There is an acknowledgement from Darren Jackson that he “really stuck” his neck out in asserting former club Dundee United would not go down as they appeared to be sinking like a stone. The 49-year-old, a member of Jackie McNamara’s coaching team that made way at Tannadice in September, continues to believe he won’t be left with a scarlet nape – despite United’s sporadic grip on a lifebelt.
Jackson refuses to contemplate the position that Mixu Paatelainen’s men would find themselves in were they to lose their derby with neighbours Dundee at Tannadice on Sunday. With Kilmarnock entertaining Celtic the day before, this could be the weekend that United move to within five points of the Rugby Park side they have a game in hand over – or else it could be the weekend they find themselves 11 points adrift at the foot of the table with only eight games left. It feels a pivotal period...but how many times has that been said in recent months. Jackson considers this one is inarguable.
“This is the biggest Dundee derby in two decades simply because of the situation Dundee United are in,” he said. “They are all big games and you want to win your derbies but the result is massively important for United, especially with Kilmarnock playing Celtic. I hope they can go and get a result and I think they showed enough last Friday night even losing at Motherwell that they can.
“I know there is quality in there. That is why I stuck my neck out and said they will survive. I have only done that because I see the quality in the dressing room and people are getting back fit now, I know the boys, I still speak to quite a few of them and I know the quality they have.
“The derby will be a hard game. I saw Paul [Hartley] on Sunday and he was really disappointed with his last two results. The result at Ibrox [in losing the Scottish Cup tie 4-0] hurt a lot and then losing to Hearts – even though they are going well – when at home was also tough.”
Jackson accepts United’s survival will have to depend on winning a play-off – probably against Hibernian or Falkirk – after Hamilton established a 13-point gap over Paatelainen’s side thanks to their win in Inverness last week. “That would have been a huge blow to United,” Jackson said. “They have to worry about themselves winning but when they come of the pitch they will be hoping other results go their way.
“And if they were to win and Kilmarnock were to lose I wouldn’t bank on United surviving simply because the way the season has gone. They haven’t gone on a run of games. However, that would make it a five-point gap with a game in hand and they would still have Killie to play. But I watched the Killie-Aberdeen game and Killie actually played very well and Derek McInnes admitted they really had to grind out a result. So Killie are down there fighting and I’m sure Lee [Clark] is getting his points of view over but I just think United have that bit more quality.”
Jackson shows admirable qualities of forgiveness over the loss of his coaching post in the purge of McNamara’s team. Even when it followed a two-and-a-half year spell at United wherein they reached back-to-back cup finals, had two top-six finishes and earned the club £11 million in player sales. “I have regard for the boys and so much respect for them. Jackie and the other staff will say the same,” he said. “You are with them every day, you see them more than your family, and you have an affiliation with them. For their sake, you just want them to survive and kick on. I know they are better than results have shown.”
Former Celtic striker Jackson, meanwhile, believes Ronny Deila deserves better after his job was hawked around any number of out-of-work managers in recent days – Malky Mackay describing in as a “dream job” and David Moyes describing Celtic as a “great love”.
“I think everyone is being totally disrespectful to Ronny Deila. He’s in a job, he’s top of the league and they could still win the cup, “ he said. “Yes, he’s had a couple of bad results. Ronny will admit that himself but you can’t do anymore in the league. A team is closer to Celtic than people imagined but should Aberdeen not get credit for that? Do we not praise Hearts? There are going to be games you lose or draw that you should win.
“But I’ve been in a job at United when people were being linked and it’s not nice. Of course it would be a dream job for someone like Malky but I don’t think he’s coming out and saying, ‘I want Ronny’s job’.
“I have a lot of respect for Ronny. He was brand new [when we met him after games while at United] The European results were disappointing and put him under a bit of pressure but I wouldn’t like to say he should be out of a job when he’s top of the league and in a semi-final.”
Deila’s exit in the summer is being presented as a formality. “It will be quite harsh if he’s won the double,” Jackson said. “I know people will say Rangers haven’t been there, but they’ve only not been there in the league. They’ve been in the cups. There are only two managers who have achieved the treble at Celtic.
“It’s been a great opportunity and I’m not trying to deflect away from that and I’m sure that Ronny himself will be disappointed they haven’t won a treble in the time he has been here. But it is a very hard thing to do. If he wins the double, can you turn around and say it isn’t good enough? If you offered Ronny the double at the start of the season he would be a little disappointed because it wasn’t the treble but he would still be happy with that.”