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Dundee FC

The inside story of Dundee’s triumphant Premiership return: Finding Paul McGowan, Rangers rancour and goggles at Pittodrie

Courier Sport recounts the Dark Blues' run to the top six.
George Cran
Manager Tony Docherty celebrates with players and fans at Pittodrie. Image: Shutterstock
Manager Tony Docherty celebrates with Dundee players and fans after sealing a top-six finish. Image: Shutterstock.

Dundee’s 2023/24 was a season to remember.

Tony Docherty’s debut campaign as a manager brought a return to the very top table of Scottish football.

The club that finished third in the Championship in 2020 is suddenly the sixth best side in the country just four years later.

But it would not be Dundee without a rollercoaster ride along the way – there were more ups than downs certainly, but Rangers rancour and the dreaded Dens Park pitch controversy meant it was far from plain sailing.

The end would come with big celebrations at Pittodrie and joyful scenes between players and fans.

Dundee celebrate reaching the top six in a successful 2023/24. Image: Euan Cherry/Shutterstock.

The start, though, was shrouded in uncertainty.

Manager merry-go-round

The particular brand of uncertainty centred not over which division the Dark Blues would be in, rather who would lead them into the promised land of the Premiership.

Less than an hour after being announced as 2022/23 Championship manager of the season, Gary Bowyer was handed an envelope by John Nelms that brought an end to his tenure at the club.

The chosen replacement was not Tony Docherty, however.

Queen's Park manager Callum Davidson walks up the touchline at Stark's Park with a sunset in the distance. Image: Ross MacDonald / SNS Group.
Former St Johnstone manager Callum Davidson. Image: Ross MacDonald / SNS Group.

The job was Callum Davidson’s – if he wanted it. The timing, though, was wrong,coming so soon after his trophy-laden spell at St Johnstone had ended.

That was May 17 – a week after Bowyer’s sacking – and the days stretched, becoming weeks, without a manager.

Between May 10 and May 29 the manager’s office at Dundee was empty.

Looking back a year on, that appears farcical. But good things come to those who wait.

New Dundee manager Tony Docherty with managing director John Nelms. Image: SNS.
Tony Docherty unveiled as Dundee manager alongside managing director John Nelms. Image: SNS.

The Dark Blues stayed patient and surprised Scottish football by announcing Tony Docherty as the man to lead them in the top flight.

It was a surprise because Docherty had been assistant to Derek McInnes for a long, long time, but was ready to step out on his own.

And, boy, has he proved that.

New manager, new staff, new team

June was approaching and there was a whole lot to do; getting a team together being the most pressing issue.

Quickly, contract extensions appeared; Cammy Kerr the first of those, to take him into his testimonial year, Adam Legzdins next, then Lee Ashcroft and Harry Sharp.

Then the first new face arrived on June 2 as Joe Shaughnessy signed up.

Paul McGowan’s time at Dundee was up after nine years and over 300 appearances. Image: SNS

More and more announcements came and suddenly the squad was coming together.

There were also departures – club captain Ryan Sweeney left and so did stalwart Paul McGowan in mysterious circumstances.

A club statement said they had been unable to reach McGowan to confirm his nine years at the club was over.

However, Courier Sport understands he had actually been in contact with decision-makers at the club and was aware of the situation.

It was a bizarre start to the summer.

But the signings were arriving and the squad began to look promising.

Stars in the making

Owen Beck arrived on loan from Liverpool, along with major praise from Jurgen Klopp and family ties to Anfield great Ian Rush.

Dundee were clearly excited about his arrival and fans who made the pre-season trip to Ireland quickly saw why.

The Wales U/21 international made quite the first impression as he tore Bray Wanderers apart on a beautiful July day in the Irish sunshine.

Owen Beck scores for Dundee.
New signing Owen Beck finds the net on an impressive first showing at Bray Wanderers. Image: David Young.

And to finish the summer tour, Luke McCowan scored from the halfway line against Fleetwood Town to give a sign of things to come.

The competitive stuff began just over a week later and Docherty got his managerial career off to a winning start.

Zak Rudden scored the only goal at Bonnyrigg Rose with Beck, Shaughnessy, Scott Tiffoney, Jon McCracken and Malachi Boateng all making their debuts.

Dundee would miss out on qualification for the League Cup knockouts by just one goal.

Back in the big time

A decent start to the Premiership season saw a home draw with Motherwell, Lyall Cameron heading in his first top-flight goal to equalise.

