ALL the treble talk swirling around Dundee United’s hosting of Celtic today is simply bogus in the eyes of Darren Jackson. The Tannadice coach accepts an “incredible” turn of events lies behind it. But this has nothing to do with Celtic’s capacity to snare all available silverware in the coming months.
Jackson isn’t doing triple somersaults over the perception that this afternoon’s Scottish Cup quarter-final on Tayside must be viewed as the first instalment of a three-parter. No matter that the encounter is the opener in a trio of tussles between the sides in successive weekends… in different competitions… and at different venues. A programme made possible by the League Cup final to follow, and a Premiership meeting at Celtic Park that completes the set.
“I was asked the other day how we will prepare for these three games. We won’t,” Jackson says. “We will just be preparing for the one in front of us; a cup tie that gives us the chance to move within a game of a third straight domestic cup final. We can’t think about games to come after against Celtic, even if we play them in a cup final in a week. It is a quirk to have this run, but that is how it is. We just have to embrace it and really look forward to it. There are more than a few teams that would love to be in our position.”
It is a quirk, too, that the most oft-mentioned names in the lead-up to what seems practically a Test series between United and Celtic will play no part in the two cup confrontations. Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven have played all too central a role in shaping the Tannadice club’s season in departing for the Scottish champions on deadline day.
A section of the club’s support feels that hopes for the season were sold for the £2m return the moves generated. Armstrong and Mackay-Steven’s last appearance in tangerine was the League Cup semi-final victory over Aberdeen. Since then, Jackie McNamara’s side have played five games. Their only win came against Stranraer, in the Scottish Cup. A draw at home to Inverness a fortnight ago is all that has spared them four straight league losses – and three consecutive defeats at Tannadice, where Partick Thistle won last weekend and St Johnstone did so days before Inverness came calling.
Indeed, the availability of Nadir Ciftci to lead the line for the home side this afternoon through this week successfully appealing his red card in the draw with the Highlanders represents a rare moment of cheer for the Tannadice club of late. In the context of the club’s one-off assignments against Celtic, another must be the fact that Armstrong and Mackay-Steven are cup-tied. The stunning impact the pair have made for their new club means suddenly Celtic will have the same sizeable gaps to fill as has appeared a dastardly difficult task for United.
“I would be lying if I said we didn’t miss Stu and Gaz, but every team would miss such good players,” the 48-year-old Jackson says. “We really believe, though, that we have other good players who can contribute in different ways to make us as strong as we were with them.
“Celtic will feel that way about the players they can pick for the quarter-final and the cup final. But just how good Stu and Gaz are has been shown by the fact they could walk straight into the Celtic team and make it better.
“I know people want to see their moves away as creating doom and gloom, but I think the wee bit of negativity that has crept in has a lot to do with us losing home games to teams our fans would expect us to beat. Mind you, if being in one cup final, trying to get to the semi of another and lying fourth in the league is supposed to be a problem, I’ll take that doom and gloom every time.”
Jackson doesn’t read much into Celtic’s midweek defeat at home to St Johnstone. Watched by McNamara and his assistant Simon Donnelly, he accepts it was “a bad result” for a team on a ten-game domestic winning run across 2015, but not necessarily a good result for United. “They will be hurting, will have had a blast from their manager and could come to our place all the more determined. Even if they had won comfortably on Wednesday, though, I don’t think it would have had any effect on our cup tie.”
Jackson, McNamara and Donnelly were members of the Celtic team that captured league and League Cup in 1997-98, and had their interest in the Scottish Cup ended at the semi-final stage – one of only three Celtic sides in the past three decades to take their pursuit of the treble so coveted by Deila this season all the way to the run-in of a campaign – with only Martin O’Neill’s 2000-01 incarnation going on to seal a clean sweep.
Celtic’s current manager seems to have put noses out of joint by constantly stating that his avowed aim in his debut season is to join O’Neill and Jock Stein as the only club managers to have achieved the domestic treble, confessing it would be a “disappointment” to fall short. Jackson sees nothing disrespectful in Deila setting the bar so high.
“With Celtic’s budget and their playing resources, they should win the treble every season. And there is nothing new with all the talk about trebles – we have always had it with Celtic and Rangers in the past, but now Rangers are out the league, it is just one team the focus goes on. If there is anything that can get a bit wearing, it is the stuff about us, or anyone else for that matter, going out to ‘stop’ Celtic winning a treble. In these cup ties we are going out to try and win trophies.”
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS