IT’S one of the things that makes the Dundee derby unique. It’s also the perfect way to remind players of the value in being a team and watching each other’s back.
The simple stroll from one side of the street to the other, through both sets of supporters, is all the travelling United will have to do for this afternoon’s away fixture. But it is a journey full of trepidation and inspiration. And win, lose or draw, everyone knows that gauntlet will have to be run again after the match.
“That’s one of the special things about this derby but the only time I’ve done it was for a pre-season game on a nice summer day,” says United boss Peter Houston, who has enjoyed two 3-0 victories in his two previous Dundee derbies, in that pre-season friendly away and then the first competitive head-to-head in seven years, at Tannadice in August. “It was new for most of us when we did it in the summer but Jon Daly led the way and the coaching staff were at the back. But you want to stay together. I didn’t want to be left behind,” recalls the manager.
“Even when I drive up the street past Dens Park and there’s a bar at the corner – if I get stopped at the junction I’m praying the car in front moves because I’m getting slaughtered by the guys outside!”
But this afternoon, he will join his players and staff as they cross the divide and savour every minute of it.
“It’s really weird, but it’s unique. I think it’s great, that they have that kind of tradition. There are plenty of police there but there are no shenanigans. Maybe some verbals, but you’ll get that during the game anyway and when we left that day the only people who were left were a couple of United supporters with their kids, looking for autographs.
“But Heggy [Paul Hegarty, the United first-team coach] told me that even the day they won the league there they came out of Dens and walked back down the road to Tannadice. I’d rather have got a minibus!”
This season is the 30th anniversary of that successful campaign and it’s fitting that this term has seen the return of the city’s competitive derby following Dundee’s elevation to the top flight.
“It may have been away for a number of years but believe me, there have been people at every level of our club desperate to have it back,” says Houston. “I’ve been desperate to take part in them because I’ve heard all the stories about how passionate it is and it was even more so than I thought it was going to be. It takes bottle to win a derby, you have to be brave enough to take your chances when you get them. It won’t be easy and in my opinion it won’t be another 3-0 but I’d settle for it now.”
Houston confesses that he was delighted but shocked to be three goals up the last time the teams met. He didn’t feel the score was an accurate reflection of the game but says that in derbies, especially, he will accept any good fortune Lady Luck sends.
“I didn’t enjoy our first half at Tannadice even though we were 3-0 up. I was concerned we hadn’t played well. It might sound like a nonsense and people with more experience of managing in derbies might ask me what I’m moaning about but we didn’t deserve praise because we’d been fortunate.” This afternoon he will demand more from his players, though, and hopes that being away from home, albeit a matter of a few hundred feet, will help. “Our away form is better than our home form and United have won the cup and the league there in years gone by so hopefully it’s a happy hunting ground again.”
In fact, the victory over Dundee earlier this season was United’s last home win, the three league and two cup triumphs since having come on the road. But two of Dundee’s three league wins this season have come in the last two games hosted at Dens.
It means the game is poised to deliver in a way most of the other derbies have also managed thus far this season, as the void left by the Old Firm match is filled by other city clashes.
“If the Rangers-Celtic derby isn’t there, then having Dundee v Dundee United back and having Inverness v County in the SPL for the first time, as well as the volatile nature of Hearts and Hibs, that’s great for football,” says Houston. “It gives you a fear of losing. It’s what they always said about Rangers and Celtic – it’s about who’s got the bragging rights in the city on the Monday morning. I’m happy to say we’ve had them after the last couple, but it won’t stop us from going over to Dens Park and trying to do exactly the same.”
As a player Houston loved the Falkirk v Dunfermline matches. The Super Tuesday clash in March 1989 saw Falkirk triumph 4-0 and he insists that’s the derby that still stacks up as his favourite and sums up what the games means to the players, the fans and everyone associated with the clubs. “There was great rivalry between the two sides at that time. Jim Leishman did a lot to hype it all up and I remember there were balloons with his face on them being burst! That gets through to the players and you’re afraid to make a mistake. You’re thinking about the player you’re up against and trying to get the better of him. That’s what I like about derby matches. I expect enthusiasm, tackles, and I think we’re at our best when we try to play. We can pass it well and create.
“But this game is still very new to me. I’ve been here six years but playing the pre-season game was great. There were 10,000 there and I’d never been involved in a pre-season game with that many there. It was packed, there were verbals going on and it got the whole place pumped up. By kick-off in that friendly the noise was amazing and it was incredible at Tannadice too. It’s something you want more of. It’s tough to lose a game like that, puts the pressure on you.”
But he doesn’t mind that. He thinks his players can handle it. By the time he is either skulking or bouncing back across the road to Tannadice tonight, he will know for sure.
• Dundee’s seven-year absence from the SPL means you have to go back to November 2004 for their last derby win. On that occasion they defeated a nine-man United side 1-0 at Dens Park. John Sutton, right, scored with four minutes remaining. United played most of the second half with nine men following the sending off of Mark Wilson and Chris Innes.
• Dundee United have defeated their neighbours 3-0 twice already this season. In a pre-season friendly at Dens Park in July, Jon Daly scored a hat-trick in a convincing win. A month later at Tannadice, United repeated the win in the first league derby, with Johnny Russell scoring two and Gavin Gunning one. Russell was later sent off.
• Dundee go into this afternoon’s game on the back of their best run of form this season. They’ve won three and drawn one of their last five matches, including last week’s cup win over Livingston. They remain rooted to the foot of the SPL, however. They have no fresh injury concerns but are without long-term casualties Carl Finnigan (knee), captain Stephen O’Donnell (hamstring), Mark Kerr (knee), Brian Easton (hamstring), Jamie McCluskey (Achilles), Davide Grassi (knee) and Mark Stewart (knee).
• United welcome back defender Sean Dillon after a thigh injury. Midfielder Michael Gardyne has missed training with a groin problem, but is likely to be fit.Winger Gary Mackay-Steven remains on the sidelines after breaking a bone in his hand.