BY MARK GODFREY
Following years of financial turmoil and a revolving door policy in the boardroom and in the changing room, Dundee have made a promising start to life back in the Scottish Premiership.
The League 1 title and automatic promotion back to the top flight was sealed with a 2-1 victory over Dumbarton on the last day of the 2013/14 season at Dens Park when a crucial late Kyle Letheren save secured the points needed to see off a late surge by runners-up Hamilton Academical, who, had Dundee conceded an equaliser, would have won the championship by virtue of goal difference â€“ a final day 10-2 thrashing of relegated Morton ultimately proving in vain.
Towards the end of the campaign, the Dark Bluesâ€™ season nearly came off the rails â€“ previous manager John Brown was replaced by former Scotland international Paul Hartley after a poor run of results in February 2014 and a shock loss to doomed Morton in April looked to have handed the initiative to Accies, with Falkirk also in the promotion mix.
2013/14 really was the year to get out of the Championship; Rangers, who completed stage two of their climb back to the Premier League with weeks to spare, will no doubt be favourites to notch up a hat-trick of promotions, while matters will be complicated further by the arrival of both Edinburgh clubs (Heartsâ€™ relegation not unexpected following their points deduction, Hibernianâ€™s being more of a shock) competing for one automatic promotion place and one play-off spot in what is traditionally a tough league to get out of even without the added big names.
Manager Hartley â€“ almost universally praised for his work at Alloa Athletic, winning back-to-back promotions â€“ spent the summer upgrading his squad for the top flight challenges ahead; even if the task of establishing Dundee in the Premier League was, in theory, made easier by the demise of Hearts and Hibs.
Transfer dealings were undertaken with thrift very much in mind with 12 new players â€“ exclusively free transfers – recruited. The club are very much the cautionary tale of Scottish football when it comes to financial mismanagement, having twice gone into administration; firstly in 2003 after grossly overspending on players, and again in 2010 over an unpaid tax bill of Â£365,000.
These new signings have helped Dundee to a solid opening to just their second season in the top tier in the last ten â€“ the last time being in 2012/13 when they were invited to take the place of the banished Rangers. Three successive draws â€“ including one against current pace setters Inverness Caledonian Thistle – were followed with their first three points of the season away to St. Mirren. After thrashing Raith Rovers in the League Cup, they welcomed champions Celtic to Dens Park. The visitors were fresh from their â€˜secondâ€™ demoralising Champions League elimination of the summer at the hands of NK Maribor five days earlier.
One of those new signings â€“ James McPake â€“ put the Dees ahead after just 50 seconds as Hartleyâ€™s team played on the front foot, hoping to take advantage of any nerves in Ronny Deilaâ€™s side. A second half equaliser by Leigh Griffiths denied Dundee their first home victory of Celtic since 1988, but another point was deservedly earned leaving the club undefeated and in an encouraging sixth place before the recent international break.
Whether Dundee can maintain their decent current form as the season progresses remains to be seen. While Celtic will almost inevitably saunter to yet another title and the recent usual suspects of Dundee United, Motherwell, Aberdeen and Inverness are likely to fight it out to earn the crown of â€˜best of the restâ€™, a place in the relative comfort of mid-table is very much up for grabs for any of the remaining seven clubs â€˜ambitiousâ€™ enough to go for it.
Hartley has gained a reputation as a young, astute manager whose teams play the right way, so while Rangers and the Edinburgh clubs remain absent, and with the likes of Ross County and Kilmarnock likely to struggle for survival again, Dundee fans will be hoping a year of progression and consolidation will stand the club in good stead for when the big clubs eventually all return to make life harder.