Dundee’s season has felt like one long top six tight-rope walk.
After defeat to Hamilton Accies at the weekend, does finishing in the bottom half of the table make the campaign a failure?
We look at both sides of the argument.Yes* Other managers stuck to the usual party-line of avoiding relegation being the main aim for the season but, bravely, Paul Hartley set the bar high for his team before a ball was kicked.
He said: “We finished in the top six last season and this season we want to finish higher. So we have to try and improve on what we did, not just in the league but in the cup as well. That’s our aim, to improve on everything we did last year.”
If that’s your target, then not achieving it is failure.
And it isn’t just their league position that is poorer, Dundee are three points shy of the total they accumulated in 2014/15.
* There were plenty of impressive results for Dundee but none you could call season-defining. Two draws against Celtic has been the closest they have come, but failing to beat them or Hearts and Aberdeen has to go down as a negative. So too does failing to beat a poor Hamilton side when you know that victory will take you into the top six. When the stakes have been highest this season, Dundee have fallen short.
* Finishing higher than sixth was one of Hartley’s stated goals, and a cup run was the other. They definitely didn’t get one in the League Cup, crashing out to League One Dunfermline early on. Does getting to the Scottish Cup quarters by beating two Championship sides and then getting thrashed by Rangers qualify as a cup run? Probably not.
No* It’s easy to forget that Dundee have only been back in the top flight for two years. This is when promoted teams are supposed to experience their second season syndrome. Apart from after a bad defeat in Dingwall around Christmas, they have never really flirted with the play-off place, let alone the automatic relegation spot. Dundee have the feel of an established Premiership side already, which is an achievement in itself.
* Dundee weren’t a one man team last season but they were certainly more reliant on one man than they are now. There’s a much more balanced feel to the side, with more matchwinners. Once it was all about Greg Stewart. Kane Hemmings has been the main man but there have been plenty of other important contributions from midfielders and strikers this campaign. That has to be a good thing.
* This season’s Premiership has been tougher than last season’s. The gap between Dundee and the five teams above them was considerable a year past. Even though they made the top six, going for fourth and the Europa League was never realistic. This season, there’s only a five point gap between fourth and ninth. Never before have so many clubs had a shot at the top six going into the final set of pre-split fixtures.
VerdictA manager should never be criticised for publicly challenging his players to improve on their previous season.
But Dundee are a victim of those early targets to a certain extent. For a team recently promoted, missing out on the top six but being safe from relegation is no failure.
That perception would change, however, if Dundee collapsed after the split like they did 12 months ago and fall down to ninth or 10th.
And, whether you think it should be relevant or not, the outcome of a certain derby match will colour reflections on the Dundee team of 2015/16. Being the players who relegated United would secure their place in Dundee FC folklore.