More often than not this season, I’ve been in a position where, more out of loyalty than reason, I’ve been defending the form and performance of Dundee. The omnishambles unfolding across the road at Tannadice - and the welcome schadenfreude I and other Dees have therefore unashamedly revelled in - has masked what is, in reality, a pretty disappointing and underwhelming campaign for the boys in dark blue, who crashed out of both cups and failed to make the top six despite having one of the league’s top goalscorers leading the charge. Despite the slight ennui that’s taken hold of the club after finishing in the bottom six, we all still expected to see Kane Hemmings emerge as one of the frontrunners for Player of the Year.
What absolutely nobody - not even the diehard I see entering Dens with a hat covered in pin badges from European campaigns of old - would have anticipated is another Dundee player being nominated. Yet, somehow, we’ve been greeted with the bemusing news that our nominee from last year, Greg Stewart, has been touted for the second year running. He’d pick up a nomination for our own player of the year award (Hemmings, Bain and McGowan being my other picks), but better than Niall McGinn, Louis Moult or any Hearts player? That’s a bold claim.
Don’t get me wrong - I love Greg Stewart. Any Dundee fan who doesn’t is either daft, contrary or a dangerous mix of the two. He is one of our few creative outlets, and has the ability to play anywhere across the front of the park. Despite it now being his trademark move, and one which sparked our derby fightback in August, he can still fashion the space to move in from the right, shift the ball onto his left foot and curl the ball gently into the top corner of the net. He led Ross County defenders in April a merry dance as he turned them one way, and then the other, and back again before finally placing the ball for a Goal of the Year nomination. His pass for Hemmings’ winner against Partick Thistle last weekend was sublime, and as he showed on the opening day against Kilmarnock, when he’s given the freedom to play as he wishes he’s unstoppable. He’s also been prolific in the Dundee derbies, which for me is enough to give him the freedom of the city.
However, these qualities have not been on display as much this season as they were last. For me, this is largely due to the iterative changes to our system and lineup. Until very recently, Hartley found it difficult to balance the team; the 4-3-3 used at the start of the season was perfect against weaker teams in the league, but once teams clocked how narrow we were it had to be abandoned. The 4-2-3-1 took time to bed in, and required those on the wings of the 3 to track back, which is not his strongest trait and again hindered Stewart from properly exploiting his strengths. The 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 we’ve switched between recently is, undoubtedly, the best system for Stewart as has been shown in recent performances but both formations pose questions elsewhere on the pitch. Getting the right balance across the park has been an ongoing issue for us this season, and outwith the spine of the team (Bain, McGowan and Hemmings), it’s led to adjustments and unfamiliar surroundings.
While Stewart has undoubtedly suffered from second season syndrome, I think expectation management has been another issue. Coming off the back of a Player of the Year nomination and being reunited with Hemmings, who was the other half of a formidable strike partnership at Cowdenbeath, meant that it would be difficult for Stewart to match the expectations of fans and the press. He’s actually had a decent season - nine goals and, by my count, 14 assists - but he hasn’t been as consistent as he was last year. He’s not quite in the Gary Mackay-Steven category of being a 30-second YouTube clip star, but it’s been a more episodic appreciation this year than last.
Although Stewart started and finished the season brightly, it’s been Kane Hemmings who has been the difference between mid-table safety and relegation this year. At other points, our glorious leader Gary Harkins made a morale-boosting mid-season return to the starting lineup and Darren O’Dea shored up a leaky backline upon his arrival in January. It’s been a season where, at different points, different players have picked up the slack and driven the team forward, and while Stewart has been one of those players, it’s been Hemmings who has been our most priceless asset this campaign. For reasons not entirely within Stewart’s control, it’s been a solid B year for a student capable of A+ performances. I’d still man the barricades to stop him being shipped off to Govan or the English Championship, but even the dark blue tinted specs I have glued to my face can’t bring me to accept he’s a Player of the Year nominee.