Paul Hartley has sought to ensure tomorrow’s Dundee derby is not portrayed as being all about the fired-up hosts by claiming the game actually means more to Dundee.
Perhaps unusually for a manager he has chosen to increase the pressure on his own side rather than try to spook the opposition, who it is generally perceived have far more to play for at Tannadice in the televised clash.
Much of the pre-match focus has been on how vital the game is for bottom placed Dundee United’s survival hopes. However, Hartley has countered by stressing Dundee’s need for three points is as great, and perhaps greater, if they are to satisfy their own ambitions. The Dundee manager is aware history beckons for him and his players. Since 1962, the year of their sole Scottish Championship success, Dundee have never finished in the top four in Scotland’s top flight. The last time they finished in the top six in successive seasons was as long ago as the mid 1970s. So Hartley was quick to refute the opinion that because United’s present situation is so perilous the clash carries more significance for them.
“No,” Hartley stressed yesterday. “I think it means more to us to be honest in terms of getting in the top six. We need the points just as much as Dundee United do. So I think the game means more to us as a group, and our supporters.”
Now an experienced Dundee derby campaigner as he prepares for his eighth such encounter, Hartley, while knowing how much it means to supporters, does not gauge the club’s development purely on derby results.
“Our aim is to make this the last Dundee derby of the season,” he said. “We want to try and be in the top half of the table and that has been our aim all season and we want to give ourselves every opportunity to achieve that come the split.”
Hartley is fully focused on Dundee. While Mixu Paatelainen, his opposite number, ventured the opinion Dundee would be arriving at Tannadice with hopes of torpedoing United’s survival bid – “they will want to nail us,” he said – Hartley would not be drawn on United’s predicament. Nor did he agree that Dundee would likely have to withstand a 100mph start from United, who are bound to be energised by their 8,000 plus fans. Rather, Dundee’s aim will be to give United something to think about early on.
“I am expecting us to have a go at them,” he said. “I expect United to have the same determination but we have to start the game brightly and on the front foot. The atmosphere will be electric and both teams need the points for entirely different reasons.”
Dundee’s own relegation fears have not been completely extinguished. They could yet be drawn into the relegation play-off mix. But Hartley, it seems, is looking up rather than down, as is striker Greg Stewart. “In that changing room, we still feel we are pushing for fourth,” said Stewart. “It is not far away if you can get a wee run of results. That is what we are still aiming for. So it’s not just about the top six – we want fourth. I think we have enough quality to push for that spot.”
Stewart has found derbies to his taste, having scored four league goals in five meetings with United to date, meaning he is just one goal away from equalling Dundee’s top derby scorer Alan Gilzean. The legendary striker scored five times in the league against Dundee’s city rivals.
“The derby matches are always good to play in,” said Stewart, who was suspended for Dundee’s win over United in January. “I actually don’t want to see them [United] go down because of that. I am sure the fans do but as a player you want to be playing in these kind of games.” One of the players who might be charged with stopping Stewart and Kane Hemmings, the third top scorer in the Premiership, is Mark Durnan. The defender was dropped to the bench for last Friday’s defeat by Motherwell but may return as Paatelainen looks to quell Dundee’s attack.
Durnan has prior experience of facing Stewart and Hemmings, when all three were plying their trade in the lower leagues. Durnan was at Queen of the South while Stewart and Hemmings were with Cowdenbeath, where they first began to gel as a partnership. “I knew they’d step up a level, which they’ve done at Dundee,” he said. “How did I get on against them? I’m sure the boy Stewart got injured. I think I might have tackled him …”
Paatelainen has already warned his players about the need to have the “right amount of goosebumps” in what will be a frenetic atmosphere, and to avoid risking an early booking or red card. Whether his words are heeded remains to be seen in a game of such high significance – to both sides.