Dundee United are now flirting relegation as the Tannadice club has had their best players taken from them over the last three transfer windows through the inability to compete with other teams financial or on the pitch.
It is a nightmare for the Terrors who in the not to distant past parted ways with Jackie McNamara. After the transfers of Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong to Celtic were finalised he oversaw defeat 10 times in the remaining 15 league games. As a result, this started the demise for him at the club.
As an outsider, having not been an avid watcher of games featuring the Tangerines. It seemed when it came to on-field issues during the former left back’s tenure that he came up short consistently in two areas. One which seemed to stick in the craw of the Arabs faithful was his stubbornness with sticking with a system and tinkering with the personnel, but not the formation of the side. The other problem was a lack of defensive cohesion. They always seemed porous at the back whether it be from open play or set-pieces and that stopped them from reaching their full potential.
So, Jackie was sacked after succumbing to the 16th defeat in 25 Premiership games since Valentine’s day. A month later came in his successor Mixu Paatelainen. The move made sense for numerous reasons.
One being the former player aspect, which usually means the supporters stay off your back a little longer than they would with an outsider. He also has a wealth of experience of the Scottish game, not only as a striker and a manager. He has also managed in his homeland of Finland with TPS in leading them to their best position in the Veikkausliiga and did a job with the national team, so will not be in a situation like he was with Kilmarnock in leaving to fulfil that ambition. He also lives in Burntisland – which is a short commute to the training complex in St. Andrews – so he is settled in the area.
Now the expectation is if he gets the club back on its feet then next season they should be in that top six, battling with your big two from Edinburgh, Glasgow and their rivals from Aberdeen and across the road at Dens Park. However, for that to happen then he must first keep them out of the bottom two. At present, they sit bottom with the lowest goals scored and the most goals conceded, only the Saints and Killie have kept less clean sheets and only Partick Thistle have failed to score in more games. They lie three points from the 11th placed Jags and are two wins and a goal difference of 11 from reaching safety.
A lot of hours on the training ground needs to be put in for this squad – which has at the very least seventh-placed potential – to be playing top tier football next season. It seems to lack the confidence and application from losing numerous first-team players over the last few transfer windows.
In McNamara’s first full season, First Division champions Paul Paton and Chris Erskine followed him from Maryhill but, Johnny Russell departed to Derby County. However, from that sale, he reinvested some of the funds to bring in a couple of great talents (Andrew Robertson and Aidan Connoly) from fourth tier Queen’s Park while picking up Callum Butcher from the conference in England. He also acquired a couple of good squad players that were returning to the club (Mark Wilson and Morgaro Gomis). Finally, there was the gem that was Nadir Çiftçi, who earned team of the year plaudits in his couple of campaigns.
The Turkish striker was not the only United player to garner praise from his fellow professionals. Armstrong and Robertson also joined their teammate in the eleven, and the Scottish midfielder went on to retain his place the year after.
This was a sign of the manager and his coaching staff getting the best out of the side.
Robertson proved early on that he was a cut above the rest at the age of 19, and that was the case when he moved to the Premier League and played week in and week out while breaking into the national team. Ryan Gauld at 17 showed his ability and was monitored carefully as not to burn out.
Credit is due to Stevie Campbell who was in charge of the youth set-up at the club at the time and who helped bring through John Souttar, Stuart Armstrong, Scott Fraser, Scott Smith and, of course, Gauld.
You look at who left during the space of three transfer windows and it includes their first choice goalkeeper, Radoslaw Cierzniak. Two centre-backs in Jaroslaw Fojut and Gunning, but also Robertson at left-back. In midfield, Callum Butcher had progressed well in front of the back four with Armstrong next to him. In attack, Mackay-Steven on the left flank and Gauld in the number 10 role with Ciftci up top. Nine players of a real top six quality leaving would hurt any side, and it has shown just how much it can when struggling to replace it like for like.
Paatelainen will have to cultivate his contacts like he has done in the past at Cowdenbeath and Killie to acquire the players he needs to keep them in the division. It seems he is already working them as two transfers seem imminent and will put a smile on the glum faces at Tannadice.
The first of them being Eiji Kawashima, who has totted up 72 caps for the Japanese side in the last seven years and also has experience of playing in the AFC Champions League, Europa League and World Cup. At 32, he should still have enough to offer for 18 months and would be entering the league as one of the best goalkeepers. Dundee United have not had a shot-stopper with the equivalent ability of their teammates since Łukasz Załuska’s tenure between the sticks six years ago.
Gavin Gunning may only be 24. However, he has accumulated 97 appearances in the Scottish top flight with both Motherwell and Dundee United. While young, the Irishman was one of the better defenders at the club during his three seasons for the Tangerines; especially under Jackie McNamara’s reign. So, it is a win-win for both parties. Gunning gets his career back on track after the PCL injury that has limited him to just two games since he departed for Birmingham City in the summer of 2014 while Mixu gets a centre-back with almost as much experience of the division as the other four combined.
In January, you can expect some active in the market. Attempts have already been made to rid the club of some of the deadwood to free up wages. For example, Mario Bilate – who was blighted by injury for most of his stay – was released earlier this week. If they can find some way to rid themselves of the equally ineffective Darko Bodul, and Luis Zwick – who will be playing third fiddle in the goalkeeping pecking order – to bring in somebody to help Billy McKay score the goals that will propel United up the league then it would be a logical acquisition.
McGowan, Morris, Gunning, Dixon;
Dow, Telfer, Erskine;
Average age: 25.55
You look at that starting eleven and cannot reason why it is not a better team than the likes of Motherwell and Partick Thistle, perhaps even Kilmarnock, and this is before he gets to tinker with it in the new year and maybe, just maybe keep them up.
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