Neil McCann ran on to a prodded through ball by George Shaw and lifted a delicious chip over goalkeeper John Martin into the net. He was young, talented and carefree. He wasn’t to know it was the strike that saved a club.
The then 21-year-old’s winner over Airdrie at McDiarmid Park in October 1995 took financially-stricken Dundee into the Coca-Cola Cup final and secured a payday that kept bailiffs at bay.
It is an exaggeration to cast McCann in a plot in which he returns to the same ground today with the aim of saving himself. After all, this afternoon’s intriguing and potentially fiery fixture with St Johnstone is only both sides’ third league game. McCann is known to have a good relationship with John Nelms, Dundee’s managing director.
But Dundee remain pointless and head to Perth after a result that tends to place managers under pressure: a 3-0 League Cup home defeat by Championship side Ayr United. It is certainly fair to say McCann is far from the carefree young winger who secured Dundee’s place in the final of the same competition 23 years ago.
Well aware just how much his winning goal against Airdrie is revered at Dens, McCann is alert to the dismay that greeted the ill-disciplined performance – Dundee finished with nine men – against Ian McCall’s side seven days ago. One of his stated aims when agreeing to sign on permanently at Dens Park following a successful short-term spell in charge was to improve the club’s dire cup form.
He has chosen not to dwell on the defeat. Right-back Jesse Curran has revealed the players were not forced to sit through a re-run of the match. Rather, they watched the first episode of the behind-the-scenes Manchester City documentary, All Or Nothing. “The manager wanted to get the boys thinking positively again,” he said.
The show will have seemed closer to home to one viewer than others. Steven Caulker regularly played against City in his days in the English Premier League at Spurs, Southampton and Liverpool. He was a team-mate of Kyle Walker, now a City star, at Spurs. Compounding some Dundee fans’ anger at the capitulation to Ayr was the sight of Caulker warming up on the touchline. The former England defender played the opening league match against St Mirren before being dropped to the bench against Aberdeen. He has been used sparingly to date this season.
McCann confirmed the talented centre-half will return to the side this afternoon to replace the suspended Genseric Kusunga.
It could be Caulker’s last appearance in a Dundee jersey – the transfer window shuts next Friday and he’s been repeatedly linked with moves away in recent weeks. McCann justified his decision to name Caulker among the substitutes for the last two weekends.
“You have a quality player like Caulker not starting against Aberdeen, that’s testimony to the performance of Gensy Kusunga and Josh Meekings,” he explained. “Aberdeen probably have two of the best wide players in the country and a powerful presence up top, and I felt we dealt with that. The (Kusunga) handball cost us the points. I was not about to change things v Ayr United, even knowing how talented their front two are, on the back of a handball. I was pleased with the defensive performance (v Aberdeen).”
Caulker is desperate to step back in and remind all those watching what he can do. “If you look at it, he is clearly a player who will attract interest,” said McCann. “His attitude has been good, he has trained really well in the last couple of days. He wants to be back involved.
“Steven is obviously a quality player,” he added. “He has been patient and Gensy has provided him with an opportunity to get back into the starting line-up.
“I have no fear he will be looking to do what he does, which is perform to a high level.”
Whether Caulker, who is valued at around £1.5 million, leaves or otherwise is not key to McCann bringing players in. Dundee have been linked with a pair of Millers – Kenny and Calvin. The former is available after leaving the player-manager post at Livingston and the latter, the younger Miller, has been linked with a loan move to Dundee from Celtic, something McCann would neither confirm nor deny. The manager was more forthcoming on the subject of Kenny.
“He is an attraction because he is a goalscorer,” he said. “He is clearly very experienced. I imagine he has a lot of options. If that is on the table then you would not turn away but I am not sure it will be.
“I am fully concentrating on the game tomorrow.You don’t know what might happen over the weekend. The conversation might happen on Monday but he might be away by then because I heard this morning he was pretty close to [joining] St Mirren.”
Dundee’s poor start has deflected attention from the bad blood between McCann and opposite number Tommy Wright. The pair exchanged words following St Johnstone’s 4-0 win at Dens in February after stormy scenes on the sidelines involving the Perth side’s substitute keeper Zander Clark. It is probably too much to claim relations have been mended between the two managers. McCann said Wright “is not welcome here” when the teams met at Dens again a few weeks later.
But McCann yesterday seemed to adopt the stance of Wright, who earlier this week claimed it was ancient history and “only football”. While it won’t stop spectators craning their neck to see if there is a pre-match handshake or not, McCann also attempted to move on.
“Listen, it’s a new season,” he said. “All I am interested is my own team going to McDiarmid Park and kickstarting the campaign with three points.”