The next two weeks will be absolutely pivotal in the Championship title race. Thanks to a combination of Cup commitments and the usual baffling scheduling from the authorities, Dundee have just started a run of five games in 14 days-or, to put it another way, half of the remaining fixtures for the season crammed into just a fortnight. The first of these five games was a solid 2-0 victory away to Livingston; with three home games, including one against promotion contenders Falkirk, and one away game to in-form Dumbarton still to come, March will be a real test of our squad.
Recent performances have shown exactly why we needed to bring in a new manager. Under Hartley, the team has discovered what I call the three D’s that can ensure a successful promotion push: defence, discipline and determination. Although we’re still finding our shooting boots, it doesn’t matter as much when our defence has been made into a solid, reliable unit. While Davidson did a perfectly acceptable job at centre back, the return of Kyle Benedictus from injury has eliminated a lot of the disastrous lapses that were costing us points. Keeping the same formation at the back and the same back four, as well as encouraging McBride and Rae to provide cover to the defence, has made Dundee an exceptionally difficult side to break down; indeed, of our five opponents since Hartley’s appointment, only one (Cowdenbeath) have managed to penetrate our back line.
This brings me on nicely to the next important component of Hartley’s Dundee- discipline. Under John Brown, players were deployed in multiple roles in various formations as he tried to find the magic formula. Like most of us who have played Football Manager, his life would have been a lot easier if he’d just stuck with a simple formation and sent out players where they were meant to play rather than trying to reinvent them all. Hartley has done the sensible thing and identified everybody’s strengths before asking them to do what they’re best at. The sad thing is that most non-Dark Blues reading this will think that this is stating the obvious; however, under Brown, nothing was obvious. It’s clear to see that each player now knows exactly what’s expected of them, what shape they’re expected to keep and how they contribute to the team effort, and it’s helping to breed confidence in a side that had, despite its wealth of talents, seemed to lack belief in itself.
This self-belief is the core of the third D- determination- which will be crucial in the run-in. Under Brown, a 1-0 lead at home to the likes of Morton would be seen as good enough, and would then result in a nervy final 10 minutes as Dundee defended for their lives. This, patently, is a ludicrous situation for teams at the top to be in, and is one of the reasons he had to go. With Hartley at the helm and exhorting his players to push on at all times, there seems little risk of losing concentration or sitting back content with a slim lead. In fact, a frequent refrain of post-match interviews from players and manager alike is a shared desire for more goals, reflecting both the close nature of the league table (all three at the top have very similar goal differences) and a change in attitude at Dens. We’re no longer trying to muddle our way back into the Premiership, and we’re now trying to make sure we deserve it.
As things currently stand, our fate is in our hands. With a home game in hand to out-of-form Raith Rovers tomorrow night (Tuesday) next on our list, we can put some breathing space between ourselves and Hamilton. If we can draw on our newfound strengths and make it to the end of March unbeaten, it could make the crunch fixture against Hamilton on April 5th everything but a title decider.