As their fiercest foes prepare for the next step on their promotion adventure, Dunfermline Athletic are embarking upon a process of reflection, recovery and rebuilding.
An agonising 2-0 aggregate defeat against Raith Rovers on Saturday brought the curtain down on the 2020/21 campaign for the East End Park outfit.
From the highs of defeating Hearts to go top of the Championship in November, to the lows of just three wins in 16 games between December 29 and April 13 — it has been a tumultuous, occasionally thrilling and often maddening season.
However, there will be little time for the club to lick its wounds. After all, next season’s Betfred Cup begins on July 10. So, just how big a revamp will take place at Dunfermline over the close season?
The 2021/22 targets
Courier Sport has learned that the Fife club are in the process of undertaking a strategic review of their operation — both in terms of infrastructure and personnel — with a view to making several changes over the summer months.
Fourth place in the Championship equals the club’s highest finish since exiting administration in 2013 and the performance in the final weeks of the campaign has given cause for optimism.
Nevertheless, it is fair to say that, without Hearts in the league, the aspirations will be loftier next term.
Under contract: The pieces in place
The futures of Owain Fon Williams and Paul Watson are secure and, as well as being dressing-room leaders, one suspects they will represent the spine of a revamped Dunfermline side; providing continuity and reliability at the back.
Dom Thomas — a contender for Pars’ player of the season with one goal and 10 assists from his 30 appearances — has another year left on his deal and will continue to be an invaluable source of creativity on the flanks.
Kevin O’Hara, despite drifting in and out of the side for much of the campaign, still ended the season as Dunfermline’s top scorer with 11 and latterly carved out a super rapport with Declan McManus and Craig Wighton.
Vytas Gaspuitis — a player Crawford is adamant will thrive next term, with a full pre-season under his belt — Kyle Macdonald, Iain Wilson and a fully fit Ryan Dow (the club’s vice-captain) are also signed up and could be valuable assets.
Out of contract: Who exits East End Park?
He has been previously linked with Aberdeen and Hibernian — neither side have made an approach at the moment — and it would take a foolhardy gambler to put their money on him staying put.
“There has been speculation since November but my sole focus has been giving everything for this club,” said Murray. “Up to this week, it’s been the very same but now I’ll sit down with my representatives and see what’s what.”
Steven Whittaker is another hugely influential player who will weigh up his options in the coming days. The former Hibernian, Rangers and Scotland star has been combining his impressive playing endeavours with coaching responsibilities.
The 36-year-old has never made any secret of his desire to carve out a career in the dugout and, given he looks more than capable of continuing to play next term, Dunfermline will hope they remain the most tempting offer on his table.
Then there is the curious case of Kyle Turner.
The combative midfielder is currently embroiled in a playoff push of his own — thriving on loan at Airdrie — after falling out of favour with the Pars. It seems remarkable that he was named Championship player of the month as recently as December.
However, Turner turned down the offer of a new contract and it became clear that a parting of the ways will occur during the summer.
Josh Edwards, goalkeeper Cammy Gill, Gabby McGill and Lewis Martin — the talented former Scotland under-19 defender who has endured a hellish time due to injuries — will also be free to speak to potential suitors.
Life after loans: The departing starlets
The Pars have largely developed other teams’ players over the past season. There are, of course, benefits to that. Dunfermline attained some fine talents and, if they had won promotion, it would have been a laudable means to an end.
The down side is that their inevitable departure leaves a gaping chasm in the Dunfermline side.
Ewan Henderson was arguably Dunfermline’s stand-out performer during the run-in. He returns to Celtic, along with Kerr McInroy. Lewis Mayo’s versatility and composure — especially for one so young — was invaluable at times. He returns to Rangers. Fraser Murray scored six goals from midfield. He returns to Hibernian. Scott Banks was occasionally entertaining but ultimately ineffective. He returns to Crystal Palace.
Home grown heroes?
Supporters desire few things more than seeing ‘one of their own’ shining.
Lewis McCann, brother of St Johnstone hero Ali and a Northern Ireland under-19 international in his own right, is already considered a member of the senior set-up; a physically imposing, direct forward player.
But he will enter the final year of his deal next season and it will be make-or-break in terms of his future at East End Park. Promise must become product.
Miller Fenton has earned rave reviews during his brief spell on loan with East Fife and, aged just 17, is a precocious prospect at left-back.
Paul Allan, 21, and Matty Todd, 19, have both been on the fringes of the Dunfermline team and are highly-rated.
A woeful away record of one win in 13 regular season Championship matches must be remedied, with more attacking impetus and less focus on the threats of the opposition, rather than Dunfermline’s own strength.
A more clinical touch in front of goal across the board is also required after failing to score in nine of their final 16 games of the season. McManus, Wighton and O’Hara are a fine, creative triangle, but key chances were too often squandered.
It is also hoped that when international borders are opened and Dunfermline’s German investors, DAFC Fussball GmbH, can travel to Scotland (it is understood that could happen within the next six weeks) it will mark the acceleration of their ambitious plans for the club.