Have Dundee reached their limit under Neil McCann?

Have Dundee reached their limit under Neil McCann?

By James Cairney

With the 2017/18 campaign drawn to a close, Dundee manager Neil McCann has now completed his first full season in the Dens Park dugout. All in all, it was a decent season for the Dark Blues: a ninth-placed finish meant they survived comfortably in the end with the prospect of relegation never a serious one.


The summer will no doubt be another one of major upheaval for the first team squad, if Dundee’s recent transfer activity is any indicator. The squad will soon report back for first team training and McCann’s preparations for the upcoming season will begin. But perhaps he’s no longer the manager that Dundee need at this time.


With Hibs storming into the Premiership for the 2017/18 season, the dramatic improvements at both Rugby Park and Fir Park and the steady consistency of the likes of Aberdeen and Hearts, there’s no doubting that this season was a more difficult prospect than the previous edition. Ninth place isn’t the most glamorous of finishes, but it’s still survival. Dundee are by no means operating at their full potential but they aren’t seriously underperforming either.


Of course, this is a simple matter of perspective. If Dundee’s realistic goal for the season was to simply keep away from the relegation battle, then it’s been a resounding success. But the Dark Blues’ ambition does not stop there. In an interview with the Scottish Sun last month, Dundee’s managing director John Nelms revealed that the club’s annual budget is calculated with the expectation of securing a top-six finish every season. Nelms defended this position by saying the board are correct to do so as a top half finish is a realistic goal for the club, adding: “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think Dundee could compete all the way [for a top-six place]”.


In this context, then, it seems ninth place was a rather poor finish, given the relatively high expectations of the Dundee board. Five of the top six seem nailed-on, barring catastrophe, so Dundee would need to finish ahead of Hearts, Motherwell and St Johnstone to nail down a top-half finish. If the club are serious about breaking into the top half of the table and establishing themselves there, then they might need to dispense with McCann’s services to get there.


First thing’s first: is the 43-year-old improving things at Dundee? McCann’s predecessor Paul Hartley led the club for nearly three seasons and secured one top-half finish in that time, but his contract was terminated after a disastrous run of seven straight defeats left the club teetering on the brink of relegation. McCann was appointed and picked up seven points in Dundee’s last five fixtures and the club survived.



Now, a year on, little has changed. As we can see, McCann’s points-per-game rate is actually lower than Hartley’s was during his tenure. Both managers have identical defensive records – conceding 1.53 goals per game on average – but McCann’s goals-per-game rate of 0.95 is significantly lower than Hartley’s 1.21. Essentially, Dundee’s defensive record remains unchanged while the goals have dried up in attack.


There are a couple of mitigating factors in McCann’s favour, however. First off, as previously mentioned, the standard of competition has risen over the last season. Hartley never had to worry about outwitting Steve Clarke or Neil Lennon. An easier league is obviously going to lead to improved results on the pitch but, at the same time, you can only play who’s in front of you.


Secondly, McCann has had to adapt to the loss of key player as the season has wore on. In January, Scott Allan and Jack Hendry – Dundee’s two best players – both left the club, something McCann could not have reasonably been expected to anticipate. Hendry had only joined in the summer, while Allan had a loan contract until the end of the season. The unusual transfer merry-go-round on deadline day ultimately hurt Dundee but McCann can hardly be blamed for this.


Whatever the reason, the numbers don’t lie: McCann’s Dundee aren’t as effective as Hartley’s. As the graph below highlights, it doesn’t appear as though things are improving on the pitch as dramatically as is required to secure a top half position.



Each dot on the graph above represents the average points-per game over a five match period throughout McCann’s time in charge of Dundee. What it reveals is what many of us already know – Dundee are patchy. At times they can play some exciting football and when they click, they pose a serious threat to most teams in the Premiership. However, Dundee are also prone to a pretty terrible run of form once or twice a season. Until this changes, a top six finish can’t be considered a realistic short-term goal for the club.


Off the pitch, the board have been clear that they expect this, however. Dundee have the sixth-highest average wage in the Premiership which should mean they have the sixth-best squad in the league, but even the most dedicated Dundee fan would struggle to argue that this is the case. With Kilmarnock, Motherwell and St Johnstone all punching above their weight, financially speaking – as well as finishing above Dundee in the league – the club’s route to the top six looks difficult.



For as long as the board budget for a top half finish, that’s exactly what will be expected of McCann and he simply hasn’t demonstrated that he’s capable of matching their ambitions. The Dundee manager is a fine choice for any club seeking to avoid relegation and has proven himself to be an effective manager at this level, but looks unlikely to push on with Dundee. Either the club must scale back their short-term ambitions or they need to get rid of McCann and replace him with a higher calibre coach. There’s a lot of ground to be made up between performances on the pitch and off-field finances and it looks as if McCann has reached his potential at the club. It would be a bold move but if Dundee are serious about moving up the league then it’s a tough but necessary decision.

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