Football, the old cliché goes, is a results business. Long gone are the days where a struggling manager is given months, never mind years, to turn around a team and remake it in his own image. While some will mourn the loss of the conditions which allowed Alex Ferguson to become a Manchester United legend, others will rightly recognise that the game has changed immeasurably since the 1990s, when a certain diminutive winger scored a cheeky lob-cum-cross to keep Dundee Football Club afloat. The Bosman ruling has shifted the balance of power within the dressing room towards the squad; the advent of social media has made it more difficult to ignore the views of long-suffering fans (as well as giving disgruntled players a chance to vent); most importantly, the infusion of money (and ensuing inequality between divisions, even in Scotland) has turned relegation from a sporting inconvenience to an existential threat.
Relegation for Dundee this season would be a disaster, both on and off the park. For a club with a top six budget to be cut adrift with zero points after six games is beyond embarrassing. For a club looking to move to a new stadium and struggling to get fans through the turnstiles, losing a battle against relegation would undo years of work to return some semblance of normalcy to its governance and finances. We only have to look across the road to our neighbours to see how one bad season can detonate under what seemed like a steady ship.
Nobody likes to admit they got it wrong, or to concede that their club and team are in a shitstorm of their own making. It’s human nature, and it’s understandable, but we can’t bury our heads in the sand any longer. The simple fact is that Neil McCann is no longer fit to be Dundee manager, and the uncomfortable truth is that he hasn’t been for quite some time. Every game he remains in charge is another 3 points thrown away, another handful of supporters who swear not to come back until he’s booted, and another dent to the confidence and unity of the squad.
The most surprising element of it all is the relatively unanimous opinion among supporters that his time is up. Although we may deny it now, our last three dismissals – Hartley, Bomber Brown and Barry Smith – all divided opinion among the support, and indeed among those of us involved with WDTPR. The WDTPR team, which includes those involved with The Dark Blues and Up Wi’ The Bonnets, stretches the whole spectrum of optimism among the Dens Park faithful, but after the Ayr United debacle, even the happiest of happy clappers among us admitted McCann had to go. Members of the media who aren’t his friends and other supporters are looking on in stunned bemusement at our board’s failure to sack the manager, and as for the boardrooms of Hamilton and St Mirren, champagne corks must pop every week as they’re given more time and fixtures to build up a points barrier.
The only people who seem to fail to accept reality are unfortunately the only people with the power to make the necessary changes. Nobody wants to see Dundee return to the dark days of administration, and the financial support from the American consortium has been instrumental in Dundee becoming – for now – an established, if struggling, Premiership side. However, their financial clout must now be met with footballing nous. In a perverse way, the regime’s patience and loyalty, first with Hartley and now with McCann, is admirable.
However, anybody with any knowledge of the game can see that the McCann project has failed spectacularly with no chance of redemption whatsoever, and the constant rumour mill regarding how many games he has left to prove himself does nothing other than erect a Potemkin village of confidence in the manager and his “philosophy”. The longer the board dither, dally and delay over a man who has lost the confidence of the fans and the players, the more we will sink into quicksand and the more toxic the atmosphere at Dens will become.
The most frustrating element of the Board’s attitude is that they expect more fans to turn up and pay sky high prices to watch absolute dreck on the park with nothing more than empty platitudes that it will “get better”. Although the diehards among us will watch anything in dark blue – Christ, we turned up under Alan Kernaghan and through seven straight seasons of the Championship – it’s the wider, more ambivalent support which ebb and flow with the club’s fortunes that make the financial difference. We’ve all heard rumours about empty hospitality lounges, chants in the Bobby Cox against the manager and wider discontent, let alone witnessing the manager arguing with fans in the stands, and for the Board to take no action whatsoever despite all the warning signs is not exactly encouraging.
We said at the start that football is a results business, so the above narrative of a fanbase in revolt and a popular former player reduced to comic book villain should be put into its proper context. To those who only encounter Dundee on Sportscene or in the papers and only hear from the manager or some board members, it may seem as if we’ve just been “unlucky”, “not caught the breaks”, and “just need to get in front and then we’ll play”. We’re sorry, but that is pish. For every offside trap against St Johnstone or Hamilton brainfart against St Mirren that was punished, there’s been a Kusunga slip or missed open goal that we’ve escaped from. We are exactly where we deserve to be just now – rock bottom – and although the players must take their share of blame, the buck ultimately stops with the gaffer. A quick examination of his tactics, signings and man management makes grim reading.
Neil McCann’s constant team tactics tombola prevents players from building up understanding and plays into the hands of our opponents. Playing a back three against Rangers with Cammy Kerr as the left-sided centre back should be a sackable offence (with no malice at all towards Cammy, who has done what he can in an alien position). The narrow diamond formation favoured by McCann at a time when the use of attacking full backs is in vogue is asking for trouble, and that’s before considering the use of players who have said themselves they prefer playing further up the pitch as our own full backs.
The fact that we’ve yet to go ahead in a game and therefore failed to come back from behind demonstrates the lack of fight in the team, but is also indicative of the failure throughout the side to produce and convert chances. McCann often talks about our possession and “domination” of games, but the ugly truth is that teams know they can let us have the ball and do absolutely nothing with it for large stretches of the game before hitting us on the break. It is surely unnecessary to remind everybody that points, not possession percentages, decides who stays up and who goes down. United fans across the city have not been shy in telling us that it’s reminiscent of their own relegation season, where a smooth-talking manager kept his job far longer than he should.
