James McPake insists Dundee and Hearts’ rivalry is purely a football one – despite months of off-field fighting.
Friday night’s televised Championship opener between the Dark Blues and the Jam Tarts isn’t just a run of the mill clash between two teams aiming for promotion.
Lingering bad blood in Gorgie over Dundee’s role in relegating Hearts means it’s also a potential powder keg.
Had fans been allowed inside Tynecastle, the atmosphere may have provided a spark capable of lighting the blue touchpaper.
However, Dundee’s manager insists off-field issues are no concern of his ahead of tomorrow’s big kick-off.
“None of the players or the coaching staff were involved in any decision-making,” said McPake.
“We’re here to take care of the football and that’s what we’ll be doing.
“The rivalry comes from it being two clubs that want to do well and two squads that are wanting to do well.
“The rivalry’s down to football.”
The lack of fans at Tynecastle will certainly make it easier for both sides to focus purely on their game.
When full, the Gorgie side’s home provides one of the most intimidating atmospheres in Scotland.
It’s something that can either help or hinder the home side, depending on the mood of the punters.
— Heart of Midlothian FC (@JamTarts) October 14, 2020
Yet, despite the potential for visiting teams to be put under huge pressure by 18,000 Hearts fans, McPake would rather they – and 2000 travelling Dundee supporters – were there than watching on TV at home.
“It’ll be strange playing at an empty Tynecastle,” he admitted.
“It’s a great place to go and play when it’s full. The atmosphere is really good – as good as anywhere in Scotland in my opinion.
“There, Celtic Park, Ibrox and Easter Road are the ones you enjoy – and the Dundee derbies as well.
“So it’s a shame because you want to go to Tynecastle for the atmosphere it has historically given you.
“They’re a hard bunch of fans to play in front of for the opposition.
“But they’re a hard bunch of fans when you’re not doing well at that club too. It was the same at Hibs too.
“You can turn the fans there quite quickly as an opposition side.
“If you go there and things aren’t going right for the home team, it can be hard for them, so it might benefit them having no fans at certain points of the season.”
Robbie Neilson’s presence in the dugout is another thing McPake believes will benefit the Jam Tarts this term.
The Dundee boss said: “Robbie’s won the league twice now. He’s won it at Hearts, he knows the club and he’s got a very good record.
“You can see why they went for him. And not just for this league. They’ll be looking for him to help progress their football club.
“I don’t think you can just say he’s good at getting out of this league.
“Certainly at Hearts, he had a good first season in the Premiership too. They’re looking to build at their club and it’s their call.”
The curtailment of last season means it is now over seven months since Dundee have played a league fixture.
At times, the light at the end of the tunnel seemed extremely faint.
But McPake is delighted his side are finally ready to embark on another promotion chase – and he is pleased with the players he has at his disposal.
He said: “There were points I didn’t think it would get up and running – even still!”
“It was delayed, then you read all the stories about it, but I think you need to detach from that and get a plan in place.
“That was tough. With no dates, it was tough to plan over the summer.
“But we eventually got a date, which gave us something to work towards.
“There are going to be bumps in the road, we’ve seen that in the Premiership too, but football’s back and for everyone involved it’s a relief.
“We just need to do our best to keep it going by looking after our own clubs and keeping things right so it doesn’t fall on its face and get stopped again.
“It’s a bigger thing than football. We can only do our part to make sure things are right at our club.
“But it’s certainly a relief to be back. The boys were desperate for training, for friendlies, for competitive football – and now they’re desperate for Friday.”
He continued: “I’m happy with what we’ve got.
“I’d rather have everybody available. Jakubiak’s getting close but he’s missed a fair chunk, as did Danny Mullen, who did great to get 60 minutes on Saturday.
“We’d rather they were bushed on a wee bit. But Afolabi will be back from international duty too so we’ve got plenty of options.
“We’re happy with the way it’s been. We’re happy with the preparation.
“We would have liked to have more competitive football. I’d have preferred another game this week, but we’ve had a week to prepare for Friday, so we’re happy.”