Feature: Season Preview – Dundee

By Lewis Michie 

If there is one thing Dundee Football Club need, it’s a bit of stability. Relegation last season – having had three managers over the course of the campaign (With the final man in charge being current gaffer James McPake, during his initial run as caretaker) and a change in club structure has influenced this need for a period of less upheaval, but a heavy squad turnover makes it more crucial. Dee fans were potentially hoping for a bigger name appointment than former club Captain McPake, but nonetheless, he will be tasked with attempting to return the Dens Park club to Scotland’s top tier.

Dundee’s line-ups are going to look very different this season, but that is down mostly  to most of the players who contributed to the clubs relegation leaving the club. The two most used players last season were Cammy Kerr and Paul McGowan, they’ve stuck around and have a good chance to both retain their positions as the two most used Dee players this term. Past that however, not so much retention.

When you look into last season’s next ten most used members of the squad, only goalkeeper Jack Hamilton remains – and he wasn’t quite the clear favourite last season, with other keepers regularly getting chances. Departures include veteran centre-back Darren O’Dea, other veteran striker Kenny Miller, highly rated midfielder Glen Kamara, other highly rated left-back Nathan Ralph and much used squad members Martin Woods and Genseric Kusunga.

Of course, getting rid of a large part of a squad that got you relegated is not all that bad, this was a squad that was demoted after all. There was a good mix of talent and experience in that squad though, and you’d imagine James McPake would have kept hold of some of them if he could have done. The other challenge that comes up with this movement out, although potentially for the best in the long run, is that a mostly new squad will take time to settle in and get used to each other – time that as we know, is crucial in a league like the Championship.

Dee conceded 78 goals last season, more than any other Premiership team – so a high turnover in defence isn’t all that bad because there are certainly plenty of lethal strikers in the Championship. Although, Jack Hamilton appears to have been positioned as the number one at Dens Park going into the season, he was twice dropped as first choice last season and made a few notable errors – so at 24 he really needs this to be his coming of age season, and Dundee really need a reliable stopper.

In front of Hamilton, the most used combination last term was Kerr at right-back, Ralph on the left and Kusunga in the middle where we was often partnered by either Darren O’Dea or Ryan McGowan – there were also at times experiments with a five-at-the-back, which saw a bit more use of Josh Meekings (Although a hip injury derailed his season) And Celtic Loanee Calvin Miller started the season at left-back but was easily displaced by Ralph.

So obviously it’s really only Kerr than remains from the regular back four from last season – But Meekings would have played a lot more if he’d stayed fit – and looks like getting plenty of game-time this season after being made captain.

The majority of the back-line seems to be quite clear, for the most part, at the moment. Kerr retains his right-back place, Jordan Marshall has been recruited from Queen of the South (The Dumfries club wanted to keep him, and the Englishman was wanted by Inverness in January) and he has been at left-back.

The centre pairing is made up of any combination of Josh Meekings, Ex Hibs player Jordan Forster and Jordan McGhee who has joined from Falkirk (Dee like the name Jordan apparently.) The League Cup doesn’t give many clues to the preferred pairing of McPake’s as he has used all three combinations thus far, but it seems as though Meekings and Forster may be edging it at the moment, although there isn’t a whole lot of difference in quality between the three.

Clearly some more depth in this area would be required, on Saturday the options off the bench would have been 17 year old Sam Fisher and of course McGhee would can play at full-back. Andrew Davies is yet to return from injury, although he is 34, so not a long-term solution. That should offer enough central defensive depth but a full-back or two wouldn’t be the worst place to look for McPake.

In the three league cup games thus far the system has chopped and changed – at Cove the formation appeared to start as a 4-3-1-2, and against Peterhead on Saturday it was reported as a 4-2-3-1. Either way, the central three appear to be McGowan playing as a ten and then Shaun Byrne playing deeper, alongside either Jamie Ness or youngster Finlay Robertson – or both depending on the formation.

Byrne is a good addition from Livingston, he plays the ‘eight’ position almost as well as any other player in the Championship and has quick link up play with McGowan – who on his day could be one of the better players in the second tier.

That third position in the centre is the tough point to work out – 16 year old Finlay Robertson is talented, but at that age he is unlikely to be given the pressure of 30+ games in the Championship. Ness is working his way back to full fitness, but obviously has some pedigree about him. Another addition to this area could be important for Dee in breaking down very defensive sides. Against Cove they struggled to create much from open play, but they also didn’t quite have the same bite in their play as Cove, and at this level you’ll struggle to recruit a player who can do both.

As two 0-0 draws against lower league opposition would suggest, goals have been tough to come by for Dundee so far. We will come on to strikers shortly, but they may well have the best in the league, or at least one of the best in Andrew Nelson. So the chance creation is where things are needing improvement.

Against Cove, Dee certainly looked more comfortable playing with wingers, their natural pace gave Cove more to think about and it made more use of the wide areas. While Kerr and especially Marshall do contribute to the attack, they couldn’t do it on their own.

