IF HIBS run out at Easter Road this afternoon and make life difficult for their guests, Peter Houston’s men will have only themselves to blame.
When it came to identifying a way of bouncing back from relegation scares and finding a route to success without splashing silly cash, the Tayside team provided the blueprint followed by Pat Fenlon and his Easter Road staff.
After a number of years flailing about in the bottom six, United have finished in the top four for the past three seasons, the top six for the past five. It was obvious to the Hibs manager that they had something worth emulating.
A strong spine and players with the ability to fit into a certain style of play were wanted, but with a degree of versatility. All were factors as he took to the transfer market, as was the character he feels United undoubtedly have in their dressing room.
Having re-jigged his squad, bringing in a host of new faces to complement the handful of players who showed enough skill and, just as importantly, a big enough disdain for losing, Fenlon has steered his side far away from the relegation zone.
Rejuvenated, they are now vying with Celtic for top-of-the-table status, something few predicted when they opened the season on the wrong end of a 3-0 pasting from Dundee United at Tannadice. At that stage it was United who were tipped to be breathing down the Parkhead side’s neck as the season progressed.
But as they prepare for their second SPL meeting of the campaign, the Edinburgh side are defying those predictions, while Dundee United are the side having to make up lost ground. Having stuttered through much of the opening quarter, Hibs have lost just one of their last seven fixtures.
Key men are returning and so too is the confidence. Fenlon rates them highly but he says that his men have grown in self-belief since the first league encounter and they will put up more of a fight. “I think players and managers know on certain days it’s not going to go for you and you lose and you have to say we weren’t good enough or we didn’t get a break, but that performance and how it happened wasn’t good enough and the response from the players has been fantastic since.”
The fact that the players themselves called a meeting after that match suggests they have more about them that their immediate predecessors, many of whom were canned by Fenlon for not hurting enough after defeats and not being proactive enough in righting on-field wrongs.
“As players if you had come off the pitch and that had been acceptable then you would have had a problem, but I knew with the type of character we had in there that wouldn’t be acceptable. They knew from our end it wasn’t and they knew themselves. That’s the type of player we have in there at the moment, the type of character, that they want to drive each other on. We speak about that on a regular basis in training, driving each other on, making it difficult in training for each other.”
United are unlikely to make it easy. They have benefited from the return of players like Gary Mackay Steven and the introduction of Rudi Skacel. But they also have a number of Fenlon’s countrymen who he considers vital to their cause.
“I know them all. There were maybe five in the team against Celtic at the weekend and maybe the same against Motherwell [on Wednesday]. They are all good, honest players. I had Sean [Dillon] at Shelbourne, I know Gavin [Gunning] well and Richie [Ryan] played against us in the League of Ireland. They are a talented group of players who have done really well for Dundee United and I know from talking to Peter they are great around the place. Willo [Flood] is probably the most infectious one.
“It’s key and when we were looking at a club to find the right balance, we probably looked a bit at them and what they had as characters and how they affected the dressing-room as well. Maybe it’s a coincidence but there’s a few Irish boys in there as well so there will be a lot playing on Sunday and it will be blood and thunder but they get on quite well off the park.
“At the start, I said I thought themselves and Motherwell would probably be the main challengers to Celtic and I think that will still happen.”
At the start most agreed, but few outwith Easter Road expected Hibs to be one of those standing in their wa