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ANALYSIS: Change, change and change again as Dundee manager James McPake has tried to prepare for new season

James McPake at his unveiling alongside Dark Blues chief John Nelms
James McPake and John Nelms.

Dundee boss James McPake’s plans for next season must have changed, changed and changed again during a rollercoaster few months at Dens Park.

With more than two months still to go before the Dark Blues get back out on the pitch in competitive action, there’s no doubt he’ll have to continue to adapt before we see a ball kicked in anger.

When the coronavirus pandemic halted Scottish football, McPake’s men were on a roll in the Championship – unbeaten in six, conceding just one goal and intent on running down Inverness in second place.

Back then the noises coming from above were positive, with managing director John Nelms saying the club was in a stable position to ride out the shutdown.

At that point, McPake was putting together his plan of action for 2020/21 while waiting patiently for news on when the game would restart.

He had an experienced assistant manager in Jimmy Nicholl and a Scottish Cup-winning captain in Josh Meekings who was likely to sign a new contract.

Now, though, circumstances have changed dramatically with Nelms last month revealing a £500,000 loss and warning of bleak days and tough decisions ahead to ensure the club survives the enforced hiatus.

Players have taken wage cuts and the revived youth academy is being slimmed down to reduce costs.

McPake’s right-hand man Nicholl was released from his contract while Meekings departed at the end of his deal, with striker Andrew Nelson also leaving.

Expectation for a Dundee manager in the Championship is to win promotion back to the Premiership – but is that too much to ask for the Dark Blues in their current guise?

First of all, let’s look at the competition.

Top of the list of challengers will be recently-relegated Hearts led by Robbie Neilson, who won the Championship last season with Dundee United.

The Jam Tarts may still be arguing the case against their demotion and have had their playing squad on reduced wages for months but that hasn’t stopped them adding quality in the shape of goalkeeper Craig Gordon.

The 54-times capped Scotland international returned to his boyhood club after leaving Celtic and joins a squad packed with talent.

Skippered by another seasoned international player in Steven Naismith, Neilson has a plethora of attacking options, including Northern Ireland duo Liam Boyce and Conor Washington, Jamie Walker and former Dens favourite Craig Wighton.

At the back they’ve got Christophe Berra, who made a massive impact on loan at Dundee last season, along with former Dundee United man John Souttar and highly-rated full-back Aaron Hickey, who is reportedly a target for big clubs north and south of the border.

Make no mistake, if Neilson keeps the majority of those players, Herats will be favourites for the title.

Then there are other candidates who are already shaping up their squads for the October start.

Dunfermline have been very active in the transfer market after Kevin Nisbet’s £250,000 move to Hibs, bringing in previous Championship winners in Declan McManus and Paul Watson as well as experienced second-tier operators like Kevin O’Hara, Dom Thomas and Iain Wilson.

On top of that, 31-times capped Steven Whittaker has swapped Easter Road for East End Park.

Elsewhere, Ayr United have added Dario Zanatta from Partick, while Raith snapped up goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald from Kilmarnock.

With finances stretched at Dens Park and players already having agreed to wage cuts, it’s unclear whether McPake will be able to add as many new faces as he’d like.

So what does he have at his disposal right now?

Fin Robertson made an impact in the Dark Blues' first-team last season
Fin Robertson made an impact in the Dark Blues’ first-team last season.

Following the end of the consultation process over salary reductions, Dundee have 14 senior players on the books, along with seven youngsters who made first-team appearances last season.

Goalkeepers Jack Hamilton and Calum Ferrie, with defenders Cammy Kerr, Jordan McGhee, Jordon Forster and Jordan Marshall and recent signing Lee Ashcroft make up a decent Championship defence.

Injuries, though, could leave them vulnerable.

In a small squad, the versatility of players like Christie Elliott and Declan McDaid will be invaluable. Both showcased their abilities at wing-back last season, as well as performing well in their usual attacking positions.

Midfield is the strongest area of McPake’s squad. Graham Dorrans, Shaun Byrne, Jamie Ness, Fin Robertson and Paul McGowan would be welcome in almost any squad in the division.

The departure of Nelson, however, leaves McPake with only one option up front. Last season’s top scorer Kane Hemmings is certainly the right kind of option to have but he will need support. Youngster Michael Cunningham made two sub appearances last term but it’s a position that requires strengthening.

There is certainly a good first XI from which to pick but experience could be an issue. The Dark Blues will be hoping some of the young players can follow the example set by Fin Robertson.

The loan market is also a possibility, though the risks of that were highlighted last season when Rangers kid Josh McPake struggled to make an impact at Championship level.

It’s clear that when the transfer window shuts in October, if there hasn’t been a considerable financial shift in a positive direction, there will be an element of ‘make do with what you’ve got’ in relation to McPake’s plans to take Dundee back to the top flight.

The Dens gaffer certainly has talent at his disposal but keeping a slim squad fit throughout the shortened 2020/21 campaign could make the difference when the action returns.

Having Hearts in the division and the likelihood of a reduced playing budget means the usual high expectations facing a Dundee manager will have to be tempered.

Yet supporters can take plenty of heart from the club’s recent history – the Dark Blues certainly know how to defiantly beat the odds when money is tight.

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