Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The Dundee Dilemma

There is perhaps some comfort to be had for Tony Mowbray as his Celtic side continues their at-first-glance pointless chase of runaway leaders Rangers.

Most pundits will have told him that trailing the Ibrox side by 10 points and with 10 more games till the end of the season, the chances of overhauling that lead is nigh-on impossible. But Mowbray - and indeed Walter Smith - need only look 90-odd miles east to see that sometimes even the largest leads have a habit of disappearing like snow before the sun.

Depending on results, we could have a new leader in the Scottish First Division as long time front runners Dundee have somehow managed to fritter away an 11 point lead. In a story laced with irony, the Dens Park outfit have led the table since the beginning of December, when a 1-0 win over Ross County in faraway Dingwall saw Jocky Scott's men overtake Queen of the South (ironic moment #1) to take up pole position. It's a lead they hung on to through an amazing 13-game unbeaten streak, and which saw many blogs declaring the First Division race well and truly over.

Dundee seemed unstoppable, both on and off the park. Supported by the millions of club director Calum Melville, Scott was able to bring some of the top talent to Tayside, talent such as Gary Harkins and Leigh Griffiths (between them good for some 21 goals between them this season), Richie Hart, Bob Malcolm and Maros Klimpl.

The club won the Challenge Cup in November (beating Inverness Caley in the Final) and managed to make it to the quarter final of the Scottish League Cup where they were knocked out by Rangers, but having beaten SPL side Aberdeen along the way (ironic moment #2, director Melville being an Aberdeen fan and ironic moment #3, Jocky Scott a former Aberdeen co-manager).

But by the time Dundee had been knocked out of the Scottish Cup by fellow First Division side Raith Rovers, the wheels had started to come off the wagon. Their blistering form deserted them from the beginning of the new year where they picked up only 8 points from a possible eighteen, beginning and ending with (irony #4) defeats against bottom side Airdrie United. Having only managed to lose 1 game in 19 and looking certain for promotion, it was suddenly losing three games in eight and the possibility of SPL football next season that led to the club stepping in and sacking of Jocky Scott.

The club wasted no time in appointing Scott's replacement. Having flirted with Partick Thistle manager Ian McCall, who demanded a £200,000 compensation deal, Dundee turned to Queen of the South manager Gordon Chisholm, who as a player won promotion with Dundee back in 1992 and will be the first man ever to manage both Dundee clubs during his career. He'll be assisted by Billy Dodds.

The challenge facing the dream-team of Chisholm and Dodds is turning around a bad run of form to secure promotion to the SPL. With a pretty tricky schedule and under fire from the Dundee support, the task will certainly not be easy. And what better way to start the final push than a home game against (ironic moment #5) Queen of the South! The Doonhamers, lying 10 points behind Dundee are probably out of the running for promotion, but given the fixture list to come and with all the possible permutations, every point can have a pivotal outcome on the league.

With the First Division being as tight as it is, who are the main challengers, and how do we see this going?

The current league leaders are struggling of late. They're under new management which can have both good and bad effects, but you've got to question the timing. If nothing else, sacking Scott at this stage of the season may well be moment at which they secured First Division football next season. Chisholm is an experienced SFL manager. If he can get the team scoring again in the way they did earlier on in the season, they'll be fine. If not, the Dee are in trouble.
Key games: Tonight's game against Queen of the South. A must-win game to get the season back on track. Other than that, their next two games see them taking to the road as they face two of their main challengers in a short three day period: Ross County (27.03) and Dunfermline (30.03). Depending on results, the final game of the season sees them up in Inverness for what could well be the title decider.
Final Position: 2nd. I think the managerial change was a mistake, one which will cost them.

Inverness Caley Thistle
Caley are battling hard to get back into the SPL, hoping to overcome the disappointment of relegation on the final day of the season. Terry Butcher's men are unbeaten in the First Division since last December and in the Irish trio of Rooney, Jonny Hayes and Richie Foran they've one of the most exciting teams in the Division.
Key games: Dundee on the final day, obviously. Otherwise, another derby against Ross County at home at the end of this month could be a potential banana skin considering the last encounter between the two sides.
Final Position: League winners. I think they'll pip Dundee at the final post, probably (sorry, hopefully) on the final day, just to keep the interest going. Imagine if Celtic do what Caley did and bring the season down to the final game on the final day? Who says Scottish football is not exciting?

Dunfermline Athletic
Dunfermline have moved themselves back into promotion contention following their fifth victory in six games when they beat Scottish Cup quarter-finalist Raith Rovers at the weekend. Results elsewhere helped them get there (Thistle losing, and Caley and Ross County sharing the points), but nevertheless, they've as good a chance as any of the other teams at the top.
Key games: The Pars are well positioned to keep up the challenge, but having played more games than the other teams around them, there's not enough games, plus too much depends on the other teams around them.
Final Position: 3rd.

Ross County
Ross County might well be distracted by the Scottish Cup campaign. For Derek Adams, he's got a decision to make. They're in with a reasonable chance of getting past Hibs, but you can't see them getting past Celtic to reach the final. On the other hand, they're in with an outside chance of making promotion, so which competition to do you focus on. Over 6,000 attended Saturday's derby with Caley Thistle, suggesting interest in SPL football is in abundance, so perhaps that is where the short-term focus should lie.
Key games: The game against Hibernian tonight in the Scottish Cup replay. A victory there will set up another money-spinning but distracting fixture against Celtic. County will play all top-four sides in the next four weeks, but after that it's a reasonably doable run-in.
Final Position: 4th. Much as though I'd like to have Ross County in the SPL to fly the flag for the north of Scotland, I can't help but feel they'll struggle there. They've enough games to make up the difference, including two games in hand over Caley and Dundee and three over Dunfermline, so who knows.

Outside chances go to Queen of the South, who, like Ross County have quite a few games in hand, most of those against bottom half opposition. They're only 10 points behind Dundee, but I think the gap is too far to bridge. They're under new management also, a shocked Kenny Brannigan taking over. One point behind them is Partick Thistle - early challenges who fell away - are another side for whom the gap is too far. They've got eight games left this season, five of which are against the top-half of the table.

So, all in all plenty to keep us entertained. What do you lot think? Do let us know!

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