BAD news for the rest of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League: Dundee are refusing to disappear quietly.
Considering they spent all summer wondering which division they were going to be in, many had the Dens Park side destined to return to the Irn-Bru First Division in 12 months time. But if the form displayed by Barry Smith's side in recent weeks is anything to go by, they have no desire to accept such a fate.
On their last three outings, last season's first division runners-up have beaten Hearts, drawn at Fir Park against Motherwell, then completed an Edinburgh double against Hibernian. No wonder they and a travelling army in excess of 1500 fans will arrive in Paisley today confident of pulling off the victory which would lift them off the foot of the table. With St Mirren now in the grip of a grim six-match run of defeats, it may just be the earliest relegation six-pointer in history.
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The recent resurgence has been built on a settled first XI which showcases a callow centre-back pairing and an experienced front duo. While thirtysomething strikers Steven Milne and Colin Nish have been rolling back the years, Declan Gallagher, a 21-year-old who started out at Celtic, but dropped down to Stranraer and Clyde, has had a positive impact alongside Kyle Benedictus, the two men having a combined age just months older than Rab Douglas, the goalkeeper who stands behind them.
"We were eight points adrift a couple of weeks ago and, although we weren't panicking it, was getting close to that," says Milne. "It looked like we might become marooned, but we have worked very hard to try to haul it back. I'm sure the rest of the league will be disappointed . . ."
Matt Lockwood, the club's English full-back and assistant manager, feels the players maybe believed a bit too much of their own press early on. "When everyone was tipping us for relegation and saying we don't deserve to be in the SPL, maybe the boys' confidence got knocked a little bit," said the 36-year-old. "People maybe read that stuff and started believing it. They thought maybe they weren't good enough to play in this division.
"But even before we started picking up the wins, we had some decent performances and the boys' confidence has just grown from there. We have played every team now and I think the lads understand we are not as far off as people think. We have had so many injuries and things over the first couple of months of the season but in the last three or four games we have had a settled side and it really does help."
Whilst today's opponents were looking to improve upon last year's eighth-place finish, Dundee were under no illusions. A few fans took exception when midfielder Stephen O'Donnell said early on that the club were targeting 11th, but any grumbles have abated. "This game isn't going to determine who goes up and who goes down but it will be an interesting gauge to see how far we have come," said Lockwood. "We know we are fortunate to be in the league but we don't want to give it up without a fight after just one year. Getting beaten each week wasn't much fun at all."
St Mirren's players can empathise after six consecutive defeats. The locals are getting restless, and the pressure will mount on manager Danny Lennon if the sequence continues, but Tony Fitzpatrick continues to survey the scene with a remarkable serenity.
The Paisley side started the season with ambitions of cracking the top six and the former player and manager sees no reason to rule that out. He has watched enough of his old side's recent games to know that results don't always reflect performances. He has a point. There have been heavy defeats by Celtic and Aberdeen, but the other four losses – to St Johnstone, Dundee United, Hibernian and Hearts – could have gone the other way.
"I feel for Danny as I don't think there's a lot wrong," Fitzpatrick said. "They don't look as if they're struggling. You can see that they're all putting plenty of effort in. Once that stops you've got problems but I don't see that happening with this team. Yes, they've lost six in a row but it's the type of league where they could go on to win six in a row. After Christmas they could easily be up in sixth place."
St Mirren's slump has coincided with the loss of Paul McGowan to a shoulder injury. The midfielder has become pivotal to Lennon's plans, a busy, creative type always willing to accept possession in difficult areas. As the player who links everything together, it is perhaps not a surprise that his absence has been felt. "One player doesn't make a team but wee Paul is vital to what St Mirren do," Fitzpatrick said. "He floats about, creates things and brings others into play. I think most teams in the SPL would miss a player of his quality. If there was one player you didn't want to see drop out of the St Mirren team it's Paul McGowan."
This afternoon's match now undoubtedly now carries extra significance. St Mirren will be desperate to get any kind of result to stop the slide, while the visitors will fancy their chances of notching another win to ease themselves off the bottom. "Dundee have done well to push themselves back towards the pack but it's a home game and St Mirren have got to go and win that," said Fitzpatrick. "And once they get that monkey of their back then things will start to take off for them. I'm absolutely sure of it."