A FLAG-RAISING ceremony, a phalanx of intriguing new signings, and a fierce desire to win. Sounds like the perfect afternoon for Dundee.
G.Harkins (pen) 17
And it would have been but for the fact that they lucked out on landing a winner despite lording it over their visitors for the entirety of the second period.
That was true even until the final seconds, when a flighted free-kick from substitute Peter McDonald that beat Craig Samson all-ends-up ended up thumping the crossbar. It proved to be the only time in that one-sided second period that the Kilmarnock keeper wasn’t the equal of the efforts that rained in from the Dens Park attacking midfielders.
It was possible to rack up at least half a dozen attempts that he threw himself low to claw away, or contorted his body to block. Twice he left Gary Harkins cursing, twice it was Jim McAllister and twice it was Paul McGowan.
The earthy, energised egging-on that crackled among the healthy home crowd from the moment that former captain Gavin Rae tugged on a string to send the Championship flag fluttering ten minutes before kick-off certainly transmitted to those on the pitch.
Kilmarnock supporters also played their part with their sing-a-long mood, and their team made an engaging contribution to a thrilling opening half-hour. Both Paul Hartley and his Ayrshire counterpart Alan Johnston set-up their remoulded teams to play on the front foot and the new men certainly played with an abandon that suggested they have embraced such instruction. With Dundee and their 12 signings this summer, checking out their first Premiership line-up didn’t become a matter of counting the league debutants. Instead, it was quicker and easier to home in on the players that weren’t in that bracket. Out of the first 11, only Kyle Letheren and Willie Dyer were survivors from the team that won the Championship last season.
Harkins could be placed in a category all of his own, having this summer arrived for his third tour of duty at Dens Park. In league terms, he began it in cultured, and controversial fashion, given the freedom by his manager to play in the hole off a front two, which is where his languid style least conflicts with his ball-playing ability.
The role, which he says he is loving, allows him to come alive in and around the box, and take the odd dramatic tumble or two when he is inside it. There was more than a little of the theatre about his fall when challenged by Mark Connolly – one of four close-season arrivals in the Rugby Park set-up – in the seventh minute. Referee Steven McLean had no doubts, though, and Harkins made no mistake by sending Samson the wrong way from the spot.
The enterprise of Johnston’s side, within which the left-wing trickery of Chris Johnston was central, always looked like it might put the game back in the balance. Yet, when the equaliser arrived midway through the period, it was anything but predictable. A foul called on the left flank allowed Craig Slater to wrap his foot around the dead ball and curl it into the far corner.
The telling ball, and the telling finish was too often missing – as were Kilmarnock for 50 minutes – but there was enough within the encounter to suggest that the
intention is there to allow skills to flourish at Dundee. Harkins believes enough quality has been added to the team for it to flourish as the incarnations he played in last year and between 2009 and 2011 did not.
“I think it is a better team if you look at it on paper and the way that we’ve played,” he said. “I think we’ve got some really good players and hopefully we can drive on from this and start picking up wins. It wasn’t hard to gel. Good players do that dead easily, it’s not a complicated game.”
His manager wasn’t prepared to get caught up in complications over the failure to win with his opening day assessment. “I’m pleased we created the chances. I think we’ll get better at taking the chances and I’m sure the goals will come but I thought how we played and how we moved the ball in the second half was good,” Hartley said.
“I thought Gary was excellent and I thought all the players in the midfield, their combination play was excellent. There was good interchanging and good movement and we gave him a little bit of freedom to go and play. It’s how we want to play. We want to pass the ball and in the final third I thought he was excellent at times.”
Excellence for Dundee can prove fleeting, and Harkins has history for that too. If the new Dens Park side is different then their expected challenge for a top six will have staying power.