Then came a poor first half at St Mirren that brought defeat.

Docherty’s start was a slow one – out of the League Cup and the wait for a first league win stretched until the end of August.

But it burst into life when Hearts came to Dens Park. No doubt thanks to a pre-match argument over a team sheet.

Luke McCowan celebrates his winner against Hearts. Image: SNS
Luke McCowan celebrates his winner against Hearts. Image: SNS

“Human error” was how Docherty described it post-match.

He had picked Josh Mulligan in his starting XI with McCowan on the bench. However, the team sheet was mistakenly submitted with McCowan starting.

And all hell broke loose in the referee’s room.

Match official Alan Muir was happy to accept the change to the starting XI to reinstate Mulligan, as Docherty had planned. Proof in the shape of a WhatsApp message sent before the deadline was good enough for the ref.

It was not, however, good enough for Hearts and manager Steven Naismith, who insisted they wouldn’t accept any change.

That, though, backfired. Big time.

McCowan sees his long-range lob find the top corner. Image: SNS
McCowan sees his long-range lob find the top corner. Image: SNS

Due to the mix-up, McCowan was moved from his usual position on the wing to a central midfield role. And he flourished.

A tight game was won in the end when Dundee stole the ball high up the park and McCowan looked up with goalkeeper Zander Clark scrambling back to his empty net.

A perfect lob beat his despairing dive and nestled in the top corner.

Dundee’s first win of the season had Docherty’s tenure well and truly up and running.

Pitch problems surface

A bunch of draws followed, one at St Johnstone being particularly frustrating after an excellent performance was spoiled by coughing up a two-goal lead.

Then came Storm Babet and the first postponement of the season. Ross County were due to be at Dens Park on October 7 but a waterlogged pitch saw the game called off.

Another, less positive, sign of things to come.

The game was eventually played and a dull 0-0 draw was the result, seeing Dundee drop to 10th place in the Premiership.

That, though, would be their lowest league position all season.

Rangers fans lit up Dens Park’s Bob Shankly Stand with pyro. Image: SNS

A 2-0 win at Livingston was followed by a 5-0 home hammering by Rangers on a bizarre night of delays and pyrotechnics that saw ref Kevin Clancy “tackle” McCowan in the lead up to a Gers goal.

But then came back-to-back wins with clean sheets – making it three in four games – as Livi again and then St Mirren were dispatched.

Dundee were up to fifth and times were good.

There would be struggles to come, however, and more rain. Matches against Aberdeen and St Johnstone were postponed because of the waterlogged pitch.

Dundee groundsman Brian Robertson works on the Dens Park pitch. Image: SNS
Former Dundee groundsman Brian Robertson Jnr removing water from the Dens Park playing surface. Image: SNS

Father-and-son ground staff Brian and Brian Robertson were then suspended and ultimately left the club.

Results had turned for the worse, the pitch wasn’t helping and then came a bitter blow in the January transfer window.

Beck recall and return

Liverpool were having real trouble at left-back and exercised their option to recall Owen Beck.

Suddenly, Dundee’s all-action star was gone – and his replacements struggled.

Dara Costelloe made his debut at left wing-back in the first match of 2024 and helped give away a goal within 20 seconds.

Owen Dodgson then gave away penalties in each of his first two starts.

Owen Beck made his Premier League debut for Liverpool on his return. Image: Shutterstock

There were also other changes midway through the campaign – Zak Rudden and club stalwart Cammy Kerr were told by Docherty they wouldn’t feature and could find new clubs.

That allowed arrivals in the shape of Curtis Main from India, Ryan Astley from Everton and a promising loan striker in Michael Mellon.

The latter came thanks to a recently announced “strategic alliance” between Dundee and Premier League Burnley.

Former Dee skipper Charlie Adam was the catalyst for the partnership. Working as Burnley’s loans manager, Adam suggested a meeting between his new American employers and his old ones.

Dundee managing director John Nelms was joined by Burnley chairman Alan Pace in the stands at Livingston. Image: SNS
Dundee managing director John Nelms was joined by Burnley chairman Alan Pace in the stands at Livingston in January. Image: SNS

It was – and is – a combination that could see a major change in the future of Dundee Football Club.

It was an exciting time for Dees –  and their excitement went through the roof when Owen Beck was spotted back at the club’s Gardyne Campus training base.

