What now for Paul Hartley and a spiralling Dundee?

Storm clouds gather over Dundee amid speculation over the manager's future following a terrible run. Jack Thomson looks at the many problems facing the Dens Park side

A crestfallen Paul Hartley walks off after Dundee's defeat to Hamilton. Picture: SNS
A crestfallen Paul Hartley walks off after Dundee's defeat to Hamilton. Picture: SNS

*This article was written and published before Paul Hartley’s sacking by the Dundee board*

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Paul Hartley referred to Dundee’s home defeat to Hamilton as a “body blow” in his post-match interview but would have been better placed to admit that his side lie flat on the canvas with the count edging ever nearer to ten.

Hamilton’s second goal characterised the defensive frailties that have been a key protagonist in Dundee’s haunting chapter of seven consecutive defeats. Mikey Devlin stooped to meet Daniel Redmond’s corner in the six yard box with no real objection from Darren O’Dea or Scott Bain, while the jeers reverberated around the ground.

Having conceded 16 goals in their last six games and managing just two in return, Dundee have dropped into the play-off spot and are the worst form team in the Scottish Premiership. Rewind to the month of February and they had picked up eight points from a possible 12, put five past Motherwell at Fir Park and beaten Rangers at Dens Park for the first time since 1992. What’s more, Paul Hartley collected the manager of the month award.

To those on the outside looking in, his managerial career at Dundee has been relatively successful. Promotion to the Premiership was followed immediately by a top six finish, a shrewd recruitment policy has seen him bring in the likes of Greg Stewart and Kane Hemmings and of course, last season he oversaw a 2-1 victory that relegated bitter rivals Dundee United to the Championship.

Some might suggest that his achievements with the Dark Blues have earned him a reprieve, the time and opportunity to turn things around. Others believe recent results are just a manifestation of problems that have simmered beneath the surface for some time and that the club must act before it’s too late. There’s also the lack of quality recruitment beyond the aforementioned star duo.

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The relationship between the manager and support is strained, the team is lacking in cohesion and organisation, and certain individual players emanate what can only be described as a distinct level of apathy. So the question remains, what now for Paul Hartley and Dundee?

If any solace can be found in the City of Discovery, it’s the emergence of a handful of diamonds in the rough. Cammy Kerr, Craig Wighton and Daniel Higgins have shown the potential of becoming players capable of performing at the right end the Premiership. However, they have found themselves taking on added responsibility in a team bereft of confidence and lacking in tactical guidance from their manager.

Against Hamilton, Kerr found himself playing out of position. Widely thought to be one of the most promising right-backs in the league, he was on the left of what seemed to be a 3-5-2/5-3-2 hybrid. His uncertainty in the position was evident when a loose pass ultimately resulted in Rakish Bingham spurning a good opportunity.

While Hartley has shown a willingness to give young players a chance, he does not seem to show the same desire to protect them. Wighton, a 19-year-old, was singled out for missing a good chance against Hearts. The manager said the player had ‘choked’, a comment that cannot come without negative repercussions for a young striker’s mentality.

While there are occasional rays of hope shown on the pitch from the direct running of Faissal El Bakhtaoui or the neat hold-up play of Marcus Haber, the dip in form of players like Scott Bain pose serious questions on how the team is being coached.

When he first arrived at Dundee, Bain’s shotstopping ability combined with a desire to collect crosses had some touting him as a Scotland goalkeeper of the future. But nowadays the goalkeeper is consistently rooted to his line, meaning that if his defenders fail to clear their lines, opposition players can score from close range. This was particularly evident during the team’s 7-0 home thrashing to Aberdeen, when time after time the away side’s crosses were met unchallenged within the six yard area.

Hartley’s midfield have also failed to impose themselves in recent fixtures. Tom Hately and James Vincent, looking unsure of their own system, failed to cope with a Hamilton team playing purposeful attacking football. Hartley’s tinkering is not producing so much as a hint of change and as a result, the club risks an ignominious departure from the league.

There is a real possibility that Dundee will find themselves needing to manoeuvre a play-off tie in order to preserve their Premiership status. In which case, they could face either Morton, Falkirk or Dundee United. While a number of things have yet to pan out, there would be an intense irony if their fate relied upon beating their city neighbours. Whether this current side have the nous or the bottle to do so is a different matter altogether.