Management is as much about signing players as it is about selecting which eleven to send out and do battle. A stick we all used to beat Hartley with was his transfer policy, and the parallels with McCann are now alarming. They both started off with a couple of hits (Stewart, Hemmings and Bain in Hartley’s case, Hendry and Kamara for McCann), but their overall record, particularly with strikers post-Stewart/Hemmings, was/is dreadful. Even before his horror show 15-minute cameo against Ayr United which ended with a disgraceful red card, Sofien Moussa was considered a joke figure. Signing a 38-year-old striker on a two-year deal and condemning our “big” summer signing to the bench after failing to impress is just par for the course.
This season, it’s only got worse all over the park. Spending money on a goalkeeper famed for his poor distribution and lack of comfort with the ball at his feet when your team “philosophy” is playing it out from the back would make you laugh if you didn’t cry. The story of our defence is just as tragicomic; Kerr Waddell, who was earning plaudits for breaking into the team last season and his no-nonsense defending, has been sent out on loan along with fellow centre back Dan Jefferies. At left-back, we released Kevin Holt and Basque Jon and replaced them with Nathan Ralph, who hasn’t made much of an impression, and Celtic loanee Calvin Miller, who has himself said he’s better at left mid. Often, it’s been up to the aforementioned Cammy Kerr to fill in on the opposite flank.
With last year’s captain, Darren O’Dea, left out in the cold, Steven Caulker leaving the club under a bit of a cloud, and Kusunga alternating between suspension, injury and outright disaster, we’ve had to resort to signing two players on loan from down south to fill the gaps at centre-half. As for our midfield, it’s failed to provide either a Motherwell-style physicality or a Hibs-style flair to influence proceedings at either end of the park. Even the return of the poised Glen Kamara at the weekend couldn’t save us from the inevitable.
The transfer policy under McCann has been exacerbated by his apparent approach to staff relations. Disgruntled former players are nothing new, of course, but for mild-mannered Julen Etxabeguren to complain in the press about his approach is enough to raise anybody’s eyebrows. Rumours of fall outs with Scott Bain, Scott Allan, Kevin Holt, Basque Jon, Steven Caulker, Paul McGowan, Darren O’Dea and Marcus Haber to name a few suggest a temperament unsuited to the rigours of modern management, and a failure to recognise that freezing players out of a squad which will inevitably be hit with suspensions and injuries will only come back to haunt you.
With hindsight, as funny as McCann’s bust-up with Tommy Wright was, it too was indicative of wider issues, and there’s little doubt that it’s the Ulsterman having the last laugh. The story about making the team watch the Manchester City documentary after getting pumped out of the cup by Ayr United doesn’t exactly breed confidence in his ability to motivate players, and Gowser’s recent comments in the press about the atmosphere in the dressing room only contribute to a sense of a squad with nothing going its way.
Every manager has their foibles and way of doing things, and we have no doubt we’d forgive Neil for noising up other managers and having the odd stushie with players if everything was going well. However, the statistics for his reign are nothing but damning. This season alone, we’ve lost 6 in a row, making this the worst ever start to a league season for Dundee and the second worst top flight team on current form in the world (behind Guingamp of France, the poor sods). We’ve scored two and conceded 14 in the league – if you include games against championship teams, that becomes played eight, lost eight, scored two, conceded 18.
However, this should not come as a surprise. Under McCann, we have won 11 out of 44 league games since the start of last season. Of our 26 home games against top flight opposition during his reign, we’ve won 6, drawn 5 and lost 15, scoring 20 and conceding 43 in the process. McCann has lost over half of all the games he has been in charge, the worst of any manager since 1919. We’ve lost 4 goals on 6 occasions under McCann, and Motherwell have won as many games at Dens against top flight opposition as we have in the last calendar year, for crying out loud (four, for those of you wondering).
For Neil McCann and John Nelms to state we are in a false position is insulting to the intelligence of Dundee fans, who are the backbone of the club and have been subjected to the terrible performances, naive tactics and touchline histrionics and can see through the excuses being proffered to a pliant press. If action is not taken soon at the top, the club will reap what it has sown, and it would be too late for even the likes of Pep Guardiola to save us. Talk of boycotts and protests is surely beginning to seep into their consciousness, and with a crunch game against Hamilton on Saturday, we cannot afford to wait any longer.
Neil McCann will always be remembered fondly for his goal against Airdrieonians to send us to the League Cup Final and keep the doors at Dens open. His brief return from retirement to score a last-minute winner against Raith Rovers in the Deefiant season is the stuff of legend, and it’s a tragedy that these memories and his legacy is being tainted by the current crisis at Dens. However, no individual player or manager is bigger than a Club with a proud 125-year history and a support which has already been through more than its fair share of heartache.
For the sake of Dundee Football Club, the Board must act now and must relieve Neil McCann of his duties, before the fans vote with their feet and wallets and his efforts as a player are forever warped by recent events. We can only hope that the Board put the greater good first, and remember that while custodians come and go, the Club must endure.
Walking Down the Provie Road