So it has proved at Dundee, where Paul Hartley, a hard-working, innovative and at times inspirational manager, was relieved of his duties yesterday. A 2-0 home defeat in Saturday’s relegation crunch match with Hamilton Accies, during which Hartley came under fire from fans, was the last stand of a reign distinguished by diminishing returns.
It seems very likely he will go on to do a good job elsewhere. It wasn’t so long ago that he turned down an approach from Championship club Cardiff City.
Hartley was also potentially just weeks away from becoming the first Dundee manager since David White in the early 1970s to keep the Dens Park side in the top flight for three successive seasons, a not inconsiderable achievement.
But, with Dundee’s Premiership future looking increasingly in doubt, the Dens Park directors reasoned they couldn’t afford to give him the chance to try to reverse a seriously dreadful run of form. Fans, too, were turning – or had already turned.
Indeed, it’s been an unhappy ship since the start of the season, when a defeat at Peterhead meant Dundee’s League Cup hopes were all but extinguished before the league campaign had even begun. Fans vented their anger. Even the then star man Greg Stewart, who despite leaving shortly afterwards remains Dundee’s equal-top goalscorer this season on six goals, was not spared.
It was just the latest disappointment in a mostly poor cup record under Hartley, who leaves Dundee in 11th place in the Premiership after eighth and sixth-placed finishes in his previous two seasons. He has been allowed to overhaul the squad in the process. Although reputed to have a good eye for a player and while undoubtedly putting in the miles to watch potential recruits, many of his recent signings have failed to sparkle.
A summer fallout with Gary Harkins, pictured right, when the midfielder was told he would not play for the club again, has cast a long shadow across a season when the Dens Park side have being crying out for a creative outlet. So those commentators opining that Hartley has been harshly treated, or that the Dundee board have acted rashly, have not been paying attention to goings-on at Dens. For many fans, perhaps even some players, the action has come too late.
Even John Nelms, the club’s managing director, admitted the team had fallen short last season by failing to reach the top six, something obscured by the relish with which nearly 10,000 Dundee fans greeted the night in May when their team relegated Dundee United at Dens.
Nelms denied the decision to sack Hartley, reached on Sunday, was a knee-jerk reaction to the disappointing result 24 hours previously, on what was meant to be a “family fun day” at Dens Park.
“It was something we were looking at at times as we were going on: do we think we can get out of how we are doing? And do we need to make a change now and give a new manager an amount of time to potentially come in and give some momentum?” he said yesterday. “Sometimes it is just the fact the players need a change of scenery, if you will. But, yes, it is something we constantly looked at, more so recently because we did not quite make our goal last year and we did not make our goal this year.
“We have to take that into account. There are a lot of things that go into it. We certainly do not do anything knee-jerk.” But he admitted the increasing frustration of the supporters could not be ignored. After Hamilton skipper Michael Devlin put his side two in front, a section of the Dundee support sitting in the South Enclosure loudly chanted: “Hartley, Hartley, Get tae f***”.
“Not that specific reaction but the reaction of the fans as a whole over the season, it does play into it,” said Nelms. “There are several factors. The fans are one of the factors – one of the big factors. It has been building a bit with them. I am not surprised by it. It is a passionate game with passionate opinions. It is something we take into account, of course.”
But Nelms, it seems, had the final say. Tim Keyes, the club’s largely absent co-owner and chairman, was kept informed, but it was Dundee’s executive board – Nelms, director Steve Martin and finance director Ian Crighton – who discussed the matter of Hartley’s future on Sunday, with the outcome being the news, delivered by Nelms yesterday, that the manger’s contract was being terminated.
“There was no board meeting,” he said. “It was more phone calls as opposed to an actual meeting. I did meet with the executive today (Monday) to let them know what we would be doing and gave everyone their roles and responsibilities for the next couple of days. We will take it from there
“We were quite close,” he added, with reference to Hartley. “We worked closely together. We didn’t socialise much together. But we worked closely, and that translates through the entire building. It’s hard for anyone to be asked to leave – and to ask someone to leave.”
Hartley took training yesterday morning before being informed of the club’s decision, and was followed out of Dens Park by fitness coach Tam Ritchie, who came to the club with him. Hartley later released a statement where he insisted he would have preserved the club’s Premiership status. But Dundee were not prepared to give him time on this occasion. Hartley came under pressure earlier this season but was able to rally the team to a 1-0 win at Hamilton Accies after six successive defeats. Saturday’s loss to the same team was Dundee’s seventh defeat in a row, a run that includes a 7-0 home thrashing by Aberdeen.
Nelms acknowledged it was a risk to dispense with the manager who signed all the players in the weekend’s starting XI bar Craig Wighton and Cammy Kerr. “Is it the right decision at this point in time? I am not 100 per cent convinced it is,” he said. “But it is the decision we made and it’s the decision we live with. I believe in our players,” he added. “I know some of the fans are digging into the players as well. But there’s few teams with whom I would trade their players for ours. I think the team will rally around themselves and get themselves organised. We did it before when we got out of a mess. I am confident we can do it again.”