Dundee fear final curtain after exodus

Scottish Premier League club's £20m debt results from classic case of overspending

The empty seats on the Dundee team bus which heads to Livingston today will symbolise the most fraught week the club has ever known. The end of the road, however, may not be long in coming.

The discovery last Monday that Dundee were £20m in debt was far more shocking to its supporters than the fact that the 110-year-old club was about to move into administration. For some clubs, that is merely a move to putting a healthier financial structure in place, but at Dens Park it could mean death itself.

The 25 sackings instigated by Ernst & Young, the accountants who have taken over after the chairman, Peter Marr, sought administration, was the first cull. It may not be enough. Dundee could be out of business unless Tom Burton, the administrator, puts together a rescue package by February.

While £20m is not in the Leeds United bracket, it is a sum beyond the means of Dundee, whose turnover is a quarter of that but who fell into an all-too-familiar trap by paying out bloated wages during the reign of the previous manager, Ivano Bonetti.

Few knew about the existence of these financial problems even six months ago, when Jim Duffy's side were given a standing ovation by 18,000 of their fans at Hampden Park after Dundee lost narrowly to Rangers in the Scottish Cup final. Some of those who were first up the steps to receive their runners-up medal, were also the first to face the guillotine six days ago when the administrator acted swiftly.

Georgi Nemsadze, the Georgian captain whose goal put Dundee into their first Scottish Cup final for 39 years, came out of Dens Park in tears, as did the three Argentinians, Fabian Caballero, Juan Sara and Beto Carranza, the last an international.

Fabrizio Ravanelli and Craig Burley, who only joined in September to augment a Uefa Cup campaign, also had their contracts terminated. Yet it was not just the high-wage earners who were thrown out on the street, there were also youngsters such as Gavin Beith, who has been on loan at Peterhead all season. Their dreams of a career may never recover from the Dens Park débâcle.

"It will be very difficult for a lot of these kids to find clubs," said Burley, the former Chelsea and Celtic player, who moved back to Scotland to escape a similar financial implosion at Derby County. "I feel sorry for them. A lot will struggle. I will go back to England, but I am sure Jim Duffy would not have brought Ravanelli and myself here if he'd known the situation."

Duffy had been caught by surprise, too. The 44-year-old manager has been around long enough to sense when there is trouble. He was manager at Dundee a decade ago when there was a previous cash crisis, one which barely added up to Ravanelli's current salary, and he was also at Portsmouth just before that club went into administration.

Duffy was brave enough to take on the unpalatable task of telling the players they were being sacked, rather than have a faceless accountant inform them. It was traumatic. "It was a very difficult and emotional time and I hope I never have to experience that type of situation again," he said.

Duffy has been spared, but for how long? Any manager who is forced to get on the phone just a day after losing five key players to offer the best who remain at a cut price - Rangers have been told they can buy the Scotland midfielder Gavin Rae for £200,000 - knows the situation is perilous. "I think the club should now come clean and tell us everything," he said.

Burton was also the administrator at Fratton Park, but sees little hope of a similar miracle at Dundee. "Portsmouth were £8m in debt and had average gates of 11,500. For Dundee, it's £20m. The company is losing £100,000 a week. We were paying out 150 per cent of its income on wages.

"Dundee get an average gate of 6,000. That means 12,000 people who went to Hampden last May have gone missing. We'd like them to turn up and pay again."

It was not like that in Bonetti's day. The huge foreign squad assembled by the Italian was done so with an eye to making a profit by selling them on at a profit, but that only worked with Claudio Caniggia, who went to Rangers for £1m in 2001 before the collapse in the transfer market. The wage bill was already spiralling out of control.

Those contracts, however, were ripped up - to the incredulity of the Dens Park foreign legion. "I don't understand the law here," Sara said. "Employers can sack you but do not have to pay what they owe. Dundee owe me a lot of money. The people who took the club into this position should pay for that, not us."

Sara's seat will be one of the empty ones on the way to Almondvale Stadium today. Unless his old club come up with a miracle, their place in the SPL may also be vacant soon.

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