January’s actions both on and off the field will prove to be a crucial month for Dundee’s promotion push. Having snatched all three points at the death in Kirkcaldy in the New Year’s game, the Dark Blue continued their Jekyll-and-Hyde approach to this season by capitulating against Livingston at home. With games against fellow promotion hunters Hamilton and Falkirk rounding off the first month’s fixtures, rediscovering the consistency and grit that pushed Dundee to the top of the pack is key.
The question on most supporters’ lips, however, is whether we have the personnel capable of making the Championship. It’s been a constant source of frustration and confusion that, with our squad depth, apparent quality and the relative weakness of the second tier compared to previous season, we continue to be unable to break free at the summit. There is a growing divide between those for whom league position is the be-all and end-all and those who recognise that our squad is performing below par and needs strengthened to win the league, never mind to survive in the Premiership next season.
This divide centres, whether fairly or not, around one man: John “Bomber” Brown. Having won over most of the doubters by instilling a battling, never-say-die attitude to the team when all seemed lost last year, the mercurial manager has once more become a lightning rod for criticism thanks to his comments on fan behaviour and lack of tactical flexibility. Media speculation around our transfer targets, particularly Bomber’s public praise of former Dundee players (and now pariahs) Nacho Novo and Lee Mair (often called Judas by unforgiving Dees for his decision to move to United instead of returning to Dundee), haven’t helped matters. The Dark Blue online community has thrown this split into sharp relief, and has made the unthinkable – the merits of sacking of a manager at the top of the league – a real talking point.
From where I sit- at the front of the Derry, surrounded by fans across the spectrum of positivity – it’s easy to see both sides of the argument. Bomber has us top of the league and on course for promotion, something that Duffy, Kernaghan, Rae, Scott, Chisholm and Smith all ultimately failed to achieve between 2005 and 2012. In fact, Duffy and Scott were both sacked despite being top of the league, demonstrating the folly of losing your nerve. On the other hand, any fan who’s been a regular, particularly at home, has to be concerned at the listless performances, lack of imagination and the non-existent goal threat when MacDonald isn’t available. Even last season, our midfield was fairly prolific when our front line wasn’t on fire, but the turgid safe play of Rae and McBride has extinguished any threat there, a deterioration brutally exposed by the effectiveness of Livingston’s Scougall on Saturday. Team selection, and Brown’s proclivity for picking players out of position, continues to frustrate matters too.
Bomber’s steps in the transfer window will be absolutely crucial if he’s to overcome these wobbles and convince fans that the team is ready for the big time. As things stand, the only players I’d keep in a Premiership squad would be Letheren, Benedictus, Gallagher, Davidson (if played in the middle), O’Donnell, Riley, McAlister, Boyle and McDonald, as well as Beattie if he can avoid injury and stay match fit. Lockwood and Rae’s suns are now firmly over the yard arm; Irvine, Conroy, Dyer, and McBride just don’t cut it any more, and the likes of McIntosh and Monti may benefit from periods on loan. Without injuries, the core of our team is fairly solid, but it must be complemented with some pace and creativity on the wings.
Archie Knox was brought in to the club on the basis that his contacts would unearth gems in the way that Inverness CT have been so successful in recent years. Although it’s unfair to judge this early in the window, the players we have been seriously linked with so far- veterans Lee Mair and Stephen Hughes, along with Nacho Novo, Christian Nade and Kevin Thomson – do not appear to be of the calibre that fans expect, nor do they plug the obvious gaps in the squad. The optimist in me hopes that we’re playing our cards close to our chest and surprise everyone with some adept signings. However, I’m not holding my breath.
A couple of wingers who are able to relieve the pressure on our somewhat decimated strike force and 4 or 6 points from our remaining two games in January would provide a sticking plaster, but would just be the first step in a long-term reinvention of our team. More of the same will not do. Barry Smith was sacked in February last year, in a move that was seen at worst as impatience and at best as too little, too late. If the board and the fans come to believe that we’re top despite Bomber’s leadership and not because of it, then it would do well to remember the lessons of last year and make an early and decisive move.