DUNDEE’S pre-season hype – that they were ready to take the next step and launch a challenge on the European places – appeared to be fully justified when they took a 3-0 half-time lead en route to a 4-0 victory at Kilmarnock on the opening day of the season. Since then, however, things have been a bit stop-start for Paul Hartley’s side, who haven’t always secured the results their play has merited.
They didn’t deserve to win this match, nor even earn a point. Thistle played with a quicker tempo, greater fluidity in attack and missed numerous chances to win the game.
Dundee’s overall display didn’t even match the quality shown in games against Hearts and local rivals Dundee United earlier in the season. But those were two contests which Hartley’s side failed to win, and the manager made it clear he wasn’t interested in entertaining if his side couldn’t finish the game with three points in the bag, which they did at Firhill thanks to Greg Stewart’s late strike.
“Hopefully this will spark a run,” said Hartley. “I’ve said to the players you can’t play well every week, but it’s just about winning, winning at all costs. It’s OK putting on a good performance, but I just want to win the games.
“In the first half we didn’t really pass it as well, the intensity of the play wasn’t good, but it was much better second half. We rode our luck at times. They hit the post and the crossbar a couple of times, but I’m pleased with the result.”
Thistle could have been out of sight in the opening 12 minutes as Robbie Muirhead – on loan from Dundee United – shot straight at Scott Bain from four yards, before Kris Doolan dragged an effort wide. The same player then thundered the crossbar with an audacious overhead kick, the first of three occasions when Thistle struck the frame of the goal.
From there, however, Dundee settled down and began to get a grip of the game as the teams traded blows up to the end of the first-half. When Ryan Stevenson’s header came back off the crossbar midway through the second period, it began to feel like it wasn’t going to be Thistle’s day.
The threat of a Dundee winner, regardless of performance, was always there as long as Stewart was on the park. Last season’s Player of the Year nominee has begun this campaign in equally scintillating form. Saturday’s goal is already his fourth of the season.
There didn’t appear to be much threat when he picked the ball up on the right following a Thistle attack, but with the home side short on numbers in defence, he was allowed to drive into the centre, make space for himself on the edge of the box, and curl a left-footed shot beyond Tomas Cerny.
“It’s something that he works on day in, day out,” Hartley said of his star player’s shooting technique. “We keep telling him to pass it into the net and that’s what he does. He comes in off that right-hand side, and it’s a fantastic finish again.”
One reason for Dundee’s lofty expectations was their ability to add to the squad in the summer without losing many influential players from the last campaign. Given Stewart’s exploits last term it was a little surprising to see the recent transfer window pass without incident, or even much speculation regarding his future. The attacker always looked like remaining at Dens, which delighted team-mate Kane Hemmings.
“I’m sure if Greg keeps performing then someone might take an interest,” said Hemmings. “As long as no-one comes in for him then I’m not going to complain, as long as he’s a Dundee player, because he’s a joy to play with everyday.”
There is little joy around Firhill at the moment as the defeat, coupled with Kilmarnock’s win at Tannadice, took Alan Archibald’s men to the foot of the table. The one solace they can take was the display of new signing Muirhead. The youngster was thrown right in at the deep end following his deadline day move from United but he excelled on his debut. If he and Thistle can keep up this level of performance, then victories will soon follow.
“He brings creativity, he goes and links up, he’s always looking to score a goal, whether playing in the wide area or up top,” Archibald said of his new addition. “We decided to play him in the wide area with a licence for him to roam about, which he did very well. I was delighted with him.”