From the day he made his ill-starred debut as a slightly overweight full-back, Barry Smith has mostly succeeded in overcoming the odds at Dundee.
Few supporters could have imagined how he would, within time, go on to seal so deep a place in their affections after such an inauspicious introduction.
These underwhelming first appearances, towards the end of 1995, did not promise much, although Smith could do little about the supporters’ main complaint. He wasn’t, they quickly observed, Morten Wieghorst, who left the Dens Park club in the same deal that brought Smith, then a fringe player at Celtic, to Tayside. Fans were largely unimpressed with what they had been given in return for the elegant Danish international midfielder, who also netted the club £500,000.
Smith referred to this awkward settling-in period himself after speculation over his future erupted at the start of this year, following a 1-0 defeat by St Johnstone. It was at this game that a fan was photographed with a crudely-made “Smith Must Go” placard. While it hardly amounted to a full-blown fans’ protest, the supporter in question was not a lone voice; there were other Dundee fans who were placing Smith’s legendary status to one side and analysing with a withering eye the team’s deficiencies. When asked about it afterwards, Smith said he had won the fans over once before, and would do so again.
The Dens Park board of directors – all supporters themselves, remember – met and decided the best course of action was to retain Smith, who, according to the manager, was told he would be given until the end of the season “and beyond”. In the end, he was given barely another six weeks, during which he steered Dundee into the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup with a 5-1 win over First Division leaders Morton.
In the league, however, results continued to be uninspiring, although in the five league fixtures since this vote of confidence, two were respectable draws. Of the three defeats, only the 2-0 home loss to Ross County deserved to be viewed as seriously disappointing. Even then, both goals were scored late on, with the first sparking debate about whether the ball had crossed the line or not. When asked what had changed to now decide to dispense with Smith’s services, a Dens Park source yesterday answered: “Not enough.”
The five-man board of directors met again on Monday night and voted for change, with an upcoming meeting with Dundee United in the Scottish Cup looming large in their thoughts. In three games since July against their neighbours, Dundee have not so much as scored, although, again, Smith would argue that significant decisions went against his team.
Smith has been treated poorly by fortune, no doubt. More significantly, he has been ill-served by circumstances. Just as he had no say in the identity of the player he was “replacing” at Dens 18 years ago, Smith could only look on as the Rangers-associated upheavals of the summer impacted on his job at Dundee, and changed the goalposts completely. It wasn’t his fault that Dundee were promoted above their station. Although runners-up to Ross County, Dundee had finished nearer the bottom than the top in terms of points, and were not geared for making a step up barely a year after exiting administration.
One minute he was building a side tasked with gaining promotion from the First Division, the next he was handed a different brief altogether – one of ensuring survival in the top tier after an absence of seven years.
Confirmation that Dundee were “Club 12”, as the fixture list originally had it, finally arrived on 18 July. At the start of the next month, Dundee were expected to take on the best teams in Scotland after preparation amounting to a matter of days, and with a squad largely designed to deal with the demands of a lower division. Little wonder they have been chewed up and spat back out again. Little wonder that Smith’s more recent signings have proved not quite up to the task. Circumstances dictated that they had to be recruited from the diminished pool of options still available at the end of the summer.
It’s in Smith’s make-up to simply get on with the job, just as he did when he was thrust into the spotlight in the dark days of the club’s second spell in administration, and which landed Dundee with a 25-point penalty. Few imagined this punitive punishment could result in anything other than relegation from the First Division, something that could easily have proved fatal for the Dens Park club.
When Dundee overcame the disadvantage after an unbeaten run of 23 matches, it was an achievement that should be considered comparable to winning a major honour. Indeed, some fans regard it as the club’s sixth such title. Even members of the great 1962 title-winning team doffed their caps. Alan Gilzean, exiled in Somerset, was sufficiently moved to send a letter of congratulations to Smith. Many others were quick to salute the ousted manager yesterday; another good man gone.