
3) James McPake
Even if they don’t combust, McPake himself, for sheer entertainment value, is one of the best defenders to watch in this league. There is no ball too high and too far away that he thinks he can’t win in the air, no sliding challenge he won’t lunge into, and no teammate he won’t scream at whenever the above goes wrong and he’s cost his side a goal.
4) Gary Harkins
Yeah, sure, there will be weeks when you don’t even know he’s playing. But when he finally wakes from his slumber and executes a sublime piece of skill, the inch-perfect pass or thunderous goal (sometimes all of the above in the same moment) you’ll soon realise the wait was well worth it. Just look at his assist for Loy’s second against Killie.
It’s also worth noting he was outstanding in that game. He’s yet to give the ball away this season.
5) Scott Bain
Ok, he’s a goalkeeper so, by definition, he’s not all that entertaining. But in Scott Bain Dundee have the most promising young goalkeeper playing in the Scottish leagues. Surely that’s someone who’s worth keeping an eye on? Especially if our crystal ball is accurate and the Dundee defence does get a little leaky on occasion, Bain will have plenty of practice.
6) So much switching
Hemmings moving from inside to wide right, Stewart moving from inside to wide left, Ross drifting out to cover the full-backs, Loy dropping deep, Holt charging up on the overlap; it’s fair to say there was a lot of switching against Kilmarnock as Hartley had his boys channelled total football. If this continues for the rest of the campaign Dundee will be the most entertaining side in the country.
Dundee and Hartley will take the next step together by improving on last season and challenging for a European spot. Whether that is enough will depend on who the cup finalists are, but we also wouldn’t be surprised if Dundee are one of those teams. Expect more than one victory against United and Rory Loy to be this summer’s surprise revelation.