DUNDEE United have a spring in their step and it’s showing in the way they are bursting out of the blocks in matches.
It is also beginning to show in the Scottish Premier League standings as they moved to within four points of second place.
Last weekend it took Johnny Russell 15 seconds to get the goal that set the Tannadice club on their way to victory over Rangers in the Scottish Cup. Back on league duty on Saturday, it took him two minutes.
“Yeah, I think I’m slacking off a bit,” joked the striker who says he has gained a lift from the arrival of new manager Jackie McNamara.
“It was good to get the win, both last week and this week, and the early goal in both matches gave us the platform to build on. Getting the first goal, especially in the SPL, is massive.”
The start against Hearts was full of energy and verve and gave the guests very little time to settle in and get organised. Behind to that early Russell strike, they then had to rearrange personnel after their captain, Marius Zaliukas, was taken off with an ankle injury in the 18th minute and, while Michael Ngoo could have levelled things for the capital side a minute later, his blistering long-range strike came back off the crossbar. They were then reduced to ten men in the 25th minute when Ryan Stevenson was shown a red card, with both sides claiming it had been a harsh ruling by the referee and many surprised it was not merely a caution. Both sides would have preferred that as the disparity unbalanced a game that had been entertaining until that point.
Russell insists that new manager McNamara and his coaching team are responsible for the injection of self-belief in the United ranks and, having been unhappy with his own contributions this term, he is now revising his targets and is even hoping to catch the eye of Scotland boss Gordon Strachan .
“We still have to play the teams above us and, hopefully, we can beat them,” said Russell, with Celtic up next, on Saturday. “Finishing second is certainly our aim and hopefully we can get there by the end of the season.
“It is every boy’s dream to play for their country and, hopefully, that will come for me in the future but I still have a lot to learn to make my game better but I feel that I am at that standard. If I keep scoring goals then, hopefully, I can force my way into the international set-up.
“I have noticed myself with the new gaffer coming in and the staff he has brought with him have been nothing but complimentary to me. They have given me belief back and I am extremely grateful for that.
“Darren Jackson and Simon Donnelly worked a lot with the strikers in training last week and attackers of their quality will only help improve my game. This season I have been very inconsistent and I have maybe had a good game and then followed that up with three performances that are nowhere near the standard I have set myself.”
While United have failed to live up to pre-season expectations, they have also had to get by without key players. But, with the likes of Gary Mackay-Steven back from injury and in rich form and new faces orchestrating things from the dug-out, the portents are looking more positive.
“Every manager is different and Jackie has made wee, subtle changes here and there and all the boys have reacted well to it. I have 17 goals already this season but it should be more as I have missed a lot of chances. I want to keep improving.”
Having contributed the first goal, Russell then combined with Willo Flood for the second, playing a lovely one-two as the Irishman found his way through the Hearts defence to score.
Hearts battled back and were unlucky when another Ngoo effort rattled the bar but the on-loan striker finally found the net. Fraser Mullen delivered the corner and the Liverpool player made no mistake with the finish.
United, though, made the most of their extra man as the minutes ticked down and, with more space to exploit, completed the scoring in the 89th minute when Jon Daly flashed the ball across the goalmouth and substitute Michael Gardyne connected to leave Jamie MacDonald no chance.