Sunday, August 3, 2014

2014-15 Premiership preview - Dundee

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LAST SEASON: Championship winners

NOTABLE INS: Grant Adam (Airdrieonians), Simon Ferry (Portsmouth), Gary Harkins (St. Mirren), Thomas Konrad (Eintracht Trier), Paul McGinn (Dumbarton), Paul McGowan (St. Mirren), James McPake (Hibernian), Philip Roberts (Falkirk), Greg Stewart (Cowdenbeath), Luka Tankulic (Wolfsburg), Kevin Thomson (Hibernian)

NOTABLE OUTS: Ryan Conroy (Raith Rovers), Steven Doris (Stirling Albion), Declan Gallagher (Livingston), John Gibson (Alloa Athletic), Matt Lockwood (Sutton United), Carlo Monti (Pollock), Christian Nade (Raith Rovers), Dan Twardzik (Motherwell), Jamie Reid (Stenhousemuir, loan), Adam Cummins (Motherwell, end of loan), Craig Beattie, Sean Bonnet-Johnson, Stephen Hughes, Leighton McIntosh, Stephen O'Donnell, Gavin Rae

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Letheren, Irvine, Davidson, Gallagher, Dyer, Conroy, McBride, Rae, McAllister, Boyle, MacDonald

Given that he has signed eleven players and let sixteen go, it's fair to say that Paul Hartley wasn't enamoured with the squad that Bomber Brown left him.

With resources that dwarved those of their opponents, Dundee should have cantered to the Championship title last season.  But they were stuttering long before the axe fell on Bomber at the start of February.  The appointment of Hartley as his replacement seems astute so far; he certainly steadied the ship sufficiently to get them over the line.  Back-to-back promotions with Alloa suggest that he knows how to set up a team...though it's worth noting that he left Recreation Park last winter just as the wheels seemed to start falling off.

This will be by some way his biggest test in the dugout up till now, but he comes across as an able and intelligent young coach who does not lack tactical acumen.  The first few months of the season will definitively prove whether he is a genius in the transfer market and if he can handle the pressure of a potential dogfight.  Of course, some time might be required for the new players - and, as stated above, there are many - to gel together, and for the best XI to become apparent.  That might hurt the Dark Blues at the start of the season, but Hartley and his paymasters will fancy that the squad is strong enough to cement their top flight status.

That said, few of his signings look like safe bets to succeed.  There's no question that most of them are an upgrade on their predecessors - after all, the only player to leave that couldn't be described as 'dead wood' was central defender Declan Gallagher, whose exit was more due to off-field issues.  For much of last year, Dundee used Gallagher and midfielder Iain Davidson in central defence; they will hope that Thomas Konrad and James McPake will prove a sturdier combination.  I'm not going to lie to you; I know very little about Konrad or his countryman Luka Tankulic, the new striker who was also signed from the German lower leagues.  But I do know that Hartley requires plenty from both players.  If Tankulic can't lead the line effectively or chip in with some goals, the alternative is 33 year old Peter MacDonald, prolific in the Championship but never in the top flight.  If Konrad isn''t solid at the back, then Davidson or Kyle Benedictus - who, along with Nicky Riley, has been told he can leave - might need to be called upon.

Meanwhile, McPake and his former Hibs teammate Kevin Thomson both come with a bit of risk attached.  The former has barely played in eighteen months due to chronic back problems; the latter has barely performed in the same time period, often sauntering around Easter Road like he was out for a Sunday stroll, rather than getting stuck in like the international midfielder that he once was.  Hartley can't afford not to get the best out of both; they will form the side's backbone.

The only newcomer I especially love is the all-action Simon Ferry, a former Celtic youngster who has down well in England's lower leagues with Swindon and Portsmouth.  Ferry may sit along Thomson, or play just ahead of him.  The latter move would provide more stability but leave Hartley without a schemer, a role presumably earmarked for Paul McGowan or Gary Harkins.  Surely the manager knows from watching St. Mirren last year that these two can't play together.  McGowan was poor last season, but may bounce back if he's finally got his life in order.  Harkins, however, was atrocious at St. Mirren.  Admittedly, he has been outstanding in his two previous spells at Dens, but can lightning strike a third time?

If Hartley picks them both, then one - probably the former - will be punted out to the left flank, where they would provide scant cover for a very vulnerable left back, Willie Dyer.  But it's unthinkable that there won't be a place in the lineup for Jim McAlister, who whether playing wide or in the middle has been Dundee's most consistent player over the last two seasons.  His industry is a boon and he would certainly be a better all-round option on that side (if he doesn't play in the centre instead).

On the right, another new face, Paul McGinn, is a better full-back than Gary Irvine, but it's unclear if he's ready for the top flight.  Hartley used Martin Boyle, a forward, on that wing last season; supporters can only hope that he isn't tempted to replace him with Philip Roberts, who was inexplicably given a two year deal despite effectively being sacked by Falkirk last season (his tantrum after being sent off at Alloa is a Youtube video worth searching for).  Roberts won't last five minutes against physical Premiership defences, who will either cow him or provoke him into doing something stupid.  If Dundee play him regularly, they won't do well.

There is also a choice to be made in goal, where Scott Bain, a favourite of Hartley's from Alloa, is probably a superior keeper to Kyle Letheren.  But Letheren did nothing wrong last season and may have earned the right to start the season between the sticks.  He was pretty iffy in his appearances for Kilmarnock in the previous two campaigns though.

Roberts aside, there haven't been too many young players mentioned here.  If there is one to look out for, it's Craig Wighton, who only turned 17 at the end of July.  The youngest ever goalscorer for Dundee, he was trained by Ian Cathro, the man behind Ryan Gauld's success, and could yet follow in Gauld's path.  This season might be a bit early for him though, and he may be loaned out to a Championship side to help his development.

I don't think it's going to be particularly pretty to watch Dundee this season.  This is a squad built for scrappy rather than silky football.  But I don't think that's a bad move.  This bunch is good enough to compete on an even keel with the clubs that finished 2013-14 in the bottom six.  And if they aren't, then I daresay the American owners will provide the January reinforcements required to keep them out of trouble.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1993 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Grant Adam, Scott Bain, Kyle Letheren
Defenders: Kyle Benedictus, Willie Dyer, Gary Irvine, Thomas Konrad, Paul McGinn, James McPake
Midfielders: Iain Davidson, Simon Ferry, Gary Harkins, Cameron Kerr, Jim McAlister, Kevin McBride, Nicky Riley, Kevin Thomson, Craig Wighton
Forwards: Martin Boyle, Peter MacDonald, Paul McGowan, Philip Roberts, Greg Stewart, Luka Tankulic


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