GARY Mackay-Steven has described training at Dundee United as like “being in the playground”, and he wasn’t referring solely to the tender-aged profile of the current squad.
The Tannadice team are playing with a zest and joie de vivre that has helped them rise to third place in the league, and their sights are set on higher yet.
The devil-may-care attitude is helping re-write the record books. Not since the mid 1930s have United scored four goals on four successive home outings. Unsurprisingly, Mackay-Steven was not aware of this statistic until it was put to him afterwards. Indeed, his focus is on the immediate future, and what can be achieved with the current team.
It’s where United are at now that matters as they look to secure something tangible from this blossoming of young talent. Mackay-Steven is more tactful than to claim he knows best since he is aware every player has his own thoughts and his own ambitions. However, he hopes the prospect of what can be achieved at United will convince the club’s young starlets that their future lies at Tannadice for the time being. In any case, the 23-year-old is one of those surely interesting would-be suitors. Having already had a brief stint with Liverpool, he speaks with some experience.
“I think it can work out or it can’t,” he said, reflecting on his own experience of playing at youth and reserve team level at Liverpool following a short-lived move down south from Ross County. “There is not a right or wrong answer. But I really feel that here is the best place for everyone just now. The manager has confidence in the young boys. If you are good enough you are old enough. The boys are making great leaps in the first team – here is the right place for everyone at the moment.”
Although Mackay-Steven outshone him on Saturday against Hearts, Ryan Gauld is the one who has pulled the strings for United this season. Saturday was the eighth time in their last 16 games that they have hit four goals or more. “I haven’t really spoken to him about the speculation,” said Mackay-Steven, who is relishing playing with the likes of Gauld, Stuart Armstrong and Andrew Robertson. “They are level-headed boys. It is just like being in the playground every day at training. From a selfish point of view, I really hope no-one goes in January. I think we can really achieve something here. We are still in the Scottish Cup and there is still all to play for in the league.”
After rising to within three points of second-placed Inverness (who have a game in hand), Mackay-Steven knows that keeping the team together is central to their ambitions. “I think everyone in the changing room would say second is the aim just now,” he said. “Inverness are there right now and have done well but we feel we can beat any team on the day. We just have to keep momentum going.”
United’s victory on Saturday sounds more comprehensive than was truly the case. Hearts manager Gary Locke had grounds to make the various complaints he did afterwards. However, given their constant second-half pressure, there was no doubt United deserved the win that left Hearts 14 points adrift at the bottom. The Tynecastle side’s main objective – on the playing front, at least – remains to finally reach zero points. After their ninth defeat in 15 games they remain three points away from this target.
Locke claimed that their chances of moving off minus points were not helped on Saturday by Sean Dillon’s push on Callum Paterson, which meant Brian Graham was unmarked when rising to meet Mark Wilson’s corner to give United the lead again at the start of the second half. Locke also complained about not being given a penalty when Wilson up-ended Jamie Walker in the box in the second half – indeed, the Hearts player was booked for simulation. However, Hearts never truly looked like gathering all three points on Saturday despite a commendable response to losing an early goal, which was the eighth in succession they had conceded following the 7-0 Scottish Cup defeat by Celtic six days earlier.
United’s opener was wonderfully worked after Armstrong played a one-two with Mackay-Steven, whose return ball was a flick into the box. Armstrong’s neatly-placed effort was helped over the line by a combination of Kevin McHattie and Graham, although, despite dubiety about the scorer, Armstrong was credited with the goal. Hearts were behind for only three minutes following Wilson’s clumsy challenge on Walker just inside the box. Jamie Hamill equalised with an expertly struck penalty and for the rest of the half Hearts looked the likelier side to score the next goal. And yet you always sensed that United’s livelier brand of football would win out in the end.
There were enough feints and flicks by Mackay-Steven and his compadres to warm the bones of the United faithful. It is overstating matters to claim that Mackay-Steven has become almost the forgotten man at Tannadice of late. However, in a week when Gauld and Robertson picked up player of the month baubles, the focus has been elsewhere. But he reminded those watching – and there was the usual throng of scouts – that he is every bit as central to United’s style. His goal – United’s third – with five minutes left was the outstanding moment of the match. Taking a pass from Gauld he took a touch, wriggled past a challenge and then curled a shot beyond Jamie MacDonald into the far corner. However, he afterwards lauded midfielders Paul Paton and John Rankin, who scored United’s fourth at the death with a deflected effort.
“I don’t think enough is said about them,” he pointed out. “They do the dirty work that maybe is not seen and raved about after games. They don’t score the goals or whatever – well, Ranks got a goal today – but they break up the play, and they never allow teams back in. They have been massive for us.”