Rumours of his return had spread and fans waited for the youngster to arrive.

Their patience was rewarded and Dundee’s loan star was back.

Rangers rancour

Dundee’s nasty habit of giving away points from leading positions was starting to frustrate.

An ability – one they’d struggled to show in recent top-flight campaigns – to regularly beat the league’s bottom sides, though, proved crucial.

McCowan was fast becoming the star of the team and he and Jordan McGhee were scoring regularly, putting points on the board.

Jordan McGhee hit goalscoring form. Image: David Young/Shutterstock

The Old Firm were a different story, however.

The low point of the campaign came at Parkhead as Celtic rattled in six unanswered goals in a rampant first half, eventually winning 7-1.

Then came THAT Rangers game. The Rangers game that didn’t happen. Twice.

On March 17, Dundee were due to play the Gers at Dens Park live on Sky Sports.

The weather, though, was a problem. Heavy rain overnight hit a pitch that just couldn’t handle it any more.

And despite John Nelms attempting to muck out along with his staff from the early hours, there was no saving the game.

Rangers cried foul and sent forth an angry statement.

Referee Don Robertson explains to Dundee and Rangers representatives that pitch is unplayable. Image: Alan Harvey / SNS

Thier anger only increased when the second attempt to play the game on April 10 was also postponed due to a waterlogged pitch.

It was batten down the hatches time for Dundee. The west coast media, fuelled by rage clicks from Rangers fans, had a field day – there was even a live blog covering a pitch inspection.

St Johnstone’s McDiarmid Park was lined up as an alternative venue.

The Ibrox club were appealing for an intervention from the SPFL and one would come in the shape of an unprecedented £180,000 fine, two-thirds of it suspended. Dundee were not happy and fired out a statement of their own.

Eventually the game was played and no goals were scored, denting Rangers’ title chances and earning the Dee a hard-earned point.

Top six

While all that was going on, Dundee were happily securing a place in the top half.

A few days before the 0-0 draw with Rangers they had a far more fruitful goalless encounter at Aberdeen.

Despite having the better of the game, Dundee could not find that all-important winner; the winner that would mean Hibs and Motherwell could not catch them in the race for sixth.

Luke McCowan in goggles
Dundee star Luke McCowan has some fun after a week of controversy over the waterlogged Dens pitch as Dundee celebrated their top-six finish. Image: Shutterstock

Instead, a last-gasp equaliser for the Steelmen did the job for them.

Cue big hugs, bigger smiles and Luke McCowan posing in blue goggles.

The rest of the league moaned about a waterlogged pitch, but Dundee were poking fun and heading for the top six.


Suddenly, qualifying for Europe was a distinct possibility. Fifth place would do it and St Mirren were only two points ahead.

Dundee hadn’t played European football since 2003 – only a year previously they’d been struggling to draw at home to Greenock Morton, suddenly the prospect of mixing it in the UEFA Conference League was a reality.

However, the Dark Blues’ record in top-six matches does not make pretty reading.

Joe Shaughnessy was forced off early on with injury. Image: SNS
Joe Shaughnessy injured his knee against Rangers. Image: SNS

And this version of the Dee were unable to improve as they fell to four defeats and a draw in the final five games.

The absence of key men like skipper Joe Shaughnessy (out with a long-term knee injury), Owen Beck (out since the start of March), Trevor Carson (missed the final 11 games) and Ricki Lamie (missed the final three) proved difficult to deal with.

On the ball wasn’t a problem, conceding cheap goals was.

And the game that really mattered – St Mirren at home – saw Dundee well-beaten.


The poor run of results at the end of this campaign, though, did not do this Dundee side justice.

Throughout 2023/24 the positives overwhelmingly outweighed the negatives.

Tony Docherty was nominated for two separate manager of the year awards, Lyall Cameron was also nominated twice as young player of the year while Owen Beck was named in the PFA Scotland team of the year.

Dundee fans enjoyed their side's display. Image: Shutterstock
Dundee fans are enjoyed what they saw in 2023/24. Image: Shutterstock

The partnership with Burnley is set to grow, new stadium plans are on the go and a new training complex at Riverside Drive is also in the works.

And work to fix the pitch is already under way.

The team on the park, too, was competitive as it has been for years.

The league table does not lie – Dundee finished 2023/24 as the sixth best team in the country.

It was the usual Dens Park rollercoaster of a season.

But one that ends with the club very firmly on an upward trajectory.