THERE must have been times when the unexpected return to Scottish football’s top flight has proved trying for Barry Smith but matches like this afternoon’s derby are occasions which make the struggle worthwhile.
The Dundee manager has been involved in countless as a player and although he struggles to remember details of individual matches, such is the amount of concentration needed during the 90 minutes and the absolute release he feels come the final whistle, he does remember things like Claudio Caniggia pulling pints in a Dundee pub after one victory.
The days of such superstars pulling on the dark blue are gone. Dundee are the underdogs now. Having assembled a squad he thought was capable of challenging for promotion from the First Division, they were thrust into the SPL when Rangers’ financial woes saw the Ibrox club consigned to the bottom tier. It made life very difficult as the players tried to find their feet and adapt to life at the top table. They mustered just one win and a draw in their first 11 league fixtures but the fact there has been only one loss in the past four games suggests they have gathered themselves and found some form as they head into this afternoon’s match against Dundee United at Dens Park.
“It’s been a gradual process,” says Smith, pictured right. “We thought that the performances had been OK in the early games and we could see us getting a wee bit better week by week. Now we’ve had three or four games where we feel we’re heading in the right direction. We had been making mistakes and getting punished for them but I feel now there are less mistakes. The majority of them were individual mistakes and it was about recognising how high your concentration levels have to be for the 90 minutes. A wee lapse was finding us out, it was killing us. In the First Division we might have been making the same mistakes but not getting punished for them.”
Adapting to the demands of the SPL has been difficult but Smith is used to tough times at Dens Park. He has been through them before, and he says the fact they are looking forward to hosting a competitive derby on that side of the street after such a long absence is the reward the fans and players deserve.
“It’s great for the supporters to have a first competitive derby at home because those fans have waited a long time. We have been out the top league for seven years and it’s one that gives them a bit of payback for all the hard work they put in to keep the club alive. It means we’ve got the derby games back at Dens.”
The club have been through the wringer in recent years after financial recklessness caught up with them but it has strengthened the rapport between players, fans and staff. The sense of community is strong.
“It was all hands to the pump in the darkest days,” recalls Smith. “I think it worked both ways in that at the time of administration, the team went on a good run and the fans stuck behind us. It was complete because they were doing their bit and we were doing our bit. Since I’ve been here for so long, there is a unique bond there, given the things that have happened. We want to pay the fans back, myself personally. That can happen with victory in the derby.”
They will need a significant turnaround if they are to manage that, though. The pre-season friendly at Dens ended the same way as the first competitive derby of the season, at Tannadice, with United winning 3-0.
“Down at United it was a sell-out and I fully expect it to be the same here,” says Smith. “It will be a great atmosphere, not just because it’s the derby game because every game the fans have been great with us. I know it’s been difficult for them this season because we didn’t have a great start but they’re still turning up in their numbers. Players do realise how important they are to them and I stress that before every game.”
While United have brought success to the city more recently than their rivals, Smith states that, unlike his counterpart, Peter Houston, he lives in Dundee, and unlike their rivals, his side train in the city and although the trip to this away fixtures is a short walk across the street for the United players, Smith insists there is still such a thing as home advantage. “For me, it does make a difference because you are in front of your own crowd. That is important for us. Maybe just because I’ve got this allegiance with the fans here, having been through a lot of hard times there is that sort of bond here.
“Credit to United for the past few seasons and for where they have been in the league because it’s hard to sustain. At this point in time [they are on top] because they have been in the Premier League for a lot longer than us now but we have grown in confidence and we want to stay in the league and build on that. I need to watch what I’m saying here because it is a derby and it is important but it is only three points.”
Such a pragmatic and focused approach, has served the club well in recent years.