Dundee actually have themselves some promising looking wide men. The centre-piece of this is probably 23 year old Declan McDaid who joins from Ayr United. McDaid got four goals and eight assists in all competitions last term for Ian McCall’s side – and he has already got his first assist for Dundee. Quite a few clubs were keen on McDaid this summer.

Dundee also made use of the free agent market to bring in another wide man from Championship opposition, this time 25 year old Josh Todd from Queen of the South. He has also already picked up his first assist for the club, after getting four last term, alongside his seven goals. So it’s clear McDaid and Todd could be the chief creators at Dens this season, with both having the ability to notch a few goals too.

Again, Depth could be needing a slight looking at, much of the back-up in these areas is made up of youngsters and as much as there seems to be a renewed focus on the academy at Dens, you don’t want to put too much pressure on young shoulders.

Ironically Gordon Strachan is going to be doing a lot of work with the young stars at Dundee in his new role, one of the back-up wide men this season could be his grandson Luke – who is 18 – although he’s not had great reviews from Dee fans after turning out in a pre-season friendly. Josh Mulligan has had a better reaction, the 16 year old started against Peterhead at the weekend, but again you wouldn’t want to be pinning all your hopes on a 16 year old if McDaid or Todd goes down with an injury.

Finally, up-front the key man could be Andrew Nelson, if he plays to his full ability he could be hitting 20+ goals in the Championship, of course the crucial part in that calculation is still getting service to him.

Nelson has already scored twice in the League Cup this season, he managed four goals in his half season, despite dealing with a knee injury, in the Premiership last term, and he has previously scored four in 15 games for Falkirk at this level. Nelson is also ably backed up by Craig Curran who while not as prolific as Nelson, does have a history of scoring in Scotland – although he is more like a 1 in 5 type striker, but he does a lot of work that brings other players into the game. Again, a similar story comes back in this position, there is quality there, but that extra bit of depth is required.

So it would appear that on paper, there is good quality in that Dundee squad, and some able youngsters to back it up. The question remains if James McPake in his first full season can get the full potential out of it, but again, another four signings could really give him more tools to do so. A back-up left-back, another centre-mid (Preferably a creative one) another winger and potentially a striker who can operate out wide as well could work.

This could be tough to put together on a budget, so checking in on the loan market could make sense for Dee. A return for Calvin Miller who spent half a season at Dens in 18/19 might be worth looking into. Yes, he didn’t have the biggest impact there last season, but it wasn’t exactly a breeding ground for success – he’s still only 21, had an impressive pre-season with Celtic and can cover left-back and as a winger, so he ticks a lot of boxes.

Rangers and Aberdeen are both academies to take a look at as well for Dundee if they need some loanees. Dapo Mabude, Andrew Dallas, Josh McPake, Ethan Ross, Seb Ross and Bruce Anderson are all names that could fill a few of these gaps.

Also, if Hibs are to bring in another striker, a bid for Ollie Shaw to come in on loan wouldn’t be the worst shout for McPake either, so there is a lot of potential in the loan market for Dundee.

A lot of these names will be familiar to many readers, but Ethan or Seb Ross could be particularly interesting recruits, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see Aberdeen keen on either deal too. The brothers have both come through the academy at Pittodrie, Seb being the older of the two – Although he saw his younger brother beat him to a first team debut last season, ironically against Stenhousemuir, where Seb was on loan.

Seb would give depth at the number ten position for McGowan, but can also, as shown in pre-season for the Dons, play deeper. He would provide that creativity and as shown with two contenders for Stenny’s goal of the season award last year, can unpick stubborn backlines with a screamer or two.

His younger brother Ethan could also provide cover for McGowan, but he can also play out wide, where we imagine he’d enjoy more game time. His quick passing and agile frame would really compliment the likes of Byrne and McGowan. Although he could do with a decent amount of minutes this season, Derek McInnes may retain the youngster for depth of his own.

The Rangers players probably need less of the introduction, with the success their youth system has enjoyed over the past few years. The names mentioned probably need to get out and get minutes under their belt, and playing in such congested areas of the pitch at Ibrox means they’ll need loans to do so.

Of course another link for the striking department – which more of less proves McPake is after one, is Stevie May. However, it looks more likely at the moment that the Aberdeen man is set to return to his first club – St Johnstone – rather than drop down to the Championship.

For a club of Dundee’s size, the objective is clear – they need to get back into the Premiership one way or another. Play-offs will do, but of course there would be a fantastic amount of joy for Dee supporters if after relegating United what seems like ages ago, that they’d get relegated just to win the Championship and prevent their city rivals coming up. They’ve a lot of work to do in order to match United this season – Robbie Neilson has been building that side quietly while Dee have had to rebuild this summer. There is enough quality there to see Dundee mount a title challenge, although the lack of experience playing together for this squad does make that less convincing. Andrew Nelson could be key to success this season and it would not be shocking to see him walk away with a tartan ball at the end of the campaign.

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